The Sierra Sage
By Len Semas
“Always do everything you ask of those you command.”
– General George S. Patton
By Len Semas Main Feature 7/15/2016
“Achievement has no color”
10000 South Virginia
Reno, Nevada 89511
Officer Candidate School
It was something I always assumed I would do. My dad served as a Navy“Seabee” in South Pacific during WWII. I had uncles who served in each of the military branches. I received a deferment from service to attend college. Now it was my turn; it was a duty, not a choice. It was 1969 and the Vietnam War was raging; still, it was my turn - I would take my chances as others had before me and as many would who followed.
Having served in leadership roles throughout my life, I naturally assumed I would do so in the military. There were three paths to becoming a military officer: the military academies, ROTC in college, and Officer Candidate School (OCS). Since I was not an academy graduate and had forgone ROTC in college, OCS was the path available to me. I would be the first in my family to become a military officer, as I had been the first to graduate from college.
I first went to the Marine recruiters; though the smallest branch, they were the elite. They had a waiting list for their officer program, however, which did not avoid the military draft, and I wanted to enlist with an officer program, not be drafted without any choices. I went next door to the Army. They had a program for college graduates which guaranteed admission to - not graduation from - OCS. It required an additional year of service; 3-years rather than 2-years required of draftees and enlisted volunteers.
Being an Officer
Upon graduation from OCS one is commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant. I had just turned 23 years-old when I was commissioned, with potential responsibilities as a platoon leader responsible for 40-50 soldiers in a combat setting. That awesome responsibility had not yet set in. Serving as an officer is a privilege; it is earned, and represents the best in leadership for the many more who serve in the ranks of our military.
Basic Combat Training (BCS)
I entered the Army like any other draftee or recruit - as a Private (E-1)… the Army’s lowest rank. I was sent to Ft. Ord, CA and attended the same BCS program as all others: 3 months of Basic Training and 3 months of AIT (Advanced Infantry Training). We learned the basics of combat: marching, following instructions, marksmanship, close quarter combat/bayonet skills, dealing with gas attacks, handling grenades and other small arms, up to .50-caliber machine guns and rocket launchers. The idea of being in combat and getting killed started to sink in.
Fort Belvoir: Engineer School
I completed BCS and was recognized as the Outstanding Trainee Leader in my company. Now it was time to move to the next phase and the one for which I had enlisted: OCS. There were about ten guys in my company who had signed on for OCS; a couple changed their minds and continued in enlisted status. All the others received orders to attend Infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, GA. I was to attend Engineer OCS at Ft. Belvoir, VA. (just outside Washington, D.C.).
I found out later that, because Engineer OCS was more academically rigorous, dealing with mathematics, engineering design and construction, and chemical/biological warfare, my degree in biology and chemistry might have been a factor. It turned out to be a stroke of luck as most non-combat branches were commissioned out of Ft. Belvoir as well as engineers.
Path to Leadership
OCS was a rigorous, physically and mentally demanding program of about 6-months duration. My timing was “perfect,” catching both the heat and humidity of Virginia in August-September and the winter snow and cold in December. While there was some continuation of the combat related skills learned in BCT, OCS kicked things up… a lot.
There were three general areas of training and evaluation: intellectual, physical and emotional. The intellectual comprised everything from sweeping minefields to constructing bridges and every other engineering project needed on the battlefield. It was about 50-50 classroom and field work. The physical began the first day of arrival and continued every day almost until graduation. We ran - never walked - everywhere. If we were caught walking, we were dropped for punitive push-ups or other physical drills. I went into OCS weighing a pretty in-shape 185 pounds; I came out weighing 165. The emotional was perhaps the most important skill and measurement. We were taunted, tormented and pushed to limits daily in one way or another. If we weren’t in class, we were in the field; if we weren’t in the field, we were doing PT drills; if we weren’t doing PT, we were cleaning barracks and spit-shining shoes to a mirror finish. The barracks were not clean unless Tactical Officer (TAC Officer) Lt. Rosencrantz could unscrew a light switch cover plate and swipe a white glove coming out clean. The emotional challenge was considerable, with one classmate - a Sergeant E-6 with two combat tours - dropping out after 6 weeks.
