A Tribute To Samuel R. Bird
I met Captain Samuel R. Bird on a dusty road near An Khe, South
Vietnam,one hot July day in 1966. I was an artillery forward
observer with Bravo Company, 2nd/12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry
Division, and I looked it. I was filthy, sweaty, and jaded by
war, and I thought, "Oh, brother, get a load of this". Dressed in
crisply starched fatigues, Captain Bird was what we called
"squared away" - ramrod straight, eyes on the horizon. Hell, you
could still see the shine on his boot tips beneath the road dust.
After graduation from Officer Candidate School, I had sought
adventure by volunteering for Vietnam. But by that hot and
dangerous July, I was overdosed on "adventure", keenly interested
in survival, and very fond of large rocks and deep holes. Bird
was my fourth company commander, and my expectations were
somewhat cynical when he called all his officers and sergeants
together. "I understand this company has been in Vietnam almost a
year and has never had a party," he said. Now we officers and
sergeants had our little clubs to which we repaired. So we stole
bewildered looks at one another, cleared our throats and wondered
what this wiry newcomer was talking about. "The men are going to
have a party," he announced, "and they're not going to pay for
it. Do I make myself clear?" A party for the "grunts" was the
first order of business!
Sam Bird had indeed made himself clear. We all chipped in to get
food and beer for about 160 men. The troops were surprised almost
to the point of suspicion - who, after all, had ever done
anything for them? But that little beer and bull session was
exactly what those war-weary men needed. Its effect on morale was
profound. I began to watch our new captain more closely.
Bird and I were the same age, 26, but eons apart in everything
else. He was from the sunny heartland of Kansas, I from the
suburbs of New York City. He prayed every day and was close to
his God. My faith had evaporated somewhere this side of altar
boy. I was a college dropout who had wandered into the Army with
the words "discipline problem" close on my heels. He had
graduated from The Citadel, South Carolina's proud old military
If ever a man looked like a leader, it was Sam Bird. He was tall
and lean, with penetrating blue eyes. But the tedium and terror
of a combat zone take far sterner qualities than mere appearance.
Our outfit was helicoptered to a mountain outpost one day for the
thankless task of preparing a position for others to occupy. We
dug trenches, filled sandbags, strung wire under a blistering
sun. It was hard work, and Sam was everywhere, pitching in with
the men. A colonel who was supposed to oversee the operation
remained at a shelter, doing paper work. Sam looked at what his
troops had accomplished, then, red-faced, strode over to the
colonel's sanctuary. We couldn't hear what he was saying to his
superior, but we had the unmistakable sense that Sam was
uncoiling a bit. The colonel suddenly found time to inspect the
fortifications and thank the men for a job well done.
Another day, this time on the frontlines after weeks of awful
chow, we were given something called "coffee cake" that had the
look and texture of asphalt paving. Furious, Sam got on the radio
phone to headquarters. He reached the colonel and said, "Sir, you
and the supply officer need to come out here and taste the food,
because this rifle company is not taking one step farther." "Not
a good way to move up in the Army," I thought. But the colonel
came out, and the food improved from that moment. Such incidents
were not lost on the men of Bravo Company.
During the monsoon season we had to occupy a landing zone. The
torrential, wind-driven rains had been falling for weeks. Like
everyone else I sat under my poncho in a stupor, wondering how
much of the wetness was rainwater and how much was sweat. Nobody
cared that the position was becoming flooded. We had all just
crawled inside ourselves. Suddenly I saw Sam, Mr. Spit and
Polish, with nothing on but his olive-drab undershorts and his
boots. He was digging a drainage ditch down the center of the
camp. He didn't say anything, just dug away, mud spattering his
chest, steam rising from his back and shoulders. Slowly and
sheepishly we emerged from under our ponchos, and shovels in
hand, we began helping "the old man" get the ditch dug. We got
the camp tolerably dried out and with that one simple act
transformed our morale.
Sam deeply loved the U.S. Army and its traditions. Few of the men
knew it, but he had been in charge of a special honors unit of
the Old Guard, which serves at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in
Arlington National Cemetery, and participates in the Army's most
solemn ceremonies. He was the kind of guy whose eyes would mist
during the singing of the National Anthem. Sam figured patriotism
was just a natural part of being an American. But he knew that
morale was a function not so much of inspiration as of good
boots, dry socks, extra ammo, and hot meals. Sam's philosophy was
to put his troops first. On that foundation he built respect a
brick at a time. His men ate first; he ate last. Instead of
merely learning their names, he made it a point to know the men.
A lot of the soldiers were high school dropouts and would-be
tough guys just a few years younger than himself. Some were
scared, and a few were still in partial shock at being in a
shooting war. Sam patiently worked on their pride and
self-confidence. Yet there was never any doubt who was in charge.
I had been around enough to know what a delicate accomplishment
that was. Half in wonder, an officer once told me, "Sam can dress
a man down till his ears burn, and the next minute that same guy
is eager to follow him into Hell." But he never chewed out a man
in front of his subordinates.
Sam wouldn't ask his men to do anything he wasn't willing to do
himself. He dug his own foxholes. He never gave lectures on
appearance, but even at God-forsaken outposts in the Central
Highlands, he would set aside a few ounces of water from his
canteen to shave. His uniform, even if it was jungle fatigues,
would be as clean and neat as he could make it. Soon all of Bravo
Company had a reputation for looking sharp.
One sultry and miserable day on a dirt road at the base camp, Sam
gathered the men together and began talking about how tough the
infantryman's job is, how proud he was of them, how they should
always look out for each other. He took out a bunch of Combat
Infantryman's Badges, signifying that a soldier has paid his dues
under fire, and he presented one to each of the men. There wasn't
a soldier there who would have traded that moment on the road for
some parade ground ceremony.
