American Warriors

Stories from Golden Gate IV: Steve Lopez and the Battle of Bau Bang.

Last week, I wandered through Golden Gate National Cemetery and took photos of the markers around me. I’m still on a research trip, now down in Southern California, but I have been slowly researching the men and women whose headstones I photographed. Each one has a remarkable story, which is easy to forget when the headstones stretch for acres in all directions.

Tonight, I want to tell you about Private First Class Steve Lopez.

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On March 19, 1967, the hundred and twenty-nine men of Troop A, 5th Cav rolled into Fire Base 20, a 1st Brigade, 9th Infantry position about a mile from the Vietnamese town of Ap Bau Bang. Troop A included six tanks and twenty M-113 armored personnel carriers. They set up a 360 defensive perimeter around the fire base, and that night at least two battalions of the 273rd Viet Cong Regiment struck the Americans with a massed infantry assault. The fury of the initial assault was so intense that even an AC-47 Spooky gunship, massive artillery support and the combined firepower of the 5th Cav’s tracks could not break it up.

800px-M113_Advance_in_VietnamThe VC reached the perimeter and swarmed over some of the APC’s. The tracks buttoned up and their commanders called for “dusting”–canister shots directed at their own vehicles by their fellow troopers. The idea was these shrapnel shells would kill the VC around the tracks but be unable to penetrate the M-113’s armored hulls.

The Americans fired at their own vehicles as the VC hit others with mortars and RPG’s. The tactic worked, but just as the canister shots cleared one M-113, a VC mortar hit it and caused it to explode. The wounded crew managed to escape and get back inside the perimeter as the rest of the troop retreated back and established another fighting line.

PFC Steve Lopez was part of the stricken track’s crew. His Brothers were able to get him out of the burning M113, but he died of his wounds a short time later. Steve was from Fremont, California. As a kid, he used to bring a sack lunch with a can of tuna in it. He’d open the can and eat the tuna straight out of it to the astonishment of his friends. Later, one of his classmates visited the Wall and left cans of tuna in his honor on the ground before his panel.

Steve was twenty years old when he died of shrapnel wounds. He’d been in the Army less than a year.

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The Americans held through the night with the help of air strikes, artillery and reinforcements. When the fighting ended, sixty-three Americans had been wounded and three killed. The two battalions of the VC’s 273rd Regiment suffered around two hundred and thirty killed in action. It took twenty-nine air strikes and almost thirty tons of bombs and rockets, plus three thousand artillery shells and the sheer determination of Troop A to hold Fire Base 20.

Though the Battle of Bau Bang II, as it was called, has been virtually forgotten by Americans, Steve Lopez will not be.

 

-John R. Bruning

 

 

Categories: American Warriors, Vietnam | Tags: | 1 Comment

Stories from Golden Gate II

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Men of the 381st Infantry Regiment advance on Big Apple Ridge, June 12, 1945.

 

The 96th Infantry Division trained at Camp Adair, Oregon in 1943-44. Known as the “Deadeyes,” the division was one of four that called Adair home, but it was the only one sent to the Pacific. The other three went to Italy and Western Europe.

PFC Castaneda and his regiment served on Leyte Island in the Philippines first, then took part in the Battle of Okinawa in the spring and summer of 1945. In eighty-one days of continuous combat, Castaneda’s division lost over 10,000 men killed, wounded, or missing in action. Thirty-two Deadeyes are still classified as Missing in Action from Okinawa. Only the 6th Marine Division suffered heavier losses.

Louis Castaneda was killed on Okinawa on June 12, 1945, just shy of his 24th birthday, during an assault on Big Apple Ridge, a key position in the last Japanese defense line on the island. He is laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery.

 

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Categories: American Warriors, World War II, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Leave a comment

To Those Who Wear the Flag

Smoke rises behind a Charlie Company HUMVEE from a car that charged the scene firing at the unit. Charlie Company returned fire, stopping the car, to secure the area, during increased tension in Sadr City, Iraq on July 5, 2004. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt Ashley Brokop (Released)

To all those men and women who go to work every day with our flag on their shoulder:

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You are part of a legacy of service that transcends national interest, but fights for basic human rights. For two hundred years, those who have worn the uniform have stood in the eye of the storm to protect those basic human rights. From the outset, Americans in uniform have changed the world, reshaped it, destroyed the oppression of the British Empire, ensured the evil of slavery would be destroyed–despite the brutal cost–freed Europe twice, saved millions from genocide, reshaped the Free World and held the line against religious extremism that threatens it.vietnam color series810 4x6


To wear the flag means you are a game-changer. Every generation’s men and women in uniform have made a difference from Lexington Green to the Qalats of rural Afghanistan.

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This day is for all of you with the courage to serve and fight.

