Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
A buddy of mine showed me an Air Mail letter he recently found, one that his mother received in 1968.
“I am pleased to write you at this time,” it begins, “to inform you that your son has been assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, The Big Red One.
“This division has a long tradition and heritage of being first in service to our country; it has fought hard and well against tyranny and oppression in World War I and World War II and now once again is in the vanguard of those who are fighting to maintain freedom in South Vietnam.
“I know your son will perform his duty proudly and will say with pride that he did his share for his country,” the letter said.
What I know about The Big Red One and my friend leads me to believe that’s how it was.
“We lived up to our tradition over there,” my friend said. “I’d go back in a minute.” (So would other guys I know.)
He has told me some of what happened to him in Vietnam, and I’ve already written about him, but I didn’t tell you his name then and will not do so today. As I’ve told him, “When I write about one of you, I’m writing about all of you.” He understands that and agrees with it.
My friend was a sergeant. When a reporter was assigned to his unit in Vietnam, “I told him that if he got me killed, my men would kill him. And if he got any of my men killed, I would kill him,” he said.
“And that’s just how it was. That’s what would have happened. Those reporters were a pain in the ass. They didn’t realize how intense things were over there.
“The captain called me in and asked me, ‘What in the hell did you tell that man?’
“I told him exactly what I said, and he started to laugh. Then he said, ‘Tell the other sergeants to come in and see me.’ They told that reporter the same thing I did, and we never had any trouble with him.”
The letter to my friend’s mom stated, “I encourage you to write your son often. Letters from home are the single most important factor in relieving his mind of worry about his loved ones back home.”
This must be something that’s never changed, judging from what I’ve read in letters that Uncle Abe sent home to Aunt Frances and others in the family during World War II when he was an Army medic in Europe.
A message from home was a big deal, particularly if someone else got one and you didn’t.
One Christmas when all of his gifts arrived at the same time, Abe got off his hospital train, cut a pine bough and set it up on his bunk to act as a Christmas tree, then put the contents of his packages around it and told his buddies, “This is for you. Merry Christmas!”
The same thing happened in Vietnam.
“We fixed up a tree, trimmed it with empty beer cans and ration cans and anything else we could find and shared our stuff with our buddies,” said another of my friends.
The letter to my friend’s mom was signed by Major Gen. Keith Lincoln Ware, commanding officer of the 1st Infantry Division.
I’d heard about this general before, specifically that he had a German Shepherd Dog named “Sergeant Major.”
My friend said Ware liked to tell his men, “This is the only Sergeant Major who ever paid any attention to me,” and they got a big kick out of that. (A regular Army artillery colonel we see at Gettysburg told Capt. Gary and me that he’d much rather argue with generals than with first sergeants and sergeants-major because he stood a better chance of winning.)
“General Ware was one heck of a soldier,” my friend said. “He would not ask you to do anything he would not do himself. He loved his troops, and we loved him. He led from right out there in front.”
And that’s what Ware was doing when he was killed in action in September 1968.
He was in bed one night when 150 of his men suddenly came into contact with 500 North Vietnamese soldiers, and he got up to go and lead them.
His helicopter was flying low over the fighting, so he could observe what was going on and be in a better position to command his men on the ground, when it was shot down.
Ware, his three staff members, the four helicopter crewmen and Sergeant Major the dog were killed. There were no survivors.
“I was there when it happened,” my friend said. “I saw it. When he got shot out of the air, the bottom fell right out of our morale. He was the commander, and we figured that if they could get him, they could get anybody.
“He said in that letter to Mom that he would do his best to get me home, and that is what he did. I am alive today because of what he did that night. I give him credit for that.”
After reading about Ware on the Internet, I called my friend to ask why he hadn’t told me his general was a Medal of Honor recipient.
“I wanted you to look him up and read about him and find out for yourself what kind of man he was,” he said.
Ware was a lieutenant colonel in World War II during the Battle of the Bulge when one of his companies came under heavy fire.
Going forward by himself to conduct reconnaissance, Ware spent two hours deliberately drawing fire so he could determine the German positions, then returned to his company to take up an automatic rifle and personally lead 11 men and a tank to attack the enemy.
Five of his men were casualties. Ware, whose individual efforts led to the silencing of four machine gun positions, was himself wounded — but he refused medical attention until the field was secured and occupied by American troops.
For that, Ware received the Medal of Honor. Posthumously, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (America’s second-highest military decoration) for the actions that led to his death in Vietnam.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery and is remembered on Panel 44, Line 55, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
My friend told me a little about Ware, and I found out more by looking on the Internet.
Everything else I needed to know about him is contained in this comment added to his memorial page on The Wall’s website by a soldier who served under him in Vietnam:
“This leader’s troops would have invaded the gates of hell to get to the devil if he asked.”