Charlie Lee


Captain Charles Lee was my first company commander in Vietnam.  He liked to call himself just an ignorant ol' country boy—he was raised on a peanut farm outside Tallahassee, Florida—but Charlie was the sharpest, most generous and most beloved commander I ever had the pleasure of serving with.


He had earned his commission in the toughest way possible—he was a 'mustang', a sergeant who had been promoted to commissioned officer because all the officers in his unit had been killed in action.  (By the way, my paternal grandfather had received a similar battlefield commission in World War I.)


By the time he reached his captaincy and commanded a company Charlie was in his forties, very old for a company-level officer.  But since he had been an enlisted man for so long, as an officer he had the most remarkable rapport with all the young soldiers in his command.  He was an excellent father figure to them all.  And, I will add, to me.


My arrival at Quang Tri Combat Base was warmly received, but not in any way that I was expecting.  I had entered the country at Cam Ranh Bay and was flown up to Da Nang shortly thereafter.  I spent three days in Da Nang and then caught a ride in a helicopter that was heading north.  The pilots had never been to Quang Tri and one of them asked me where he should land.  I told him I was a new arrival and had no idea.  So he decided to drop down at the first chopper pad he saw, which was OK with me.


There was a large bunker adjacent to the pad he landed on, and no sooner had I hopped out of the helicopter then two Marine officers ran out of the bunker and toward me.  My first thought was, "Ah, a welcoming party."  When they got to me, one of them picked up my duffle bag, and then each grabbed one of my upper arms and lifted me off the ground, even though I hadn't cleared the wash of the chopper blades yet.  The one with my bag said, "We've got to get him inside before the general sees him."


Once inside the bunker, they asked me who I was and what the hell I was doing there.  I showed them a copy of my orders.  The one with my bag, a Marine major, said, "We've got to get this Army scum out of here immediately.  Make the call."


Someone was on the phone instantly, and when the connection was made there was a lot of cussing on this end of the conversation.  I was kicking myself for thinking this was a welcoming party; these Marines truly hated the Army.


I heard, "Come get this piece of shit NOW!" and the officer slammed the phone down.  Then he turned to me and started cussing me out for landing on the general's private landing pad.


I said, "Whoa, I didn't land that helicopter, I was just a passenger.  And the pilot didn't know this was a private pad.  There's no sign out there."


It became immediately obvious to me that Marine officers don't like being talked back to by junior officers, especially Army ones.  The major balled his fists and took a step toward me.  I squared my shoulders ready to go at him.  Up to that point in my brief military career I'd had no interactions with Marines, but if this was typical then I was ready to reenact an Army-Navy football game.  I don't know what would have happened next if a jeep driver hadn't pulled up and started honking.


I grabbed my bag and got in.  On the way to our battalion headquarters the driver introduced himself and told me, with a chuckle, I was lucky to be alive.  He said the bunker housed the commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division, who was old school and would have testified that all my broken bones were simply the result of a lack of proper balance on my part.


A few minutes later I was reporting in to Captain Lee, my new company commander.  Charlie was livid.  He wanted to know exactly what had happened at Marine headquarters.  When I finished my oral report of how I was treated he said it called for an appropriate response.  He said he already knew what it was going to be and that timing was critical.  He looked at me when he said it, and I had the clear impression whatever he had in mind—and I had no idea what that might be—I was going to be involved somehow.


That day I took my first shower shortly after reporting in.  It didn't really bother me that it was a cold shower because it had been hot in South Vietnam ever since I arrived.  Hot as in 95°-120°F in the shade hot.  So I was surprised the next morning when Charlie called me into his office and started the conversation with, "So you're a mechanical engineer...."


He wanted to show off his pet project: a water heater.  On his desk he laid out a large sheet of paper with sketches and calculations.  He explained that he had 550 troops in his company (typically companies have about 200) and a lot of them were living in miserable conditions.  He repeated the oft-heard truism that all it takes for a soldier to be happy is three meals, dry socks and a hot shower.  I was impressed with Charlie's enthusiasm but it wasn't making much sense to me.


"Ah," he said.  "But winter's coming."


