The Civil War: One Woman’s Ordeal

Cover for the Saturday Evening Post's Civil War collector's issue, featuring Gen. U.S. Grant on the cover.

This article and other stories of the Civil War can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Saturday Evening Post: Untold Stories of the Civil War.

—This account appeared in the July 22, 1961, issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

For two memorable, action-packed months in 1863, 19-year-old Lucy Bundy Cobb found herself caught up in the crazy whirl of the Civil War. She hurried from her home in Ohio to Winchester, Virginia, to nurse her ill husband, a Union officer. The Confederates seized Winchester and captured both of them. Lucy was sent to a prison in Richmond and exchanged without knowing her husband’s fate. A keen and sensitive observer, she related her experiences in later years to her son, Howard Bundy Cobb, and a grandson, retired Col. Ralph C. Benner. Cobb wrote down her story and Benner preserved the manuscript, giving us a rare and exciting insight to Civil War life and adventure.

* * *

In the telegram the colonel commanding the 116th Ohio Volunteer Infantry requested that I come at once. My husband and other officers had typhoid fever, and nurses were needed badly at the hospital in Winchester, a Virginia city which our troops had occupied.

Portrait of this article's author, Lucy B. Cobb
Lucy B. Cobb (National Archives)

At the head of his own company of recruits, John Haskell Cobb had left me on our farm in southeastern Ohio scarcely a year before. With the help of an occasional old man or boy, my Aunt Sarah and I had managed to put in a crop to feed ourselves and our livestock.

My father, Congressman Hezekiah S. Bundy, hurried up the path to our farm cottage as soon as he learned of the telegram. “Lu,” he began fussily, “get ready immediately. I must go back to Washington soon anyway, and will take you directly to the Secretary of War for authorization to join your husband.”

Hurriedly assembling what few clothes I found suitable, I clambered into father’s low-swung carriage. The going was slow, but we finally boarded the smoky old railway coach and patiently slept in our seats through the night trip to the capital. The next morning found us in the office of the Secretary of War.

The voice of Secretary Edwin M. Stanton seemed to come from the depths of his iron-gray beard. “Congressman Bundy, I’ll grant this pass for your daughter, but if she were my daughter, I’d send her home. Too many officers’ wives are going to the battle front. A girl of 19 should be far from the scenes of war!”

Vividly the words of that telegram came to me, and my face must have changed expression. “No, no! I cannot turn back now. John needs me. I must go!” My voice evidently held a pleading note, for the Secretary of War grimly signed his name to a paper which he handed me. “May God be with you,” he said gently. Then, turning away hastily, he seemed to dismiss me to a foolhardy venture.

I was wholly unprepared for what I was to find in Winchester. This little town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley changed hands between the North and the South many times during the war. This morning, however, it lay calmly in the sun under the old Star Fort whose earthworks frowned down on the cluster of cottages where the Union Army had its headquarters.

No one received me at the dwelling where I dismounted from the stage and struggled with my carpetbag. And my knock received no reply. The front room was evidently an office, so I ventured timidly into the house. From the rear I heard a sound which filled me with misgiving. Dropping my bag, I hastened in the direction of that feverish moan.

“John!” I cried, only to receive a vacant stare as he tossed about in bed in a tangle of sheets. My heavily bearded young husband had lost many pounds. I seized his weak, thin shoulders, pressing him back gently onto the none-too-clean pillow. He yielded to my ministrations without giving a sign of recognition.

Anxious days followed. John lay feeble and helpless, feverishly trying to lead his men against imaginary breast-works manned by “Johnny Rebs” blazing away. It was a lengthy vigil. But when John’s eyes opened with awareness and he murmured, “Lu!” the weak smile with which he greeted me left me breathless. The tension was broken. Tears came to my eyes for the first time, and I sank down on the bed in relief.

John was soon sitting up, but I kept close to my convalescent husband. Soon the rumblings of war drew nearer. The Confederate Army, if not blocked, would soon engage Star Fort. Our entire regiment was thrown into action.

For hours the din of battle kept coming across the brow of a nearby hill. Soon noncombatants and stragglers entered town, bringing to me a glimpse of the meaning of war. As evening approached, I became prepared for most any eventuality. There came an order to all noncombatants. “We must go up to the fort,” John announced.

The outside of a tabacco warehouse that was converted into a prison during the Civil War. Horses pull a covered wagon in front of the warehouse.
From the window of her cell in this tobacco warehouse, Lucy Cobb could see Libby Prison, where she feared her ailing husband was confined. (National Archive)

Star Fort was nothing more than a hollowed-out earth-works on the brow of a hill overlooking Winchester. Noncombatants huddled in one corner. Gunners and swarms of infantrymen milled about in confusion. We watched apathetically while the Union flag was lowered from the main staff. I experienced a feeling of helplessness as a white cloth was run up in its stead. The firing ceased. Columns of troops marched out in surrender. Then there appeared the first gray uniforms I had ever seen. Where Old Glory had waved but half an hour before, we watched the Stars and Bars rise! I looked from the flag to John’s face for reassurance. There was none. Instead, with compressed lips, he handed me his watch. “Here, Lu,” he said tonelessly, “hide this among your petticoats. No rebel shall wear it. Smuggle it through the lines when you are exchanged.”

“John! We are not to be separated,” I cried, clinging to his sleeve. “I’ll not leave you here.” Then several other facts became clear to me. “Is there danger of you being sent to Libby Prison?”

Very soon, several Confederate officers came up and said all women would soon be transported to Richmond.

I rushed back to John, bursting into tears. That awful name “Richmond” filled me with such fright that I closed my eyes and hid my head on his shoulder. I was still clinging desperately to him when a rebel private soldier forcibly but gently released my grasp, saying, “Sorry, lady, but it is the captain’s orders. You need have no fear of us Southerners. We never hurt a lady.” John, weak and pale, let his arms fall to his sides. He swayed and nearly fell.

We watched apathetically while the Union flag was lowered from the main staff. I experienced a feeling of helplessness as a white cloth was run up in its stead.