That was the way Sam Bird taught me leadership. He packed a lot
of lessons into the six months we were together. Put the troops
first. Know that morale often depends on small things. Respect
every person's dignity. Always be ready to fight for your people.
Lead by example. Reward performance. But Sam had another lesson
to teach, one that would take long and painful years; a lesson in
I left Bravo Company in December 1966 to return to the States for
a month before joining a Special Forces unit. Being a big tough
paratrooper, I didn't tell Sam what his example had meant to me.
But I made a point of visiting his parents and sister in Wichita,
Kansas., just before Christmas to tell them how much he'd
affected my life, and how his troops would walk off a cliff for
him. His family was relieved when I told them that his tour of
combat was almost over, and he'd be moving to a safe job in the
Two months later, in a thatched hut in the Mekong Delta, I got a
letter from Sam's sister, saying that he had conned his
commanding officer into letting him stay an extra month with his
beloved Bravo Company. On his last day, 27 January 1967 - his
27th birthday - the men had secretly planned a party, even
arranging to have a cake flown in. They were going to "pay back
the old man". But orders came down for Bravo to lead an airmobile
assault on a North Vietnamese regimental headquarters. Sam's
helicopter was about to touch down at the attack point when it
was ripped by enemy fire. Slugs shattered his left ankle and
right leg. Another struck the left side of his head, carrying off
almost a quarter of his skull. His executive officer, Lieutenant
Dean Parker, scooped Sam's brains back into the gaping wound.
Reading the letter, I felt as if I'd been kicked in the stomach.
I began querying every hospital in Vietnam to find out if Sam was
still alive. But in June, before I could discover his fate, I was
in a fire fight in an enemy controlled zone. I had thrown four
grenades. The fifth one exploded in my hand. I lost an arm and a
Nearly a year later, in March 1968, I finally caught up with Sam.
I was just getting the hang of walking with an artificial leg
when I visited him at the VA Medical Center in Memphis,
Tennessee. Seeing him, I had to fight back the tears. The wiry
smiling "soldier's soldier" was blind in the left eye and
partially so in the right. Surgeons had removed metal shards and
damaged tissue from deep within his brain, and he had been left
with a marked depression on the left side of his head. The
circles under his eyes told of sleepless hours and great pain.
The old clear voice of command was slower now, labored and with
an odd high-pitch. I saw his brow knit as he looked through his
one good eye, trying to remember. He recognized me, but believed
I had served with him in Korea, his first tour of duty.
Slowly, Sam rebuilt his ability to converse. But while he could
recall things from long ago, he couldn't remember what he had
eaten for breakfast. Headaches came on him like terrible
firestorms. There was pain, too, in his legs. He had only partial
use of one arm, with which he'd raise himself in front of the
mirror to brush his teeth and shave.
He had the support of a wonderful family, and once he was home in
Wichita, his sister brought his old school sweetheart, Annette
Blazier, to see him. A courtship began, and in 1972 they were
married. They built a house like Sam had dreamed of - red brick,
with a flag-pole out front. He had developed the habit of
addressing God as "Sir" and spoke to him often. He never asked to
be healed. At every table grace, he thanked God for sending him
Annette, and for "making it possible for me to live at home in a
In 1976, Sam and Annette traveled to The Citadel for his 15th
class reunion. World War II hero General Mark Clark, the school's
president emeritus, asked about his wounds and said, "On behalf
of your country, I want to thank you for all you did." With
pride, Sam answered "Sir, it was the least I could do." Later
Annette chided him gently for understating the case. After all, he
had sacrificed his health and career in Vietnam. Sam gave her an
incredulous look. "I had friends who didn't come back," he said.
"I'm enjoying the freedoms they died for."
I visited Sam in Wichita and phoned him regularly. You would not
have guessed that he lived with pain every day. Once, speaking of
me to his sister, he said, "I should never complain about the
pain in my leg, because B.T. doesn't have a leg." I'd seen a lot
of men with lesser wounds reduced to anger and self-pity. Never a
hint of that passed Sam's lips, though I knew that, every waking
moment, he was fighting to live.
On 18 October 1984, after 17 years, Sam's body couldn't take any
more. When we received the news of his death, a number of us from
Bravo Company flew to Wichita, where Sam was to be buried with
his forebears. The day before the burial, his old exec, Dean
Parker, and I went to the funeral home to make sure everything
was in order. As Dean straightened the brass on Sam's uniform, I
held my captain's hand and looked into his face, a face no longer
filled with pain. I thought about how unashamed Sam always was to
express his love for his country, how sunny and unaffected he was
in his devotion to his men. I ached that I had never told him
what a fine soldier and man he was. But in my deep sadness I felt
a glow of pride for having served with him, and for having
learned the lessons of leadership that would serve me all my
life. That is why I am telling you about Samuel R. Bird and these
things that happened so long ago.
Chances are, you have seen Sam Bird. He was the tall officer in
charge of the casket detail at the funeral of President John F.
Kennedy. Historian William Manchester described him as "a lean,
sinewy Kansan, the kind of American youth whom Congressmen
dutifully praise each Fourth of July and whose existence many,
grown jaded by years on the Hill, secretly doubt." There can be
no doubt about Sam, about who he was, how he lived and how he
led. We buried him that fall afternoon, as they say, "with
honors". But as I walked from that grave, I knew I was the
honored one, for having known him.
: [Editorial Note]
Annette probably didn't know that General Mark W. Clark's son,
like Sam, was disabled by wounds as a young captain company
commander in the Korean War, and was awarded the Distinguished
Service Cross for his heroism. [return to