Luther K. Page was a 38-year-old Staff Sargent when he reported to A Troop, 3/4 Cav. in early October of 1967. He stood around six feet tall and weighed in at more than two hundred pounds. The heat in the coming dry season would take off a lot of his excess poundage, but he never got rid of his pot belly. He was like quite a few African-American men of his generation, using the integrated Armed Forces to lift himself out of the grinding poverty that trapped so many men of color. He already had twenty years invested in the Army, and bitterly cursed and swore at his decision to stay in and go to Vietnam rather then retire.
He was packed off to the week long training/refresher classes that were run by Division Headquarters, and was assigned to Saber Alpha 11 as the first platoon's Scout Section leader. He spent the first day back meeting with the other three scout track commanders, sitting in the mess hall drinking coffee, getting their input about the war and methods of fighting, discussing the other three crews on A12, A13, and A14. Pretty routine stuff all in all; the next day he spent making the acquaintance of Joe Cowthran and me.
Our first meeting with 'Pop' as he liked to be called was a bit of a disappointment to Joe and me. We had both been in country since late July, had been in a few small firefights, maybe not as experienced as some of the short timers, but we were far from being FNGs. Pop thought differently. He said that the track was filthy and didn't think we were much cleaner, didn't like our haircuts, thought personal hygiene was a concept unfamiliar to us, didn't like our 'military bearing', and even thought our weapons were in danger of blowing up in our hands because of the great boulders of dirt in them. Pop made us drag everything out of A11 and after a thorough cleaning, put things back properly. Next came the two big fifties. Track one-one didn't have a side mounted M—60 machine gun; instead we had a side mounted M2 machinegun in addition to the one in the TCs turret. That was day one with Pop; it didn't get any better for quite some time.
The next day he had us check the barrels of both fifties, reset the timing and head space, asked about the two spare barrels we were supposed to have and didn't, and loudly and irately called up to the heavens for an answer as to why he was put into the middle of a war with two of the dumbest, dim-witted, fools he had ever encountered wearing the uniform of the US Army. Pop prayed a lot like that.
We were out beating the bush the following week; Pop's eyes were bulging out for the first day or so. Little by little he calmed down, Joe and I were taking less and less verbal abuse as Pop started to realize his life depended on us as much as our lives depended on him. Toward the end of that week Pop even caught a few hours of sleep at night. Things started to settle down. Each night we'd throw the bull for a couple of hours, Joe would try to identify Pop as a fellow 'soul brother', Pop told Joe that the only brother he had was his M16. They finally got together over an elderly black comedienne I never heard of named Moms Mabely. Joe used this to teach me further about 'Soul'. He was going on about an old woman that used to cook hamburgers near his house in Kansas City. He claimed that her sweat dripping onto the cooking burgers lent them just the right amount of 'soul'. Pop said Joe was the dumbest black boy he'd ever met.
We started the thunder runs not too long after Pop's first mission with us. Thunder runs were nighttime cruises up and down HWY 1 in order to secure the Main Supply Route for nighttime convoys between Tay Ninh and Saigon. We spent every night for a month racing through the villages and hamlets that lined the road, stopping for an hour or two in open areas. We got hit twice on the Monday and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week. Just an RPG hit on the rear tank of our column from the last hooch in a small hamlet. We had a couple of men wounded, nothing too bad.
One night as we were getting ready in the motor pool, Pop came up to us with another GI in tow. I forget his name now, but he was a career army man in his mid thirties with the rank of Spec-4. He was a little, scraggly looking white man and couldn't have weighed more than a hundred pounds. Joe and I both thought that Pop would be as rough on him as he was with us at first. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pop and this fellow hit it off so well that Joe and I were thunderstruck. Pop even took the can of peaches from the C-rations I thought I hid and gave it to this guy. While the two of them acted like girls with their hair let down, Joe and I muttered dark imprecations about the unfairness of life. The next morning this lifer idiot had a small fire going to heat coffee for him and Pop while the platoon was stopped just outside of Phuk Mei. The Lieutenant called over the radio hollering about the fire and told Pop to get some security out. Pop sent me and his new girlfriend out as an LP and we promptly got a grenade thrown at us. Naturally it hit the ground on my side of the well we were sitting around. No damage, but I felt like shooting our little coffee drinker.
Joe and I thought we cured Pop of this kind of nonsense, but damn if he didn’t do it again. It was right before Christmas, Pop came back from the Lieutenant's track with the goofiest looking white boy either Joe or I had ever seen. Joe and I felt sorry for this kid. Anyone would. He was altogether too ‘too’. He was too tall and he was too skinny. He was too quiet, and he was too polite. His teeth were too crooked and he had too many freckles. He was too scared and he was too nice. His hair was too dark to be blonde, and it was too light to be brown. He would have done any mother proud. It would have worked on Joe and me except we knew Pop. After kicking me off of my favorite perch on the back ramp, and threatening Joe with several mysterious disapprobations about being black and what he could do with that, Pop sat the young man down and started taking a family history. Satisfied that the young man was church going and God fearing, Pop told him to bed down and Pop would wake him for a shared watch from four to six in the morning. Since our coffee drinking warrior had talked Pop into a permanent 10 to a midnight slot, Joe and I always ended up taking turns between midnight and 4AM. Did I mention Pop's keen sense of fair play?
We lost the young man to the infantry track a week later. They were short and four men to a scout track were more normal. Pop was inconsolable and solved the mystery for Joe and me as he watched the boy cross our laager to Saber-Alpha 28. With lips that quivered with emotion Pop told us that 'those skinny white boys from back in the boondocks always wet their finger to test the wind before they fired and always hit what they fired at'. He went on for a while, loudly doubting a Kansas City 'hoodlum' like Joe or a pampered suburban white boy like me could ever learn the skills Pop figured he'd need if he was to survive his tour. We never did figure out if he was serious or not.