I couldn't see why that was important.  I just thought Charlie wanted to do something for the troops because that's the kind of mustang he was.  But of all the things to do for them, building a water heater big enough to supply hot water to 550 people in the tropics seemed a pipe dream, what with a war going on and all.


As an engineer I felt I had to voice my skepticism.  "I dunno, you'll need a big tank, maybe a few thousand gallons; and a way of plumbing it and pumping it; and a large, sustainable, controllable, fast-recovery fuel source... out here on the very edge of nowhere.  How are you going to get materials?"


As it became clear to me a bit later, I had no idea with whom I was dealing.  Charlie was raised on a farm and it turned out he was as resourceful as any farmer.  He could plumb, he could weld, he could wire, and most of all, having been in the Army for twenty-plus years, he could scrounge with the best of 'em. 


I spent the next two weeks on special assignment.  Meanwhile Charlie spent most of his time working on a prototype of his water heater.  It was remarkably simple.  He started with the steel wheel of a 5-ton truck as the base.  On it he erected a triangular box the sides of which were three 4'x8' steel plates welded together on the long sides and welded to steel plates top and bottom.  Charlie had done all the welding himself.  Up through the middle of the box ran a steel tube four inches in diameter.


He filled the box with water and set up a 55-gallon drum containing diesel fuel with a rubber hose running to the wheel base with a clip on the hose to regulate the flow of fuel.  When everything was set up he opened the fuel line and let diesel fuel run to the base and lit it.  The exhaust from the burning fuel ran up the central pipe and helped heat the water.


It wasn't the most efficient system, and during the week of testing there were several fuel fires that almost got out of control, but the setup proved the concept.  Now he just needed to scale up and add a few modifications.


It took him three weeks and a lot of horse trading but in the end he had his full scale water heater.  Meanwhile he managed to scrounge the trailer of a tanker truck, removed the tank and craned it into place on a large gantry that he had built out of 8"x8" lumber.  Somewhere there's a picture of me riding the tank up to the gantry.  I was the one up there because someone had to unhook it, and Charlie joked that he didn't want to risk losing an enlisted man in case something bad happened.


It took him no time at all to plumb pipes from the tank to the heater and from the heater to the enlisted men's shower.  Just in time for winter when the temperature in the north dropped to near freezing in January.  With the water tank elevated the pressure in the shower was remarkably strong and the water was remarkably hot.


Just one more reason for the troops to love Charlie.  I was learning from the master.



A couple of months after I had arrived, the battalion received a replacement staff officer, one Captain Harrison E. Webb III.  Word was that Webb had originally been assigned to a general's staff somewhere down south—a really cushy job—but somehow he had managed to screw up so badly that the general transferred him as far north as he possibly could.


Webb was an annoyance to everyone, but especially to me; I just couldn't stand the guy.  How he ever made it this far in the Army was beyond me.  He was short, with a Napoleonic chip on his shoulder.  When no one was looking he'd try to order me to do something and I'd just refuse.  We had our own little war going on.


One night we got word that the rabbi was coming and it caused a stir among the Jewish troops.  There were only three rabbis in Vietnam and they worked the circuit, so the news that one was in the area was a big deal.  Webb was Jewish and invited the rabbi to stop by our compound for a drink.  We had converted a storage shack into a tiny officers' club with three tables, a few chairs, and a liquor supply.


Just by coincidence that day I had met a guy with whom I played basketball in high school in New York, and who was heading home at the end of his tour.  We had much to celebrate and much to catch up on.


So there we were in the officers' shack, two Irish Catholic kids from the suburbs of the City sitting with a rabbi from the garment district in midtown Manhattan.  We quickly learned that the rabbi was a very, very funny guy, and he got us laughing so hard our sides ached.  And the drinks kept flowing.  I had a custom of counting my drinks by pouring each new one in a separate paper cup.  That way I'd know how many gin & tonics I'd had by counting cups.


About 11:00 PM we heard incoming—Russian-made 122mm rockets—and we headed for the door.  I counted the number of my cups before the lights went out.  There were 16 of them.  Despite all that gin, and maybe because of all the laughter, I felt relatively sober as I ran to get my weapon, helmet and flak vest.


