Retired Sergeant Major Soldier for life
October 18, 2013
- "Ever since my brother came to visit me as a young boy, I knew this was what I wanted." - Retired Sgt. Maj. Dayton Herrington
- "…every morning you get inspected and on morning number three, this little buck sergeant stepped in front of me and said 'my god Soldier, you look awful old to be a private,' and then stuck his pencil underneath my field jacket and said 'oh, good morning Sergeant Major! How are you doing?' and I said "Fine sergeant. I'm fine." - Retired Sgt. Maj. Dayton Herrington
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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- It's 6:20 a.m. on a typical Fort Campbell morning. As Soldiers begin to fall in formation and prepare for the strenuous physical training session that normally begins their day, they may or may not notice an additional member to their ranks.
Dressed in his PT uniform and sporting a fresh Army regulation haircut, this "guest" could easily go under the radar during the initial morning darkness; however, eventually his enthusiasm would give him away. The next thing the Soldiers may also notice is that this new addition to the formation is a bit older than the average Soldier in the formation -- a lot older.
Nevertheless, as the Soldiers hit the pavement running, so does their 83-year-old visitor, joining them as they sound off with cadence. While this guest may be a stranger to some, this new member to their ranks is really no stranger at all.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Dayton Herrington spent 16 and a half of his 30 years of service in the 101st Airborne Division and, as a Screaming Eagle, has had many rendezvous with destiny -- a destiny he foresaw at a very young age.
Growing up in Rochester N.Y. during the 1940s wasn't easy for the Herrington Family. After hitting especially hard times, his parents found they could no longer care for him and his siblings and placed them in the foster care system. Although the separation was temporary, being estranged from his Family caused Herrington to think of his future. At the age of 16, Herrington received a visit from his brother that would aid in determining that path.
"My brother came home from WWII," said Herrington. "There's a 10 years [age] difference between the two of us, and when he came home, he went around to see all of us."
One thing that immediately struck young Herrington during that visit was his brother's uniform. Herrington was fascinated with his badges, decorations and shiny jump boots.
"That uniform struck me -- it was a really neat uniform, and the boots -- right away, I knew I wanted to be a Soldier," said Herrington. "When the war was over, my brother was sent to Salzburg, Austria. During his time there, the Army decided to reestablish the jump school, so he went. He was a glider rider but he also graduated from jump school, so when he came home, he came with both the glider badge and the parachute wings. He was a paratrooper and I wanted to be like him."
His brother wasn't the only Soldier in the Family. Herrington's father, two other brothers and a sister all served in the military. With a newfound determination and aspirations for a better life, an adamant Herrington marched over to the recruiting station and enlisted in the Army in 1948.
Early military years
Herrington attended basic training with the 101st at Camp Breckenridge, Ky. in 1949 and traveled to Austria to become part of the 124th Traffic and Transportation Command. Surprisingly, Herrington wound up stationed along with his brother.
As a bit of a rebel, however, Herrington found himself in trouble and as a result was reassigned.
"I was such an excellent Soldier," said Herrington, laughing. "I received four delinquent reports in three weeks [from] the MPs. I was 17 years old. That resulted in me being transferred to the 350th Infantry in Saalfelden, Austria.
Eventually, Herrington was promoted to the rank of corporal in June 1952, returned to Fort Jackson as a replacement and was then further assigned to Fort Rucker in the 42nd National Guard. His new position entailed training guardsmen. Shortly after, the Korean conflict began.
Just prior to being shipped to Korea, Herrington had another chance encounter with his brother.
As roll call was held one morning, the first sergeant called for Cpl. Herrington to report to the front of the formation.
"I had now been promoted to corporal and when I seen him the last time, he too was a corporal, so low and behold, to both of our surprise, two Cpl. Herringtons reported up there," said Herrington.
"We were there for about a week and then he shipped out on a Thursday, and I shipped out that Friday."
From there, Herrington was assigned to the 180th Infantry Regiment. Once the conflict was over, he moved to 2nd and 3rd Divisions before returning to Fort Leonardwood, Mo., where he served as a drill sergeant and on a training committee. There, he worked as an instructor in patrolling for 15 months, until he was asked to fill the role of first sergeant. Herrington served in that capacity in 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade until an actual first sergeant was assigned the position.
