Thursday, December 13, 2007

2 Shake 'n Bake: NCOC

The Beginning:
In February of 1969, I completed my Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Lewis, Washington. I was given a short leave and ordered to report to the Non-Commissioned Officer Candidate Course at Fort Benning, Washingon by the end of the month.

My bride of six months delivered me to the Portland Airport, and after a long plane ride and a not-so-long taxi ride I arrived the night before scheduled at Fort Benning.

I was welcomed by the Night Charge Of Quarters (COQ) and assigned to "take any empty bunk" in my assigned barracks. It was about 10pm, I had no assigned duties for the next day, and so I found the nearest bunk (there was nobody else in the barracks) and fell into an unmade bed as soon as I could strip off my Dress Jacket and trousers and shoes, with no more covering than my field jacket.

Nobody expected 'early arrivals', so I was not issued bedding.

The next morning at"Oh-Dark-Thirty" I was awakened by the COQ and given 20 minutes to dress in the "Uniform Of The Day" (Fatigues), and directed to the mess hall for breakfast. Because this was the first day upon which Candidates (I was no longer a "Trainee"!) were expected to arrive, there were no assigned duties.

I wandered into the mess hall and had a leisurely breakfast. This was my introduction to The South. What I had taken for Cream of Rice cereal was in fact some Southern gruel made from bleached corn. (I believe it was referred to as "corn pone", but I'm not certain about this.) It was gruesome, and I never took it on my plate again. Fortunately, as I was the only member of my company present, I was not castigated when I scraped it into the wet garbage can.

I had already learned about Salisbury Steak, and although I was not offered this viand I would not have taken it.

I had also, it may be noted, learned that the dreaded "Shit On A Shingle" (Chipped beef on Toast, in a white sauce which invariably looked blue under Mess Hall lights), was more tasty than it looked. There was all the milk I could drink, reconstituted Scrambled Eggs, and lots of yummy greasy bacon ... not to mention the Corned Beef Hash for which I retain a liking to this day.

Sorting ourselves out:
As the company gathered through the day, I discovered that I had earned a certain cachet by virtue of having arrived 'early'. I was the Old Man of the company, and while the situation did not degenerate to the point that I was considered an authority about all things NCOC-related, at least nobody muttered the dreaded term "Lifer" in my presence.

It should be noted that a "Lifer" was a volunteer who had willingly joined The Army with the goal of making it a career. There was no lower designation in the Draft Army in those years than a "Lifer", unless it was a 17 year-old RA (Regular Army ... volunteer, or 'non-draftee) from California. (We had one of these in our Basic Training company at Fort Lewis, and he was demonstrably the lowest form of life.)

The People:

As I came to be acquainted with the members of my company, as they arrived, I noted one single characteristic about these young men with whom I had chosen to to be affiliated for the next 13 weeks: they were bright, athletic, and motivated.

I was not the only College Graduate, but I was accustomed to that. My Basic Training company had been at least 90% college graduates and they were 99% draftees. This group didn't have such a high percentage of college men, but they were no dummies.

(In my Advanced Infantry Training class ... A.I.T. ... we had one man who was clearly unable to think for himself. I had been informally assigned to make sure that he learned enough to pass the course, regardless of his lack of native abilities. I had drilled him on nomenclature for two hours every night, and he eventually passes his tests, if narrowly. Later, I was to learn that he was sent to Viet Nam and his comrades soon learned to never assign him to a Bunker by himself. He never went on patrol, when his company left he was left behind, and he frightened everyone who was assigned to accompany him on guard duty because he never learned his job. The men assigned to guard duty with him learned to expect him to hide under a bunk. He spent 12 months on guard duty, and went home with an Honorable Discharge. I have often wondered how a man who was the Army's equivalent of Charlie Gordon of Flowers for Algernon spent his life, but by the time I left the Army I had more personal concerns to deal with.)

Back to the NCOC Company.

NCOC school was much like Basic and AIT. Because The Army was 'highly motivated' to graduate as many Candidates as possible, our personal inspections were minimal. We did have Locker Inspections, which were designed to determine that we possessed the minimal uniforms requiered ... but it was also heavy on insuring that we had not, for example, kept live ammunition which we had been issued on the Live Fire Range.

In fact, these inspections were not regularly scheduled ... they were always "Surprise Inspections" and mostly conducted after a live-fire exercise. Most inspections found a few Live Rounds, but after the ammunition was confiscated their possession was always listed as n "oversight" and no punishments were inflicted.

In Basic and AIT I had seen a few men busted out of the Army for similar offenses, but they were invariably those who had also been busted for possession of drugs. We had no such experiences in NCOC: everyone in this course just wanted to come home alive, and bring as many men as possible home with us. The minimal requirements were that that we complete our course-work accurately, we demonstrated a determination to achieve the assigned goals, we kept our belt buckles shined and we didn't run naked through the night where the Company Commander could see us.

The C.O. was effectively blind. And our Belt Buckles glowed due to nightly application of Brasso ... which we could purchase for fifty-nine cents a can at the local PX, to which we were marched (in formation ) every Saturday as soon as we had completed our trip to the Barber Shop for a touch-up on our haircut (also marched to in formation.)


Early in our training, it was impressed upon us that we were training in the same environment as the Candidates in the Officer Candidate School (OCS). This was a program of no longer (13 weeks, 15 weeks, whateve) than ours, with the same instructors and much the same courses, but these Candidates would graduate as Officers ... well Second Lieutenants, which were universally recognized as The Lowest Form of Life even below Buck Private Trainees. Well, an new Enlistee with zero time in grade (E-1) was not expected to know better'; an Officer Candidate had no excuse, so "He Had Better Not Fuck Up". Upon reporting for training, OCS Candidates were assigned the nominal rank of Sergeant (E-5) and were held to the same standards of behavior, responsibility, decorum and accomplishment.

