“It was the third of June, another sleepy . . . day . . .”
With that phrase starting one of most memorable country songs in the 196os, I began my life as a man, a soldier and a leader of an infantry platoon in the Vietnam War.
The song was crooned by Bobbie Gentry and dealt with how Billy Joe McAllister jumped off of the Tallahatchie Bridge. I could never figure out why he committed suicide. Some believe he got a girl pregnant and was unable to take care of her in the rural parts where they lived. It never really mattered to me because I simply enjoyed the melody and the story-telling.
More importantly, I identified with the lead in of the song, the 3rd of June.
I was drafted on that date. Got shipped off from Philadelphia to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where my hair was cut short and my civilian clothes traded in for the OD green of the US Army. Less than three days later I wanted to stop marching and have a moment of silence but couldn’t disrupt the drill sergeant’s cadence call in order to mourn Bobby Kennedy who was shot and killed during a campaign event in California.
Boot camp wasn’t all that bad. I was in pretty good shape despite having smoked cigarettes since I stole them from my mother’s pack and lit ‘em up in Fairmount Park. I got high grades in the obstacle courses and ran the mile in six minutes and 18 seconds just short of magical number of the 6-minute mile.
I went into the army with Carl Disler, a fellow I sang Doo Wop with on the street corners of Philadelphia, once appearing on television and being offered a recording contract that we lost after holding out for more money. I had initially “pushed up” the draft and would have went a week or two earlier but worked out a deal with the Draft Board to delay my swearing-in until Disler and I could go together. (More than a year later, we’d meet up in Fort Polk, Louisiana, after he returned from Vietnam and I was a brand spanking new second lieutenant getting ready to ship off to the war zone. We met two girls outside of Fort Polk and ended up marrying them after bringing them back north to meet our folks. He returned to the Deep South shortly after and is retired outside of New Orleans today.)
I went “Airborne” and jumped out of a plane five times and was slated to attend Ranger School until I was unable to keep up with a three-mile run at jump school and was recycled, thus preventing my entrance to the exclusive infantry training school.
I ended up with a straight leg infantry platoon and guided my men through the jungles of Vietnam. No one was killed under my command and have always been proud of second prong of an officer’s motto: “Accomplish the mission and provide for the welfare of the men.”
I’ll remember my troops on June 3rd this year and offer a toast to all of us who served, in particular those soldiers in my immediate unit — Charlie company — who got killed. One was a First Lieutenant Victor Lee Ellinger from the third platoon shot by a sniper and two privates from the second platoon who lost their lives when they forgot where they placed a claymore mine trip wire and walked right into it.
The 3rd of June will always be special in my heart and in my mind. I’m glad I am still around to remember that day and those soldiers I met who gave so much of themselves.