Common transport wagons, pulled by four horses, were ready for us. Sitting on straw on the wagon floors, we journeyed for long, weary days into the South. Our greatest concern was for food. As it was next to impossible to obtain fresh food, offerings from charitable Southerners along the way were welcomed. At one village where the women appeared particularly desirous of giving us food, however, they did it in a surly manner with many an ugly curl marring the symmetry of a pretty lip. The sandwiches looked good and fresh. The bread was clean and handed us in clean paper. But intuition filled us with suspicion. We noticed the younger women and children, particularly, gazing at us as if expecting some demonstration. There were facial demonstrations very soon. For when we half- famished women bit into the sandwiches, we discovered the bread had been spread with soap! The Southern women screeched and howled with amusement as we threw the bread away, violently wiping out dry and soapy mouths. The guards, however, were more than apologetic for the shameless womenfolk.

Finally arriving in Richmond, we were taken directly to an old tobacco warehouse across from historic Libby Prison. From the barred windows of our jail, nicknamed “Castle Thunder,” we could see Union soldiers pacing back and forth in old Libby, where I was fearful John would eventually be imprisoned. Days of idleness followed.

On the 14th day, word came that our exchange had been effected. No group of prisoners was more grateful for freedom than we Northern women. But our preparations were marred by wistful glances across at grim old Libby. Perhaps our husbands languished behind those ugly walls.

Aroused at 2 a.m. on a June day in 1863, 42 women prisoners were marched down the three flights of rickety warehouse stairs, out into the dim light of Richmond streets, to the bank of the James River. A makeshift bridge of two planks led over the murky water to the boats. Once safe on the opposite shore, we boarded a flag-of-truce vessel and steamed by way of the James River, Chesapeake Bay, and Potomac to Washington. Finally, I was allowed to go to Pittsburgh and then home.

I arrived at my destination with mixed feelings. For a moment I was glad. Then it came to me with a rush that I had failed! I had gone to bring back my sick husband. And here I was on the threshold, empty-handed. Aunt Sarah said nothing about John, and I was grateful. Soon I went out to the pasture where the farm horses grazed contentedly. My mare Polly loped over to me, thrusting her nose in welcome. I felt comforted. I tried to shut out the memory of war and was thankful that my Polly never would sniff burnt powder or hear the whiz of a Minié bullet.

On my third day at home, a disturbing conversation took place. Aunt Sarah, after talking with someone who paused outside her window, asked me, “Had you heard? Morgan’s Confederate raiders are coming up the river valley.”

My heart sank. “You don’t mean that his horsemen may overrun this farm! War does things to peaceful homes in the South. Surely we in Ohio are not faced with that kind of devastation!”

Soon a crowd of women gathered in the yard, evidently to see me. Many were wives of soldiers whom John had enlisted in his company. In the vanguard was Sally Saxe, whose husband I had last seen in the dim twilight of the Star Fort at Winchester, supporting my swaying John.

“Lucy,” Sally said anxiously, “you know about war. What air we goin’ to do? Morgan’s men may be jist over the hill. I’m scairt to death!”

I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and spoke to the crowd. “Neighbors, the Confederate soldiers are not bad. I spent two months among them and they do not make war on women and children. They may take our feed and even our livestock, but they will not hurt you.”

Sally and some others were not convinced. “They may burn our houses or carry us off!” she wailed. Others joined in the cry.

By the next dawn, gray horsemen appeared from all directions as if they had dropped from the skies. Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a dashing cavalryman with a full mustache and pointed beard, rode up to the farm majestically. He quartered a detachment of men overnight in our barn. Soon I heard a firm knock at my kitchen door. It proved to be one of Morgan’s officers.

“Madam, have you flour in your house? You have some hungry visitors. We’ll have to ask you for food.”

I answered him calmly, in a tone as neutral as possible. “Yes, sir, I have flour. How much of it do you want?”

Removing his hat, he appeared embarrassed. Then he explained. “You see, lady, actually we can’t use flour. We are asking you to bake us a batch of bread — a big batch, all the flour you have in the house. We are hungry and we are living off the country as we go.”

“Very well,” I answered, “but it must be made from biscuit dough. There is no time for yeast bread.”

Union Cpt. John Cobb
But when John’s eyes opened with awareness and he murmured “Lu!” the weak smile with which he greeted me left me breathless. The tension was broken. (National Archives)

“Thanks, lady, any kind of bread will do.” The soldier smiled appreciatively and backed away. However, I saw him eying our speckled hens and broods of fryers, and surmised correctly that they would disappear before morning. We baked bread until our backs felt broken and the larder was almost empty — all but what Aunt Sarah had grimly secreted in the attic. She planned not to starve.

Yet it was a relief to be left some property. I began to feel safer, when a commotion in the barnyard brought back all my dread. Three burly soldiers closed in on Polly and slipped a rope over her silky neck. I grabbed the rude halter and turned wrathfully on the three men. “You can’t have Polly!” I stormed. “Let go that rope. Let go, I say!” As I jerked the rope away from them, a sergeant came up.

“But, lady,” the sergeant began apologetically, “General Morgan gave orders we were to take all sound horses we needed, and no mere woman can interfere with us. We are not taking your farm team. We want only the mare and are leaving this Thoroughbred in exchange. He has a sore back and needs a long rest.”

I looked where he pointed. There, standing dejectedly, was a handsome Kentucky gelding, a standard-bred horse whose coal-black coat glistened in the morning sun. I reasoned that there was little I could do against these marauders. Sadly and slowly I released my hold on Polly and suffered her to be led away.

* * *

One morning, Ronald Saxe, Sally’s son, came up and burst out “Pa’s home!”.

As his father had been captured with my John, I grabbed his shoulders. “Why didn’t my husband come with him?” He hesitated. I shook him.