The Troop was back in Cu Chi the following week and the second morning back we had an awards and decorations formation. One of the guys from the infantry track was awarded a Bronze Star for Heroism and passed the certificate around for all of us to admire. Pop was in the hooch at the time and shrewdly watched as I held it and secretly wished it was mine. 'You like that medal, white boy', he asked me. Like the fool I was, I told Pop that I wished I had one and got myself a new nickname. 'Maaah Heerooooo,” Pop crooned, and never called me by anything else ever again. 'Don't you worry, boy, I'm gonna see to it that you win the Medal of Honor. I'm gonna throw your sorry ass on the first grenade that hits the ground within a ten-meter circle of me.”
Then, before any of Pop’s predictions could come true, it was the 20th of January. Our Second platoon was scrambled out of Wolfhound gate to escort a convoy from the town of Cu Chi back into the base. They were hit hard in an ambush not even a mile outside base camp. Of the 27 men hit, ten were killed and many had suffered tour ending wounds. The first and third platoons scrambled out in reaction far too late. We spent the rest of that night watching the tracks burn knowing that young men were inside the burning wrecks.
We spent the next few days in Cu Chi, chaplains came and went, and before we knew it, about six guys each were taken from the first and third platoons and sent to the second. That way each platoon had about the same number of replacements. I ended up in the second platoon and it was like starting my tour all over again. A week later the Tet offensive exploded over the countryside and the platoons were strung out from Go Da Ha to Cu Chi. Charlie Troop at Cu Chi was scrambled down Route 1 and first saved Tan Son Nhut by cutting through the attacking VC and NVA and then with Bravo Troop crushed three battalions of VC and NVA at the end of the runway.
We didn’t get to that fight, but our first and third platoons were sent to Trang Bang and Cu Chi covering the MSR with platoons instead of Troops. Pop and Joe rode out with the rest of the first platoon heading for Trang Bang while we watched and suddenly became awfully lonely. The three line platoons of A Troop stayed split apart for the next two weeks, most of that time, Pop and Joe were around the US Embassy in Saigon. We finally got back together on the night of the 13th of February when we laagered up outside of Ap Cho. When our position had been dug out and sand bagged, I hotfooted it over to A11. Pop grunted a greeting and Joe and I sat down to gossip. We killed about two hours catching up before I made my way back to my new track.
The next morning while doing all the wake up things, I moved to the front of the Track to take a leak. To my horror, my urine splashed out with a decidedly brown color. Hollering for Doc Larry Lick, I ran to A20 track and told him my problem. He seemed unconcerned, took out his prescription pad and told me to take the morning chopper back to Cu Chi and get it checked out at the 12th Evac. I told the Lieutenant, told my track TC and had enough time to go over to Joe and tell him about it. He wanted to know how he could get the same thing.
I flew into Cu Chi, hitched a ride to the hospital, peed into a jar, and then sat around for two hours waiting for the medical verdict. A medic called out my name and told me that I’d been drinking too many Cokes and wrote on the prescription that I was to return to field duty.
I hitched a ride back to the orderly room and promptly joined the crowd around the radio. The Troop was in heavy contact and taking casualties. The other guys told me that the Troop was assaulting repeatedly, pulling back from time to time for air force and gun ship strikes. Captain Coomer’s voice blasted out of the radio, telling the three platoon leaders to pull back or to mount up and hit them again. Later, scuttlebutt had it that the Troop made thirteen assaults before the village was taken. Some of the guys who were lightly wounded and dusted off early in the fight started to show up and their stories were all grim. One fellow from the first platoon told me Joe and Pop were both killed. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but came back to my senses as a third platoon buck Sargent named Grimes, pulled me off of the poor guy who had given me the bad news. I cried like a baby for what seemed like hours.
Late that afternoon, I flew out to the Troop on one of the supply ships. I found a few of the first platoon guys and got the first good news of the day. While it was true that Pop had been killed, Joe was still alive when they loaded him onto a dust off ship.
I can see now that I’ve forgotten to put down so much. Like the time Pop ate about five pounds of pepperoni and sharp Provolone cheese from one of my care packages. We had to fumigate the damn track. Or the time that he . . . . well, you get the idea.
Joe and I reunited in 2005 for the reunion in Kansas City. I stayed with him for five days, met his wife and kids, even went to church with him and met the whole congregation. We stayed up very late each night, reminiscing and swapping stories. I told Joe about my wife and kids and grandchildren. My kids are my wife’s by her first husband, and when my first grandson started to talk, my daughter asked me if I wanted him to call me Pop Pop. No I told her, just have them call me Pop. Joe understood; every time one of the kids hollers for my attention, it’s a kind of tribute to the memory of Luther K. Page, Staff Sergeant, United States Army.
I lost my wife suddenly last September. Joe flew into Philadelphia, and held my hand all through the memorial service and reception. He even brought me a small book that explained the grieving process. It’s helped some, and Joe calls nearly once a week to check up on me. So do the kids and the grandkids. But mostly it’s a lonely journey; time converts the sharp pain into a dull ache and I guess even that will fade some day. But one of those funny things that happen in situations like these; when I start to drop off to sleep some nights; I can hear Pop’s voice. He walks through the corridors of my mind and joins my wife there. And just before sleep pulls me under, just before the dreams start, I can hear him clear as a bell, “You done good white boy, you done good.”
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of John Jerdon.
Published on e-Stories.org on 30.12.2010.