Some men are different from the rest of us. You meet them only once or twice in your life, if you are lucky. I met one such man not knowing anything about him. Years after I knew him I remembered his name almost by inspiration and sought information about him. What I learned was surprising only in that I could not imagine my being so right about the character of the man I knew.
Fort Knox, KY, in 1960 was still a very active military base that was home to a large tank training unit, some basic training units, and a few tons of gold. I was there at the tender age of seventeen to do my basic training. After waiting a one or two anxiety filled weeks for enough raw recruits to show up to form a company we were transferred to our stark, drab and extremely functional barracks.
Age and time have erased any specific memories of how it all happened but I know that at some time we had to fall out into formation and attend to the business of the hour. We also met our cadre, the sergeants and officers who would be cracking the whip over us for the next eight weeks. We expected the worst. We got the best.
Our platoon Sargent was Sgt. Vargas. A slight, fairly quiet, and unflappable Mexican America. He hardly fit the image of the wall rattling, booming voiced, man-gorilla we usually think of when picturing a basic training platoon Sargent
Our First Sargent was Sgt. Poolaw. You don’t ask a Sargent what his first name is . . . Or much of anything else. So, I don’t think any of us knew his first name then. He was just Sgt. Poolaw. And he was impressive. He seemed eight feet tall, but probably not. His build was square, he looked like his smile had abandoned him long ago, and his words were few, but well chosen. He was Native American.
One day someone came from company headquarters, found me and told me I had to go see Sgt. Poolaw for something other than for discipline. I am sure he had an office but he did not seem like an office kind of guy. I was told to meet him at the flag pole. I met him there. For a seventeen year old boy to meet with the first Sargent was an honor beyond compare. I had lost my father before I ever got to know him and Sgt. Poolaw seemed like the quintessential father. It seemed to me that had I ever wondered what a father looked like, this was it.
I came to learn that most of the guys in my company felt the same. Even Sgt. Vargas spoke of Sgt. Poolaw in respectful tones. My platoon was not made up of really great soldiers but in the end we came to respect our leaders so much that we wanted to win the outstanding platoon award for Sgt. Vargas. We worked extremely hard to get all the bolts on our M1s to slam shut in unison after inspection arms. And they did and we won.
The Memory Lingers On
Many years went by and many sergeants went by, but whenever I thought of what a soldier was, the image of Sgt. Poolaw came to mind. One thing he said still sticks out in my mind. He said that when we left basic training each one of us must be the kind of soldier who, when our foxhole buddy looks across the foxhole at us, he should be trying to see if we are OK and not to see if we were still there. He drilled it into us look out for each other.
My three years in the Army came to an end and my civilian life began. Many more years interceded during which I often remembered that man who looked for all the world as if he were born in army fatigues. There are only a couple of people that one meets in one’s lifetime for whom there is a feeling of having been in the presence of someone with a great deal of integrity, honesty and courage. He was that person. For all the respect I held for the man had not held his name in my memory, no matter how hard I tried to dredge it up.
But, in the summer of 2011, while visiting my wife’s relatives, one of her nephews arrived. He had a fresh, very short haircut, repleat with “whitewalls” (only skin on the sides and back). The thought immediately and involuntarily ran through my mind, “That looks like a Poolaw”. I was thinking about the haircut. Sgt. Poolaw had been a stickler for Army hair fashion. He told us to get our hair cut every two weeks and just tell any barber on base we wanted a “Poolaw”. That is how the name came back to me. I wrote it down before I was robbed of it again for another thirty years.
We Meet Again
When I got home I decided to Google “Poolaw” to see what I could find. Amazing!! His name was Pascal Cleatus Poolaw Sr. He was the most highly decorated Native American soldier in the history of the U. S. Military. Among other decorations he won, as a young soldier in WWII, was the Silver Star, the military’s second highest wartime medal. His commendation read, in part, as follows:
“Near Recogne, Belgium, on 8 September 1944. While attacking in support of a rifle company, Sergeant Poolaw displaced his machine gun squad forward across an open field under heavy mortar and small arms fire in such a manner as to effect a minimum number of casualties among his squad. After reaching his new position, Sergeant Poolaw saw the enemy advance in a strong counterattack. Standing unflinchingly in the face of withering machine gun fire for five minutes, he hurled hand grenades until the enemy force sustained numerous casualties and was dispersed. Due to Sergeant Poolaw’s actions, many of his comrades’ lives were saved and the company was able to continue the attack and capture strongly defended enemy positions. Sergeant Poolaw’s display of courage, aggressive spirit and complete disregard for personal safety are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service.”