 

 

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Happy Veteran’s Day,

 

John R. Bruning

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Categories: American Warriors, Uncategorized, Writing Notes | Tags: | 1 Comment

Scenes from Katrina

New Orleans, September 2005. Some of my moments in the city, Post-Hurricane Katrina, when I was embedded with 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, Oregon National Guard. We were in North-Central, based out of the NO Baptist Seminary on Gentilly.

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2-162 used commandeered, abandoned city busses to move around New Orleans.

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Hundred and three degrees. On patrol in a north-central neighborhood still partially flooded at the end of September.

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SSG Jason Obersinner moments before he was evacuated and underwent emergency surgery following an injury to his arm while on a patrol.

 

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CASEVAC at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary.

 

 

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Eighty percent of the pets in New Orleans died after Katrina. They were abandoned by their owners, many left locked inside steaming hot houses or apartments. Some, like this dog, were chained to their front porches. The NOPD tried to arrest the animal rescue volunteers we met who came into the city to save as many as they could.

Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, National Guard | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Sergeant Bell and Second Fallujah

Me_and_ssg_colin_fitts  David Bellavia ranks as one of the most creative, intelligent and flat-out hilarious human beings I’ve ever met. I have spent countless hours on the phone, sides aching, gasping for breath as David fires off one-liner after one-liner. When I hang up after such conversations, I feel let down. Though we’ve never met face-to-face, David is one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.

We met in 2006 and wrote a book together about his experiences in Iraq. Called House to House, the memoir detailed the brutal struggle to capture the northeast part of Fallujah in the fall of 2004, a job assigned to Task Force 2-2, 1st Infantry Division. On November 10, 2004, David helped save his platoon from an ambush laid inside a well-built and fortified house. After risking his own life to get his men out, he returned to the house and fought a pitched battle in utter darkness with the insurgents hunkered down inside. The solo fighting raged from room to room with machine guns, assault rifles and pistols. It finally ended in hand-to-hand combat on the second floor. David emerged from the house, wounded and forever changed by the experience. But he was the only one who came out alive from that fight. The insurgents fought him to their last breath.

For his actions that day, David was awarded the Silver Star. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor, which if this had been any war but the current one, he would have received in 2005. Someday, there will be a president who rights that wrong. I still hope somebody will step up and do the right thing here and award David the medal he deserves.

David returned home from Iraq and left the Army. It was the biggest sacrifice he’s ever made. He loved the Army, loved being an NCO. But his family would not have been able to endure another deployment. Ultimately, he chose his wife and children over what he most wanted to do: return to Iraq and continue the fight.

One of the things I admire 100_0623most about David is his complete lack of bitterness over what happened with his award. He refused to talk about it in House to House, but the fact is the Army did not treat him very well after Fallujah. His MOH nomination was stalled, then denied. Instead of a DSC, David received a Silver Star in the mail several months after he retired from the service. His name was misspelled, and the citation really didn’t accurately describe the action for which it was given. It was a kick in the teeth instead of an attempt to honor the personal courage of a man who gave everything he had to save the lives of his men and execute the mission assigned. Yet, David took it with a measure of dignity not seen very often these days. He remains pro-mission, pro-Army, and is a stalwart supporter of America’s veterans. To me, that shows a grace and depth of character only rarely found.

In 2007, House to House was published by Simon & Schuster’s Free Press imprint. It received stellar reviews and was called by the Oregonian’s Mike Francis “Nothing less than a 21st Century Red Badge of Courage.” Mike’s review is the one I want read at my memorial service when I kick the bucket. He’s an outstanding journalist who in 2004 embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Baghdad even though he’d never been a war correspondent.  He’s seen it, been there and been in harm’s way, so his review is the one that over the years has meant the most to me. Find it here: http://blog.oregonlive.com/oregonatwar/2007/09/house_to_house_book_review.html

 

The UK’s Telegraph called it, “The most exciting book you’ll ever read.”http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2007/11/01/bobel127.xml

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Writing the book with David revealed a person to me who has struggled at times with life, but who refuses  give up until he’s conquered every mountain thrown in his path. He’s got more pluck and more desire, more love of his country and more raw courage than any man I’ve ever known. It was one of the greatest honors of my professional life to work with David and write about his platoon from 2-2. He’s a friend, a man I admire, and an exemplary American who operates not from self-interest, but from his heart and passion, both of which are fueled by his selfless patriotism and love of his Brother warriors.

Categories: American Warriors, Iraq War 2003-2010 | 4 Comments

The Supply NCO Artist

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Task Force Brawler was full of interesting and dynamic characters.  From Brawler Six to men like Andrew Alvord—the unit’s fighting quartermaster—to Cassie Moore (the unit’s only female Apache pilot) and C-17-flight-engineer- turned- Blackhawk-pilot Hunter Lescoe, this unique aviation task force marched to a different beat thanks to is remarkably diverse and talented members.

