Monday, October 31, 2022

A Legacy of Honor

There are many men and women who served their country honorably and heroically who later lived and died without seeing their stories come to light so they could be duly honored in their own time.

Sometimes, we're able to peer into that sacred fraternity though the bits and pieces we assemble from the lives of their comrades. It's in honoring them that we're able to witness the importance of honoring them all, even if belatedly so.

One of those heroes was my father-in-law, the late Colonel Simon J. Kittler.

Si grew up in a troubled household in Michigan, but he was still able to secure a Congressional appointment to the United States Naval Academy in 1949 as a member of the Class of 1953. He was one of four brothers who received congressional appointments to the Naval Academy.

After he was commissioned as a second lieutenant on June 5, 1953, he fulfilled a dream inspired by his childhood employer and mentor to lead a platoon of Marines in Korea. 

Once he returned to the United States in October of 1955, he entered flight training in Pensacola, Florida and upon completion of training in October of 1957, he earned his gold aviator wings.

His first assignments as an aviator were with VMA-211 then with VMA-225 as an A-4D Skyhawk pilot, stationed in Edenton and Cherry Point, North Carolina. While he was on a deployment in the Mediterranean on board the USS Essex (CVA-9) during her final carrier deployment, the crew of the Essex and the 17 pilots of VMA-225 collaborated on an unprecedented achievement that possibly remains unduplicated to this day. On January 23, 1960, VMA-225 qualified all 17 of its pilots as Centurions when every pilot in the squadron completed his 100th arrested carrier landing of the deployment on the Essex on that day.

Then, in July of 1963, he completed a stint as an instructor in the Air Support Division, training forward air controllers (FACs) at Coronado, California which he later said was a great help to him when he needed to call in fire support missions in Vietnam.

In what would become a pivotal assignment in his career, he was sent to helicopter transition training with HMM-362 in Santa Ana, California in preparation for service in the Vietnam War, known to many as “the helicopter war.” With his transition training complete, he was promoted to Major and joined the newly formed HMM-365 in August of 1964 to fly the UH-34D, which he later said was “one helluva war bird.”

Just a couple of weeks after his wife Peggy gave birth to a baby boy, his namesake Simon Scott, he deployed with his squadron to the Republic of Vietnam in October of 1964. As thousands of others have done since the early days of our Republic, he left his wife, new son, and two daughters, 6 year old Angela and 2 year old Christina, behind in California.

Once in Vietnam, he and his squadron went to work immediately, flying combat missions daily. Within a month of arriving in Vietnam, then-Major Kittler “volunteered to undertake a vital resupply and medical evacuation mission to an isolated Vietnamese outpost located in an area infested with insurgent communist Viet Cong forces. The flying conditions were exceptionally hazardous due to typhoon conditions in the general vicinity, a ceiling of less than three hundred feet and a steady rainfall which severely limited visibility. As leader of a two aircraft flight, (he) fearlessly led the way through intense enemy small arms fire to land at the obscured landing zone. After discharging his supplies and taking aboard several wounded Vietnamese soldiers, (he) again displayed calm courage and superior aeronautical skill as he led the flight through enemy fire and further deteriorating weather conditions to deliver his wounded passengers to a field hospital.”  For his heroism that day, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal.

While Major Kittler was flying that mission and risking his life to save the lives of others, tragedy was settling onto his own home half a world away where his newborn son passed away in his crib that same day. Any sense of relief and satisfaction that he felt over having succeeded in that treacherous mission was quickly overwhelmed by the weight of profound loss and mourning as he boarded a plane to return to the United States to be with his family.

With his son buried and his family consoled, he returned to duty with HMM-365 in Vietnam where he resumed flying combat missions out of Danang in support of U.S. Marines, the South Vietnamese Army, and U.S. Special Forces.  

Then on July 12, 1965, a Marine reconnaissance patrol led by Lieutenant Frank Reasoner and point man Corporal B.C. Collins was ambushed deep in Viet Cong territory by 50 to 100 enemy soldiers firing machineguns and other automatic weapons. During the firefight, Lieutenant Reasoner was killed by machinegun fire while attempting to aid a wounded Marine. When the call went out to HMM-365 that the patrol had been ambushed, was surrounded, and needed an emergency medical evacuation and extraction that night, Major Kittler flew out to get them. "The landing zone, surrounded by Viet Cong, was under a crossfire from three automatic weapons, which made it virtually untenable. In spite of heavy enemy ground fire, unknown landing zone conditions and a lack of visibility due to darkness, (he) ... landed and assisted in the evacuation of the patrol," saving eighteen lives in the process. In addition to the eighteen members of the patrol, he successfully evacuated Lieutenant Reasoner's body as well.

For their actions that day, First Lieutenant Reasoner was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, Corporal Collins was awarded the Navy Cross Medal, our nation's second highest award for valor, and my father-in-law was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal for valor.

