"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Monday, January 26, 2015

Superior/Subordinate Relationship: by John McClarren

199th LIB
(A Book Excerpt from Military Life – Service or Career:  A Soldier's Perspective, by John McClarren)

The subject at hand is the subordinate-superior relationship, and I cannot help but use a personal example, because it illustrates perfectly what we’re dealing with.

This one begins with an operation initiated by all the activities going on during the Tet ‘68 offensive in South Vietnam with my unit operating in the surrounding areas of Saigon. It is a situation that could occur anywhere at any time, not at all unique to the war in Vietnam.

The mission of my unit, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB), included guarding the southern approaches to Saigon. My platoon was given an extremely simple and routine mission to patrol and check out activities in the southern outskirts of the city.  We were only to observe what was going on and report what we saw. In that respect, it was more of a reconnaissance mission.

We began our patrol at the southern part of a road leading north into the city. We were to proceed north for a kilometer or so, turn right at a major intersection, continue for approximately another thousand meters and make another right, heading south, and then return to our base of operations. It all sounds pretty simple, right?

I always remember the old Jell-O commercial on television, which ended with, “All that wiggles is not Jell-O.” What a wonderful analogy, the concept of which certainly never occurred to me as a dumb kid.  However, later in life, as a less dumb adult, I have been able to apply that concept to a tremendous number of situations, where things do not turn out how you imagined them to be.

We headed north from our starting point and found that all along the left flank of our designated route, everything seemed quite normal, in that there were normal activities among the people; motor vehicles, mopeds, bicycles and pedestrians all seemed to be moving along and milling about with absolutely nothing interfering with what one might expect on a typical day in Saigon.

We reached the intersection where we were to turn right and head east on the north leg of our route and noticed exactly the same things going on along that segment of the route; nothing out of the ordinary. We were not doing house-to-house searches; we were merely observing all activities along the route, looking for anything that might seem unusual for that area.

We came to the last intersection, where we were to head back south and return to our base camp. After a short distance, it occurred to us that the situation had changed rather remarkably and abruptly. Activity in this area was not only abnormal, but had ceased entirely. All traffic disappeared; no vehicles, no people. There was nothing but an eerie silence.

At this point, I instructed all of my squads to proceed much more slowly and cautiously, looking carefully into every house and building along the way. As we proceeded down the street, we noticed a canal on our left flank.

A hundred meters or so to the south, on the far side of the canal, was a Vietnamese P.F. (Popular Forces) camp. The Popular Forces were similar to our state National Guard forces; citizen soldiers. 

As we continued further, we noticed ahead of us, a barricade across the road. It was composed of a variety of junk, stacked high and wrapped with barbed wire.  We proceeded down the road, closer to the barricade.

The PF soldiers, observing our approach, began to call out to us in broken English from across the canal, “No further, G.I.; beaucoup (always pronounced by the Vietnamese, and American troops bookoo) VC”.  They were giving us warnings that could not have been misunderstood. 

It was very clear to me that there was a whole bunch of bad guys to my front. I had a few options at my disposal, but, silly as it may seem now, I opted for doing things the “right” way.

I brought my company commander up on the radio and requested permission to recon by fire. That merely meant that I wanted to open up with small arms fire, and see what I might receive in return, thereby identifying enemy targets and taking the offensive at that point.

What was the response to my request? “Negative!”

I immediately came back with, “Say again, over.”

“Negative on that request. There may be innocent civilians in the area,” he responded.  

I was dumbfounded. I came back with, “Six (Six being the commander’s designation or call sign), let me make myself perfectly clear. I have friendlies to my left who have told me very clearly that there are Victor Charlies to my front on the other side of the barrier.” (Victor Charlie was the name we always used for Viet Cong or VC).

I continued with my request. “Now, once again, request permission to recon by fire! Over.”

“Three-six, this is six. I say again, Lieutenant, (a very significant breach in communications security) permission denied! Consider this a direct order. Proceed forward until you make contact. Do you roger that?”

“Affirmative, six, but a couple more requests: Have med-evac on-call, as we will take casualties. Also, request that you, too, be on-call, as I am quite sure we will need assistance. Over.”

“Roger that. Will be ready to assist. Out.”

Well, there I was with a “Direct Order” for what I considered a potential suicide mission from a company commander for whom I had little or no respect (and we were both of the same rank, first lieutenants, he ranking me by about three months).