Webb had been wearing his helmet liner earlier when he entered the shack with the rabbi and he left it there when we exited the tiny building.  It was standard procedure to safeguard our liquor supply by locking the shack each night, and Webb's helmet liner was in there safely locked up with the liquor.


The next morning we were still on alert, which meant we had to wear helmets and keep our weapons close by.  A fellow lieutenant and I were sitting on a steel plank in front of battalion headquarters waiting for a detail to show up when we saw Webb walking up the company street. 


The sight of him was ripe for ridicule.  Without his helmet liner[1], Webb's very large steel helmet was bouncing loudly on his head with every step.  He was taking long, purposeful strides up the street, and the bouncing helmet and the frown on his round, bespectacled face made him look for all the world like a clown.


As he approached I started chuckling.  The other lieutenant stifled his laughter and got up and turned his back on the situation.  I remained sitting.  Webb walked right up and stood in front of me.


"Lieutenant, I'm your superior officer.  As such I order you to stand and salute me."


"You look ridiculous.  I'll salute you when you deserve it and not anytime sooner."


"All right, I'm reporting your insubordination to the colonel right now."  He looked for a witness but the other lieutenant had disappeared and there was no one else around.  He stomped into headquarters, helmet a-bouncing.


That evening I was sitting on my bunk when Charlie came in and sat next to me.


"Willis, the colonel received a report from Captain Webb that you refused to salute him.  Is that so?"


"Yes Sir."


"The colonel wants you to apologize to Captain Webb.  Will you do that?"


"Sir, I know this is bad.  I don't want to get you in any trouble, but I just can't salute that man."


He gave me a fatherly pat on the knee and said, "Don't worry about getting me in any trouble.  I can handle it.  And as far as you not saluting Webb, it's what he deserves.  I wouldn't have you in my company if you'd caved to him.  I'll take care of this." 


I never heard another word about it.  I didn't suffer any consequences.  That was Charlie Lee.



Charlie was to be rotated back home in February.  On the Sunday before he was due to leave, he called us four lieutenants to his office.  He offered each of us a stiff shot of bourbon in what I thought was a farewell gesture.


He started talking about the Marine general and how much he hated him.  He had me recount in detail the way I was treated when I was dropped off on the general's private pad.  The longer the conversation went on the angrier Charlie got, and finally he declared, "It's time we wreak vengeance on that son of a bitch!"  We didn't know it but he'd orchestrated that session just to get us riled up. He'd already been carrying his own grudge since well before my incident with the Marines and he'd been preparing his revenge all that time.


He gave us each a mission.  I was to get together a detail to dig a trench four feet wide and thirty feet long to a depth of fifteen inches.  Another lieutenant was to go to the motor pool, sign out a half-ton truck and pick up a set of grates he'd had fabricated there.  The other two lieutenants were to sign out a 2½-ton truck, drive in to Quang Tri City to an address he gave them and pick up a load of charred wood.  We were all to complete our assignments by 1500 hours and stand by for further orders.


At the appointed hour he had us dump the wood in the trench, level it and light it.  Once the charcoal was sufficiently lit we were to place the grates over the fire and wait.  Meanwhile we were to assemble the entire company in single file, with mess kits at the ready, at exactly 1600 hours, not a minute later.  He then hopped in the 2½-ton truck with a squad of enlisted men and took off.


Twenty minutes later the truck came skidding into our area and the squad jumped out the back and started hauling large boxes toward where we were waiting.  As they opened the boxes we saw that they contained frozen steaks and lobster tails, hundreds of each.  We all started distributing them on the hot grates while Charlie gave a brief speech to the waiting company.


He said this was three months' worth of the Marine general's private stock, and we were to consume every damn bit of it and destroy all evidence ASAP. 


That afternoon every enlisted man in the company got to eat barbecued filet mignon and lobster.  An hour later when the Marine shore patrol showed up they found not one shred of evidence of the grand theft. 

Charlie had had his revenge.

[1]   A helmet liner is a plastic headgear which is fitted to the head and upon which the steel helmet fits. Wearing a helmet without a helmet liner would be like wearing a large steel mixing bowl on your head.