[Note: Thirteen years after his patrol was ambushed in Vietnam, Staff Sergeant B.C. Collins reported to G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (2/8) at Camp Geiger, North Carolina to be my platoon sergeant (which is a series of stories in itself). I was a sergeant and a 60mm mortar section leader in his platoon. Then, four years after I served with Staff Sergeant Collins, I married Si Kittler's daughter, completely unaware of Si's connection to B.C. Collins. Finally, almost exactly 20 years after the ambush of Lieutenant Reasoner's patrol, I was a second lieutenant with orders to report to HMM-365 to serve as a helicopter pilot, the same squadron that Si Kittler served with in Vietnam.]

In 1967, Major Kittler again transitioned to a new aircraft, this time to the OV-10 Bronco as a member of VMO-5 before returning to Vietnam in May of 1968 as officer-in-charge (OIC) and pilot in a VMO-2 detachment. Within just a few hours of the squadron’s Broncos arriving in Vietnam from the Philippines, he became the first pilot to fly the OV-10 aircraft in combat. Operating out of Marble Mountain in Vietnam, he flew both the OV-10A and the UH-1E Huey on direct combat support missions for Marine forces.

When he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in October of 1968, he was transferred to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) G-3 in Danang to serve as assistant operations and assistant plans officer. While in that assignment, he continued to fly combat missions in the OV-10 and the TA-4 on “Steel Tiger” forward air controller (FAC) missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail until 1969 when he returned to the United States.

Following his promotion to Colonel in July of 1975, he assumed command of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU)/Task Group (TG) 79.5. He then served as commanding officer of the Marine Corps Air Reserve Training Detachment (MARTD) in El Toro, California from 1977 to 1980. Finally, Colonel Kittler took command of the Naval ROTC Unit and served as the Professor of Naval Science at the University of Missouri in 1980 before retiring from active duty in September of 1982 with 30 years of service.

During his distinguished Marine Corps career, Colonel Kittler saw service in the Korean War as a ground officer then participated in 15 major combat operations as an aviator in Vietnam. Among his many decorations and awards are the Legion of Merit for valor, two Distinguished Flying Crosses for valor, 22 Air Medals, the Meritorious Service Medal, two Combat Action Ribbons, and numerous unit citations and campaign and service medals.

After his retirement from the Marine Corps, Colonel Kittler went to work in program management at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, California, working on the T-45, A-4, A-3, and the KDC-10 aircraft.

Ultimately, he settled in Pensacola, Florida, returning to his aviation roots where he was able to watch his two grandsons grow, enjoy seeing them play baseball and excel in school, and witness them eventually becoming Marines like their father and grandfathers before them. All along, he inspired them through his love, example, and wisdom.

From his childhood and throughout his adult life, during the high points and the low, through critical moments of life and death, and in periods of peace and extraordinary trial, he was buoyed by his Faith, his family, his country, and his unwavering loyalty and service to them all. Always a humble and composed warrior, he embraced life with good cheer and selfless personal courage.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Serving with B. C. Collins

I was thinking about a Marine I once served with the other day and I thought I would share some memories here. His name was Staff Sergeant Bryant C. Collins. Those who could refer to him by something other than his rank called him B.C. I wasn't one of those people as I was just a 20-year old sergeant when I met him, and I didn't have anywhere nearly enough stature to try to presume to be that familiar. He had been awarded the Navy Cross--the nation's second highest award for valor in combat--in Vietnam. With a little more than two years of peacetime service under my belt at that time, my credentials didn't compare.

He checked in to my unit--G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment--as my platoon sergeant. We were the weapons platoon, a platoon that operated the company's M-60 machine guns, light anti-tank weapons, and 60mm mortars. I was in charge of the mortars.

I met him almost immediately after he arrived. After he took care of the administrative parts of checking in to the company, he introduced himself to me and said, "let's go get lunch." I asked him where he wanted to go--there weren't a lot of options--and he said we should go get something off base. We got in my car and drove into the heart of the bad part of Jacksonville, North Carolina. He wanted to go to a bar called "Sissy's." It surprised me a little at the time, but as I got to know him, it made more sense. I thought, "Well, they probably have those bar pizzas or something there." Once we got there, it seemed to be kind of a reunion for him. He knew the owner and the bartender quite well, apparently. But we didn't order pizzas; we ordered beer. We had to be back at work in an hour so we drank a beer for lunch then went back to the base. It was a different era then, but still, that was a first for me. It seems that era passed quickly because I never did it again.

SSgt Collins was almost always chomping on a cigar, and when he wasn't, he looked like he should be. It had been a dozen years since his service in Vietnam and age was catching up with him in some ways, I guess. He wasn't overweight according to Marine Corps standards, but he was "husky." My company commander, a captain who wasn't a Vietnam vet, clearly was not a fan of SSgt Collins. That sentiment went the other way as well.