It was around that time that members of the 101st Airborne Division came to recruit Soldiers for the Airborne, something Herrington had always dreamed of doing.
Stepping into jump boots
At the time, Herrington was number one on the promotion list.
"It was just a matter of time before I would receive my promotion to master sergeant," said Herrington, however he was still sour with his unit about losing his first sergeant position. Herrington saw this as an opportunity too good to pass up.
"I volunteered to go Airborne," said Herrington. "My regimental colonel got upset at me. He told me if I stayed another 30 days I would get promoted. I said 'no sir, I want to be a paratrooper.' So here I come, to Fort Campbell on Aug. 21, 1956."
His leadership all thought he was crazy, giving up the number one promotion slot, but Herrington saw the opportunity to fulfill his childhood dreams.
On Aug. 23, 1956, he reported to Fort Campbell and was assigned to Fox Company, 508th Airborne Combat Regimental Team until his Airborne school report date. Herrington was in the sixth Airborne class and graduated on Oct. 10, 1956.
"Ever since my brother came to visit me as a young boy, I knew this was what I wanted," said Herrington.
In 1956, Herrington joined Charlie Company, 501st Airborne Battle Group and in early 1957, he re-enlisted. He later transferred to A Co., 502nd ABG.
While a member of the unit, he participated in a training exercise that took the lives of five Soldiers and injured many more. During the Airborne operation, the wind changed direction and had increased to more than 35-knots. While no one was hurt in the air, Soldiers were injured upon impact with the ground. Herrington was dragged some 800 feet. It was one of many close calls for Herrington.
In 1956, Herrington traveled to Aschaffenburg, Germany. He had left Fort Campbell as a platoon sergeant and was given the lesser role of squad leader there, until he proved himself and was again provided with a platoon sergeant position.
However, upon returning to Campbell in 1962, he found himself again having to prove himself -- something that extremely disappointed him.
Herrington requested assignment in the company he'd left and wanted the platoon sergeant spot back. Although he outranked the current platoon sergeant, his commander refused.
"He told me 'you can't have it,'" said Herrington. "I asked, 'Well who's platoon sergeant now?' When he told me it was a James Johnson, I said, 'I know him, and I outrank him ... I can have the platoon.' My commander then shouted "First sergeant, come in here and get this crazy man out!"
He remembers his then command sergeant major saying "You are a hell raiser. You cause trouble everywhere you go."
He transferred to another company where he was eventually promoted to sergeant first class, 91 days after arriving at the new unit.
In 1963, Herrington went to Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he reenlisted again, for the 101st Airborne Division. By the end of 1963, he was back in his beloved 502nd. In 1964, Herrington took his turn at recruiting when he was detailed to Fort Polk where he recruited for the division.
After his time there, he came on orders for his first tour in Vietnam.
In June 1966, as a member of the 101st, he departed for his first tour in Vietnam, however, upon arriving, he was reassigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, as member of 4th Brigade, 503rd Infantry Regiment. He spent a year fighting in Vietnam.
After spending some 90 days back in states retiring the 173rd colors, Herrington found himself back in Vietnam again, this time as a Screaming Eagle. In 1968 and 1969, Herrington served in Vietnam as an intelligence NCO for 2nd Brigade.
During his tour with 1st Bn., 501st Inf. "Geronimo," in 1970, he extended for a year in Vietnam, taking 30 days leave between his third and fourth tours. On his way back, he ended up as the C Co., 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment "Rakkasans" first sergeant.
"I had been nominated and won the Soldier of the Year competition for the division during this time and then they also picked me and told me to pick 14 enlisted men to bring the colors back here to Fort Campbell," said Herrington. "We got here Dec. 11, 1972. I stayed for 20 days and went right back."
Recalling what he considered his worst memory of Vietnam, Herrington paused, as if unlocking a purposely suppressed memory.
"We had been in the boonies for four days or so and then we caught hell at about two o'clock in the morning," said Herrington. "And when the sun came up, 2nd platoon had four guys left in it. The rest of them were either killed or wounded or evacuated. There was a big deal about that, but you know the worst part of that was we missed one of the guys."
"Nobody accounted for him until it actually got light and some guy went looking in holes and found him, Pfc. Roger Stall," continued Herrington. "Well ... it was a pretty tough day."