The boy broke into a stream of words. “Pa said he and Cpt. John slipped out of the prison stockade at Winchester the night after you left for Richmond. They got clean away and struck out north as fast as the captain could travel, hiding daytime and walking nights. They forded or swam rivers until they got into Ohio. They rested some and foraged for food too. Then they heard about Morgan’s raid. The captain insisted on going to head off the rebels. They crept up close to one of the rebs’ advance amps below Pomeroy at night. And what do you think? There was Polly, tied to a tree with some other horses.”

“The captain vowed he’d get Polly away from the rebs. Pa couldn’t stop him. That night, the two of them tried to steal Polly and another horse. But Polly gave them away. She neighed when she smelled familiar folks, and the guards pounced on them. They soon found out that your husband was a captain in the Union Army. So they held him. Gen. Morgan, they said, isn’t letting Yankee officers go because they are valuable for exchange. They let Pa go.”

I burst into tears. The boy stole silently away as if he had been guilty of some crime. The slow, creeping paralysis of war was enfolding us. Hours seemed to pass. Suddenly Pvt. Saxe and wife Sally rushed up to the door.

“Morgan was captured not 20 hours after he turned me loose,” Saxe shouted. “There is a chance that his prisoner detail never got back across the Ohio River,” Saxe explained. I sat silently, too tired to think. My gaze wandered out over the field and down the valley road. Suddenly my eyes became riveted to a familiar moving object. I got to my feet and advanced instinctively to the gate.

In a lather of foam, panting with her nostrils aquiver, Polly came to a stop. Her rider flung himself from the saddle. The mare stood motionless while my soldier husband gathered me into his arms.

“Lu!” he cried brokenly, while I could only reply, “John!”

From “One Woman’s Ordeal,” from the July 22, 1961, issue of The Saturday Evening Post

North Country Girl: Chapter 56 — The Accidental Pornographer

For more about Gay Haubners life in the North Country, read the other chapters  in her serialized memoir.

To my astonishment, I had fallen in love with an impoverished, unlovely artist. I was equally amazed that I was able to support myself and my elderly Yorkie, Groucho, in a very modest way by modeling, mostly at trade shows and conventions, passing out pens and pins and smiling at salesmen. One weird modeling job, posing as a girl baseball player for promotion material for a men’s magazine, had sent me on a trajectory to my new love, Michael.

I had almost forgotten about my shortstop gig for Oui, when George, the art director who cast me and then introduced me to Michael, told me to come by his office to pick up my baseball card. I was eager to showcase this photo in my modeling portfolio in case another client ever wanted to hire the world’s most unathletic girl to pose as lady baseball player, or any other job that required me to bend over and stick my butt in the air.

Oui magazine was tucked away on a single floor of the intimidating Playboy building. I found George in his cluttered office, bending over a lightbox with a thing stuck in his eye. After moving several stacks of papers and magazines and portfolios he found my baseball card. After admiring my own sporty ass, which the card claimed belong to “Pam,” I turned the card over to read my bio, along with stats about Oui readers, their youth, their salaries, and the impressive amount of money they spent on cigarettes, liquor, and cars.

“Did you write the stuff on the back?” I asked, which George found amusing. No, he told me. They gave the photos to a freelance writer, along with the reader demographics; the assignment was to fill the rest of the card with amusing, sophisticated fluff.

I was baffled how this hoohaw would sell ad space in a magazine, but I knew that I could write better copy than this, an opinion I shared with George, which he found hilarious. I needed to make more money than I was earning modeling. Michael had asked me to move in with him; for some reason he sweetened his pitch by confessing that after paying this month’s rent and child support he was flat broke. If I wanted any more Indian food dinners, they would have to be on my dime.

I argued my case with George. “Look at what the writer made up for me. My name is Pam? Pam? Why not Babe or The Say Yes Kid? Why didn’t he write that I liked to play the field, or that my favorite stadium snack was foot-long wieners? Or since Oui is so European-flavored, that I preferred playing soccer goalie because of my ball-handling skills?”

George, now laughing even harder, took me over to meet one of the Oui editors, John Rezak, who was equally bemused by the Model Who Mistook Herself for a Writer, but who had plenty of time to talk to a cute girl. It turned out that John was also a poet, and I had enough years of English Lit behind me to be able to listen to him discuss in great detail the inspiration behind his epic poem “Laika,” about the first dog to orbit the earth. After he finished reading me several of his verses, the conversation turned to our favorite poets. I won John over with the fact that John Berryman had leapt to his death into the Mississippi River the first day of my freshman winter semester; had I woken earlier (my dorm window faced the fatal bridge), I might have seen him jump.

Image of the Washington Avenue bridge, overlooking the river and a green lawn.
Washington Avenue bridge. (Wikimedia Commons)

I left John Rezak’s office with my own copy of “Laika” to read when I had an hour or two to kill, and with color Xeroxes of what was officially known as a pictorial, but which was always referred to as a “girl set:” photos of a willowy blonde, nude in pearls, nude sipping a glass of champagne, nude gazing pensively in a mirror. I was to come up with a hot European name for Blondie and write something cleverly erotic (or erotically clever) about her, using the characters that ran below the photos (called greek type) as my gauge for length. In about 250 words, I had to make the model exotic, but approachable, sexy, but not slutty. If John liked what I wrote, I would be paid $200. If not, I would be back to standing next to refrigerators and running scams at car shows and trying to figure out how to cook dinner for Michael and me in a tiny kitchen with a single pot.

I showed up in John’s office the next day, with three names, three nationalities, and three different personalities. I gave all of them raging libidos and bestowed on each a sexy quirk: “Would you kick me out of bed for eating croissants?” “I like a spicy meatball.” “Kiss me. What’s the wurst that could happen?

“It was fun,” I told John. “It’s like writing a sonnet: it has to be pretty and it has to fit in an exact number of lines.”

John sat me down across from him, swept up the piles of paper that covered his desk, and dropped them on the floor. He spread out Blondie’s photos and my typewritten sheets and explained what worked and what didn’t, pulling together the final copy from all three versions. John admitted that he didn’t think that there was a single Oui reader who would even glance at what I wrote, but we had to pretend as if they did and pretend to take it seriously. No wurst jokes. No Dutch girls putting their fingers in dikes.

