DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
February 7, 1995

A BAND OF BROTHERS

I recently spent a few days with a unique veterans' organization: The Band of Brothers. The common bond of these former WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Cold War warriors is the great love and respect they have for each other. They meet annually, and this year they gathered in the sultry southern city of New Orleans.

The Brothers are a group of veterans unlike any I've ever seen. There were no war stories fueled by too much grog, nor the ubiquitous medal and badge loaded hats or T-shirts emblazoned with past glories. These quiet, gentle men have nothing to prove to one another. They did that a long time ago at Normandy, Osan and the Mekong Delta, where they passed muster in the toughest test of all.

They looked more like successful businessmen or former athletes than highly decorated ex-warriors. Most were trim and appeared young, not only in body but in spirit, with a winner's attitude: Life is good, be in it!

I heard no lamenting from any of them about what a raw deal they got after they hung up their rifles. They were upbeat and as successful out of uniform as they were crawling through the mud and blood.

Of course there were stories, not glorifying war, but about the "M*A*S*H*"-type stuff every ex-GI experiences from induction to separation.

Bobby Knapp, a Vietnam War rifle company commander, told this tale:

Bobby left his unit in the field, and a few hours later was aboard a flight bound for Hawaii to meet his bride, Arlene. En route, he became so deathly ill the crew wanted to drop him off at Guam. But his battalion surgeon, "Doc" Holley, also along for the R & R ride, lying with the special skill acquired by all good combat medics, insisted, "Bobby's allergic to the air conditioning, and, apart from the shakes, he's as good as a new machine-gun."

By the time they landed in Hawaii, Bobby's condition had worsened into alternating freezing chills and burning fever. He was rushed to Tripler Army Hospital. Diagnosis: meningitis.

For five days, Bobby tossed and turned, locked in a deep coma while he refought the horrors of infantry combat: assaults, ambushing Viet Cong along the waterways, booby-trapped fields, evacuating his wounded and dead by "dust-off" chopper -- always, always fighting the hard, grunt nightmare of a war so skillfully avoided by most sons of America's privileged class.

On the sixth day, Bobby awoke to heavy machine-gun fire and explosions. He knew his unit was once again under attack, but couldn't figure out the hospital-white setting and the absence of mud and tired, grizzly boys/men asking him for orders. He rolled out of bed, low crawled to the balcony and found a black, smoke-filled Pearl Harbor under a sky full of Japanese fighters.

Bobby lay on the linoleum floor sweating in stark terror, not able to understand why he was wearing a white gown and wondering where his boots, rifle and radio man were.

His scrambled brain was haunted by a scene he recalled from the TV series "The Twilight Zone," where a character tells his shrink about recurring battle dreams of Pearl Harbor under Japanese attack. The psychiatrist, obsessed by the case, went to Hawaii and discovered that his patient had been killed in the attack twenty years before.

"This couldn't be Pearl Harbor, that was in 1941. I wasn't born until 1942, and I'm not some character from a damn TV show," Bobby reasoned. Slowly the real world came back into focus: Company B, 4/39th Infantry, R & R, Arlene, passing out on the beach, Arlene in a bikini, commandeering a taxi and rushing him to Tripler. Bingo, he dialed into the present: March 1969.

He looked again at the "battle" scene outside, suddenly seeing everything was staged. The soldiers weren't running helter-skelter, they were choreographed actors, and his 7 December revisit was courtesy of Fox Studios, not the Japanese Imperial government. He had awakened to the 6 a.m. filming of "TORA! TORA! TORA!"

I've been invited back next year...San Antonio. Can't wait, and I promise to pass along the best story from that reunion, too.