By the first months of 1965, Viet Cong battlefield successes caused Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, to request an expansion of the American military presence, launching a troop buildup that foreshadowed a long-term commitment of ground forces. As early as April, a U.S. Marine brigade was directed to Chu Lai in northern South Vietnam and the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade was sent to Bien Hoa, near Saigon. Soon the entire 1st Infantry Division would join them, with many more combat units to follow.
The introduction of large-scale operations in Vietnam was accompanied by the inevitable increase in combat casualties. When mustered for battle, the Army’s overall active duty strength was approximately 970,000 personnel (110,000 officers and 860,000 enlisted soldiers).
As combat losses increased, Westmoreland requested additional forces from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. After a fact-finding trip to Vietnam, McNamara recommended that President Lyndon B. Johnson increase the U.S. presence there from 75,000 to 175,000. He also requested a call-up of reservists and National Guardsmen to boost the “strategic reserves”—forces available to react on short notice to threats anywhere in the world. However, Johnson declined McNamara’s request, leaving active duty forces to fight the war on their own.
In most past conflicts, such as World War II, massive troop formations division size and larger, led by senior commanders, maneuvered across vast distances against equally large enemy forces. But in Vietnam the brunt of combat was borne at the smaller-unit level of infantry companies, cavalry troops and artillery batteries, which placed an incredible burden on the leadership, resourcefulness and skills of platoon leaders, squad leaders and fire team leaders.
Without the deployment of reservists and guardsmen, U.S. officials had to sustain their frontline forces in Vietnam by reducing America’s military presence in Europe and increasing draft calls. Those measures provided the men necessary to keep the units in Vietnam filled, but there were additional complications that hampered the combat missions of U.S. forces.
One was a Defense Department directive establishing a 12-month tour of duty. Another was the system for replacing departing troops. Instead of rotating major units in and out of Vietnam, the Army rotated individual soldiers in and out of units that stayed overseas. Newly assigned replacements were sprinkled across the platoons and squads that needed more men.
The individual replacement system, however, could not adequately replenish the shrinking pool of noncommissioned officers, particularly sergeants. Combat losses, the 12-month tour limit and a policy requiring soldiers returning from overseas tours to remain in the United States for at least 25 consecutive months had taken a toll on the NCO corps to a point of crisis. By 1967, the Army was sending career sergeants back into action sooner or filling team and squad leader vacancies with lower-level specialist ranks or the most senior privates first class. Older and more experienced NCOs—some of them World War II veterans—became overstrained by the physical demands of jungle fighting.
Even with those efforts, the Army was quickly running out of men qualified to fill NCO positions in the combat specialties. Replacing skilled NCOs was no simple task. In the standard rate of promotion, it typically took three to five years for a soldier to earn NCO stripes.
Although the Army established basic leadership preparatory schools known as NCO Academies during World War II, they were often viewed as being focused more on “spit and polish” or parade ground skills than on practical training to prepare NCOs to lead fire teams and squads in combat.
Consequently, the Skill Development Base Program was conceived in 1967 to remedy the shortage of deployable enlisted personnel and to fill requirements (mostly overseas) for soldiers with the ranks of sergeant and staff sergeant. The skill development program had three subprograms: the Noncommissioned Officer Candidate Program to meet the pressing need for NCOs on the battlefields of Vietnam; the Noncommissioned Officer/Supervisor Program; and the Specialist Program.
Various Army officials have claimed credit for creating the skill development program’s Noncommissioned Officer Candidate Course. But naming a specific founder of the NCOCC is difficult because major Army initiatives are seldom created independently, but rather as the result of efforts from multiple individuals and agencies.
The Army had been researching solutions to NCO shortages during rapid buildups as early as 1956. In his 1989 book About Face, retired Col. David Hackworth claimed he and Lt. Gen. Henry “Hank” Emerson came up with idea for the NCOCC while working at the Directorate of Training for the Army Personnel Office under director Maj. Gen. Melvin Zais.
