Legendary football coach Woody Hayes and actor Jimmy Stewart are just two of the celebrities Bud Northcutt met while serving in Vietnam. Northcutt is shown here (far right) with Stewart, his wife Gloria, and a staff member in the late 1960s. -- Special Photo
Auburn graduate Col. Bud Northcutt retired in 1979 after 30 years of service in the U.S. Army. His colorful military life included coaching all-black baseball, basketball and football teams in Germany while serving as an S2 intelligence officer, using his mastery of civil engineering on various construction projects, conning the Grim Reaper more than once in Vietnam, rubbing elbows during the war with legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and Oscar-winning film star Jimmy Stewart, flying choppers while his pilot dozed, and testing the patience of Russian diplomats as a 007 operative during the Cold War.
Born in Gorgas, Ala., and a graduate of Parrish High School in Jasper, his 2nd lieutenant bars were earned from Auburn's ROTC program in 1949 with the Korean War looming on the horizon.
"I volunteered for Korea," Northcutt stated. "But I ended up at Camp Rucker, Ala., with the 293rd Engineer Battalion."
As part of an all-black unit commanded by white officers, Northcutt and the 293rd boarded a ship in New Orleans and sailed for Germany with their equipment and Northcutt's 1949 Chevy convertible.
"Officers were allowed to take private vehicles," he said. "One guy took a Cadillac; the thing was a block long."
At Hohenfels, Germany, near the Czech border Northcutt and his unit demolished unoccupied villages to build a tank training ground.
"Things were fine," he stated. "But my troopers got into a pretty big ruckus one day while I was away in Nuremburg and we were politely asked to get the hell out of Hohenfels."
Assigned to the 311th Engineer Group at Kaiserslautern as an S2 Intelligence Officer, Northcutt coached and scouted for the regimental football team.
"Frankly, that was a pretty cushy assignment. We played cards in the morning and played sports in the afternoon," he said.
With full integration by 1952, Northcutt was told there may be trouble.
"There wasn't any trouble," he said. "The transition was smooth, plus we fielded championship teams."
Leaving the Army, he worked for Alabama Power and Republic Steel in Gadsden until 1957.
"That was boring," he said. "I went back into the Army and served with the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C., 517th Terrain Detachment; five officers and six enlisted men, mapping places where we had no maps, like Cuba and Africa. Now, that wasn't boring at all."
Sent to Korea as the company commander of an engineer battalion for 13 months, Northcutt and his crew paved roads on the volatile 38th parallel that separated North and South Korea. Political upheavals in the southern capital of Seoul made travel on nearby roads dangerous. Northcutt had a solution.
"I made friends with a helicopter pilot, then agreed to pave around their dusty landing pad. I had airborne transportation from then on," he said with a smile.
From 1960 to '64, Northcutt attended the school of Mine and Metallurgy in Rolla, Mo., and earned his degree in civil engineering before receiving a masters degree.
"The world was my next port-of-call," he said. "As part of the 39th Engineer Group, I built roads and runways in Germany, Yugoslavia, Libya, Africa, France, Italy, until assigned to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth."
A fellow classmate at Leavenworth advised Northcutt, "Bud, no need for either of us to study too hard, we're not going to make the top 5 percent." Northcutt was a lieutenant colonel. His classmate, a major, graduated second out of a class of 1,500 -- future General and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Northcutt said, "Yeah, I guess Colin eventually outdid me."
Pulled out of class in 1968 to ask if he would consider a command assignment in Vietnam, Northcutt recalled, "Shoot yeah, I took it. Every officer in our class wanted a command assignment in Vietnam."
Northcutt arrived at Can Tho in the Mekong Delta in May of '68. Assigned as company commander of the 69th Engineer Battalion, he would be building bridges and roads again, but this time while dodging rockets and mortars and sniper fire."I agreed to build a chow hall at Can Tho if I could get the use of a chopper. The pilots agreed, but 90 percent of them stayed drunk and refused to fly up to Chau Doc or down to Rach Gia because of the danger. One did agree because he loved to fly, but as soon as we were airborne he said, 'take over the stick' and fell asleep. I kept yelling I couldn't fly a chopper, but he replied, 'Yeah, ya can' so, hell, I just did my best. When we arrived at our destination I told him to take over and land but he replied, 'You land it.' Shoot, we argued about it until I just let go of the stick. He was quite a character."
Building modern roads proved difficult. Most of the existing roads dated back to the 1800s and had potholes large enough to swallow a truck. Equipment left unguarded at night became targets of saboteurs; shelling became routine.
"A young officer didn't want a company command, but he was forced to take it," Northcutt said. "He parked his jeep that night across the river in Binh Minh beside a conex container for safety. A shell took him out and wounded 20 others. We found an unexploded round, a dud, in the middle of our 55-gallon fuel storage dump. The entire base would have been lit up if that round had exploded."
Another incident, all too familiar with Vietnam veterans, still haunts his memory.
"Local farmers would bring out a mortar at night, lob about five rounds into the base, wrap up the mortar, hide it, and return to their village. We couldn't fire back because it was a 'friendly' village. That's a helluva way to fight a war," he said.
Ohio football coach Woody Hayes and actor Jimmy Stewart visited the Mekong Delta, talked and ate with the troops.
"Those two were the real McCoy, unafraid, caring, and patriotic. Ya gotta love them," he said.
Daredevil Northcutt asked a buddy, a Cessna A-37 Dragonfly pilot in Bien Hoa, if he'd allow him to fly with him on a bombing run. His buddy agreed. The zone was "hot," and the Dragonfly made eight bombing runs. When asked if he enjoyed the ride, Northcutt replied, "I was sick as a dog."
His chaplain helped orphans; his base doctor tended the sick and delivered local babies in adjacent villages.
"We were in a war, we did what we had to do, but don't tell me the American fighting man isn't compassionate. We're the most compassionate army on earth," Northcutt said.
From Vietnam Northcutt went straight to Turkey.
"I was assigned to CENTO," he said. "That was an international organization, including Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Great Britain and the U.S. Of course, the Rumanians, Bulgarians, and Russians joined the cocktail parties, too."
Asked by a Russian diplomat, Ivan Biriotchikov, to "provide" information to the U.S.S.R. for $50,000, Northcutt agreed after being briefed by military Intelligence.
"Yep, there I was; America's version of James Bond, but no beautiful women or fancy gadgets. It's a cat and mouse game of lies, counter-lies, and broken rendezvous. It's dangerous, plain and simple," he said.
The spy games continued in Germany as well as his last duty assignment at Fort McPherson.
"A couple of Intell guys came down from D.C. to talk to me about Ivan Biriotchikov. We were all trying to play this guy, but I was told he'd disappeared. My guess would be Siberia," Northcutt said.
Northcutt's "man room" above his garage in Newton County is filled with "man things" from 30 years of military service: Viet Cong conical straw hats, figurines from the Black Forest in Germany, commando hats, books authored by military scholars, a picture of his brother as navigator on a B-24 in WWII, a signed photo of Colin Powell, a pair of black VC pajamas, shell casings, awards, decorations, diplomas, medals, photos, swords, video tapes ... a great place to spend the day sharing an Arby's Reuben sandwich with a fellow brother.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist, and free-lance writer. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.