Sergeant Scott Tant, an Arkansas native, ranks as one of the most unique individuals I met at FOB Shank. Scott is a supply NCO who has a passion for photography.  Lieutenant Colonel Ault recognized that talent and gave Sergeant Tant Task Force Brawler’s  Public Affairs Office.  For a year, Scott essentially served as one-man operation to document TF Brawler’s operations in theater. IMG_1329

Scott went out on dozens of missions with the Ground Combat Platoon. I was amazed at Scott’s attention to detail.  His mind was a catalog of all things normal or abnormal in each village we visited. His eye for detail caught things that I never would have noticed—a few carved letters in a door, a new paint job on a building, the nuances that certain known leaders displayed as they interacted with Lt. Mace (Brawler’s S9) or Captain Alvord (PL for the GCP). Nothing escaped Scott’s eye. At one point, I told him he’s got a career waiting for him as a Pinkerton Private Eye.

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His photographs  reflect that attention to detail. Years ago, I collected about 40,000 photographs from World War II, including vast numbers taken by US Army Signal Corps cameramen. It is easy to distinguish those photographers who loved their craft from those who simply considered it a wartime job and nothing more. Scott transcended both extremes this past year in Afghanistan. He is an artist in uniform, and his photographs rank as some of the best I’ve ever seen emerge from a combat theater, and several of his photos have won awards. Those are considered to be some of the best images of Army Aviation ever taken during the war in Afghanistan.
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One thing I noticed within TF Brawler is a sense of humbleness. It started at the top with Brawler Six, whose modesty and discomfort in the media spotlight was a refreshing change from some of the things I’ve experienced since I swiched to writing about current military affairs. There was no “me too” in Brawler Nation, just a quiet pride in the entire task force’s accomplishments.

Scott Tant reflected that sense of humility. In his tiny office across from the XO’s, he created an archive of photographs that document the task force’s year in Afghanistan better than almost anything I’ve ever seen for a unit in the Global War on Terror. His artistic eye, his skill with his equipment (even if he is a Nikon guy), and his love of the craft ensured that every image tells a unique and powerful story. Someday, I hope to see his work in print; our nation needs to see the war through Scott’s eyes.

 

Photo below by Sgt. Scott Tant

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Categories: Afghanistan, American Warriors | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Legendary Alan Ezelle

1934882_1147964296701_2539593_nBefore I introduce Master Sergeant Alan Ezelle, I must preface it with the following confession: the first time I met E.Z. he scared the absolute hell out of me. I mean, at the handshake I was ready to wet my pants, flee, or surrender.

One look into his eyes, and you’ll know what I mean. They telegraph that this man is the baddest, nastiest, life-takingest NCO in the land.

And they don’t lie. They just don’t reveal all about the man.

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Alan Ezelle on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq during OIF II.

Sergeant Major Vince “Vinni” Jacques once said to me that “E.Z.’s been fed a steady diet of lizards and small Asian children.” I tried to quote that exactly in the Devil’s Sandbox, as I thought it was pretty hilarious, but apparently eating babies is okay, while eating Asian babies is racist. Who knew? Anyway, the Asian part got chopped in the end.

None of that changes the fact that I believe Vinni’s on to something there. Alan Ezelle is something more than human. I’m not sure what it is, but he is not your average mortal man.

E.Z. is a prior service enlisted man who served in the U.S. Army at the tail end of the Cold War. He did a stint straight out of high school in 1986, ended up in Germany for part of the time, then came home and separated from the service. He settled in Eugene, where he got a job as a bouncer in a local strip club. Several times, he faced down armed, drunken, horny rednecks with his fists, wits and a baseball bat. Somehow, he always came out on top.

Later, he found work at a company that rebuilds damaged railroad box cars. This was seriously hard labor, and E.Z. spent eight hours a day or more swinging a sledgehammer there. All in a day’s work. Truth be told, few men are up to such work day after day.

IMG_4514He joined the Oregon Guard in the early 1990’s and has served with Charlie Company (now Alpha) 2-162 for most of his career.

Alan Ezelle earned an ARCOM with V device for a four hour firefight in August, 2004. See the Devil’s Sandbox for details on that engagement. If this had happened during World War II, E.Z. would be wearing a Silver Star or DSC right now. His courage under fire, and his tactical, small-unit leadership in combat was second to none that day. His men were caught in a tactically disadvantage situation on Budweiser Bridge, taking fire from three directions and from both banks of the Tigris River. Meanwhile, an Iraqi SF unit was pinned down on the west bank by almost a hundred insurgents. Thrown into the mix was at least a platoon plus of Iraqi National Guardsmen, most of whom were half-trained and prone to lighting up the sky, the water and the sectors occupied by American troops.

E.Z. helped extract the surviving Iraqi SF guys, getting into a grenade-throwing fight with the insurgents in the process. He then covered their withdrawal back across Budweiser Bridge and got everyone out before he led his platoon off the bridge.

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E.Z. with Aaron Cochran during an Alpha Company MOUT exercise in 2008.