When we were done, John signed a purchase order for me and sent me down to accounting to request my $200 check. I was now a professional pornographer.

I was a professional in the sense that I — occasionally — got paid. All my work was on spec; sometimes John would read what I wrote, throw it all in the wastebasket, and hand me a different set of photos.

Even with the thrill of those first paychecks for writing, it became harder and harder to come up with sparkling new personalities and exotic backgrounds for the models, who were basically interchangeable: perfect bodies, dewy skin, pouty lips, big sunhats, eyes cast coyly upward — or downward, as if surprised at what they saw between their legs.

A woman model wearing a wide brim hat that covers her eyes. She is making a kissing face.
A typical Oui pose (from the neck up, anyway). (

I was one of several freelance writers; every issue had at least four different girl sets, each six to ten pages. All of us freelancers scrambled to get anything out of the ordinary, anything but nude girl in garden with watering can, topless girl biting her bead necklace, girl stroking feather boa. One day I pulled out of the pile of photos something shockingly different: a guy-and-girl set. This was an anomaly, as the male reader was supposed to look at the photos and picture himself with Miss Oui, not some random dude. (This experiment was short lived; a misguided editor thought that couples might want to look at Oui together.)

Close-up image of David Mamet
David Mamet. (The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC from WNYC Studios, NY / Wikimedia Commons)

The photos were sepia-toned, the setting an old time-y photography studio. The male model kept most of his clothes on, including his hat and spats, while the girl model stripped down to a laced corset, garters, and stockings. I took the mocked-up pages home and had a ball making up a funny, sexy little story to go with the photos and brought everything back to Oui the next day. I couldn’t wait to show John how creative, how talented I was. He read my copy, while I gleefully waited for the compliments and the two hundred dollars. John looked up sheepishly at me and confessed he had given the photos to another freelancer and preferred his version. Of course David Mamet was a better writer of girl copy than I was.

John said, “Sorry. I’ll make it up to you. Pick out something from the front of the book pile.” This was a coup for me. Between the salacious “Letter to the Editor” (“Amelia is one hot piece of ass,” was a typical letter from a sophisticated Oui reader) and the first girl set were six to eight pages of short, supposedly witty pieces usually illustrated with a bikinied or bare-breasted girl. There were also funny photos with clever captions and a handful of reviews.

Covers of Oui magazine. A nude woman peeks from behind vention blinds, and on the other cover there's a woman wearing a fur coat.
Typical Oui covers from June 1974 (Amazon) and January 1974 (Etsy).

I pawed through the piles of stuff on John’s radiator and pulled out a few I thought might be fun. I struck out with my first submissions, but eventually started getting a few pieces published each month. I wrote captions for photos of topless girls playing volleyball or in a string quartet, a bunch of dancing Arabs, a dog smoking a cigar, and I finally scored my first review on a book of album cover art. Funny was encouraged but titillating was mandatory.

Freelancers who were higher up on the food chain got first crack at the books and records that came into the Oui office, or John would write a review himself if it were something by a favorite musician or author. I was never going to be allowed to write a Bruce Springsteen review; even Boston’s album Boston was reserved for a writer with more refined tastes than I had.

But I was accumulating a small jumble of my published efforts, and a few pieces actually carried my byline. I was most proud of my rave review of an English book of humorous sketches, some of which left me scratching my head. (“Minutes from the Annual Labor Conference at Blackpool”?) But it was not my own witticisms that got my review published; it was because John and George loved the book’s cover, which featured a large black swastika appearing under the title Golfing for Cats (apparently the best-selling book subjects are golfing, cats, and Hitler).

“Keep tear sheets of all your writing,” advised John. “It will help you get other freelance jobs.” I had no idea what those jobs would be or how one would go about getting them, but I took his advice.

Michael was thrilled that he could stop introducing me as “My girlfriend the model” and start saying “My girlfriend the writer.” He never mentioned that what I wrote was deathless prose such as “Giselle’s ideal man is a combination of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Paul Belmondo,” running under a photo of a naked brunette holding a book no one but my editor and I noticed was upside down.

Michael, perhaps a bit oblivious to the fact that his ex-wife was an actress, signed me up for a class on Writing Theatrical Reviews, taught by a red-headed roly-poly jester of a man, Michael VerMeulen (the Michaels keep coming). The class was challenging and fascinating; it was like being back in college. Every week, VerMeulen escorted his six students to small, inexpensive theaters to watch plays, including David Mamet’s “The Water Engine,” and then he reviewed our reviews (still mad that he had beaten me out on girl copy, I gave Mamet’s play a well-deserved panning).

It was almost as thrilling as getting a check to once again be handed a bunch of my typewritten sheets with “Excellent! Well done!” scribbled across the top in red ink. I knew these two Michaels, Trossman and VerMeulen, would get along like a house on fire; from the moment I introduced them they were trading quips, engaging in intellectual one-up-manship, and trying to outdrink each other.

Michael VerMeulen had a prodigious appetite for everything. After watching him hoover up an entire cheese plate, I began referring to him as “The Cheese Engine.” His idea of a Bloody Mary was half vodka and half hot sauce, with a splash of tomato juice. He guzzled these as if he enjoyed them, his pale moon face growing ruddier and ruddier as beads of sweat popped about his forehead. When I saw him after he had spent a week in New Orleans, I didn’t recognize him: “VerMeulen, what happened?” I cried out in shock.

Michael shook his three new chins. “Breakfast, midmorning beignets, lunch, afternoon oysters, happy hour, dinner, midnight po’ boys…” Michael VerMeulen went on to have a successful career in magazines, landing a plum spot as the editor of British GQ; then he was found dead with over two and half times the lethal amount of cocaine in his system.

Heroes of Vietnam: My Son, the Soldier

Vietnam SIP CoverThis article and other features about America in Vietnam can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Heroes of Vietnam. This edition can be ordered here.



