Windber, Pennsylvania - United States Army
My twin brother, Lt. Merle James Sharpe, and I grew up together in Windber and we both graduated from Penn State with ROTC commissions in the army. Eventually, he was an infantry officer and I flew helicopters during the Vietnam War. I'm currently writing my personal memoir, an excerpt of which can be read below, highlighting my experiences.
The Boys from Mont Alto
By William Sharpe
ROTC, ROTC, it sounds like some bullshit to me, to me,
ROTC, it sounds like some bullshit to me.
They made me a 2nd lieutenant,
They gave me two bars of gold
They called me a forward observer,
I lived to be 6 seconds old.
In the fall of 1962, I enrolled in the Forestry program at Penn State University and was sent to Penn State’s Mont Alto campus to begin training for the forestry profession. Mont Alto is located in a remote area of south-central Pennsylvania not far north of the Mason-Dixon Line and just outside of a small town of the same name. There were only 89 students on the entire campus. We constituted most of the freshman forestry class of 1963. Despite its remoteness, the campus did not escape the far reaching tentacles of the U.S. Army. Penn State is the land grant institution for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and in those days Mont Alto had its very own Army ROTC detachment. The requirements of the day were that every male student at a land-grant institution be required to participate in two years of ROTC. It was the government’s way of getting a return on any tuition subsidy that may have accrued to every young man matriculating at such institutions.
Before entering Penn State’s Mont Alto Campus, all enrollees were sent a questionnaire to fill out for ROTC. One question in particular caused me some consternation. It was, "Are you a conscientious objector?" I thought about this for a while, reasoning that if I objected to something I had deliberated over it carefully; therefore, my objection was indeed conscientious. (Obviously, I had spent too much time hunting rabbits in high school.) I had no idea what a conscientious objector was.
Shortly after my arrival at Mont Alto the Army Staff Sergeant, who ran the mundane affairs of the detachment, called me into his office. "Sharpe," he said, "What’s this bullshit about you being a Conscientious Objector? Are you afraid to fight?" I quickly answered, "No Sergeant. I'll fight anybody, anytime." He said, "That's more like it." That seemed to settle the matter. I had just gotten an "A" in naivete.
The spit and polish required of the students was a huge pain to those disinclined and the extra classroom work that was entailed added to our already heavy credit load. ROTC (Military Science) was considered a formal course so a grade was assigned for classroom and drill which was factored in to your GPA. Demerits (gigs) were issued to keep you in line. Too many gigs equated to a grade reduction. Gigs could be issued for the usual chicken shit military stuff; shoes and brass not shined to a glossy sheen, failure to be clean shaven, hair too long or an improperly cleaned rifle. Some students, but not many, blew these requirements off and along with overall poor academic performance were soon back home awaiting the draft. The rest of us, eager to bolster our GPA's in what was not an easy curriculum, did our best. I cannot say that I had no gigs, but I had damn few and certainly not enough to affect my grade. It was simple. Play the game and ROTC was an easy one credit "A."
After two years, you could drop out of ROTC and take your chances in the draft when your student deferment was up. If your family had some pull with the local draft board, you might get an additional deferment or you might be able to join the Reserves or the National Guard. If you had a medical condition that would cause a failed physical at draft time, you would be classified 4F (unfit for military service). Otherwise upon graduation from college your 2S student deferment would become 1A and, if you were in my college graduating class, a 1A classification meant a draft notice and orders to report for a physical the month before graduation.
Unfortunate slobs like me, the son of a poor coal miner, had little chance to avoid being drafted. In fact, my father always told me that the army offered a good life with steady work, good pay, chances for promotion and great benefits. It was his idea of a great career for someone of my low socio-economic status. I have often thought had I followed his advice I would have enlisted, gone to OCS, and become an Infantry lieutenant, eventually dying in Vietnam.