Through the course of the 04-05 deployment, E.Z. found himself in every possible type of firefight, ranging from lone gunmen spraying and praying, to complex ambushes complete with IED’s, RPG’s and lots of small arms fire. He led his Charlie Company platoon through it all without suffering a single man wounded in action.

The enemy was not so lucky.

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Al Ezelle (right) at the 2-162 welcome home following the battalion’s second Iraq deployment in 09-10. Brian Hambright (center) and Vince “Vinni” Jacques (left)–both among the finest NCO’s to serve with the Oregon National Guard.

Al Ezelle has that rarest aspect of personal charisma that elevates all those around him to perform incredible feats. His leadership is always unquestioned. The confidence his men have in him is total. What Ezelle orders gets done, like right now. Some of them are scared as hell of him, but everyone who has ever served with him says the same thing: the man knows how to motivate, knows how to extract the last ounce of effort from every man, and he always leads the way. Back when he was a platoon sergeant, I overheard his men on drill weekends talking quietly among themselves about some of the amazing things they’d seen E.Z. do. They spoke about him with a mix of holy terror and reverence. E.Z. is one of those guys that does stuff people remember. More than once I’ve heard a Soldier say, “I swear to God he did that. He’s not F###ing human, dude. He’s just not.”

Some of it is pretty damn funny too. One specialist related how E.Z. got dive-bombed by an angry crow outside the Alpha Co. armory in Eugene one day. The crow came back for more, swooping low over E.Z.’s head and squawking like crazy. E.Z. eyeballed the bird, then drew down on it. The wise bird got the message: the armory is Alan Ezelle’s territory. Mess with that and you’ll end up splattered, feathers drifting in the wind.

IMG_0400Now, E.Z. lives up to his larger-than-life persona every time he straps on his IBA. But at the same time, the knuckle dragger image he projects serves to hide two vital things about him. First, he is one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met. He’s got a steel trap of a mind that allows him to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment. He knows when to use a carrot, when to use a stick. And he also lets everyone know that the stick he’s carrying is not an ordinary one. It is the biggest freaking one on the block and he won’t stop beating the crap out of you with it until you’re a limp, broken fraction of a man begging for momma. Only then will he ease up a bit on you.

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Buried under the larger than lifeness of Al Ezelle is the soul of a teacher. When I worked with Alpha Company as their volunteer OPFOR coordinator from 07-10, I saw Al’s teaching persona emerge many times as he patiently explained a particular nuance to Battle Drill Six Alpha, or a Soldier skill that one of his men needed to hone. Someday, if he ever retires from the service, I hope he ends up as a history teacher. His classes would pass the AP exam every year. 🙂

He tempers that threat of overwhelming force with a very keen sense of human nature. When trying to make friends and win hearts and minds, he’s direct and honest and will do whatever he can to help a community out. He’s a savvy negotiator who understands that most humans have motivations and desires that can be used as the basis for establishing rapport. If he didn’t like kicking in doors so much, he would have been an outstanding diplomat, or interrogator.

I’ve never met anyone who has a better grasp of small unit tactics and doctrine than Alan Ezelle. In a fight, he’s proven many times he keeps a clear head and can visualize the entire battlespace in his head. This, combined with his ability to quickly assess a situation and make snap decisions, is what makes  Alan Ezelle such an outstanding leader of men. His SA can’t be beat. He is never surprised in combat, or in the training I’ve been involved with since 2007.

One aspect of E.Z. that I don’t think I did justice to in the Devil’s Sandbox is his ability to educate and teach his young soldiers. Over the last year, as I’ve watched him in the field during drill weekends, I’ve seen him mentor his new guys along with patience and just the right among of ass-kicking when necessary. He would have made an excellent high school teacher, he’s got all the skills for that and more.

In August of 2008, I was embedded with Alpha Company during the brigade’s summer Field Training Exercise at Gowan Field. During a company level assault on a village, part of his platoon was pinned down on the far left flank of the assault. He was with another element across a street and about a hundred meters from the squad that got in trouble. Two men were declared wounded. Al saw what was going on and sprinted across that stretch of open ground, kicked open a door, shot the “insurgent” inside, then got his wounded out of the line of fire.  One of the brigade’s officers at the time was watching that display of initiative and muttered, “That’s not his job anymore. He’s not a squad leader.”  I couldn’t help but think, this is exactly what he did in Iraq, and he saved lives. TO&E–Whose job it is on a battlefield doesn’t matter. What counts is the effect. Leaders get the job done no matter what their role is on paper.

As of 2015, Al Ezelle now serves as the 41st Brigade’s operations NCO. While not kicking in doors anymore, his innate situational awareness and tactical acumen I’m sure makes him well suited for his new role. But at heart, he will always be door-kicking, Soldier’s Soldier, larger than life, eminently capable and filling everyone around him with confidence and courage. I’ve met many great leaders—NCO’s and officers here at home and in Afghanistan, who I would have, and did, follow anywhere to write about them. But of all the warriors I’ve met over these many years, Al Ezelle is the only one who I would want leading my kids’ into a fight should they decide to enlist one day.