NCOC Candidates, upon reporting for training, were assigned the nominal rank of Corporal (E-4) and were held to the same standards of behavior, responsibility, decorum and accomplishment.


Most enlisted men in a Combat Unit were enlisted as Buck Private (E-1), graduated from Basic Training as E-2 (Private), and Honor Graduates were graduated as E-3 (Private First Class). From there they were expected to advance in the non-command "specialist" grades, such as Spec 4 (E-4).

You will note that a Corporal (E-4) and a "Spec-4" (E-4) have the same rank nomenclature. However, their TITLE was different. Essentially, the rank of Corporal was no longer an active rank-title ... except in NCOC training.

A man who went to combat as an E-3 could expect to make the rank of E-4 (Specialist 4th Class) before his tour ended.

A man who completed the NCOC course could be expected to be advanced to the rank of E-5 (Sergeant), which was a Command Line Rank. A Spec-4 would be lucky to be advanced in rank, unless he earned the Sergeant designation upon which event he would be promoted to E-5.

But promotion for an E-5 was always within the Command Line Rank ... the next step was E-6 ... Staff Sergeant.

Company Organization:
To completely understand the responsibilities of a graduate of NCOC, it's essential that you understand the way Platoons were organized in Viet Nam:

An E-5 commands a Fireteam, usually 4 men (one Automatic-Rifleman, one Grenadier, and two Rifleman) plus himself. Often a Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) is included.

An E-6 commands a Squad -- nine men: two Fireteams, plus himself. Often a Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) is included, but he may also double as a Rifleman.

An E-7 (Sergeant First Class) commands a Platoon -- four Squads, plus a designated Radio Telephone Operator (RTO), a Machine Gunner and Assistant gunner (ammo carrier), plus himself for a total of 'about' 30 men. The number is deliberately left flexible, because (a) the duty assignments may vary, and (b) the number of available men may also vary depending upon availability.

An Officer, usually an O-2 (Lieutenant) but barely possibly a Second Lieutenant (O-1) will be assigned as Platoon Leader. This Officer will command the Platoon Sgt. (whose primary purpose is Administrative .. he looks out for his men and carries out the orders of this L.T. or El-Tee), and will be in over-all command of his Platoon. As well as the (30+/-) men in the platoon who are overseen by the Platoon Sgt, the LT's staff includes another RTO, the Platoon Medic ("Doc") and the Platoon RTO.

The Command Group of a platoon includes the LT, his RTO and "Doc", and (if the Platoon is operating as a group) the Platoon Sgt and his RTO - a total of 4 men, minimum. Squad Leaders may be included in the Command Group, depending on whether Platoon is operating as a unit.

In the actual event in Viet Nam, the Platoon was most frequently operating as two units: two squads would work with the Platoon Leader, two squads would work with the Platoon Leader. Unit commands would be responsible to either the Platoon Leader or the Platoon Sgt, depending upon which half they were assigned to.

In Viet Nam, a Squad was rarely lead by an E-6 Staff Sgt, because of the rarity of men who had achieved this rank; instead, they were usually lead by an E-5 Sergeant ... and the officers in command of the Company (usually O-3 Captains, but often O-2 First Lieutenants)

Note that I have referred to Staff Sergeants (E-6) as being "in command" of platoons. This is confusing, but Sergeants were NEVER placed in 'command' of platoons, unless they were under fire and their officer was killed or otherwise incapacitated. A Sergeant was ALWAYS under the nominal command of an officer ( if available ... see above), but a Sergeant was TYPICALLY in command of a 'half-company' (two squads) group of soldiers, and as such was responsible for that Unit.

Training Exigencies:

Moving back from Combat Organization to the Training Phase of NCOC operations, the Training Program had three clear divisions: Physical, Leadership, Tactical.

The Physical training was merely and extension of Basic and A.I.T. training ... endure that whatever physical challenge was presented to the non-NCO soldier, the NCO was trained to meet or exceed it. This included common exercises such as the Jumping Jack, the 4-Point and the 6-Point Burphy (jumping jack, lateral extention, and possibly a push-up), Pull-ups before entering the Chow Hall (not only the pull-up, but hang-time as well), marching in double-time, and running.

I recall vividly the day when we were required to speed-march 12 miles, in the company of a Major of the U.S. Army Rangers. We did it in two hours. Nobody dropped out, and we took a 10-minute break in the middle of the course. Most of us changed our socks then, because as Infrantrymen we had been trained to take care of our feet.

At the end of the march, I unwisely drank too much water too fast and consequently suffered severe cramps. Because the guy who bunked under me, Brunner, had already left for Chow when I crawled onto my upper bunk and resisted the temptation to throw up, I imposed by a near-bunkmate of my same name (bunks having been assigned alphabetically) to turn in my weapon and inform my Platoon Sgt. that I was not available.

True to the traditions, my Friend returned my check-in slip and went to chow. I slept for 12 hours and awoke at the usual time (5am) with no cramps and ready for duty.

Lesson: sometimes The Army doesn't quite have it's head up its ass, even if I do.


Possible subjects for future Shake 'N Bake posts --

The Plan vs Reality:

Ratting On Your Friends:


The March Up River:

Field Training Exercise:

Confidence Course:

Detroit Guys:


The End:

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