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Neil Armstrong over Vietnam

Posted: September 16, 2012 - 12:03am

Did you wink at the full moon on Aug. 31? It was an appealing and quirky little salute to astronaut Neil Armstrong, requested by his family after his death on Aug. 25. Of course we would honor Neil Armstrong with a wink! If we’re old enough, we sat before our televisions transfixed as Armstrong exited the Apollo 11 lunar module to take man’s first step onto the moon. But there were no televisions for Americans fighting in the jungles of Vietnam in 1969. They heard about it over two-way radios. And like all American troops in wartime, they cracked jokes.

My friend Ted Moore was a 1st Lieutenant in Vietnam on July 20, 1969. He told me the following story in an email, and it’s too good not to share.

“The moon walk has a special memory for me and I’d like to share it with you. I need to set the stage first, so that the story might make sense. I was in the most remote parts of Vietnam in 1969 and we received little news of the moon landing, or for that matter, most major events. Our big boss was a regimental advisor named Col. Tansey — West Point, three wars, and the voice from hell. My sergeant and I were the youngest advisory team in the area and for some reason Tansey liked us, and tolerated our 20-year-old attitudes. A typical exchange between Tansey and me by radio while in the field will illustrate. He was almost always in a chopper and we were on the ground (in the mud, lost in the jungle, etc.).

Tansey: Aardvark Six, are you standing at attention when I’m talking to you?

Moore: Oh yes sir. And we’re awaiting your next instructions.

Tansey: Well I’ll give you some instructions! Get those people spread out! Otherwise one round will get all of you, and I’ll be doing paperwork until I retire.

Moore: Sir, the men are deploying as you speak. And sir, we certainly appreciate your concern for our safety.

Tansey: You smart alec. You lieutenants are ruining my Army. Out.

“We had a similar exchange dozens of times, and fellow advisors on other teams could not understand why he put up with us. He always began with ‘Aardvark Six, are you standing at attention...?’ We didn’t realize what he was doing until one day...

Tansey: Aardvark Six, are you standing at attention when I’m talking to you?

Moore: Negative. (No smart alec answer this time. We were in a mine field and things were tough.)

Tansey: What is it, lieutenant? What are you not telling me?

“I explained our situation to him once we had time to manage our predicament. It was now clear why Col. Tansey had engaged in juvenile banter with a couple of young grunts. In all the similar exchanges before, when our answers were fluent wiseguy, he could tell that our frame of mind was okay. But when I did not answer with a smart alec reply, he knew something was wrong. His banter was in fact an effort to diagnose and assess. I learned much from this.

“Now it’s July 1969. We were settling down for the evening in a ‘night defensive position’ in the field, and Tansey’s voice comes on the radio. He was clearly enthusiastic as he shared the news that men were walking on the moon! Then my smart alec sergeant went for the radio — I could see in his eyes he was up to something.

Sergeant: On the moon? That’s way out of range for us. See if 2nd battalion can engage them! Out.

“I figured my future was over and that Colonel Tansey would be enraged. Of course, my sergeant did not identify himself on the radio, but it was clear Tansey would have recognized his voice. I waited several seconds, which felt like hours, for Tansey to respond. Then finally...

Tansey: Aardvark Six (long pause)... are you standing at attention when I’m talking to you?”

• Megathlin is a Savannah writer and coordinator of the Adopt-a-Soldier program. Email her at carol.megathlin@comcast.net. Email Ted Moore at wted.moore@gmail.com.

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