Barry McCaffrey, General
US Army, Retired
Almost 50 years ago as an infantry Captain on my third combat tour, I took command of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry in Vietnam (B2-7). I took command following the loss of their terrific young company commander, Captain William Meara, who was killed-in-action during a vicious close-range firefight. The battalion had just deployed south by Air Force C130s as part of an emergency movement from the northern I Corps Tactical Zone. We joined the entire 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in a screening operation along the Cambodian border in III Corps Tactical Zone north of Saigon. Our mission was to fight a reconnaissance-in-force battle and fall back in zone blunting and slowing the expected NVA offensive. The enemy objective was to destroy the massive US Long Binh military logistics base.
We got our ass handed to us. The NVA were coming across the border in strength. They were well supported with artillery, rockets, and mortars. Their troops were courageous, heavily armed, and well led. Brand new uniforms. Shiny weapons. Short haircuts. Incredible camouflage. They were building jungle roads of corduroy logs as they advanced. They dug deep bunkers every 20 meters along the roads which had clever overhead woven-net camouflage, underground hospitals and assembly areas for battalion-sized units. Well-hidden anti-aircraft guns protected their advance.
In the following six months, the 1st Cavalry was in the fight of its life. We had incredible helicopter air mobility and supply and medevac. Powerful artillery backed up our ground units. The Air Force fighter bombers and our Army attack helicopters were airborne hammers that would come to our support rapidly. But, in the end, it was the fighting ability of our Cav troopers with light infantry weapons that directly engaged these NVA logistics and infantry units. It was a brutal and bloody business.
By 1968 the War was in its fourth year of heavy fighting. A half million US troops and Allies were in country. The casualty lists were terrible and growing steadily … eventually we would lose 58,000 US killed and 303,000 wounded. America had turned against the War with the final rejection following the TET 68 NVA Offensive.
When I took command of B Company in the field it was a collection of teenage soldiers with “Instant NCO” leadership that had been promoted in the field. B Company, like other infantry combat units, was nearly 100% draftees---even though only around 25% of the US forces in-country were draftees. Our company-level Lieutenants were, in general, draftees who had been hustled through OCS at Ft. Benning. The soldiers were physically strong, courageous, showed great initiative and would lay down their lives for each other. They were also incredibly resilient under enormous physical and mental pressure. They would follow orders if they made sense and they trusted the leaders over them. They were actually fun to be around and had a great sense of humor in a terrible environment. They were actually superb combat soldiers.
By this point in the war in 1968 we had nearly broken the professional career infantry NCO Corps. The older senior infantry Sergeants were by now on their second or third combat tour. The career infantry NCO Corps had suffered huge casualties. Life in a combat rifle company was also a young person’s business. If you were much past 35 years old, you could not handle this life. We lived like wild animals. We carried battle loads of 90 plus pounds. We dug like moles every night to stay alive. In any given hour, we knew we could be wrenched suddenly from back-breaking boredom and physical misery to violent combat. By 1968, the senior infantry NCO’s tended to fade into the Forward Operating Base (FOB) background on administrative duties. The 1st Sergeant of B Company when I first arrived and took command was a good soldier-- but essentially he ran our log pad in the rear.
Then came 1st Sgt. Emerson Trainer. What an immediate change. In the eyes of my soldiers, I was an old man at age 25. Emerson was 36 years old and a wounded veteran of the Korean War where he had served with the same B Company 2-7th Cav. He was powerfully built. He gave a sense of being the “father” of these young soldiers. Absolutely fearless. Quiet. Dignified. A teacher. Very gentle way of dealing with people. He was a natural leader. He expected to be obeyed.
Emerson could be extremely funny for effect. He would crawl into a rubber BODY BAG to sleep when it rained . . . which thrilled and grossed-out our young soldiers. Frequently, he would be armed only with a 45 caliber pistol and a TWO HEADED ENGINEER AX in the field. He was an absolute master of his trade. When we moved in the field I would rarely see him. He would seek out and walk with a squad in our 120 soldier combat company. Observer. Coach. Fearless Dad.
I admired him and trusted him. I considered him to be the co-commander of the company. He was a rock. The soldiers loved him. He was one of them. This book is his story. You can understand our admiration for 1st Sgt. Emerson Trainer when seen through the eyes of his soldiers in this book.
For nearly 50 years our B Company soldiers have stayed together. Every summer there is a reunion at a lake. Every two years there is a reunion at the Vietnam memorial. These young soldiers of ours were such good men in combat. Unsurprisingly… they still are. They take care of each other. Their families love them. They are good dads and husbands. Most have been very successful at life. They run welding shops and farms and small business. They work in health care and antique stores. A few are hugely successful financially. Many, of course, were terribly physically damaged by the war. Some suffered lasting less visible wounds. One died in prison.
But, still to this day, they love and look out for each other. They still remember how 1st Sgt. Emerson Trainer helped keep them alive because he knew what he was doing… and he cared deeply for them. He also had the credibility in their eyes gained from his earlier service as an infantry private in brutal combat.
The 1st Sergeant’s son, Tim Trainer, who grew up as an Army Brat has always been part of our B Company reunions. Tim is now an extremely successful international lawyer and published author. He also had served at a later time as an Army enlisted soldier. Tim loves his dad… this great man who we called “Top.”
This book, Fortunate Son, that Tim has pulled together about his father is a gift to all of us. Tim . . . you are one of us.
Barry McCaffrey, General
US Army, Retired
August 28, 2016
©2017 Barry McCaffrey, General US Army, Retired
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The Fortunate Son:
Top, Through the Eyes of Others
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