I then initiated “my plan".  

As soon as I had my first three people across the barrier, all hell broke loose with small arms and automatic weapons fire, grenades and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). All three men who had maneuvered across the barrier were wounded and needed immediate extraction and medical evacuation.

That, however, did not happen immediately. We were all pinned down with little to no ability to move without being cut to pieces.  Somehow, in the midst of all that chaos, we managed to get the wounded to safety and eventually evacuated.

While all this was going on, I was able to return to my company commander by radio, to inform him of the situation. He assured me that he was on his way with the remainder of the company. I waited for a painfully long time while the situation worsened and became critical.

Although some specific details are hazy, somewhere amid all the confusion, during this rather hellacious firefight, an RPG round quickly caught my eye a second before it exploded only three to four feet from me, sending me ten or fifteen feet through the air.

After recovering myself, taking an inventory of all my arms, legs, fingers, and other body parts, I discovered that I miraculously did not have a drop of blood flowing from my body. I was amazed at being unscathed by that one, and continued the mission.

I thanked the Lord for having my guardian angel looking after me once again, as well as those men who were in close proximity to me. It seems like it must have taken a whole legion of guardian angels to look after me while I was over there. 

I was prone to being in the wrong places at the wrong times. It tended to happen quite regularly. At the same time, I have to remind myself that I was the platoon leader, and, as such was, as my old  OCS instructors used to tell us (students), a prime target for enemy fire.

While all this was going on, and I still had neither seen nor heard from my company commander, I was finally able to bring him back up on the “horn” to find out where he was.  Of course, he was pinned down, having run into the main force of the VC element.

In actuality, these bad boys were no longer Viet Cong, who were mainly local guerillas, sympathetic to the North Vietnamese cause; they were NVA regulars. My rescuers had been ambushed and were now immobile!

Needless to say, (but, of course, I’ll say it anyway), I had mixed emotions on that one. The end result was that a tank company came to our rescue and leveled that part of the town with their main guns and 50-caliber machine guns. I am not at all certain of it, but we may well have lost a few “innocent” civilians during that little skirmish.

I learned later that five or six additional infantry battalions, along with the tank company, came to join in the “fun” that day. All of that, and I was not initially allowed to recon by fire. What more can I say?

Well, I can say one more thing. For what turned into a major battle, my platoon and I just happened to be the unit to initiate that whole mess. I could ask, “Why me, Lord?” Then again, I have already said that I had a bad habit of being in the wrong places at the wrong times.

Hey, apparently, it was another victory for our side; so, who should complain? I still do, however, because some of my guys were hurt, and I always hated that part worse than anything else.

Anyway, so much for the relationship between my commander and me. We did not see eye to eye, but I was forced to take his orders, whether I liked it or not. That is the name of the game.

John McClarren - US Army (Retired)
About the Author

John McClarren was born at the end of World War II in San Diego, California.

He is currently living in northern Michigan and retired from everything except writing and substitute teaching. His wife, Debbie, is an active special education teacher. 

John and Debbie raised three boys, two of whom have been on active duty with the US Army and one is a geologist. 

John's Website
John's Facebook Page

Also see John's Other Post:

Military Life - Service or Career

His book is currently available in print and e-book formats.

Published: Createspace Publishing
Paperback and Kindle
224 Pages

John also has a memoir coming out shortly, titled Taking Risks, Defining Life

Besides the first two books, John is working on a humor book that most likely will be titled, Hey, it Wasn't My Fault, and he is also working on a novel.

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

Feel free to comment on this post. You are also invited to write about anything you feel comfortable sharing. Memoirs From Nam is YOUR blog. You are writing America's history, sharing the truth about the Vietnam veteran, and what it was like in Our War.


  1. Great post, John. I was planning a military career after college in 1971, and was in ROTC in college. This desire was very naive and full of misguided information.

    I encountered many situations in ROTC where military wanna-be's showed lack of character and intelligence.

    While I have the utmost respect for our past and present boots on the ground, the political element of the military irritated me and I can honestly (and sadly) say that none of the officer candidates I knew were people I would want to go into combat with.

    Had I been drafted, I would have proudly served my country, but did ROTC inspire me to enlist? No.

  2. John,

    You were at the right place at the right time. You are a Hero! God protected all of you! Thank you for your service and your sacrifice!



Feel free to comment.