Military and Veterans

Salutin’ Demons

I know, the way we fight wars has changed, but I suspect life around headquarters command centers hasn’t. In the long campaigns in World War II, North Africa, Italy and France, units were often sent back to the rear for R & R, and to refresh equipment. Infantry riflemen and 2nd Lieutenants dropped at an alarming rate so were replaced more often. Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle’s bread and butter were the infantry, Mauldin capturing more of the humor of that area just back of the FEBA where soldiers went to rest up for a few days. Not sure FEBA’s in the Infantry manual anymore, the front line, but that’s what we were taught in officer’s school. But being a JAG my general, assuming I was “just” a lawyer, while playing chess on an overturned footlocker in a bunker in Korea, asked me if I knew what FEBA meant. As quickly as I could think, I looked up and smiled and said, “Far Eastern Broadcasting Association”.

My home station was Japan, but I spent some time in South Korea, mostly at 8Th Army Headquarters in Itaewon. With combat-ready units along the DMZ just 30 miles to the north, the 8th Army compound, with a giant PX, was the 3-day pass destination for virtually every soldier who ever set foot in Korea in those years; with great tailors to fit out the sartorial needs of every soldiers and their families back home. (South Korea was an unaccompanied tour in those days.) My wife always had magazine cut-outs for me to drop off at Mr Moon’s which I would pick up on my way back to Tokyo.

Now, 8th Army compound was “strack”, a term I’m not sure they use anymore. Soldiers wore pressed and creased fatigues, crisply bloused and boots to a high shine. You rarely saw men and women in Class A’s down in the common area of the Compound, which is why I was authorized to travel in civvies, since Class A’s were the standard uniform in our command, and for some time before I arrived, complaints had been trickling in about the length of our hair and the presence of facial hair, both of which were looked upon with disfavor in Korea. Sets a bad example. In civvies people might think we were with the Red Cross.

So, I always traveled in civvies.

Which is the circumstance under which I had my sole encounter with a genuine salutin’ demon lieutenant…proving that Bill Mauldin didn’t invent that cartoon in France in 1945.

It was summer, a nice pleasant day, and I was standing around a large bus pullout in front of the PX, waiting for a ride to pick me up and take me back to the Naija Hotel (operated by the Enlisted Mess, and probably the finest five-course meal in Seoul). I watched soldiers coming out of the PX, and as usual, watching them have to salute every officer going into the PX.

Across the three-busses-wide drive, were some benches, and a paved path up to some office buildings including the 8Th Army JAG office, which I visited often.

About 40-50 feet away, there stood a young officer, who would return the salute of every soldier who passed by on his side of the street. I figure, in a 2-minute period he exchanged at least six or eight salutes, which would have worn me out, and I would have moved off the road and onto one of the benches.

Now soldiers coming out of the PX noticed this salutin’ machinegun nest 75 yards away, and began doing about-face’s and going the other way. This is what my mother always did when she crossed paths with the town bootlegger, muttering “get thee behind me, Satan” as she headed another way.

But three soldiers got caught in a little DMZ of their own, and noticed the salutin’ demon officer a little too late. So they did a hard right-turn and crossed over the driveway just about 20 feet away from where I was standing.

I’ve had this happen to me from time to time so had some sympathy for any young trooper having to take his thoughts off the new Santana LP he’d just found at the PX, and have to throw extra starch in his back for five seconds, and snap in a salute as he passed an officer. For really green troops this was a worse ordeal than having to stand and recite a Bible verse in Sunday School.

But this officer spied the flanking movement and jumped out to intercept them. Never seen that before, I swear, but he quick-stepped across the pavement, getting just in front of the trio, and ordered them to “Halt!” It was then I spied the single gold bar on his collar and what looked like subdued Transportation insignia. Keeping them braced, he was asking them questions and then another without giving any of them time to answer the first one. I scoured my memory to try and recall where failing to salute a superior officer fell in the UCMJ. Article 134, “conduct unbecoming” probably.

But “avoiding having to confront an officer directly, so as to have to offer a salute”?

I decided to step in when the officer pulled out a note pad and began asking their names, and their unit  and CO. “Excuse me, Lieutenant, but that seems a little overboard. I doubt these troops (2 privates and a PFC) meant anything personal. They were just engaged in a friendly conversation and just wanted to not have to stop and salute you. You’ve been saluted by every soldiers up and down the boulevard.”

The Looey stopped and turned, fire in his eyes, and wanted to know just who the hell I thought I was, a civilian (in sore need of a haircut) of all people, interfering with an officer in the discharge of his duties. He flipped the notepad to another page, as if he were writing out a ticket on Route 50. Knowing I was American, and assuming I was a DoD civilian, he wanted to see an ID card, so he could report my interference, as well.

I reached inside my jacket pocket, pulled out my billfold, then my ID and handed it to him. He placed at the top of the notepad, then noticed the branch and rank, and that the face with the moustache was in fact me.

His knees may have buckled a bit, I can’t be sure, but I leaned forward next to his right ear, and winked at the troops standing behind him, and shooed them away with my hand, then whispered in his ear, “Lieutenant Huxley, I’m a JAG officer for a three-star in Japan, and know your 4-star here (I lied) and would have had to come back here just to talk to those soldiers’ CO, if you’d have tried to have them written up with an Article 15. Let it go.”

I reached down and had to physically raise his right arm so I could shake his hand, then smiled, and he walked away.

Thus ends the tale of my encounter with a salutin’ demon at 8th Army Compound in Spring, 1974.


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