There were other ways to secure a draft deferment. You could stay in college by going on to graduate school thus maintaining a 2S draft classification. While in college, you could get married and have a child and avoid being drafted when you eventually graduated and lost your student deferment. You could also get a civilian job in an industry that was "critical" to the national defense. A munitions plant qualified nicely.
We ROTC cadets (that’s what we were called) already had one foot in the military door. This did not sound so bad in 1962 or even 1964 for that matter. At that time, who had ever heard of Vietnam? After two years of ROTC, you had to decide whether to continue to the advanced course or get out. In 1964, continuing didn’t seem to be such a bad thing. Two years active duty as an officer and four years in the reserves with good pay sounded pretty good at the time. In addition, you had no more worries about the draft and all of its uncertainty. Not inconsequentially for a dirt poor college kid like me, the military also paid advanced ROTC cadets $40 a month.
Nonetheless, all of us should have gotten a clear look into the future in October of 1962. We ROTC cadets were summoned suddenly to a meeting by the ROTC detachment commander, Captain Homer D. McAlips. We trekked in the darkness to Science Hall on the Mont Alto campus. The commander’s silver Porsche Coupe was parked outside. Homer was diminutive in stature, almost frail looking and an army lifer. His slight stature notwithstanding, he commanded center stage that night and informed us that the Cuban Missile Crisis was at hand. Troops were at that very minute being rushed to the Florida Keys to fortify the beaches. "Ivan" (his name for Russians) was coming and we would be expected to do our part in repelling the Cossack hordes. We looked at one another in wonderment. We couldn't even march in a straight line. The World War ll era M-1's with which we drilled didn’t have firing pins. What the hell was he talking about? Reading our minds, he continued, "You have only been here a couple of months, but you are trained better than most young men who have no training at all," he said. "You will be expected to be leaders in the coming fight," he added. "As of now, you are on full alert."
Geezus Christ, I thought to myself, this guy is dead f*cking serious. Everyone sat in stunned silence and rose from our seats still in disbelief as McAlips dismissed us to our dorms. I am quite sure that if our forestry field trip trucks had pulled up to the dorms that night, all of us would have gone to the armory, picked up our M-1's, gotten on the trucks and followed the silver Porsche wherever it went. Needless to say, most of us had trouble going to sleep that night. The Cuban Missile Crisis turned out to be a very big deal, but cooler heads prevailed and in a few days we returned to our routine ROTC drill with renewed determination to complete our turn as squad leaders without marching our troops into the tennis court fence, Antietam Creek, which bordered our drill field or any of the numerous large trees in between.
You may wonder how the Mont Alto Class of 1963 fared in the Vietnam conflict that at the time was still very remote to our collective consciousness. My two best buddies took separate paths from mine. One dropped out of ROTC and was 4F after flunking his draft physical. The other graduated with an Army ROTC commission and by a stroke of good fortune spent most of his active duty time in Germany. Several other friends were not so lucky. As forestry graduates, the Army liked to assign us to the Combat Engineers. Dave Williams, one of my deer hunting friends, ended up in an engineer outfit in the Mekong Delta. He built the helicopter revetments and airstrip that I used at times during my tour. Another deer hunting friend, Dave Webster, went to the 8th Engineers of the 1st Calvary Division, where he worked as the S-2 and interpreted aerial photography. An unsettling part of his job was checking the accuracy of the photos from a low flying helicopter. Both Williams and Webster returned safely to the States at the end of their tours. Dave Hieter flew helicopters for HAL-3, the Sea Wolves based out of Dong Tam. Dave Williams was there at the same time. One night Hieter ran to his aircraft during a mortar attack and had just brought it to a hover when the ammo dump blew up. Hieter found himself hanging upside down, suspended by his seat harness in his Huey B-Model gunship with JP-4 dripping in his face as a fire raged nearby. He was rescued with wounds. Williams visited him in the hospital. John Widders joined the air force, became a pilot and crash landed an air force cargo plane somewhere in country. He survived unscathed. Pete Duncan received his commission and ended up in the Mekong Delta with Williams and Hieter. Pete was missing a thumb on his right hand and could have avoided military service. He chose not to and the army assigned him to the Quartermaster Corps to keep him out of combat. Consequently, he spent some of his time in country running supply convoys up and down QL-4, the main highway in the Delta. Since QL-4 was frequently mined by the VC, this was not exactly a non-combat assignment. Pete successfully parlayed this experience and other talents into a long and distinguished career in public service with several natural resources agencies.
