An Accident – 1968

I don’t like the term “irony”, it makes me uncomfortable. Even linguistics scholars have difficulty pin-pointing definitively just what the word irony means. In spite of this puzzlement, I find it ironic that, as I’ve stated elsewhere, it was my life-long ambition to write a book about Việt Nam. No one I know ever once bothered to ask me anything at all about it – not even my own son.

Being, as I am, crippled by perfectionism, I’m “never ready” to write. I sometimes over-research things, or struggle to choose just the right word, find that just right turn of phrase, or engage in punctilious punctuation. Such things often leave me exhausted in mid paragraph. Sometimes I can’t get any further than the title of a story. Over the years I’ve wasted many days and countless sleepless nights in the compositional phase of writing. I’ll go to my grave with most of it.

The following is about an automobile accident I witnessed while in the Army. It is from an email inquiry I sent out some time ago. It’s self-explanatory.

[I am seeking information about a major automobile accident I witnessed at Fort Campbell Kentucky back in 1968. I am writing in the hope of finding any local newspaper coverage or any other detailed information about this accident. As Fort Campbell lies close to the state border and I didn’t spend much time there (and never off base), I wasn’t sure which newspapers were in existence at the time or whom else it would be best to contact.

I’ve already made some inquiries to others and found it tedious to repeat the story for each email I sent out (because I can’t type) so I decided to write this out, to describe as best I can, the story from my own personal perspective and giving the fullest detailed account, including all such information as I have.]

According to both my personal recollection and also a letter I sent home; this automobile accident occurred some time in the predawn hours of Saturday, November 2, 1968.

For those unfamiliar with military life and training; as only a small part of our overall Physical Training (PT), our morning routine was as follows:



Roll Call (Head Count)

Sick Call/Announcements

A one mile run at Double Time (the civilian equivalent would be jogging).

Traverse a 36 rung horizontal ladder suspended hand-over-hand forward and back in under 60 seconds.

Do twelve chin-ups without fail. Your feet were not allowed to touch the ground in either case.

(Chin-ups are done with palms facing toward you while pull-ups are done with palms facing away.)

All this was a daily prerequisite just to gain access to the Mess Hall for breakfast.

In Basic Training we ran everywhere. We double-timed; usually in company size formation. Each company was further divided into five platoons: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and Headquarters (HQ) platoons.

I was in the third squad of the 1st Platoon. As they were not trainees, HQ did not run with us.

In doing our morning run we were accompanied by our D. I.’s (Drill Instructors) and led by a guidon, one of the men assigned to carry a small company flag that properly, represented the physical presence of the company commander; but I don’t recall him ever actually participating in the daily run.

At the command: “Road guards, post!” specially equipped trainees (I did a turn myself) would sprint ahead of the company and place themselves in the middle of the road at each succeeding intersection to block traffic and, as the company passed, would then rejoin the company. The road guards wore white crisscross harnesses with reflective patches attached and carried traffic wands, which were essentially flashlights with a kind of conical plastic caution-orange lens extension attached to them. Practically all law enforcement agencies use them, and I’m sure the equipment is much improved today.

They say it’s always darkest before the dawn. Well, it surely was. It was November: chilly and overcast. There was no moonlight. Not even starlight. There were no street lights. There were tall trees standing unseen in the distance, but there wasn’t so much as a lighted window in a building or porch light on even on the horizon to cut through the darkness. The roads were asphalt and laid out more or less in a grid with open lawns in between. These dark grassy areas were where we usually did our PT (Physical Training; e. g. push-ups, etc.) throughout the day. We could hear but not see other training companies; their boots tramping about near and far. The trainees all wore olive-drab fatigues and I was hard pressed to make out much more than a shadowy outline even of the men running nearest me. The only light we had to work with was the faint swing and sway of the traffic wands.

As we rhythmically double-timed along in the darkness another training company running at triple-time (a faster pace and an unofficial term), appearing little more than shadows, caught up to and began to pass us on our left flank. In a bit of spontaneous, competitive esprit de corps the 1st platoon broke ranks and lit out after them, intolerant of being so shamed. The Drill Instructors called the company to a halt.

The usual punishment for any and all minor breaches of discipline was twenty push-ups. As it was only the 1st platoon that was guilty, we were brought back into formation and given the unofficial command: “half-right, face!” In close order drill the ranks and files are in such close proximity that the necessary space required to do simultaneous push-ups would be apparently absent. A half turn to the left or right allowed the individual soldiers to face a gap in the formation that was sufficient to fall face forward to the ground to perform the exercise.

Just as we made the half-right maneuver we heard a desperate screeching of tires. We all turned toward the direction of the sound. I couldn’t see the car myself, only a black mass of men in heavy silhouette between it and me, back-lit by the glow of a car’s headlights, suddenly jumping and diving to get out of the way and followed immediately by a sickening, quick, dull, staccato, thud-dud-ud sound of fleshy bodies being collected and rebounding off the bumper and hood of the car.

In the chaos that ensued the push-ups were forgotten. In the ignorance of the enlisted we were called to attention and the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and part of the 4th platoon were quickly marched off and we were all long gone before emergency help even arrived.

According to a letter I wrote late on the night of the same day: a total of seven men were hospitalized, four were later released but three remained (in unknown condition) at the time of the writing.

According to the scuttlebutt: after a long night of drinking a Drill Instructor from another company was speeding along the back street because he was late for duty. He struck ten men. He got ten years.

[It’s a long shot but, according to the scuttlebutt the driver was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. I don’t know if it was in a civilian court or under the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice). That would probably make him a federal prisoner. I doubt Army stockades hold prisoners long-term but they may still have records.

As a helicopter mechanic/crew chief I kept meticulous records but I’m unfamiliar altogether with the ins and outs of other Army record keeping practices. I wouldn’t know where to begin to access say, Morning Reports, Duty Officer Logs, Daily Logs or Duty Rosters. How long are they kept? And where?

I have a map from the time and note that some of the street names have been changed over the years.

That’s all I know or can recall about this accident.

I would very much like to know if old newspapers were preserved in a library somewhere. I understand that some newspapers have what is known in journalist’s jargon as “the morgue” – a cataloged archive of every paper they had ever published. This was an accident that happened more than 40 years ago. Unfortunately, I’m also aware that the Army often censors news emanating from under their authority.]

Wayne F. Reske,

formerly of the 1st Platoon, B-4-1, 1968.

About The Twentieth Man

Age 69
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