by Gary Ratliff
First off I would like to set the record straight. I in fact joined the Army for Airborne. (I sent papers down to Ken which states that fact) I even passed the additional P.T. and some how I was over looked and sent to Vietnam. (August or September 1965.)
When I got to the placement unit, the clerk handed me my orders and said to report to the 101st Airborne, while I was walking out he told me that I was a straight leg and was going to a Airborne unit. I said what the hell is a straight leg? He shook his head and wished me luck. I remember thinking how bad could a leg be, was it worse then being shot?
When I met these guys they were full of questions. First question was, “where’s your wings”, well from that moment I was called leg. Now you know how I got the name.
I really think from the first time I was called leg the guys had a plan for me. Now don’t forget these are not the same men you see today, they were young, vibrant, skinny, jokesters and had a real passion for life, but don’t get me wrong when it came time to take care of business they relentlessly and did it with that same passion.
Now back to the plan, after being called leg day in and day out I thought being shot wouldn’t be all that bad. So I was told I would have to jump if I was going to be a Screaming Eagle and to do that I needed my wings. My reply was, when do I jump.
Then I was told I have to learn how to do a P.L.F., so I said when do I start. So we started and you have to remember this was done behind a lot of peoples back, so this wasn’t a easy thing. Ken Ihle, Duey, Terry Whitpan, Sgt. D, Lydel Sizemore, Moreno, John Nowlin, even had a guy from Headquarters Co., Ybanez, he was a medic, everyone put their two cents in. Terry stacked “C” ration cases just so I could jump off them and do my P.L.F., that wasn’t enough, anything off the ground, felled trees, trucks, I jumped off. Not one man, but everyone was checking my P.L.F. to see if I had that dirt line across my back.
After what seemed 100’s of P.L.F’s., the guys said It’s time for jump week. “NOW TELL ME THERE WAS NO PLAN”!! Since my name could no way be on a jump roster, well no name no jump. REMEMBER THE PLAN! So I wore Ken’s shirt three times, and John’s shirt two times, which makes five jumps. My first jump was perfect!
Now for the rest of the jumps I was thinking who in there right mind would jump from a perfectly good airplane, it was not on fire, it was not going to crash, and I think the pilot was sober. And all I can say is my god if felt so so good.
But “THE PLAN” had a flaw, like any kid brother, I had to start trouble by writing General Westmooreland. And since I had 5 jumps I would like to receive my jump pay and my wings. And there was a reply, and it went straight to Top, now Ken and John had new nicknames, POTS and PANS, yes it was K.P.. As for me I got off scott free, maybe there was a different PLAN here, I jumped and they got K.P.. I think everyone will agree with me that my brothers had a PLAN, but the question is “HOW DID THEY KNOW THAT I WOULD NOT QUIT”? The next time in town I was told to have my wings sewn on, we already had our C.I.B.
I would like to say something at this point, that I will remember to the grave. I did not go to jump school in the states. My ground week was humping the jungles of Vietnam, my tower week was jumping off anything that was off the ground, my jump week was five jumps in a combat zone. I had the best instructors, and I mean bar none the best instructors in the armed forces, they are my brothers!
REST OF THE STORY
For the first time in 44 years, I saw my brothers at the 2009 “COBRA” reunion, and I was presented with my wings. I was told it was Ken’s blood wings and I am at a loss of words, maybe I can say it in a different way.
I did not have to be in Vietnam, I was the only surviving son and only 17 years old. All the guys were saying to get the hell out of Dodge and go home. For once they wanted my shirt. So at 17 you ask your Dad. So I wrote and asked him to make the phone call, my Dad did reply, he said he would not make the call, but would change places with me. But what he didn’t know was I didn’t need his permission, I could have left on my own. I now heard the word HONOR for the first time. I learned years later that he had seven battle stars in World War II, from South Africa to Anzio Beach.
By then I had got to know these men and I had brothers, it was more that a band of brothers. I came to love these guys like brothers and I was prepared to take a bullet and even die for them, so I decided to stay.
These bunch of raggedy skinny guys taught me what the word HONOR was, they taught me not to give up, they taught me determination, and most importantly they taught me that war was not about God, Country, and the American Flag. It’s about taking care of the guy next to you and I also knew we would walk off the battlefield together or be carried off together.
You guys may not realize this but you did raise a kid brother and how you raised me rubbed off on my kids also. I need to say I am truly blessed for knowing all of you. I want to THANK YOU FOR A JOB WELL DONE, you are TRULY ABOVE THE REST!
I would like to say standing once again on the same ground with my brothers is a great HONOR, which I never thought would ever happen. There is only a hand full of events that mean something to me, the birth of my children, my brothers of so many years ago, carrying my parents to their final resting place, my marriage, and receiving my wings. It would be nice if the army would recognize this also, but it is not necessary.
When I left Vietnam I went to Germany, and my BOTHERS got the last laugh! All my BROTHERS said “don’t take off your wings, you have earned them”, but OH NO they didn’t say I might have to fight for them! Now I need to tell you about paratroopers, they are everywhere and they can get down right nasty when a leg wears wings, and they were not buying any story I was telling, yes sir that is a fact. And my wings stayed on till I got home in April 1968.
But some how my BROTHERS were not laughing, they had one more lesson to teach me. When I got back to the world I wasn’t fighting to keep my wings, but just because I was in Vietnam. They knew I would have to be tuff and those simple words “DON’T TAKE OFF THOSE WINGS” did just that. Half way around the globe these men were still ABOVE THE REST!!!
I don’t tell war stories, but after 44 years it has to be said, Lou Percy knows about this. We walked into a real mess in some nameless rice patty, so I took cover behind a big boulder and there was a couple of the guys already there. I noticed that we had men down. I said lets go and pull them back. These men’s words were “I may end up being the most decorated soldier in Vietnam. And not even have jump wings”. I need to say to these men, I was not the most decorated soldier in Vietnam, but after 44 years I finally got my jump wings.
I will wear my wings not just for me, but for the brothers that gave it all and could not be here on the day I got my jump wings.
I LOVE YOU AND WELCOME BACK
ABOVE THE REST
GARY RATLIFF (MOUSE)