Don Stoner was the Resident Assistant in my dorm at Mont Alto. He was an air force veteran when he came there, and had a private pilot's license and his own airplane. He had been unable to qualify for air force flight training. He loved to fly. In fact, he loved to fly so much that he volunteered for the army after graduation, hoping to be accepted into the army's flight program. At the time, you couldn't believe anything an army recruiter told you, including any assurance of acceptance in to the flight program so, to my way of thinking he took a hell of a chance. However, Don was accepted into the army flight program, went through the agonies of Warrant Officer Candidate training at Fort Wolters, graduated and transitioned to Chinooks. I met up with Don again at Fort Rucker, Alabama. We were both there at the same time finishing up the final phases of our helicopter training. We went quail hunting together one day at a farm where I had permission to hunt. I had previously purchased an English Setter bird dog to fulfill one item on my bucket list before Nam. During the hunt, I saw a very large diamond back rattlesnake in the vicinity of my dog and since I did not want it to bite the dog, I shot it. It was an honest six footer, as thick around as a grapefruit and the biggest damn snake I ever saw. A fairly reserved guy, the incident barely ruffled Stoner’s feathers. At Bearcat, RVN, I once again chanced into Stoner in the PX. Turns out we were both based there. The 1st Cav had a Chinook unit at Bearcat and Don was assigned to it. He invited me over to the Cav’s O-club for a drink that afternoon and I accepted. The club was really swanky by my unit’s standards and included the rarity of air conditioning. I was very impressed.
A short time later, Don went into Cambodia during the 1970 invasion to pick up a load of captured VC supplies. He was flying out of Cambodia when he took an AK-47 round through his wrist. The wound resulted in enough damage to ground Stoner permanently putting an end to his Army aviation career. A sad outcome for someone who liked to fly so much.
Bruce Holbrook was another Army aviator from Mont Alto. Bruce had a bull whip. He would, on occasion, demonstrate how to make it snap in the second floor hallway of Conklin Hall, his dorm. Bruce flew helicopters for the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. He returned home alive and well.
Dan Neely was a very bright guy in the top group at Mont Alto. Dan, Dave Webster, Dave Patterson and I had ridden across the country in Dan's car in the summer of 1963 on our way out West for summer jobs. Dan was in my class at the engineer school at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Like me, he had obtained an MS Degree from Penn State before reporting for active duty. Dan appeared one evening as I was relaxing in my hooch at Vinh Long. He told me he was the captain of a barge that traveled around the country installing pilings and was on his way down the Mekong from Chau Doc after completing a job there. We had a very nice chat over some cold beers from my refrigerator. Dan was in love with a Vietnamese woman, whom he said he was going to marry and take home. To my knowledge, Dan had never dated anyone and I suspected that he might be vulnerable to the affections of the first woman that gave him the time of day. There were plenty of Vietnamese women who wanted a ticket out of the country and a better life in the United States; consequently, their sincerity might be questionable. I liked Dan a whole lot and admired him for his intelligence, but I tried to talk him out of this marriage. In the process, I think that I probably really pissed him off. I never heard from him again. Patterson, the fourth member of this cross country adventure, joined the air force and also ended up flying in Vietnam.
This class odyssey started with Homer. I am sure that he would have wanted to know how we all turned out. My apologies to those at Mont Alto in 1963 whose Vietnam stories I have not told. If I had known them, I would have shared them.