He became a career soldier and served in the Korean War where, again he won several commendations including a second and a third Silver Star. His second Silver Star was awarded for the following action:
“On 19 September 1950 when the company attack on an enemy position was halted by stiff enemy resistance, Sergeant First Class Poolaw volunteered to lead his squad in an assault. Courageously leading his men in a charge up the slope to penetrate the enemy perimeter and engage the numerically superior enemy in fierce hand-to-hand combat, Sergeant First Class Poolaw inspired his men to hold their position until the remainder of the company was able to seize the objective. Sergeant First Class Poolaw’s outstanding leadership reflects great credit upon himself and is in keeping with the highest traditions of the American Soldier”.
Again, later in the Korean War, he earned a third Silver Star by these heroic actions:
“On 4 April 1951 near Chongong-ni, Korea, while attacking strong hostile positions, one squad of Master Sergeant Poolaw’s platoon was immobilized by a devastating automatic weapons and mortar barrage. Exposing himself to the deadly fire, he slowly advanced across open terrain, firing his rifle as he progressed. By deliberately diverting the attention of the foe to himself, he enabled his men to maneuver to more advantageous positions. Master Sergeant Poolaw’s valorous actions were instrumental in the fulfillment of the unit mission and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the American Soldier.”
The Final Battle
I served with Sgt. Poolaw in 1960 and in 1962 he retired from the military. When Vietnam heated up Sgt. Poolaw saw one of his sons go to Vietnam and lose a leg to action there. When another son joined the Army and was served with orders to go to Vietnam, Sgt. Poolaw quickly re-enlisted in the Army in the hope of volunteering for Vietnam, thereby, under the Army tradition of not allowing two family members to serve in the same theater of war at the same time, to relieve his son of the obligation of going to Vietnam. His plan failed and both father and son were sent to Vietnam.
In fighting there Sgt. Poolaw earned his last Silver Star medal, posthumously. He was killed during the Battle of Loc Ninh when, while wounded himself, he was carrying a wounded man, his commander, to safety he was struck by a rocket propelled grenade. His inscription reads as follows:
“for gallantry in action against a hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam on 7 November 1967, while serving with Company C, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. On this date, during Operation SHENANDOAH II, First Sergeant Poolaw was accompanying his unit on a two-company search and destroy mission near Loc Ninh. As the patrol was moving through a rubber plantation, they were subjected to sniper fire. Within minutes, the area was raked with intensive claymore mine, rocket, small arms, and automatic weapons fire from a numerically superior Viet Cong force. First Sergeant Poolaw unhesitatingly ran to the lead squad which was receiving the brunt of the enemy fire. With complete disregard for his personal safety, he exposed himself to assist in deploying the men and establishing an effective base of fire. Although wounded, he continued to move about the area encouraging his men and pulling casualties to cover. He was assisting a wounded man to safety when he was mortally wounded by Viet Cong fire. His dynamic leadership and exemplary courage contributed significantly to the successful deployment of the lead squad and undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers. First Sergeant Poolaw’s unquestionable valor in close combat against numerically superior hostile forces is in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 1st Infantry Division, and the United States Army.”
I am proud to have known Sgt. Poolaw and I am also proud that, when he was killed, he was serving in the same regiment that my father served in during WWI, the 26th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One).
In all Sgt. Poolaw received 13 awards for valor during his career. Any one of which any ordinary soldier could be very proud. He was nominated for a Congressional Medal of Honor. He was a Kiowa Indian from Oklahoma. At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he is buried, there is a building named after him and there stands a bust of his likeness. And, of course, his name is inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D. C.
I am not much of a military person even though my father and all eight of his sons served in the military. But I know that as long as we continue to ask young men to go to battle for us, and possibly die for us, we have a crying need for people like Sgt. Poolaw to train and lead them. And, I am satisfied, that during my life time, I have met at least one great man.
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