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Al Ezelle, Mark Flowers (of WWIIgyrene.org) and Brian Hambright at Goshen Range, spring 2008. Exemplary NCO’s.

 

 

Categories: American Warriors, Iraq War 2003-2010, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Brawler Six

IMG_1496In my twenty-five year career as a military historian and writer, I’ve  been very fortunate to have met and interviewed some incredible leaders—men and women who inspired those under their command to feats well beyond the norm. I’ve interviewed men who airdropped into Normandy, NCO’s who fought room to room in Fallujah, pilots and crew from the Doolittle Raid, two of the four men who formed the “Killer Flight” who shot down Admiral Yamamoto. Generals, admirals, Marine Corps legends like Marion Carl—these are the people who have composed the best of my professional experience since I left graduate school. I have been blessed with such associations, and my life’s work has been a source of pride and strength. Then I encountered Robert Ault, and everything I thought I understood about leadership changed.

In early September 2010, I met Lieutenant Colonel Robert Ault, Brawler Six, and it took about five minutes for him to blow my hair back. There on the edge of the world at FOB Shank I had encountered a character who could have stepped from a Nelson DeMille novel.

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LTC Ault in cockpit at left. Taken at FOB Gahzni, October 23, 2010

Walking around Task Force Brawler, interviewing his air and ground crews, it became clear to me that LTC Ault was one of those rarest of leaders—a man universally admired and whose people would do anything for him. As he went about his day, I was amazed at the reaction his presence had on those around him. He’d blow into a room like a northeaster and light up everyone with his enthusiasm and energy. He has an infectious personality, one that he is careful to use in a positive manner.  If he had an off day—if something at home troubled him, or the stress of command and constant missions ever got to him—he never revealed it. He was a force of his own, and in his wake he always seemed to leave people grinning from ear to ear, be they under his command, Jordanian officers or local Afghan elders.  His effect transcended culture and difference, and he used that power to unite and forge relationships that most would have never been able to pull off. For Rob Ault, it was as natural as breathing.

Born in Southern California, LTC Ault grew up always wanting to fly. When he was sixteen, he used the money from his after school job as a box boy to take flight lessons. He earned his pilot’s license a year later. He somehow managed to conceal this achievement from his parents. When his dad finally found out, I suppose astonishment aptly covers his reaction.

When other high school kids were out living it up, tinkering with cars and hitting the 80’s-era SoCal mall scene, Rob Ault and his pals went flying. On one flight, he took his friends to Catalina Island off the coast in what became one of his favorite memories of his youth. Other times, he and his buddies would mock dogfight each other in Cessna 152’s.IMG_3597

Some of his high school teachers totally misunderstood the sort of man developing inside Robert Ault. One cynically told him he’d be well suited for a job in the construction industry. They missed the intellect behind the Puckishness; their loss.

Ault moved on to college and earned his first degree from Cal State San Bernardino. He joined the Army and became an aero scout, flying OH-58 Kiowas. Later, he transitioned to Blackhawks.

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LTC Ault with a village elder, listening as the Afghan explained how the Kabul government had neglected his people. He complained non-stop about what he had not been given. Ironically, not a single vote had been cast in his village in the national election a few weeks before this photo was taken.

Before coming to Afghanistan, LTC Ault served in Iraq in two non-flying staff slots.  While meeting with local Iraqi security officials and political leaders, he was nearly killed by a suicide bomber. Dozens of Iraqis were killed or wounded in the blast, but somehow LTC Ault survived despite the fact that he was not wearing body armor at the time of the attack.

In July of 2008, Ault took command of 4-3 Air Assault Battalion, part of the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade. The 3rd ID is known as the Rock of the Marne for its role in blunting the Ludendorf Offensives in the spring of 1918, and the 3rd CAB is known as “Marne Air.” Originally composed entirely of UH-60 Blackhawks, 4-3 was turned into a unique task force a few months later with the addition of an Apache and Chinook company. The new task force became known as “TF Brawler” and their motto said everything about their attitude: “Here to Fight.”IMG_0328

From the outset, Ault ensured that things would be different in his command. He wanted to create a totally new culture for an air unit, one that could set the conditions for an “exponential” effect on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Most air assault battalions function as sort of an airborne taxi service. The local ground units they support send over Air Mission Requests (AMR’s) for the battalion to execute, and the Blackhawks will run around day and night moving troops from base to base, inserting them in air assaults, or lugging supplies from one point or another. It is an important job, but it is a reactive one, and does not tie the air unit into the ground war in anything but an ancillary role.IMG_2027

Lieutenant Colonel Ault had a different vision. He wanted his task force to be right in the middle of the fight with a much more proactive and aggressive part to play. Here, he combined his leadership skills with a powerful and creative intellect. In the process, he transformed Task Force Brawler from just another air asset into a revolutionary force on the counter-insurgency battlefield.

