FARMERS & FREEDOM: When Bells of Freedom Ring, Farmers Among First To Answer Call
By Darryal Ray
If anybody was going to know about mules, the Army must've figured, it would be an Alabama farm boy.
|Albert F. Caley holds sketch of himself as a young soldier, drawn by a Chinese man in a village his unit visited during the Burma campaign of World War II.|
So they shipped Albert F. Caley Jr., the farmer's son from Marion Junction, Ala., off to the 613th Field Artillery Battalion, where he'd spend much of World War II holding onto a pack mule's tail as it climbed up a mountainside.
That suited Caley just fine -- he didn't want to be a hero anyway.
"I've got one ambition, and that's to get out of this war alive," the young buck private once told his commanding officer during the Burma campaign.
But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor just months after Caley went off to study agriculture at Alabama Polytechnic Institute, he did just what farmers have done throughout history -- he quickly answered the call of duty.
It's a call that has taken farmer-soldiers into jungles and deserts, mountains and oceans as they fought in wars and conflicts all over the world.
"I believe farmers really understand more about the freedoms we have than most segments of society because a farmer is independent," says poultry farmer Hal Lee of Morgan County, who flew both gunships and B52 bombers during the Vietnam War and now serves as the Alabama Farmers Federation's north area vice president. "A farmer makes his living by his own decisions, his own ingenuity, his own work ethic. He relies on himself, and because of that, he understands freedoms better than most of society."
"Most farmers -- at least the ones I know -- their core beliefs are freedom and patriotism. They love their country," says Dallas County Farmers Federation President Sam Givhan, whose low-flying reconnaissance during the Vietnam War drew fire on almost every mission.
Caley, Lee and Givhan are but a few of the many Federation members who have gallantly served their country during times of war. Almost every county Federation has combat veterans.
The list continues to grow as a new generation of soldier-farmers steps up, people like Shep Morris Jr., whose father is president of the Macon County Farmers Federation. With four years in the Coast Guard behind him, Shep Jr., is now a first lieutenant with the Alabama Army National Guard and will be deployed in November to Afghanistan where he'll be piloting CH-47 Chinooks. And soldiers like Sgt. Dan Duncan, son of Butler County Federation President Tom Duncan and wife Julie, who is back battling Taliban forces in far northern Afghanistan after being wounded by shrapnel earlier this year.
"We watch the news a lot, and we look on the Internet to see how things are going, especially in that region where Dan is," says Tom Duncan, whose other son, Tom Jr., received a medical discharge after breaking his hip. "Anytime the phone rings, it scares you. Sometimes, it makes it hard to sleep at night."
As America celebrates Independence Day 2009 amid threats from beyond and within her borders, the stories these farmer-soldiers have to tell should bear notice, lest we forget the sacrifices made and those in the making.
Caley, a former president of the Dallas County Farmers Federation who'll mark his 86th birthday July 30, says time has already erased some of his memories of the Burma campaign. "I never did worry about details anyway," he says. "I got out of the Army alive, and I said, 'Let's just call it good from here.'"
He downplays his own role, but mule drivers like Caley were part of a military history of which books are written and movies made. His unit "took over" after Merrill's Marauders, an all-volunteer unit whose ranks were so decimated by the harsh conditions and battles behind enemy lines in Central Burma, was disbanded. Its mission: Sever the Japanese supply lines along Burma and Lido Roads. "We didn't win the war ourselves, but we had a little slice of it," Caley says modestly.
For one thing, it was the 613th that helped recapture the airbase at Myitkyina after the Marauders left. "After that, they told us we were going to head out through the mountains -- 'ain't no way back, we've got to keep going.' They didn't tell us we were going behind enemy lines."
Up they went, through dense jungles and harsh terrain with pack mules laden with artillery pieces, ammunition and supplies. "You weren't supposed to grab their tail to go up that mountain," Caley says. "I got 'busted' many times for doing that, but I figured that mule had four legs and I only had two."
