Sergeant Hats

Sergeant Hats

There’s nothing ordinary about any United States Marine. All are extraordinary : some more so than others.

I met a very extraordinary Marine at a Rehabilitation facility in the southern farm lands of New Jersey.

I was there as a patient – following a severe illness.

Sgt. Hats’ wife was also a patient : lost in the tangled world of Alzheimers.

The Sergeant was there because – at 76, he was still very much a United States Marine – and Marines never leave their wounded behind.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve withheld Sgt. Hats’ real name because – after his active duty in the Corps, he went on to serve his nation in another organization : one that requires its associates and its former members to  keep a very low profile.

Sgt. Hats got his nickname , because he likes to say “Thank you !” to Veterans of military service –and their families-by giving out ball caps, emblazoned with the names and logos of military units : US Navy, Screaming Eagles, Army, and ( of course ) Marines.

He gave me a nifty white cap, with the letters “ USMC” embroidered in gold, and a regulation Bulldog, with a red, spiked collar.

I showed it to my son, who gave me a sharp-looking  NJ State Police cap to give him.

Two days later, I gave the cap-and my just-read issue of Leatherneck magazine to the Sergeant.

It was hard to tell which pleased him more —but I think “Leatherneck” – the Magazine of the Marines was the winning entry.

We started chatting (there’s a less- polite Marine Corps term for that) ; and, when the Sarge started telling his stories, I thought-at first-they might be “sea stories” ( for non-Marine readers, sea stories are tales which have been “improved upon” or embellished a bit.)

The Sarge had served from 1958 to 1962 – like me-“between wars”…a quiet time, I thought at first.

Oh boy, was I wrong !!

The years 1958 to 1962 mark a period in which the United States – under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy-began pushing back against increasing Soviet aggression.

These days, there are some who like to claim the Cold War was just an excuse to (let me check my notes) “ improve Corporatist profits via the Military-Industrial Complex “; but one can’t help but notice the years 1958-1962 were the years of the Berlin Crisis  , in which American pilots, flying WWII cargo planes  under Instrument Rules, managed to bring in enough food and fuel to keep the Soviet-strangled city alive.

1958-1962 was also the time of the Great China Famine,during which-under the inspired leadership of Mao Tse Tung, China dealt with its over-population problem by letting 40 million of its citizens starve to death. (It is also reported some of those who survived did so by resorting to cannibalism – but I don’t think that part of the story is generally told when smug enthusiasts describe “ The Great Leap Forward “.

In Vietnam, a small group of dedicated Communists-the Viet Minh- decided to change from being a “national persuasion ” group to being an armed struggle group – called the Viet Cong.

1958-1962 was also the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis-during which Soviet warships and transports were turned  away as they approached Cuba with cargos of Nuclear missiles on board. I remember watching Strategic Air Command bombers take off from a nearby airbase-and wondering if I would have a home and family at the end of the day.

Sgt. Hats served during a very “happening” time; and his “ sea stories “ were not only  factual, but modest !

When Sergeant Hats –initially a member of the US Marine Corps Reserve-volunteered for Active Duty, and boarded the train for Boot Camp at Parris Island, SC, he had no way of knowing he would –one day- be dangling from a harness like bait – under a chopper from the 1st Marine Air Wing’s Flying Horse squadron, just above the shark-infested waters of the Formosa Strait, as part of the dramatic rescue of a Nationalist Chinese F-86 pilot, who had been shot down by Communist MIGs.

In those days, Formosa was an island fortress – held by the remnants of Chang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Army.

The two armies : Chang’s Nationalists, and Mao’s Communists were engaged “24/7” as the saying goes,in a low-level shooting war.

The Nationalists held two tiny offshore islands : Quemoy and Matsu –and the Communists bombarded them daily from their Mainland.

The Nationalists would re-supply the two islands by air – and the Communists would respond by attacking the supply planes with Mainland-based MIG fighters.

The Nationalists had F-86 Sabrejets , and, if conditions permitted, would engage and destroy the MIGs.

Both sides had excellent pilots,and-at times-it would be a Nationalist interceptor that got “splashed”.

There was a US presence on Formosa : mostly in the form of the MAAG (Military Advice and Assistance Group) , which was run by the US Army.

There were also Marine elements : primarily the First Marine Airwing, based at Ping Tung , Formosa.

The Air Wing had Douglas F4D Skyray fighters-which were called “ Fords” –for a variety of reasons; and Air  Rescue Mission Helicopters.

The Sarge, who had graduated from Helicopter Maintainence training school at El Toro, California, was attached to the Helicopter section; and, in short order, became a Maintainence Crew Chief-whose presence was often requested when General Officers were planning a chopper trip.

One of the Generals Sgt. Hats got to meet was Lt. Gen. Lewis B. (Chesty) Puller. The two men got to talk a bit, and the Sarge thought of “Chesty” as “ an all right guy”-who certainly deserved promotion to Commandant : a sentiment widespread in the Corps at the time.

Sergeant Hats got to visit a number of places : Okinawa, Japan, China, the Phillippines, and Vietnam-(two tours)-where Air Rescue choppers helped evacuate key Vietnamese Leaders whose areas had been overrun by the Viet Cong.The chopper crews were lightly armed (pistols) at first, but later took to carrying rifles.

Like many (if not most) Marines, very little of this appears on his DD-214 (Military Discharge papers) : not a bad thing , I suppose, since it helps shield the Marine from questions that should not be answered; while giving a prospective employer the information (Dates and quality of service) actually needed.

Looking at 76 year-old Sgt. Hats today, there is little to suggest his colorful background—-but he is a Marine-and that is colorful enough !

Follow-up Note: The more things change, the more they remain the same !

Southeast Asia remains dangerously unpredictable !!


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