First Rule of Brawler Nation: everyone’s a warrior. For a year before their deployment, Ault’s men and women trained relentlessly in three key areas: marksmanship, medical skills and physical fitness.  The constant live fire exercise reinforced the point that everyone in the task force was expected to be

a rifleman first.

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LTC Ault (left) and Captain Andrew Alvord on patrol.

Colonel Ault reorganized his support company and created what became known as the “Ground Combat Platoon” from his fuelers, motor T guys, clerks and quartermaster. In the year before they arrived in Afghanistan, the GCP trained furiously in every aspect of infantry tactics. They worked on MOUT ranges, practiced air assaults and downed aircraft recovery missions. In the process, they worked side by side with the air crews and developed almost instinctive cooperation over the course of many realistic field exercises.

In Afghanistan, all this paid off handsomely. Instead of merely flying the AMR’s as expected, Task Force Brawler set out to gain its own slice of the battlefield.  Lieutenant Colonel Ault sought  to expand his unit’s role by  forging unlikely alliances with coalition units that could help him achieve his goal of being “exponential” on the battlefield. With the daily AMR’s covered, Ault sent out airborne patrols in Blackhawks filled with the GCP. These missions were dubbed Average Guy Engagements (AGE’s), as opposed to the COIN-standard “Key Leader Engagements. “  Using their aerial mobility, the GCP would roll around Logar Province looking for unusual activity. When they spotted something, they’d drop down, dismount the GCP and check it out. In these early patrols, the GCP made its first contacts with the local population, who had never been policed from the air like this before.  In most cases, these sudden appearances ended up generating good will. On one memorable occasion, the GCP landed next to a doctor whose car had broken down. The Americans offered to help fix his flat tire!IMG_3625

Always looking for new ways to get into the battle space, Colonel Ault gradually expanded the role of the GCP. From aerial patrols, his fuelers-turned-warriors served as outer cordon for Special Operations missions, interdicting traffic around the perimeter of these crucial raids.

To get ever deeper into the fight, Ault established what TF Brawler called “COIN Head Start” seminars. Bringing in experts at counter-insurgency warfare every week, his officers underwent an almost collegiate-level crash-course on how to stabilize and befriend local populations. After weeks of this on-the-fly intellectual training, they put ideas into practice with mock shura meetings where local Afghans taught them the customs and cultural sensitivities needed to engage successfully with village elders.

IMG_1211In the spring of 2010, Brawler went into the counter-insurgency business. Colonel Ault convinced his brigade commander, Colonel Don Galli, to give his task force two long-neglected villages that sat astride a unit boundary south of FOB Shank. These two locales had not been visited by ISAF forces for months, if not years.  Using their Chinooks and Blackhawks, Brawler’s GCP flew to these tiny hamlets where Colonel Ault, Lt. Evan Mace, Captain Gray, Captain Pruitt and Captain Alvord forged contacts with the local village leaders.

Later, TF Brawler absorbed several more villages and a key valley into its ad hoc Area of Operations. For the rest of the summer and fall, when not flying missions with his men, Brawler Six was out with the GCP meeting with Afghan sheiks in an effort to win them over to the coalition’s side.  Brawler jump started numerous projects around the region, ranging from school construction, fresh water pipelines to mosque renovations and agricultural assessments.

IMG_1224During the summer of 2010, roadside bombs virtually closed down stretches of Highway One in Logar Province. Brawler stepped in to help combat the IED menace. Using innovative new tactics, Colonel Ault put together an offensive airborne package known as Falcon Strike. Each night, a combined force of AH-64 Apache Gunships, a command element in a Blackhawk, and the GCP mounted in several UH-60’s would patrol along Highway One in search of insurgents laying IED’s. The Apaches would engage these bad guys, and the GCP would then land nearby, dismount and police up weapons and intelligence from the bodies (and body parts). It was tremendously effective, and after the first Falcon Strike missions, IED placement along this stretch of Highway One virtually ceased for weeks.

IMG_3607In a year of operations in Afghanistan, Brawler broke the mold for air units. Instead of being an airborne bus service for the local ground units, Ault’s dynamic leadership and aggressive desire to get more involved in the fight led to a revolutionary method of employing an army aviation asset. His task force joined the COIN fight in a unique and effective way. And while they were kissing babies and making friends by day, they killed scores of bad guys by night, saving countless civilian and military lives on Highway One. In the end, not only did Brawler Nation have an exponential effect on the battlefield, the men and women under Ault’s command had forged a new way of air-ground warfare in a counter-insurgency environment.

