Leadership under fire from Aachen to Dak To
Private Leroy Stewart hurled himself into a muddy ditch, narrowly avoiding an angry burst of machine gun bullets. He lay still, alongside an anonymous residential street, panted nervously, and contemplated what to do. The bullets, unleashed by unseen gunners from within a cluster of buildings just around the bend, swept up and down the street. Stewart knew that any movement onto that tortured street meant death. The trouble was that the only way to advance was along this street. He was leading his company into Aachen, a city rife with history and symbolism to Adolf Hitler's German soldiers.
The year was 1944 and Stewart's job, as just one of several thousand American soldiers in this assaulting force, was to capture a city whose German heritage dated back to the time of Charlemagne. Stewart had been in combat with the 26th Infantry Regiment since the Normandy invasion, several months earlier. He had had many close calls with death and he had seen several lieutenants come and go. In other words, he was a savvy combat veteran who knew how to survive. He crawled backwards along the ditch, found one of his buddies and passed along a request: "Go back and tell the lieutenant we need a tank to deal with these machine guns." The other soldier nodded and crawled toward the rear.
The request made perfect sense. Vulnerable infantrymen like Stewart couldn't survive long on that bullet riddled road, but a tank could easily roll into place, withstand the machine gun fire and batter the buildings where the German gunners were hiding. Moments later, a soldier crawled up to Stewart with the lieutenant's reply: "We don't want to risk getting a tank knocked out. Keep going." Private Stewart laid back in the ditch and felt a rush of anger. "They don't care if I get clobbered," he thought, "they just don't want to take a chance of losing a tank."
The thought made his blood boil. Sensing his reluctance to resume the advance, the lieutenant crawled up and told Private Stewart to get moving. The private refused. To him, there was no sense getting killed for nothing when tank support was so obviously the solution to the problem. According to Army rules of discipline, the lieutenant's word should have been law. He was the leader. Stewart was the subordinate. Orders were to be followed immediately, almost unthinkingly. The reality that day in Aachen, of course, was much different, as it so often is in the ruthless life and death world of combat. The lieutenant was inexperienced. Thus his credibility among the infantrymen was low. Stewart was a veteran, a man who had proven his courage and his know-how many times. His opinion carried weight with the men around him. Even though the officer outranked Stewart, the private had more status among this small group of infantrymen. The lieutenant seemed not to understand this. He repeated his order and threatened to court martial Stewart if he did not obey.
Technically, the order was legal and should have been obeyed. But Stewart understood that the order meant, not just death, but death for no discernible purpose. Military discipline paled in comparison, to the point where it meant nothing to such a hardened combat soldier. Indeed, by making such a threat, the lieutenant proved he was an ineffective leader. He chose to cling to the thin reed of Army discipline because he could not convince his soldiers that he knew the best way to destroy the enemy machine guns and continue the advance.
Private Stewart was no coward, though, and he was anxious to prove that. After arguing with his lieutenant, he offered to go back out onto the street if the lieutenant went with him. Again, here was another test of leadership, and the lieutenant failed once more. Instead of accepting this challenge, thus demonstrating his courage and a belief in his own orders, the lieutenant threatened once more to court martial Stewart. As he did so, another soldier let the young officer off the hook by offering to carry out the lieutenant's order himself. The soldier made it to the bend in the road when, all at once, the guns opened up. Bullets tore into him. Stewart's squad leader tried to pull the wounded man back but he got hit too. Chastened, the lieutenant called up the tanks. The infantrymen used them for cover. The tanks blasted the machine gun infested buildings, and the advance continued, but two good men had paid a terrible price for the foolish pride and poor decisions of a weak leader. The lesson? Sometimes, true leadership means deferring to the judgment of subordinates if they have more expertise and experience. A good leader never orders his people to do something he will not do, especially in a combat setting where the difference between success and failure can mean life or death.
In order to accept this, a leader must have humility, especially a junior officer in a combat setting. In fact, under the stress of combat, even the lowest ranking private can emerge as a true leader. Consider, for instance, the case of Private First Class Carlos Lozada at Hill 875, Dak To, Vietnam in November 1967. A couple hundred soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment were in serious danger of being annihilated by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) force that outnumbered them several times over. They lured most of the Americans to the middle of the hill while a sizable group swung around the bottom and prepared to close in for the kill. Lozada was a 21-year-old Brooklyn native with a wife and baby daughter back home. He and three other soldiers were manning an outpost at the bottom of the hill. Their job was to warn the rest of their unit if the enemy attacked. This, of course, put them right in the path of the NVA advance. Dozens of NVA soldiers assaulted Lozada's machine gun position. He cut them down with withering waves of deadly fire. "They were trotting toward us in rows," John Steer, who assisted Lozada by loading the gun, later said. "They kept coming. They got real close."
By most estimates, Lozada killed, at a minimum, twenty enemy soldiers. This grisly toll staggered the NVA advance, but did not halt it. Even as they were about to overrun the American position, Lozada refused to leave his machine gun. In those seconds, he made a decision to stay put in order to buy just enough time for his comrades to escape. He also held off the NVA just long enough for the other Americans on the hill to figure out what was happening and set up a new defensive line to stymie the NVA at the bottom of the hill. As he did so, an NVA bullet tore through his head. He went down in a heap, probably dead even before his body hit the ground. In the estimation of James Kelley, who was on that outpost with Lozada, the machine gunner "gave his life so that his comrades could be saved." Lozada earned a posthumous Medal of Honor for his deeds on that terrible day.
This, indeed, was the ultimate example of impromptu leadership. Lozada was the lowest ranking man at the outpost, but he took the lead in sacrificing himself to accomplish a dangerous job. He understood that the lives of all two hundred men on that hill probably depended on his ability to hold off the NVA for enough time to sound a proper warning. He demonstrated that even the lowest ranking member of any organization can take the lead in accomplishing a group goal, amid the most extreme circumstances. This set the tone for the fighting at Hill 875, where soldiers fought, and prevailed, in small groups, often leaderless, because officer casualties were so high. The Americans on that hill did not get annihilated. They fought the NVA to a standstill and hung on until their brother soldiers from another battalion relieved them.
The actions of Lozada, a street kid who had matured into a young family man and a dedicated soldier, are a major reason why that happened. He showed that, in war, human beings themselves are the ultimate weapons and that, no matter the setting, human ingenuity, character, awareness and self sacrifice are the most valuable assets of all. The actions of everyday people, in war or peace, are what lead to collective success.
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