He put SSgt Collins on the military appearance program, a program that existed back then to try to redistribute the body weight of Marines who weren't overweight, but still didn't look entirely prototypical in a uniform. I didn't think much of the captain putting him on the MAP program; there just seemed to me to be no benefit to it in this case.  SSgt Collins was a bona fide war hero, and was within 4 years of retiring at 20 years. I took the hard time he got from the captain to be part of a flawed peacetime mind set. Of course, I could only guess what a proper wartime mind set might have been.

On reflection, I know that the Marine Corps needed to complete a transition from the Vietnam era to a new age and mind set. It was a difficult time, and something really did need to happen. There were a lot of problems in the military then with big time racial issues, hard core drug use, and outright crime. It was a rough time to be a leader, but tough leadership was what was needed then.

At the same time, we had warriors who had distinguished themselves in combat who had to adjust to something new to them: peacetime. What do you do with the heroes who have found their way in a wartime military culture then need to adapt to a peacetime culture that they've never known and might not fit in to? Wars are very hard on military culture and there is always a need to regroup and refocus after they end. Of course, there was the additional challenge of the cultural issues that dominated civil society in those days too.

It turns out that those challenges occur in every age. Maybe it sounds odd, but the result is a more fit and ready force the next time it's needed. When the military doesn't let go and retool, it tends to fight the last war during the next one. Although it was slow and difficult in coming, the reforms the military endured after Vietnam set the stage for the military culture that has been so successful and responsive these past 30 years or so.

Nonetheless, knowing and serving with SSgt Collins did an awful lot to prove to me that not everything is black and white. Here was a living legend who tended to tell people what was on his mind. His solutions to problems tended to be quite uncomplicated and direct. He didn't mind telling superiors where they were wrong in their thinking while talking through that cigar (which was probably didn't help persuade them). He would give them the benefit of one "look, captain..." before giving up on them as being someone who didn't have the sense to know better. He was often right, but obviously, some officers couldn't put up with his approach. That said, he also had his share of admirers and advocates among very senior officers and staff non-commissioned officers who appreciated having someone around who shot straight with them.

He was entertaining to be around, that's for sure. We had a "bosses night" at the NCO Club one night. Bosses night is where we would invite our "bosses" who wouldn't normally be allowed to come to our NCO Club to have a few drinks with us. Staff Sergeants and other senior non-commissioned officers normally went to the Staff NCO Club and officers went to the Officers Club. Etiquette had it that the officers didn't stay too long or they'd risk seeing or hearing something they (and we) would later wish they hadn't. True to form, not long after our officers left, we were told to leave the club because of some outrage perpetrated by one of our group that I won't go into here.

SSgt Collins was in stride that night and had the idea that we--our Company Gunnery Sergeant who had served with SSgt Collins in Vietnam, SSgt Collins, and I--should go to the Staff NCO Club at the neighboring Marine Corps Air Station. The problem was that I didn't have enough rank to be there. SSgt Collins had a solution: he took his Staff Sergeant stripes off of his collar and pinned them on my collar in place of my Sergeant stripes. I was 20 years old then and I looked like I was 15. I was already very young for the rank I had, and looked it. There was NO WAY anyone would believe I was a Staff Sergeant. I felt like I was just a step away from the brig the whole time we were in there.

Thankfully, we got out of there without stirring anyone up. I don't think anyone was fooled though. We had one "old" guy (who was probably all of 32 years old at the time) with no rank on his collar and a young guy with way too much rank on his. I'm not sure anyone would have taken my companions on anyway; they had both been around and looked like it.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to serve with B.C. Collins. I learned a lot about leadership and people by being around him. Having served with him ultimately made me a better officer too. He was a passing breed in his own time, tragic in his battle against obsolescence in an emerging era, yet undeniably heroic. I was happy to see the day he got promoted to gunnery sergeant. While his "paper" in the peacetime Marine Corps might not have been nearly as good as it was during his wartime service, it seems someone at the top realized the value that guys like him brought to the rich heritage of the Marine Corps and the legacy they leave every generation to guys like me. Heroes always add value, and the Marine Corps seems to maintain a culture that understands and rewards that.

Take a look at his Navy Cross citation HERE. The Marine officer whose body the young Corporal Collins carried off of the battlefield that day was 1stLt Frank Reasoner. 1stLt Reasoner was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his own actions that day.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

A Visit with Dad

DadI’m in Arizona today with my brother, Michael, to visit our father’s grave site. Not everyone would understand why we would make such a long trip to the desert to do that, and I’m not sure if I can do a great job of explaining it, but I’ll give it a shot.