There were three roughly equal phases of OCS, equivalent to sophomore, junior and senior grades in school They were marked by small plastic tabs inserted under the brass “OCS” insignias worn on our collars. Initially, we wore the brass insignia only. After completing the first phase successfully, we received our “white tabs.” This was both a visible sign of achievement, and a small let-up in the demands placed upon us daily; we were treated with a modest degree of respect and accorded small benefits (initially, hot water for showers was considered a benefit).
Being awarded red tabs was a big deal, and was accorded the respect of the more junior candidates. At that point, you had earned both the standing and privileges of being upperclassmen, including off post leaves. Most importantly, receiving red tabs was a sign that you had all but graduated.
The Longest 24-Hours of My Life
To earn our red tabs, we had to complete one last test: a grueling all-day field project, followed by the Escape and Evasion (E&E) exercise… and a bit more.
The morning started in an unusually civilized manner. Walking to breakfast and eating at an abnormally pleasant pace. We assembled afterward and were met with a couple of 5-ton trucks which transported us to the field location, somewhere near the Potomac River in the woods of Virginia about 8-miles away. It was a cold crisp day, which would turn into a moonless night blanketed in snow. We arrived at the field location and were given an orientation on the day’s activities. We would be divided into squads of about 10-12 men and each squad given a construction problem. My squad was to build a timber trestle bridge across a small ravine, sturdy enough to handle a tank which would be driven over it. After the tank test, the bridge would be blown up using C-4 explosives and detonation cord, properly affixed for a clean drop.
We were advised that “enemy” combatants would be roaming the woods and conducting attacks and using CS gas; we should be prepared to return fire (blanks) and employ gas masks as necessary. Failure to perform could result in being over-run by the enemy, captured and taken to “POW camp.”
Now nothing travels faster in OCS than rumors, and the rumors about the POW camp and treatment meted out were legendary. Captive candidates faced an assortment of punishments - including water-boarding - designed to inflict pain, elicit fear and introduce a realistic simulation of a real camp, without inflicting actual wounds. It was something to be avoided at all cost. The costs would soon become apparent.
We commenced our field activities, with occasional “attacks” including gas. We had a field lunch, with guards posted to protect against further attacks - lunch breaks were well known to invite enemy attention. We successfully repelled all attacks and continued our assigned tasks. Following an afternoon break, we completed the requirement for a tank to cross our bridge. There was never a doubt. That was followed by a relatively quick task of demolishing all our morning’s work, with the bridge coming down swiftly and completely.
It was beginning to get dark when all the squads were reassembled for dinner. In the winter Virginia woods, it would get darker still, until I could barely see the hand on my outstretched arm. We were given maps, along with our compasses and flashlights to make our way to the base camp, avoiding the dreaded POW camp which was in an unknown location along the way. In addition, we had full field gear back-packs weighing about 60-70 pounds and an M-16 rifle.
At last light, we were turned loose to complete our trek of about 2 miles, and avoid getting caught. There would be both roving and stationary enemy elements, requiring both rapid but quiet movement. There were roads to cross, but traveling down them was a sure way to capture.
My squad moved along the road routes, but several hundred yards removed.
About the midway point, we came to a swamp. There was rifle fire and screaming on both sides of the swamp, clearly designed to funnel us into enemy hands. We decided to cross the swamp, apparently water moccasins were less of a threat than the POW camp. We crossed ankle deep water which then rose to our knees, then to our thighs and then to our waists. It was at that point that the wisdom of our decision fell into question. We were committed, however, and fortunately the water level gradually dropped, with our brilliance restored.