However, William O. Wooldridge, the first sergeant major of the Army (1966-1968), insisted in an interview that he got the idea from future Sgt. Maj. of the Army William G. Bainbridge during a visit to II Field Force, the U.S. headquarters group for American units operating in the southern part of South Vietnam. Woodbridge said he presented the concept to Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Harold K. Johnson.
The NCOCC applied the concept of Officer Candidate School—where enlisted men were selected for officer training during basic training—to education for sergeants. If a carefully selected soldier received 23 weeks of intensive training that would qualify him to lead a platoon as an officer, then in theory others could be trained in the same amount of time to lead squads and fire teams as NCOs. The program would maximize the two-year tour of the enlisted draftee by tacking the NCO course onto the end of basic and advanced training, followed by a 12-month tour in Vietnam, with leave and travel time built in.
There was initial opposition at the Army’s senior levels, but it was short-lived. The commanding general responsible for training, Gen. Paul L. Freeman Jr., never accepted the idea of the NCOCC, according to Army chief Johnson, who therefore waited for Freeman’s replacement to oversee the program. Gen. James K. Woolnough began those duties on July 1, 1967, after Johnson had approved the program eight days earlier.
The NCOCC developers settled on a 21- to 22-week, three-phased program and established selection criteria to screen potential candidates. The criteria included:
–Security clearance of Confidential.
-Specified skill levels in the military specialties of basic infantry (rifle fire team member), mortarman or anti-tank gunner.
-Rank of first-level sergeant or below.
-Demonstrated leadership potential.
-13 months or more remaining in service after completion of the course.
– Selected by unit commander.
The immediate need was to beef up enlisted leaders in infantry fire teams, squads and platoons. The Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, was selected as the initial site to test this concept. The first class reported in September 1967. Candidates were mostly two-year draftees who volunteered or were selected while in basic combat training and advanced infantry training.
Not all were initially eager to be selected. Walter Ruoff, an NCOCC honor graduate, admitted that he was not enthused about attending the course at first, but “after the first week, I changed my view. I guess it was the quality of instruction.”
After selection, the candidates were placed in groups and assigned a class number. Each class was divided into two segments: a 12-week tactical training program followed by nine-weeks of on-the-job training in which graduates were assigned as assistant drill instructors in one of the six Vietnam-oriented centers for advanced infantry training.
The tactical training portion was divided into three distinct phases designed to develop the candidate into an NCO who could perform command responsibilities with confidence and competence.
Phase I was five weeks of intensive hands-on training. For soldiers in the basic infantrymen specialty, the course included physical training, leadership training, hand-to-hand combat, weapons, first aid and wound care, map reading, navigating all types of terrain, communications equipment and mortar fire. Vietnam veterans or Ranger school graduates taught many classes, but the instructors of the first course were commissioned officers.
The four-week Phase II focused on instruction in fire team, squad and platoon tactics oriented toward Vietnam. There was also instruction in defensive operations, camouflage techniques, demolitions and various type of fire support, including mortar, air and artillery.
Phase III was a three-week dress rehearsal for Vietnam that put all of the previous training to the test. This phase concentrated on extensive patrolling and counterguerrilla training structured along the lines of the Ranger course. It covered ambushes, defensive perimeters, navigation, jungle quick-kill techniques, aircraft rappelling, artillery support, aerial resupply and a candidate-led counterguerrilla exercise. During quick-kill training, candidates protected by masks and padding engaged each other with air rifles to attain realism and sharpen reflexes.
In total, around 600 hours of instruction were given, and 80 percent of the training was conducted in the field. Twice daily, Vietnam-schooled members of the Ranger Department critiqued candidates, and all training was oriented toward preparations for combat. Near the end of the course, the NCO candidates received an opportunity to question a panel of recently returned Vietnam veterans to discuss any questions they still had.