I was on a deployment to the Mediterranean aboard the USS Guam in early 1988 when I received a Red Cross message letting me know that Dad had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and that his prognosis didn’t see him surviving the duration of my deployment. My squadron commander didn’t hesitate to let me to go ashore in Italy to catch a hop to Rota, Spain in order to catch another aircraft to the United States so I could fly to Arizona to see him.

It was about Easter time and all of his kids and young grandkids were there to visit as well. It was nice.

Dad had given me a commemorative decanter of whiskey when I enlisted in the Marines in 1975 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps. The decanter was in the shape of Tun Tavern, oddly enough, the first recruiting station of the Marine Corps. I had carried that decanter around with me from duty station to duty station over the course of my Marine Corps career because it was my Dad’s hope that when I left the Marine Corps, he and I would celebrate by drinking that whiskey down.

He had served in the Marine Corps during Korea for three years before leaving to go to college. He always lamented not staying in the Marine Corps, but I think he was able to sort of experience a Marine Corps career vicariously through me, though. Celebrating my career’s conclusion was going to be special for him.

As my visit with him was drawing to a close and I needed to get back to Europe, I knew that I probably would never see him alive again. I had four months left to go on that deployment. I put my uniform on for the trip back then grabbed my things to leave my parents' home for the airport. As we stood toe-to-toe for a final hug goodbye, he reminded me that he had always said that it wasn’t fair for a dying person to make deathbed requests, but that he had one to make of me anyhow.

Of course, I stepped up to it and he told me what it was. He asked if, once I retired, I would put my dress blue uniform on, visit his gravesite, and drink the whiskey from that decanter with him. I didn’t say anything…because I couldn’t. I stood there in his house in my uniform and I was afraid that if I said anything, I’d start bawling. That wouldn’t do. Instead, I hugged him long and hard until I was sure that I had it together.

When we separated from the hug, he stepped back and studied me from head-to-toe then back up again as though he was trying to memorize every inch and feature. Then, he looked me in the eye entirely composed, came to attention, and snapped a Marine-perfect salute to me. Well, Marines don’t salute indoors unless they’re “under arms” (with a weapon or on duty), but with him standing there holding his salute, I carefully placed my cover (cap) on my head and returned his salute.

We hugged again and I walked out through the door to the car. I watched him for the last time as we drove away.

I made my way back to Europe and rejoined my squadron. We performed a number of exercises in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Tunisia, Spain, and Israel and then it was time to head back to the States. As we traveled back across the Atlantic and approached Bermuda, I received another Red Cross message, this one advising me that my Dad had passed away. We were only two days from getting off of the ship.

My CO asked me if I wanted to get off at Bermuda or stay with the squadron to North Carolina. I knew that I wouldn’t get to Arizona much sooner via Bermuda than if I waited an extra day, so I told him that I’d like to stay with the squadron on board the ship. Normally, a pilot who has experienced a death in his immediate family is promptly removed from the flight schedule because his focus isn’t quite balanced, but my CO asked me if I’d like to fly a helicopter off the ship on the fly-off day as I normally would. I thanked him for the consideration and told him that I would really like to stay in the mix and fly one off the ship. So, I did.

I rejoined my family and we flew to Arizona the following day for Dad’s visitation and funeral.

Another ten years passed before I finally retired from the Marine Corps. Once I retired, I purchased a business services franchise and that involved some training in San Diego. I decided that while I was in San Diego, I’d travel to Bullhead City, Arizona to close the loop with my Dad.

Dressed in my dress blues and carrying a little camping stool and that Tun Tavern whiskey decanter, I found my Dad’s grave site where I sat and drank that whiskey with him. Once we had our time together, I said my goodbyes, got back into the rental car, and drove off to the local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) post. A detachment from that post had graciously served as ceremonial escorts and pall bearers for my Dad’s burial ten years earlier.

I walked in – it was a Saturday night so the place was full of people – and I sat at the bar there in my uniform. I drank a beer and made a little small talk with patrons who weren’t used to seeing a Marine officer’s uniform in the middle of Arizona. Then, I took my metal “life member” VFW membership card out of my wallet on plunked on it on the bar. Everyone within earshot recognized the sound; it meant that someone was buying a round of drinks. The bartender asked if I was aware of what that meant and I said that I was. I bought everyone a round of drinks and when they had their drinks, I offered a toast to them and to my Dad. The band that was in there that night got involved and played a countryfide version of the Marine’s Hymn. What a day and what a memory that was.

My visit with Dad today wasn’t quite the same as that because the earlier visit was a very unique and special occasion. I doubt that I’ve offered a very good explanation of why I felt compelled to travel to Arizona with my brother to visit his gravesite today, but maybe you have a sense of the depth of the relationship my Dad had with his family. That relationship has still not ended. Maybe that’s the explanation I’m looking for.