Deacon, What's This?

by Richard Dieterle

One of the more interesting characters that I met in Vietnam was R. He was a very short young man, of a rather slight frame, and wore thick glasses. He had trouble throwing a hand-grenade, so we strongly discouraged him from the practice, but he did it anyway. The procedure with respect to grenades is to yell "fire in the hole!" when you are throwing one; if the enemy throws one at you, you are supposed to yell, "grenade!" When R. threw a grenade, we always yelled, "grenade!" When I was selecting ammo bearers from the pool of replacements after the firefight of March 25, he was one of the candidates. After explaining how arduous it was to carry machinegun ammo, I asked for volunteers. He raised his hand. I told him flatly that he would find it difficult to carry 400 rounds because he was so small, but this did not deter him. He later told me that he had volunteered for Vietnam because he wanted to avenge his best friend who had been killed earlier in the war. He was definitely a go-getter, probably a lot braver than he was otherwise equipped to be; just the same, you had to admire his courage and determination.


One day, probably in early May, 1968, we set up in an area covered with a strange scrub brush that reached no higher than a foot off the ground, but tended to spread three or four feet horizontally. The ground was almost pure white sand, so it was easy to dig in. Before we even got started digging our foxholes, I looked up and saw a dozen people scurrying away in a funny Groucho Marx kind of gait. This was usually indicative of an explosion at a distance or remote sniper fire. So I looked in the direction that everyone was running from, and there stood R. "Deacon, what's this?" he yelled. There he was holding a 61 mm mortar shell in his hand, and attached to the point of the shell was a steel trip wire! He had picked up a booby-trap with the wire still attached. There is a reason why they are called "booby-traps," the word "booby" being obsolete slang for a gullible idiot. I told him to freeze and not move a muscle. Then I walked over to him and we very gently put the booby trap back on the ground. I figured that since it hadn't gone off when he lifted it wire and all, it would not likely go off if we gave the trip wire slack. Once we had it back on the ground, we put a claymore mine next to it. This was standard procedure. When the mine was detonated, it caused the booby trap to explode as well. It was probably an expensive way to detonate mines, but it was completely effective. All in all, this was probably the strangest incident that occurred to me in the whole war.

Back in the mid-sixties, there was a popular movie entitled the "Blue Max." The Blue Max was a medal awarded to members the Luftwaffe in WWI who had downed 21 or more planes, so-called after an ace by the name of "Max." It carries the inscription, Pour le Mérite, "for Merit." In the infantry there is no equivalent, probably because the true counterpart — 21 enemy killed — is a bit too gruesome to celebrate, and almost an impossible figure to rack up. A couple of combat medals in the American Army are derived from medals for meritorious service. The Army Commendation Medal, when affixed with a "V" device, represents the lowest level recognized for valor in combat. A higher level is recognized in affixing a "V" device to the Bronze Star Medal. I thought that for a change we should recognize conspicuous failure, or rather a persistent and denumerable series of failures, each rather like the corresponding antithesis of downing an enemy plane. I modestly named this award after myself: the Blue Deacon, and to insure that it was not merely for unmeritorious service, I caused the award to be affixed with an "F-device," the "F" standing for "Fuck-up." It is otherwise, Pour le Demérite. Private R. was the only man ever awarded the Blue Deacon with F-device in recognition of 21 or more fuck-ups, the crowning one being his discovery of the mortar shell booby trap. One day when we were back on an LZ, interested members of the platoon formed up. It was a pretty good turn out. R. was a good sport about it, and smartly marched to the front of the formation, where, after a ceremonious reading of how he had gone below and beneath the call of duty, he was awarded the Blue Deacon with F-device, pour le demérite. We actually made up a medal, and I pinned it on him. Later everybody congratulated him and we had something of a celebration. R. deserved some recognition, after all he almost gave his life for his country.