"Just to give you background, when the guys that are wounded or killed go out, you take all their gear and everything that is useful, you turn it back into the supply room," said Harrington. We got three truck loads of new guys in the next week, just to give you an idea of how many I had missing or gone."
About a week later, a new Soldier came to Herrington with a letter.
"He said 'I found this amongst all the stationary that they gave me from the supply room," said Herrington. "It was a letter [from the Soldier we found] home to his mother," said Herrington, attempting to regain his composure, however the quiver in his voice spoke volumes.
"I sat down and opened the letter and it wasn't nothing more than a nice letter and picture," said Herrington. "So I wrote a letter to his mother and explained the lag time involved, what had occurred and why it occurred and sent it out to her. Well, it was no time at all that I got an answer back.
"They understood and invited me to come visit when I got out of Vietnam, which I did," said Herrington. "His parents took me to his room and told me 'you can have anything out of this room that you want,' and then his dad gave me the keys to his car and said 'the car is yours. You can leave it here until you want it and it's yours. You don't have to say nothing to nobody.'
"The next day, Sunday, we went to his grandparent's farm and had a big dinner -- they really took me in," said Herrington. "Then we stopped at the cemetery. He was a Pfc. but on his headstone it was engraved corporal, and I thought, that's the nicest headstone that I'd ever seen. The division patch is engraved in it, it sure looked nice."
As Herrington finished his time in Vietnam, he would unfortunately experience many more difficult losses, as well as a few personal close calls, including a helicopter crash during his time assigned to the South Vietnamese Airborne Division.
"It was an active army division in the Vietnamese army," said Herrington. "I had gone to Special Forces school for the Vietnamese language course, 52 weeks in Monterey and then stayed with [the unit] for nine months."
"Usually, as one of the combat elements, you don't typically use a seatbelt in a helicopter," said Herrington. "Well on this particular flight, we did. Now our S-3 was sitting in the jump seat -- he had turned around and was sitting in it backwards -- because the jump seat is bolted to the floor in-between the pilot and co-pilot."
"Well they shot us down and we went in at about an 80 degree angle," said Herrington. "We finally got straightened up just before we hit the ground and when the skids made contact with the ground, they collapsed. We went maybe 100 feet on the nose and the farther forward we went, the more the tail came up. At one point, it was up at such an angle and the blade hit the ground. Well, just before that, that S-3 went flying out of that chair and he went right straight through the windshield -- out to where the blade hit. He was all cut up and scratched up from going through the windshield, but he was very much alive."
After his final tour in Vietnam, Herrington headed stateside where he was reassigned to the Readiness Region II at Fort Dix N.J. with the Pennsylvania National Guard and prior to his retirement, and was senior instructor with the 2nd ROTC Region, Fort Knox, Ky., serving as a member of the ROTC instructor group at Murray State University in Murray, Ky.
As Herrington approached the end of his career, there was one thing that had somehow eluded him all these years. In the 16 and a half years that he served as a Screaming Eagle, Herrington had never attended Air Assault School.
Herrington received his retirement orders while assigned to Murray State as an ROTC instructor and as he reflected on his career, he figured a way to end his career in great Screaming Eagle fashion.
"Murray state always sends a contingent of troops to go through Air Assault School," said Herrington. "Well it was spring break and we were sending 17 students to go there. We had a staff sergeant that was put in charge to go with them. When I got word of that, I went to the colonel and [volunteered to take his place]."
"I told him my intent is to go and be standing in the ranks with them," said Herrington. "He told me 'well if you get it squared away with the school and you can go,' so I drove over to the school and told them what I want to do."
The school house had no issues and agreed to add Herrington to their roster.
"I reported with no rank," said Herrington, chuckling. "And, well, every morning you get inspected and on morning number three, this little buck sergeant stepped in front of me and said 'my god Soldier, you look awful old to be a private,' and then stuck his pencil underneath my field jacket and said 'oh, good morning Sergeant Major! How are you doing?' and I said "Fine sergeant. I'm fine."
Herrington was awarded his Air Assault Wings at the age of 46.
During his retirement ceremony in May 1978, Herrington, said "… I say it and I say it without shame, I'm proud, extremely proud to have had the privilege of being a Soldier."
Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series detailing some of retired Sgt. Maj. Dayton Herrington's experiences as a Soldier for life.