A few hundred yards away, we could see the light of campfires and hear yells and screams. Were they friendly or hostile signs? We moved slowly closer, until we could make out laughter among the yelling. We had made it. Red tabs were not far off.
One last Test
I don’t recall a single man captured from our company, but the fear of that possibility has kept my memory dim on that subject all these years. In any event, we were reassembled and ready to be trucked back the barracks - we thought. Apparently, Lt. Rosencrantz thought that fending off the enemy and enduring gas attacks, building and demolishing bridges, and surviving the swamps of Virginia filled with snakes and bad guys wasn’t enough to prove our mettle. So, we ran - or rather, stumbled, the 8 miles back to our barracks. With full packs… and rifles at “port arms” (held in front of one’s chest). No one broke ranks; the success of the team was the over-riding lesson of the military. No one finishes, unless all finish. So, as I ran - er, stumbled - I looked to my left, to my right, in front of me. No one fell out, and there was no way in hell that I was going to.
We arrived at the base, where Rosencrantz had us take a lap around the PT field for good measure, and then as a final (we thought) capstone to the ordeal, to “low crawl” the 100 or so yards back to our barracks. In the snow. For a moment, it felt good to lay in the snow. That moment soon passed. It was cold as my body lunged forward a foot at a time, at one point cracking the rifle against my chin, leaving a small trail of blood in my path.
We all completed this last trial… all but McNamara, who was always a bit slower than the rest. He remained struggling about 10 yards behind. A voice yelled out, “C’mon guys, we’re all coming in together - with McNamara.” We had learned our lesson well.
Not So Fast
The red tabs were all but in our hands. We did it all - well. We earned those tabs. We stood first at attention, then “at ease,” as Rosencrantz walked by, all of us feeling a bit smug with accomplishment. Rosencrantz turned and addressed us in that “uber” professional manner we had learned to both admire and hate, “There will be a full field gear inspection at 0800 hours.
It was now about one in the morning. In seven hours, we were supposed to have the barracks spotless, weapons cleaned and stacked, tents erected and all gear cleaned and laid out, boots spit shined. He turned and walked away. No one groaned or complained. We divided the work into teams. We worked throughout the night - to perfection.
At 0800, we stood at attention in front of our tents with rifles stacked and all gear and the barracks cleaned to hospital standards. Rosencrantz walked down the line, kicking over a rifle stack and pointing out a speck of food on someone’s mess kit. He stood in front of me with his nose almost touching mine, stepping on the mirror finish of the toe of my boot. “Semas, that is the worst shine I have ever seen.” He smiled smugly and walked on. He then addressed the company with one last tormenting test. “You have not shown performance at the level expected of red tabs.” He turned and walked away. If anyone had live ammo, I’m pretty sure a round would have been fired.
We did get our red tabs about a week or so later, enduring insults from other companies for our “failure.” It wasn’t until graduation day that Rosencrantz became a human being. I saluted him as I received my commission and he said, “Semas, you did well. You are ready to lead.”
Commissioning and Good Fortune
I graduated seventh in a class of 85 candidates and was designated a Distinguished Military Graduate, and eligible for a Regular Army commission. I served as a member and then president of the Battalion Honor Council (the “Supreme Court” of OCS). There was a tradition of honoring the top 10% of candidate’s choice of branch, and mine was Adjutant General Corps with Engineering as my second choice.
Upon graduation and commissioning as a 2nd Lieutenant, the Army offered candidates an option to defer combat service in Vietnam. In exchange for an additional year of service, I would not go to Vietnam until my last year and would be promoted to Captain. It sounded like a good deal so I accepted. As good fortune would have it, I ended up not going to Vietnam, not serving the additional year, though not making Captain. I’m proud of having served my country and giving up three years of my life, and I would do it again. Even that one day that was that hardest 24 hours of my life.
To all those men and women who have served, and especially to those who were tested by combat. All gave some, and some gave all. They are, and always have been and always will be, America’s greatest and America’s most worthy. God Bless them all as He has ‘blessed this country.