The Sergeant Major was the hardest soldier I have ever met. We respectfully called him Smadge, and he was terrifying. He was comparable parts patriot and psychopath. To understand the Smadge you should appreciate what made him what he was.
For Smadge, killing was a profession. He invested his entire life preparing his mind and body for this mission. Unlike many professional soldiers, however, he found ample opportunity to put his remarkable skills to work.
Smadge was not a terribly imposing man physically, maybe five-nine in sock feet. However, his was a hard, sinewy form. He held a black belt and seldom spoke above a whisper. However, I never saw anybody, regardless of rank, who did not fall silent and listen when he had something to say.
If Smadge was feeling frisky he had a way of greeting young soldiers who encountered him in the hallway. I would nod and wish him a good day. In an instant, he would have me against the wall, his stubby rock-hard fingers around my larynx. He would then smile through tobacco-tainted breath and wish me a good day in return. He treated all of us young studs the same.
An Awkward Social Encounter
Smadge did three combat tours in Vietnam. His last was with some kind of spook mob. I never got the details, but he spoke fluent Vietnamese and once told me he looked good in black pajamas. His earlier trips were with the 101st Airborne.
Smadge’s firebase was once overrun during a night attack. The VC were inside the wire. As a young NCO Smadge ran from position to position distributing ammo and coordinating defenses.
Smadge vaulted over a small berm and came face to face with a VC soldier armed with an SKS. Illuminated by the flames from burning fougasse there was a pregnant pause.
Smadge then snapped his M16A1 rifle up and shot the man eighteen times in the chest. He told me never to load my magazines to their full capacity. Our mags are hugely better today. If I recall correctly, Smadge took home a Silver Star after that night’s work.
Another time a distant firebase was under concerted attack and in desperate need of reinforcement. Smadge and his unit assaulted into the outpost via Huey slicks.
Smadge said that upon touchdown he reflexively dove into the nearest bunker. The bunker’s sole living occupant was a North Vietnamese soldier with an AK.
In his own words, “Imagine my surprise. There was Chuck. This wasn’t Chuck’s bunker. I was embarrassed, Chuck was embarrassed. It was awkward, so I shot Chuck in the face with a burst from my CAR15 and didi mau’d.”
Of his time with the spooks, Smadge was much more circumspect. He once told me that only one other member of his small team remained alive and that he ran a gun shop someplace. Smadge said he usually carried an AK47 and once killed a man with his Kabar. He never volunteered details, and I never pushed.
I once brought Smadge an M1 Garand just to show it off. He had the weapon detail stripped before I could find a chair. However, he still nonetheless respected the M16.
The product of a terribly small enterprise in 1956, that first black rifle was originally a proof of concept of sorts. Gene Stoner, Bob Fremont, Jim Sullivan, and a few others contrived the revolutionary Space Age weapon while in the employ of ArmaLite, a tiny subsidiary of Fairchild Aircraft Corporation.
ArmaLite never meant to build guns in quantity. Theirs was a design enterprise. The original 7.62x51mm AR10 begat the 5.56x45mm AR15. The zippy little .223 cartridge that spawned the 5.56x45mm round was also a Gene Stoner invention. Production of the AR10 was farmed out to the Dutch Company Artillerie Inrichtingen.
Dutch AR10 rifles saw service across sundry African brushfire wars. A few made it as far as Cuba. The AR10 was briefly considered during the trials that ultimately led to the M14.
In 1959 ArmaLite sold Colt the rights to the AR15. Colt adapted the design for mass production and aggressively marketed the weapon to the military. The most obvious change involved moving the charging handle. The first commercial contract for the resulting M16 was for 300 rifles that went to Malaya in September of 1959.
Those earliest M16 rifles lacked a chrome-plated bore and sported some well-documented reliability problems. In 1967 the M16A1 variant was introduced with a chrome-plated tube and an enclosed birdcage flash suppressor. Smadge was an absolute Nazi for weapons maintenance. He said the M16 could be a reliable weapon, even in the jungle, but that it required a great deal of attention to remain so.
Smadge’s CAR15 was technically designated the XM177E2. Designed as part of the CAR Military Weapons System in 1966, the XM177E2 was an effort to turn the M16 rifle into a submachine gun. The collapsible stock and carbine-length gas system of that original XM177E2 can be found in today’s M4 Carbines.
These early guns had 10-inch (XM177E1) or 11.5-inch (XM177E2) barrels. The muzzle blast from these stubby tubes was absolutely breathtaking. Now that the revolutionary Pistol Stabilizing Brace allows us mere mortals to run rifle-caliber pistols we all have a chance to taste that sort of chaos.
Those early XM177 rifles included a flash moderator to help keep the blast in check. These moderators alter the gun’s report enough for the BATF to consider them registerable sound suppressors. Original moderators are rarer than honest politicians today.
Vietnam was dirty with captured AK47 rifles. They came in from a variety of sources and were not uncommonly bartered among American forces.
For covert operations, the benefits of the AK47 included ready availability of captured ammunition and a report that was indistinguishable from threat weapons. The AK47 is widely extolled as the world’s most reliable autoloading combat rifle.
A Fine Line
Smadge was a warrior who took his responsibility to mentor young soldiers seriously. Though undeniably intimidating, he remained nonetheless approachable. I once in innocence asked him what it was like the first time he killed somebody. It was a newbie pogue question, but I was a newbie pogue. He quietly responded with, “In the Army or before?”
Smadge grew up without a dad in a big city fraught with violence. His first kill was during a gang fight as a teenager. A bat was his weapon and a garbage can lid his shield. He said his biggest concern at the time was getting caught. When he realized he had literally gotten away with murder he said the experience wasn’t as morally burdensome as he had expected.
He told me that when the guy you kill is actively trying to kill you it takes a lot of the moral pressure off. He had twenty-seven confirmed that he knew of from Vietnam. In quiet moments, however, you could tell there was still something unsettled there.
Before reading further, keep in mind the circumstances. These guys lived every day in the shadow of violent death. Smadge was on a jungle patrol when he came across the body of a VC soldier leaning against a tree. The unexpected encounter nearly scared him out of his skin. The VC looked asleep. Upon further investigation, the unfortunate Charlie had caught a large-caliber round behind the ear that had taken the back of his head off.
Seeing inspiration in the moment Smadge produced his Kabar. He carved out the guy’s eye sockets, broke his arms, and stuck the dead man’s own fingers through his eye holes from behind. He carefully arranged a 101st Ace of Spades death card between the fingers and somebody snapped a photograph.
Smadge thought this hilarious and even sent a copy of the picture home to his wife. People living in comfort, peace, and security shouldn’t pass moral judgment on those who are in the suck. Theirs is a different universe. Sometimes the demarcation between patriot and psychopath can at times seem thin.
The Rest of the Story
The most dangerous thing in the world is a Private with a gun and a badge. Smadge once had a bit too much to drink at the NCO club and was confronted by three MPs while walking home. One of the cops made the mistake of poking him in the chest with a nightstick.
A friend who was there told me that Smadge put down all three MPs before heading home. The post SWAT team arrived later and took him into custody without a struggle. Smadge was allowed to retire without further incident. Six months later he died of a brain tumor.
The country needs hard men like Smadge. What they do in their world does not translate well into ours. That’s one of the reasons I think imbedded reporters are a bad idea. Americans in their living rooms don’t need to see what happens downrange. They can never hope to understand.
Smadge was the hardest man I’ve ever known. I wouldn’t trust him around the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but he’s the guy you’d want alongside you in a fight. An eclectic combination of Chuck Norris, John Wayne, and SSG Barnes from the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, Smadge was every bit the warrior.