IMG_1248When I asked Captain Andrew Alvord, the GCP’s platoon leader, how much of this was due to LTC Ault’s leadership, he replied without hesitation, “All of it. “ Captain Joe Pruitt, the Echo Company commander, said the same thing. Ault’s indelible leadership stamped Brawler from the outset and created a unique culture that blended a warrior’s aggression with intellectual creativity and a can-do spirit that ultimately created friends out of enemies throughout Logar Province. And for those irreconcilables? They paid the price for their continued resistance.

Task Force Brawler will be the standard by which all other army aviation task forces will be judged. Lieutenant Colonel Ault’s leadership will serve as a model for others to follow and develop. And Brawler Nation will have an exponential effect on its own service for years to come.

Not bad for a Southern California boy.

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Categories: Afghanistan, American Warriors | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cumberland Clerk of Clark Field

Confession: Part of the perils of conducting archival research far from home is that I get easily distracted. I’ll be plowing through piles of government documents looking for nuggets relevant to my next book, then I’ll stumble across an insanely cool story that I can’t help but to track down. This was the case this week while working at the MacArthur Memorial archives in search of material related to Paul “Pappy” Gunn. There I was, digging around in the collection when I came across a debriefing document related to a clerk named Corporal Joseph Boyland. So I love stories about unlikely folks who step up in moments of great turmoil and crisis to become bigger characters than their rank and role might lead you to believe. In Afghanistan in 2010, I met a quartermaster named Captain Andrew Alvord–who happened to be out commanding an air assault platoon composed of support troops like fuelers and clerks. He led the platoon on many patrols, fought several sharp engagements during Taliban ambushes, and made friends out of local villagers. That is the kind of American who makes our nation great.

Which leads me back seventy years to a Cumberland, Maryland factory worker who, in the throes of the Depression, sought service in the Army Air Corps as a way out of his small town circumstances. Enlisting in 1937, he trained as a clerk and was sent to the Philippines in 1941 to be a paper-pusher in the newly established V Bomber Command Headquarters. In four years, promotion had come slowly for him, and when  Japanese aircraft  appeared over Clark Field on December 8, Boyland was a corporal.  He was at Clark when the attack came and destroyed most of MacArthur’s air force on the ground, and in the chaotic days that followed, he was culled from the HQ element and sent to the 192nd Tank Battalion, where he trained as an M3 Stuart gunner for six weeks at the start of the Bataan Campaign.

In February, he received a week’s worth of infantry training, then was posted at Cabcaben Airfield, where he manned a .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun. Between standing watch over the field, he participated in dismounted patrols around Mariveles, and did such an impressive job that he received a spot commission to 2nd Lieutenant by the 31st Infantry’s Major Miller. Along with most of the other marooned FEAF ground and air personnel, he served in combat with the 71st Infantry Division (Philippine Army) until malaria and dysentery knocked him out of action.

As the situation on Bataan began to collapse in early April 1942, he was ordered to Corregidor, but the FilAmerican Army surrendered while he was trying to find passage to the Rock. The Japanese captured him at Mariveles. With twenty other American POW’s, he was pressed into service as a truck driver for the Japanese. Under guard, he drove around Bataan, Guagua, and Pampanga, forced to do whatever the Japanese demanded of him. Yet, his experience was easy compared to what thousands of other half-starved, sick POW’s faced on the Death March. Boyland and his crew of truck drivers often were allowed to go into Manila to purchase food and even alcohol. This comparatively easy life changed later that spring when and thirteen other American drivers were taken to Olongapo and crammed aboard a Japanese transport vessel. The ship took them to Negros Island, where he and his fellow POW’s drove and repaired trucks for the next year.

On Negros, Boyland experienced the opposite extreme of the Japanese occupation. In the months that followed, beatings became increasingly frequent, and he bore witness to the full horrors inflicted on the Filipino population, especially after the Kempeitai showed up on Negros. One Kempeitai Lieutenant in particular terrorized the inhabitants of Bacolod, killing civilians with his sidearm.

Towns suspected of supporting the growing guerrilla movement were dealt with harshly. Several times, Boyland witnessed Japanese troops pour into this villages and massacre the residents with machine guns and bayonets. Other times, the Japanese would capture a group of Filipino males, tie them up and spend days torturing them. They’d be left in the sun without food and water, burned with cigarettes, and mutilated with scissors. Afterwards, Boyland and his fellow Americans would be ordered to bury the bodies.

Sometimes, the Japanese made clumsy attempts to connect with the Filipino population. In April 1943, Boyland was ordered to drive in a two truck convoy. In back, instead of just bayonet-armed Japanese Soldiers, he and the other driver transported a brass band, a singing trio, two Filipino nurses and a couple of doctors. With music merrily playing, they rolled through the countryside, visiting hamlets around Bago. They would stop, hand out candy, cigarettes and donated clothing to the impoverished populace while the medical staff tended to the sick. Sometimes, they’d host dances and games, complete with prizes.

The pistol-fond Kempeitai lieutenant went along on the sojourns, keeping a watchful eye on the spectacle. The Japanese called these Peace and Relief Missions.

