Doug clowning on a rare mini-R&R at Tuy Hoa beach, 1967
DOUGLAS NOEL, 21 – KIA, Phu Hiep Vietnam, July, 1967
Memorial Day, my least favorite holiday; I wish we could erase it from our calendars. It began over a century ago, to honor the men slain by their brothers in the senseless slaughter we ironically call the Civil War – that ignoble experiment to assert the right of a democracy to prevent apostasy among its voluntary member states. The ranks of fallen soldiers has grown as our nation has grown; the Indian Wars – to make the west safe from the natives; the Spanish American War – to export democracy and take Manifest Destiny beyond our shores; the ‘Great War’ – to end all wars; the Second World War – to avenge an attack on our claimed territory while destroying fascism. Then there were the undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam – to halt the spread of communism; in Iraq 1 – to stabilize the Middle East and protect cheap oil; in Afghanistan – to punish but not catch the perpetrators of the 9/11 Attacks; and in Iraq – to satisfy the Apocalyptic delusions of a misguided regime. Beyond this were so many less grand ‘police actions’ that added recruits to the Memorial Roster. Generations of young men, and now women, are defined by their particular war. With each new war generation, the sacrifices of their predecessors wither in the dark tunnel of time – as they must to make way for the most recent regiments of posthumous heroes. The irony is that these noble soldiers have all died to ‘defend’ their country; a nation that has not faced an invasion by a foreign army since 1812!
I pray for the day that there will be no need for a Memorial Day other than as a tribute to our historic past. In the meantime, I would like to re-tell a tale from my generation’s war; about a friend, Doug Noel, who joined 58,132 other Americans to make up the Vietnam contingent of the Memorial Day Roster.
HOLLYWOOD SOLDIER – ATHENIAN ENDING
Don’t really remember when Doug joined the unit. All I know is he wasn’t with the rest of us when we flew out of Fort Hood – all sitting backwards in the ass-end of a C-141 Starlifter. He wasn’t there when we pitched our tents in the sands of Phu Hiep either. No, I think Doug was in country long before any of us got there. His ID said he had light brown hair, but his receding crown was fashionably sun bleached just like his fatigues that were well worn and faded to a muddy pastel green.
Doug played the soldier role well. He carried his diminutive frame with a swagger reminiscent of Alan Ladd in a 50s WWII flick. Come to think of it, Doug always did remind me of Alan Ladd. Another possible look alike could be Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. But when you saw Doug you didn’t have to conjure up Hollywood heroes ’cause you knew you were looking at the real thing. Well, not always so real. He could fake it pretty well, fake most anything. Like the time he showed up with two truckloads of ACs and refrigerators – and a generator to run them on. The officers didn’t ask where he got the goodies – or the truck – or the jeep – they weren’t about to look this gift horse in the mouth, it was too hot to send back coolers. Besides, it was all marked US Army property – and who would that be if not us, the 268th Combat Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Brigade – sounds authentic enough to me.
Anyway, this wasn’t the first time Doug had gotten away with going AWOL. From time to time he would just disappear, only to show up weeks later bearing the fruits of his mysterious personal campaign. Since the brass were the top recipients of his booty, none of them, not even super strack Sergeant Major Green had the heart to question Doug’s obviously illicit adventures.
Doug was a loner, a real maverick. No one seemed to know much about him. He was assigned as a door gunner on one of our gunships and spent most of his time in the air – that is when he wasn’t on one of his AWOL escapades. He slept most the time he was off duty and talked the mess sergeant into feeding him ‘gourmet’ meals at all hours of the day – and night. More than once I walked over to pick up the menu for the first sergeant and found Doug sitting in the officers section jawing away with the mess sergeant over a rare steak. Seems the two of them were both from West Virginia – but Doug spoke with a broad midwestern accent and Cookie drawled so bad few people other than Doug could understand him. I got to know him a little better than most because he was always coming over to the company commander’s office to argue his case over one of his murky deals.
Doug was assigned to us from some up-country infantry unit. No one, not even the personnel people asked why such a soldier’s soldier was still a buck private after two combat tours. Rank was not something that bothered Doug much. He was on a first name basis with senior NCOs and even some of the hot shot Huey pilots. Maybe that’s why he was able to pull off the air conditioner caper so smoothly. Later, after he left us, the CID people came in and told us all about this hot shot lieutenant who drove into the Qui Nhon Supply Depot with a jeep, two trucks and some pretty convincing forged orders. Seems the silver bars on his uniform were as phony as the signatures on his orders. The guy drove off with a full load of refrigeration equipment. Even talked the OIC into giving him an armed escort as far as Tuy Hoa!
That was our “Lieutenant” Douglas Noel, all right! He always did have style.
Doug was not there to answer the investigators’ questions. The week before, he came to my office just before a routine evening recon flight. Seemed really shook up. Not the cool guy who usually dropped by for a smoke before take-off. Said he had given my camera to McBride and that I should get it back from him. “That’s OK Doug. I don’t need it right now. You can give it to me tomorrow.” I felt a cold shiver that hot afternoon when he stared at me for a second and stammered in somebody else’s voice, “I gotta go. Get it from Mac.”
First Sergeant Simms had me pulled out of the mess hall “ASAP!” We lost two ships in a rice field not more than 5 clicks from base. The accident investigation report I had to type up said the two Hueys turned into each other while making a routine run. Pilot error. All crew members dead. Doug was gone.
I checked Doug’s 214 file and found a statement requesting that his body be cremated and flown home without a religous service. Well, the explosion that followed the collision guaranteed the first request, but the Colonel and the Chaplain ignored the second. The whole unit showed up for the service. Don’t know who was manning the outer perimeter guard posts. I didn’t get any pictures of the event – Mac said he never got my camera.