An American GI and his father in a Vietnam jungle
John and Harold Martin share a short break while out on patrol. (© SEPS)

—This article is excerpted from “My Son in Vietnam” by Harold H. Martin, originally published July 16, 1966, in the Post. The complete story as it appears in the original magazine is available at the end of this article. —

From San Francisco to Saigon, and from Saigon to An Khê, and now, on this rocky footpath leading under tall trees to his foxhole, I kept wondering what to say when I finally found him. Don’t get emotional, I kept telling myself. Don’t embarrass him in front of his friends. Play it cool. Say something flippant, like, “Private Martin, I presume,” or better still, just play it straight. Just say, “Hi, John, how’s it going?”

We came to the crest of a little rise, and Platoon Sgt. Zubrod, who was guiding me, stopped. “There he is,” he said. Thirty yards ahead, three troopers stood around a little fire, drying their rain-soaked shirts. For a moment I didn’t recognize him. From babyhood he had always been a chubby guy, built solid, like a brick. Now he was lean as a summertime rabbit, burned black by the sun. He wore a thin black moustache and dark glasses, and his hair, cut short, was curly.

We were very close before he looked up and saw me. “Good Goddlemighty!” he said. “What the hell are you doing here?” He stuck out his hand.

“I was in Saigon,” I said, “but they kept shooting up the place, so I thought I’d better come up here, where it’s safer.”

He grinned and poked me in the stomach. “What’s with the pot? I had a letter from Mama saying Hollywood was after you for Moby-Dick. They want you to play the whale.”

Suddenly he remembered his manners. “Excuse me,” he said. “Dad, this is David Crosby. He’s on the machine gun with me. And this is Robert Ellsworth. He’s in the next hole, on the 90 mm recoilless. Dave … Bob, the vision you see before you is my father.” He nodded toward the huge platoon sergeant standing beside me. “I see you’ve already met the Papa Bear.”

For a moment I didn’t recognize him. From babyhood he had always been a chubby guy. Now he was lean as a summertime rabbit.

Sgt. Zubrod grinned. “You got everything you need?” he asked me. “Okay, I’ll get on back to the C.P.” With a walk that was remarkably bearlike, he set off down the trail to the log-and-sand-bagged bunker that was, at the moment, the command post of the outfit I’d come across the world to find — the 1st Platoon of Bravo Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) — now deployed 11,000 miles from its home at Fort Benning, Georgia, at a place called An Khê in the central highlands of South Vietnam.

Darkness was coming. We stood on the flanks of a gentle slope; behind us, the rising ground was covered with a thin forest of slim, white-barked trees, with an underlayer of low, thick scrub. Before us, down the slope, was the raw slash of the defense perimeter, 400 feet wide, that encircled the huge cavalry encampment. It was called the Green Line, but there was nothing green about it. Every tree and bush had been cut and burned, and the rough land smoothed off so a crawling man could find no defilade. It was a formidable barrier-in-depth of barbed wire — five rows of great loose rolls of concertina wire fastened to stakes — and between the rows of wire had been planted various explosive devices.

Fifty yards back from the nearest wire were high watchtowers, 30 of them in the 18-mile circuit of the camp. They were manned by machine gunners during the day, and at night by specialists operating sensitive watching and listening instruments. Between the watchtowers were the sandbagged gun pits where riflemen, machine gunners, and grenadiers stood guard from dark till dawn. Back of them, in the woods, were the mortar batteries, and back of the mortars the 105s and the 155s and the big 175s that throw a 400-pound projectile more than 20 miles, and behind them — on a field called the Golf Course — were the helipads where the gun ships stay on call. At the center, protected by all this bristle of guns and wire and minefields, was 1st Cav headquarters — the hospitals, supply dumps, chow halls, chapels, and office tents of division command.

In the other direction, beyond the wire, lay Viet Cong country — swamps and high grass and thin forest land of pine and palm trees where, until a few months ago, “Charley,” the Viet Cong, prowled at will. Now our patrols traversed it by day and set ambushes beside its trails and clearings at night. Far out, 4 miles beyond the wire, was a picket line of scattered outposts, lightly manned but able to bring down flare ships, gun ships, and artillery fire on Charley the moment he was spotted.

The Green Line was a barrier behind which the 1st Cavalry could stay forever, if it chose. From here it could fly its battalions out to harass Charley wherever he might be hiding in the hills, and bring them back to rest and refit in safety. High on the flank of Nui Hon Chu’o’ng, a mountain rising in the center of the encampment, was the mark of permanence — a huge black horse’s head on a yellow field — the shoulder patch of the division done in concrete. It was visible for miles, a defiant challenge to Charley.

Harold and John Martin in a tent.
A poncho hooch and a weapons check to prepare for the coming night and its dangers. (© SEPS)

In the sector where we were, the gun pits were still raw holes dug into the white sandy earth, and it was in one of these that my son and his friends fashioned me a shelter for the night. They stretched a poncho across a corner of the hole where, when not on guard, they slept on the ground beside their guns.

“Okay, Papa-san,” John said. “Blow up your air mattress and throw it down. Use your pack for a pillow and your poncho liner as a cover. Put your canteen close at hand and rub on some bug juice to repel the mosquitoes. Then all you’ve got to do is kick off your boots, and you’re ready for bed. I think I better warn you, though, we’ll probably have company tonight.”

“Charley?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “Sergeant Locklear. He walks the line about two o’clock in the morning to see if the guys on sentry duty are awake, and he always falls in this foxhole. There are other visitors too. Last night I dreamed that I was twiddling my fingers in my hair. It was so real I woke up. Then I realized I was sleeping with my hands folded across my chest. So I reached up and grabbed, and something fuzzy went ‘skeeeek’ and ran down my chest and out of the hole.”

“Did I ever tell you,” I asked, “about the time on Okinawa when the rats ate Captain Buchanan’s moustache?”

“Yes,” he said, “you told me.”

“It just goes to show,” I said, “that down on the rifleman’s level, wars don’t change very much.”