Such tactics couldn’t sway the Filipinos, who remained fiercely loyal to the United States despite the reign of terror unleash on them behind the facade of brass bands and free shirts. That point was driven home to Boyland once day when his truck broke down during a Peace and Relief run to Ponte Verde. As he worked to repair it, the locals came out to him, and when the Japanese weren’t looking slipped him fresh fruit and eggs. The mayor even gave him some money.

Enough was enough. Beaten almost every day for months, bearing witness to horrific atrocities then burying the victims, all while driving around a traveling road show with the sadistic Kempeitai officer was too much for Joe Boyland. In April 1943, a Japanese officer smacked him across the face and that humiliation became the final straw.

The next day, he was in the market place at Bago, paused between runs in his truck. His Japanese guard walked across the street to buy cigarettes, and Boyland saw his chance. He slipped into a nearby shop and bolted out the back door. He linked up with a local guerrilla cell, which took him up into the mountains to escape the Japanese.

For most of the next year, Joe lived the life of an American insurgent, operating with the guerrillas of Northern Negros. They carried out ambushes, sometimes attacking the very trucks that he’d been driving. By July, all but two of the American drivers he’d been with had escaped and linked up with various guerrilla groups as well.

Boyland soon found the shadow war on Negros had an ugly underbelly. The Filipinos in the movement hated the local Spanish aristocracy. They represented the elite of the old colonial order, and they took out centuries of pent-up resentment on them through midnight raids and violence. The Spanish left their outlying properties and moved to Bacolod where the Japanese could better protect them, and many openly collaborated with the occupation force as a result.

Martinez Godinez was an exception. He and Boyland had become friends after Martinez provided food, whiskey and safe places to crash. He was officially the Spanish Consul for Negros, and despite his nation’s neutrality in the war, he played an important role in keeping Boyland’s guerrilla cell in the fight. Despite this, other insurgent groups considered him an enemy, and they marked him for death. Boyland protected him as much as he could, but eventually convinced Martinez to send his family to Manila, where they would be (at least for the time) safer.

Then there were the anti-American guerrillas. The most notorious, at least to Boyland, was a former sergeant in the army named De Asis. Reputed to have gone on a blood-feud killing frenzy that claimed the lives of some twenty-seven Filipinos, De Asis was all about settling scores and exercising grudges. He had a deep seated hatred of Americans, and was rumored to have killed several. In January 1944, Boyland went in search of De Asis, probably to try and halt his depredations, but he proved elusive and Joe never found him.

Bacolod, the largest city on the island, teamed with intrigue. Plenty of the locals supported the guerrillas, but there were always fifth columnists, spies and sympathizers working with the Japanese. A German named Weber was one of the most aggressive pro-Japanese civilian in the city. He would strut through the streets in shorts, armed with a pistol and would “arrest” anyone he suspected of supporting the insurgency, then turn them over to the Japanese authorities.

In February 1944, after months of shadowy operations, ambushes, near misses with Japanese patrols and rival guerrillas, Boyland was evacuated off Negros and taken to Australia, where he was debriefed then sent home to Maryland.  When he returned to Cumberland, he learned that one of his brothers had joined the Navy and was serving in England. He later took part in D-Day as part of a landing craft crew.

Joe was given a hero’s welcome in his hometown. So few had escaped from the Philippines that the local papers celebrated his arrival, but noted repeatedly that he wouldn’t talk about his experiences. It later came out that he’d been thoroughly interrogated at the Pentagon after his return from the Philippines. Once he was given 30 day leave and came home to Cumberland, the Secret Service kept him under constant surveillance to ensure he did not speak of what was happening in the Philippines. That level of paranoia was also experienced by other escapees, including the legendary Ed Dyess.

Boyland went to OCS and stayed in the military after the war, learning to fly and serving as a pilot in the Air For Parce before finally retiring as a lieutenant colonel. In December 1975, his car got stuck in soft mud on the side of Route 301 in North Carolina, outside of Rocky Mount. While walking along the shoulder to a nearby gas station to get help, he was hit by a passing car and tragically killed, a terrible end for the warrior clerk.

He never spoke to the press about his wartime experiences in detail, honoring the order given to him during his Pentagon debriefing to keep his mouth shut. But he did tell his hometown paper once of a poignant moment after he was captured that haunted him through his captivity.

While being taken to a POW camp, he spotted a billboard on the side of the road advertising Kelly-Springfield tires.  Cumberland was home to an 88 acre Kelly-Springfield factory, completed in 1921 when Joe was just four years old. The company employed much of the town, and was a pride of the city until it was purchased by Goodyear the year Joe graduated from high school.

The billboard brought him back to his hometown, and as he watched the advertisement pass by, he was filled with memories of City Hall Plaza, Bedford street and all the little shops in downtown Cumberland. As it slipped past his truck, the billboard served as a reminder to all he’d lost, and all he’d fight to regain in the difficult years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: American Warriors, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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