Copyright 2002: Dick
Guthrie. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)
Introduction Whenever most
people think of a military officer, the role that springs to mind instantly is the
challenging, rewarding and satisfying assignment in command of a troop unit in the field
in combat. The command of a platoon, company or battalion is a privilege that you long
remember and is often seen as the pinnacle of one's career... or even of one's life. But
not every task is combat and not every job is command. While a company commander leads
from the front, achieving objectives is usually the result of hard, demanding, unsung work
by junior officers, NCOs and troops who are led from the rear by a long-suffering, capable
and effective odd-couple, the energetic executive officer (XO) and the wise first
sergeant. The XO is the principal assistant to the commander; a good XO frees the
commander to focus on the combat mission. Dick Guthrie's short story on his XO Howie
Pontuck captures the attributes of a good XO.
What first caught your attention was the square jaw and a face lit up most
of the time by a wide, toothy grin. Grey, deep eyes smiled along with the mouth, and the
whole was topped by a cropped shock of curly brown hair. Watching him walk you sensed a
feline grace in the movement of his short, muscular frame; it was testimony to his time on
the West Point Gymnastics team. His speech was soft and so slow and laconic sounding you'd
have guessed him to be from the Deep South until your ear caught the unmistakable Brooklyn
dialect. He had a personality that everyone, everyone liked immediately.
After I left command of B Company, we of course exchanged perfunctory farewells at the
little ceremony he organized for me the first time the unit was back at Landing Zone
UPLIFT. By then I was already in my new job with battalion. Some weeks later I went to
Hawaii for my week of "Rest and Recuperation" to meet my new daughter, and when
I returned to Vietnam Howie was gone. The "infusion program"- a surrealistic
accommodation to the mindless policies for manning units in that conflict - had
transferred him to a unit somewhere down near Saigon.
In mid-march company B's mail clerk came shyly into the sandbag bunker where my duties
then kept me most of the time. One look at SP4 Victor Caruso's glum face in the dim light
of the Tactical Operations Center told me his news was not good.
"Cap'n, I just got the word that LT Pontuck bought the farm," he blurted in a
Too shocked to respond, I told the Operations Sergeant I was going outside and nodded to
Victor to follow me. In the blinding sunlight I put an arm around his shoulder as he
stared at the ground without speaking. I asked for more information, but Victor had few
details. I knew from experience that his contacts at Division Headquarters had been highly
reliable in the past, and it was probably futile to hope they had gotten it wrong in this
My mind went numb, choked with all I had not said to Howie, that dedicated professional
soldier and too-sweet, too-gentle human being. He had commanded the company at Fort Hood,
and I had been lucky to keep him as my executive officer when I took over. Our
personalities could not have been more different, and this made us a harmonized team
ideally suited to run our outfit. I was sometimes arbitrary and a stern disciplinarian. I
felt I had to be exacting, as looseness invariably cost men's lives over there. Howie
supported my attention to detail, but he did so in a softer manner that blunted some of my
rough edges, greased the wheels a bit.
He was a tireless champion for the soldier when the occasional bureaucratic blunder would
leave a man without pay or would send allotments to the wrong address. He had an almost
psychic ability to anticipate what the company needed at any point in time and a dogged
way of persisting until he got our needs satisfied. In the field, if we ran low on water
and there were no resupply aircraft available, Howie would mobilize the supply truck with
a couple of men to secure it and drive Route #1 to a rendezvous point to deliver water to
a platoon sent across the paddies. Usually by the time I asked, he already had the
Most often he came out to the company with the evening supply run. We'd conduct business
as required, then he'd move around the perimeter joshing the other officers and mixing
with the troops one-on-one. He'd ask about relatives and girlfriends, and give quiet words
of encouragement until it was time for him to climb on the back-haul bird.
He also was a world-class scrounger who could take a couple of captured rifles off to the
air base at Phu Cat and come back with two steaks for every man in the company. Our first
meal back in the firebase was always special, thanks to Howie's hustle. Through some other
horse-trading I never asked about, he got us a generator to run our ice-cube machine. This
made us the only company on UPLIFT with our own way to cool the cokes and the daily one
beer per man.
There is no glory in being executive officer of a rifle company, no medals, no chances to
lead the charge. If that bothered Howie, he never let it show. I could go on, but
anecdotes about how he operated don't come close to describing how much he really
contributed. A tireless mother hen in the shadows, he made taking care of us look easy
when in fact he juggled a highly complex set of tasks. His unflagging support to me and to
the soldiers of Company B eased our load in ways we never appreciated. He was there when
we needed him and he never once let us down.
My regret is that I didn't say so more often than I did.
Copyright 2002 Richard Guthrie,
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