All up and down the defensive line, though, as the platoon got ready for night, it was evident that this war had changed from anything I remembered. In a cleared place in front of the platoon C.P., helicopters were whirring in, dropping their loads of weary, sweat-soaked troopers. They’d been out all day, John explained, working out a new way of dropping men in rough terrain. Before, they had been going into clearings, or open paddies in the valleys. In forest country, these clearings were rare, and Charley had rigged them with booby traps and encircled them with guns.

“It makes for a pretty hairy operation,” John said. “The choppers go in low and flare out over the drop zone. If the drop zone’s full of logs and brush and downed trees, you have to jump from the chopper while it’s hovering maybe 6, 8 feet off the ground, and with all the gear you are carrying, you hit with a hell of a thump. Being the machine gunner, I’m the first out, and as I jump out, I feel the chopper begin to lift. Sometimes the ammo bearer, who is the third guy out, jumps from a chopper that’s already 12 feet in the air. He hits like a watermelon rolling off a kitchen table.

“Since there’s a good chance Charley’s got a welcoming committee waiting, there’s always a lot of shooting before we get there,” he said. “The artillery’s first. Then the gun ships go in with rockets to beat up the brush around the drop zone, and the gunners in the choppers are firing as they come in. Sometimes, when the landing zone is too rough, we go down rope ladders, but this takes longer and the chopper pilots sweat it. It keeps them in the area too long.”

The newest technique, he explained, gives an airmobile outfit a great deal more flexibility in its assault landings. The choppers now hover over the forested hilltops, and the troops slide down into and through the tree canopy on long nylon ropes, using the same rappelling technique which enables mountain climbers to bounce down the sides of steep cliffs. This frustrates Charley, who can’t guard every hilltop in the highlands.

It was nearly dark as the last helicopter landed. John brought his machine gun down from the tower to set it up for the night. A slow drizzle began to fall as he set up the gun. Fascinated, I watched him, a stranger to me now — a professional working at his trade.

A soldier holds a grenade launcher while his father looks on.
The author watches his soldier-son demonstrate the correct use of a grenade launcher. (© SEPS)

Through the drizzle a slim, blue-eyed sergeant appeared, trailing a thin wire behind him. Beside the gun he laid a rubber-covered device that looked like a hand stapler. John introduced us. “Sergeant Richardson has been out in the wire, arming the claymores,” he explained. Richardson reached into a sandbag and pulled out a putty-colored curved device, the size and shape of the back of a stenographer’s chair. “It’s a plastic explosive,” he said, “with little lead balls imbedded in it. You can burn it, shoot it, stomp it, or drop it and it won’t do anything. It takes an electric charge to set it off. That’s what this thing here is for. It’s the detonator. You attach it to this wire that leads to the claymore and squeeze it, and blam — old Charley gets his butt full of marbles.”

Off to the east, a bright star suddenly blazed in the sky, hung for a moment, and began a slow descent, silhouetting the distant hills.

“Flares,” John said. “Somebody out on the picket line thought he saw something, or heard something, so he asked for some light. You see that gap over there? The highway from here to Pleiku runs through it. Charley loves to set ambushes there. And we love to set ambushes for Charley there. So nearly every night there’s a lot of shooting in the pass.”

A shadow loomed above the hole.

“How many fillers you need?” a voice said.

“Three,” John said.

“You get two,” the voice said. Then, in a hoarse whisper, “the password’s ‘Coffee — Song.’”

The big shadow moved away, leaving two smaller shadows standing in its place. They were the “fillers” — clerk-typists from the artillery batteries who pulled guard duty on the barrier line with the shorthanded rifle platoons.

I stood the first watch with John. We talked in low tones, while behind us the mortars coughed and the howitzers banged, and the deep explosions shook the hills. I remembered the decision that had brought him here.

“I guess that answers a question I was supposed to ask you,” I said. “About how you’d feel about transferring out of this outfit. I know a guy …” I stopped, and there was a long silence.

“No,” he said. “Leave it alone. I appreciate it. But I trained with these guys, and I came over here with ’em, and I fought Charley with ’em. I was in the hospital with a bunch of them. So I think I’ll see this through … with these same guys … as long as I’ve got to stay over here.”

I asked him how long that was, and he said he didn’t know for sure. The tour was a year, and every man can tell you, to the day, how much of the year he still has to serve. But, John told me, there was a big fat rumor going around that, for the guys who had been in combat, it was going to be cut to 10 months. “If that’s true,” he said, and you could hear the hope in his voice, “I’ve got it made. My tour started the day I cleared San Francisco — November 28, 1965.”

“I’ve got more respect for Charley than I have for anti-war demonstrators. At least Charley will fight.”

The length of his tour is about the only facet of U.S. policy that profoundly concerns the foxhole soldier. He does not waste time philosophizing about whether this is a just war or not. He’s in it, and there’s nothing he can do about it but fight, and survive if possible.

“What do you think about when you are standing guard out here?” I asked.

“Home mostly,” he said. “Wondering if the reality of getting back will be anywhere near as good as the dream.”

We talked on. He seemed to feel not anger, but a pitying contempt for the anti-war demonstrators. “People say they ought to be drafted and sent over here,” he said. “We don’t want ’em. Nobody would want to go into combat having to depend on one of those guys.”

“Actually,” he said, “I’ve got more respect for Charley than I have for those people. At least Charley will fight, and when you think about what he’s got to fight with, you wonder how he keeps resisting. No air, no real artillery except anti-aircraft weapons, nothing but small arms and a few mortars. No way to get about except on his two flat feet, wrapped in old tire retreads.”

“The time your platoon got ambushed — was there anything you didn’t tell us?”

“Not much,” he said. “We came down off the ridge into a dry paddy, and Charley let loose. I got zapped in the leg and crawled down a ditch toward a big water-filled hole where old Papa Bear was assembling the wounded. I found another guy in the tall grass and pulled him along. We finally got air strikes in there, and they smashed Charley, and the medevac choppers came in and lifted us out.”

By now it was 11:15. John moved off in the black dark to wake the artilleryman who would take over the guard.