So narrow were some of the steep, muddy mountain trails that even the normally sure-footed mules sometimes stumbled -- at least 30 of them fell to their death some 200-300 feet below.
"We didn't worry about bombs because we controlled the air, but shrapnel is what we worried about," he says. "I lost one mule to shrapnel -- got him before it got me. I didn't argue with that."
Years later, it was another war, another generation of farmer-soldiers answering freedom's call. Army 1st Lt. Sam Givhan of Safford arrived in Vietnam on April 16, 1968. Almost immediately, he began flying night reconnaissance along the Cambodian border, flushing out enemy troops by dropping flares and sometimes by firing rockets from his Cessna 01 Bird Dog.
Many times, the enemy replied with machine guns and mortars. He was awarded the Purple Heart when enemy fire blew out his plane's windshield and sent shards of glass into his face. Just seven months after his arrival in 'Nam, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for service during Operation Seven Mountains.
Stopping only long enough to return to base and refuel, Givhan ignored inclement weather conditions and .50 caliber machine gun fire as he located enemy firing positions, directed gunships, adjusted artillery and directed med-evac helicopters trying to retrieve wounded soldiers from the mountainous area.
"We had people that were wounded on that mountain, and we were trying to get them out," Givhan says. "It was a hairy night with a lot of tracers coming up after you. It was just part of life, an everyday part of the job.
"I was very lucky, very lucky that I didn't get hurt bad -- not like some of my friends that I lost," adds Givhan, who left active duty as a captain. "Everybody says that war affects different people different ways, but I came home and went to work."
Thirteen months after Givhan's harrowing Seven Mountains feat, an eager young Air Force first lieutenant from Morgan County arrived in Tuy Hoa in central Vietnam on the South China Sea. "The first day there I walked into the headquarters office and they introduced us to the guy who was doing the scheduling," Hal Lee recalls. "The only question I had was, 'When are we going to start flying?' The man said, 'When do you want to start?' I said, 'I came to fly. I want to start as quick as possible.' And he said, 'you'll fly with me tomorrow night.'"
It was just what Lee wanted to hear. Before he knew it, he was piloting a Shadow Gunship, an old AC119 cargo plane that had once carried paratroopers but had been retrofitted with four mini-guns. "If an Army unit in the field or at an outpost was getting attacked, they'd call us, and we'd fly circles around them and use firepower to protect them," Lee recalls. "We kept a lot of GIs from getting killed. A lot of GIs."
Lee remembers one outpost on the Ho Chi Minh Trail where his was one of eight crews and five gunships that pounded the enemy relentlessly for 45 nights. "We fired a million and a half rounds of ammunition around that little outpost in 45 nights," he recalls. "And that's not counting the bombs that were dropped in the daytime. We could put a bullet in every square foot of a football field in four minutes."
Of course, Lee got in on the bombing action himself. After his first tour in Vietnam, he returned home and learned to fly B52s. After five months of training, he headed off to Guam where the B52s would load up with bombs before heading back over the unfriendly skies of Vietnam.
"In B52s, you flew at high altitudes and dropped bombs and didn't have any personal contact with that man on the ground," said Lee. "In the gunships, you had personal contact with that soldier on the ground and when you were talking to him and he told you, 'Thank you for coming' ... well ..."
Today, Lee makes it a point to personally thank soldiers he sees in uniform. "I think too many people do not understand how you maintain the freedoms that we have," he says. "They've always been able to come and go and do whatever they want to do, pretty much. But they don't understand the sacrifices that folks have made so that they can do those things."
A.F. Caley, however, understands those sacrifices. He's looking forward to a reunion of the 613th Field Artillery Battalion this September. "It will probably be the last one," he says. "I hope I'm well enough to make it."
For now, Caley is just proud to be living in the land of the free and the brave.
"When I see an American flag flying, I get a feeling that's ... I don't know ... it's something built in," he says. "We don't have enough of that patriotism anymore. Everything is gimme, gimme, gimme, but freedom isn't free."
Want to show your support for America's soldiers? Visit AnySoldier.com or ThePurpleHeart.com.