Dawn came like a Chinese painting, with a gray mist drifting in the hollows of the distant hills. David Crosby, who had the last watch, went out to disarm the claymores, and the men of the night patrol, their green fatigues black with rain, came home through the mists like tired ghosts.

At the end of the company street, John peeled off the muddy, sweat-stained greens he’d been sleeping in for a week and stepped under the thin warm trickle of the improvised shower. Just above the knee, on the side of his left leg, I saw the long, red scar where the bullet had gone in, traveling upward through the thigh muscle. Just below the hip joint was a longer scar where the doctors had cut the bullet out.

“Judas Priest!” I said. “You did get zapped.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Next time it’s my turn.” He soaped happily. “Don’t get the idea, though, that I’m thirsty for revenge. If I never see Charley again, it’ll suit me fine.”

Late that night the platoon got the word that it had been looking forward to, half in eagerness, half in dread. The safe, but boring, days were over. The 2nd Brigade, to which the battalion was attached, was leaving the Green Line. The next morning, Bravo Company would move out on a 10-day search- and-destroy operation in country somewhere north of Pleiku.

“‘Search and destroy’ is like killing sharks in the Gulf Stream,” a trooper from Florida said. “You chum some bait and throw it overboard, and when the shark comes around, you shoot him. But he usually gets a bite or two of the bait before you kill him.”

In these operations the infantry serves as bait. Since Charley is essentially a guerrilla, he will not do battle unless he is sure he has the advantage. To tempt him to show himself, therefore, the searching units are small. When he does reveal his position, the world falls in on him. Planes and helicopters roar in with napalm and rockets, and artillery pounds him mercilessly. The Viet Cong dead may number 40, 50, 100, or more. American losses will be described as “light” or “moderate,” which they well may be in terms of the division, the regiment, or the battalion engaged. But the squad or the platoon which ran into Charley in the first place may have been pretty well wiped out. The planes and choppers don’t always get there quick enough.

On the night before the operation, Capt. William A. Taylor, commander of Bravo Company, called his platoon leaders to his tent to brief them on their mission. The area the brigade would be going into, he said, was supposed to contain a corps headquarters, protected by at least a company — perhaps by a battalion — of Viet Cong. There were Montagnard villages throughout the area, he said. They were fortified and believed to be unfriendly.

“But,” he added, “remember this when you check out the villages — DO NOT FIRE UNLESS YOU ARE FIRED UPON. I repeat: Do not fire on any village unless you get fire from there.

“Another thing,” the captain went on. “There will be no fraternization. Nobody will go into a native hooch for any purpose except to check it out.”

It was almost midnight before the briefing ended. In the BOQ tent, Lt. Keith Sherman, age 23, commander of the 1st Platoon, sat down to write his wife a letter. Down the company street the word of the company’s mission had spread fast. From the squad tent where John slept came the sound of singing. As I came into the tent, John looked up and saw me. “Come in, Papa-san,” he said jovially, making room for me on the bunk. “Sit down.” He took the canteen cup from another trooper and handed it to me.

The gulf that lies between the generations betrayed me. “You better get yourself physically prepared,” I said. “Why don’t you guys knock off the yodeling and get some sleep?”

There was a sudden silence. In the dim light of the candle, they looked very young, but they were not children to be scolded and sent to bed. I tried to cover up. I stood up and pretended to yawn. “Sorry,” I said, “I keep forgetting that you guys are about 30 years younger than I am. At your age you don’t need sleep.”

He followed me as I went out into the company street. We stood there for a moment in the dark. Finally, “Look, Dad — about tomorrow,” he said. “Patrolling off the Green Line is one thing — that country around there is pretty well secure. Tomorrow will be different. We’ll be in Viet Cong country. And if you get in tall grass and lose the man in front of you —”

“I get the message,” I said, “but don’t worry. I didn’t come out here to try to fight the war with you. I’m not that stupid. I wanted to try to tell the people back home how the plain old dog-faced, dragtailed, dead-eyed, bone-tired, foxhole soldier lives as he fights this war.

“So, about tomorrow — don’t sweat it. I’ll make the assault landing with you. Then I’ll stay in the landing zone while you guys strike out through the boondocks. And unless something comes up, I’ll leave you tomorrow night.”

GIs patrol a river in Vietnam.
On patrol with his son, Martin leanred that Americans avoid the easy river fords — where the Viet Cong often set ambushes. (© SEPS)

I thought, when he said good night, that he sounded ­relieved.

Morning came early. To a chorus of birdsong, the company moved out along a rocky road to the field where the helicopters waited. Climbing aboard, the troopers fell strangely tense and silent. There was no wisecracking, no horseplay. For many of them this was their first operation. For others, including John, it was the first since the ambush at Bông So’n had decimated the 1st platoon. Out of 37 men, two had been killed and 24 wounded; of the wounded, John and eight others had returned to duty. Silently they climbed in, settled back against the bright-red nylon web of the backrests, dropped their chins on their chests, and went to sleep.

There was a roar and a blast of blessedly cool air as the choppers lifted. In the open ports, machine gunners hung on their safety straps, watching the ground below.

I stood up and peered over the chopper pilot’s shoulder. Soon below us we saw the gun ships swimming back to base. Ahead was the landing zone they had just finished pounding. Dust and smoke rose from it, and there was fire in the brush, for the preparation had been thorough. Artillery, fixed-wing planes, helicopters, each in turn had pounded it. Now, as the gun ships pulled away, the lift ships roared in. We flared out, touched down, and the troopers poured out the back of the Chinook and landed running, headed for the brush. The chopper lifted and was gone. And all at once I was alone in an open field, in an eerie silence.

I headed for the bushes to the east of the field. Soon I saw men with weapons moving ahead of me in the thicket. The battalion sergeant major came up. The colonel was asking about me, he said. I followed him to where Lt. Col. E.C. Myers, the battalion commander, was making a quick check of the area. Back with troops after a tour in the Pentagon, he had the look of a happy man. Nearby there was the muffled boom of an explosion and a billow of yellow smoke. The troops, moving through the brush, were tossing smoke bombs into the openings of a network of tunnels. When the smoke cleared, he said, men would go in to check them out. But they looked as if they had been abandoned. Everywhere, in the open field where we landed, there were square holes, hip-deep, dug in the red earth, and in the bottom of these holes, sharpened bamboo stakes had been set in place. But the holes had not been covered over with the thin covering of twigs, earth, grass, and leaves that would turn them into deadly traps. Charley, it was obvious, had recently been here, and in considerable numbers. But he had gone.

“Souvenir,” he said. “Take it home for me, please, and hang it on the wall in my room.”

Pretty soon there was nothing else for us to talk about.

“Well, so long,” I said. “I’ll be seeing you around Christmas, I guess.”

“I hope so,” he said. “Give mother my love.”

“I will.” I stood there a minute, trying to think of something else to say. “You guys take care of each other, David,” I told his friend.

“We’ve done it so far,” Crosby said. “We’ll keep on.”

As the chopper soared up, heading for Pleiku, I saw among the shattered trees below the raw earth of a new foxhole. A trooper was standing beside it. It might have been him. I couldn’t be sure, for it was getting dark and beginning to rain. He, or one of his buddies, it didn’t matter. They are all good men.

Postscript: John Martin made it home safely the following year and finished out his military career with distinction, training new recruits for their own tours in Vietnam.

—“My Son in Vietnam,” July 16, 1966

Article clipping
Read “My Son in Vietnam” by Harold H. Martin. Published July 16, 1966 in the Post.

1963: Beatles Invasion!

The Beatles
At a Miami Beach press conference, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison bug a fisheye camera.

It was 50 years ago that the Beatles entered Abbey Road Studios in London to begin a marathon recording session. Out of the 10 songs they recorded, they immediately released “Please Please Me.” Sales in the U.S. were so poor, the song didn’t even appear on the music charts. Yet one year after the recording session, the Beatles arrived at New York’s Kennedy International Airport to be greeted by 3,000 screaming fans.

Even now, it’s hard to understand how the Beatles managed to rise to such stardom in so short a time. For three years, they had been playing dockyard bars in Liverpool, England, and Hamburg, Germany. Then, in the space of few months, they started appealing to the American imagination and built an army of screaming, adoring fans.

This sudden fame surprised the world. It also surprised the Beatles. (Asked what he thought about their sudden popularity, John Lennon replied, “I think everyone has gone daft.”) But it didn’t surprise America’s pundits and commentators, most of who were ready with a quick explanation; the Beatles were just a passing fad, another teenage craze like the one inspired by Elvis. The only thing that distinguished this group was their haircuts, which seemed to elicit endless criticism from adults.

Among the critics was Vance Packard, who wrote “Building the Beatle Image” for a March 21, 1964, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Packard was an investigative journalist who had written best-sellers about status, conformity, and advertising in America. Like many critics, he attributed the popularity of the Beatles’ music to its ability to set parents’ teeth on edge. But Packard saw something other commentators missed: the Beatles had an “exciting sense of freshness. … Surliness is out, exuberance is in. … Pomposity is out, humor is in.”

The humor came through repeatedly in the Beatles press conferences, where John, Paul, George, and Ringo turned the question-and-answer sessions into spontaneous comedy routines.

Q: How did you ever decide on a name like The Beatles for the group?
John: Well, I had a vision when I was 12, and I saw a man on a flaming pie, and he said, ‘You are Beatles with an A.’ And we are.

Q: What’s the rudest question you’ve been asked?
Ringo: The rudest was, someone said to me, ‘How are you doing, John?’
John: That’s not rude.
Ringo: (jokingly) Well, it was an insult.

Q: The airport police were quite concerned about some oversized roughnecks who tried to infiltrate the crowd.
Paul: That was us!

Q: A psychiatrist at one of your concerts in Seattle said the effect on the children—14,000 kids in there—he called it unhealthy, and he said you had a neurotic effect. How do you feel about this?
John: It was probably him that was unhealthy, watching it.

Q: John, how would you describe yourself in one word?
John: I don’t know.
Paul: ’John.’
John: ’John,’ yeah. Thank you.

Q: What do you think about the criticism that you are a bad influence?
Paul: I dunno, you know. I don’t feel like a bad influence. (to John) Do you?
John: Nah, I think you’re a good influence, Paul.
Paul: Thank you, John.

Q: As you’re confined to your room all day, what do you do?
George: Oh! Tennis and water polo.

Q: Have you been heckled at all? Have you ever had …
Paul: Oh, yeah! We used to have it in—especially in the early days! But John—John had a perfect answer! What was it …? ‘Shut up!’

Q: I must tell you, by the way, that Detroit University have got a ‘Stamp Out The Beatles’ movement.
George: I know, yeah.
John: Yeah, we heard something about that.
Paul: We’ve got a ‘Stamp Out Detroit!’
Q: They think your haircuts are un-American.
John: Well, it was very observant of them because we aren’t American, actually.
Paul: (laughs) True, that.

Q: How long do you think Beatlemania will last?
John: As long as you all keep comin’.

While the Beatles could charm reporters, their comic improvisations wouldn’t have made them so popular. It was their music—a bright sound with fresh melody lines, interesting harmonies, and a strong beat (so strong, Packard noted, that you could still follow it amid the screams of their fans.)

They also had a healthy borrowing of several American musicians. Years later, John recalled that he wrote “Please Please Me” after hearing Roy Orbison singing “Only The Lonely.” He was suddenly motivated to write an “Orbison song.” For lyrics, he recalled an old Bing Crosby song he’d heard as a child, “Please, lend your little ear to my pleas.”

When he performed it the recording studio, he sang the descending melody line—“Last night I said these words to my girl”—while Paul sang a high note in harmony. It was an effect he freely admitted he’d borrowed from the Everly Brothers.

Before flying to America where the Beatles were so noisily received, Paul McCartney worried that the group had nothing to offer. Americans already had their own groups. “What are we going to give them that they don’t already have?” The answer was talent, hard work, imagination, and the intelligence to musically borrow from the best.