Throughout the 12 weeks of training, the candidate was observed and his performance rated by combat veteran instructors. A student chain of command and the instructors supervised the daily performance of the candidates. Ratings consisted of formal reports on the candidate’s performance, attitude, conduct and appearance. The company commander and the instructors used the reports to evaluate and counsel the candidate. An NCO Candidate Evaluation System was provided by the infantry school for academic areas, while the instructors evaluated the candidates’ leadership abilities.
The benefits of being an NCO candidate were considerable. Vietnam-bound troops received the best training available, along with an increase in rank, pay and prestige without incurring any additional service obligation. NCO candidates were immediately promoted to corporal and after successful completion of the course (and before the on-the-job training phase) earned a promotion to sergeant.
Honor graduates who scored in the top 5 percent of their class were awarded promotion to staff sergeant, one pay grade higher. Honor graduate Melvin C. Lervick, who was in the first Fort Benning course, said “the trainers and NCOs who taught the classes really did an amazing job.”
The NCOCC solved an immediate problem for the Army. However, many old-Army regulars, senior NCOs and some soldiers in general harbored resentment toward the course’s graduates. In peacetime, sergeants were trained and professionally developed following a time-honored tradition relying on experience and the proverbial “school of hard knocks.” Sergeants typically earned their stripes by progressing up the promotion ladder over several years.
Career NCOs expressed prejudice against graduates of the new training course and began to use derogatory terms like “Shake ‘n Bake,” “Instant NCO” or “Whip-n-Chills” (a Jell-O dessert mix popular in the 1960s) to refer to the new type of enlisted leader. Many complained that it took years to form a noncommissioned officer properly and that the program was ill-conceived.
Others feared it would affect their own promotion opportunities and denigrated the program based on their view that graduates were inexperienced, overly familiar with subordinates and lacked “military bearing.” NCOCC graduate Leonard F. “Budd” Russell recalled: “We were referred to as Shake ‘n Bakes and Instant NCOs by just about everyone. I never took it personally because there was slang for everything, so I considered it as a distinction between us and senior NCOs. What the hell. We called them lifers.”
Regardless of the rivalry, the initial success of the Fort Benning program resulted in the adoption of the NCOCC model in training programs for other Army specialties, including those at Fort Bliss, Texas (air defense), Fort Knox, Kentucky (armor), Fort Sill, Oklahoma (artillery), Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (engineers) and Fort Gordon, Georgia (signal/communications systems). Some schools later offered a correspondence preparatory course for those who wanted to volunteer for the NCOCC or obtain the benefits of formal military schooling.
Participants immediately recognized the value of their training since most of them were draftees who expected to be sent to Vietnam, although a few graduates remained stateside and a small number were sent to Korea or Germany. Though many potential candidates were eligible for Officer Candidate School, most did not pursue it because that would have required them to extend their time in the service. However, they wisely recognized that NCOCC, which didn’t require extended service, was a way to expand on their military training before entering combat.
After a 12-year break in service, Korean War veteran Ruben Rodriguez attended NCOCC training at 39 years old. He called it “the finest training an infantryman can get in such a short time.” Some graduates said the NCOCC, taught by Vietnam veterans who experienced the war firsthand, kept them and their soldiers alive. Its lessons also served them well later in life, they added.
Former Vietnam commander Col. W.G. Skelton, who led the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, described in 1969 what many others had observed. “Within a short time they [NCOCC graduates] proved themselves completely and we were trying for more,” he said. “Because of their training, they repeatedly surpassed the soldier who had risen from the ranks in combat and provided the quality of leadership at the squad and platoon level which is essential in the type of fighting we are doing.”
The NCOCC graduates had a specific role in the Army—they were trained to do one thing in one branch in one place in the world. They did not receive instruction on how to teach drill and ceremonies, inspect a barracks or conduct a police call (lining soldiers up to walk across an area looking for trash). Many critics judged the program by the graduates’ performance in garrison, functions that received little attention in the course.
However, their final exam took place elsewhere—in Vietnam’s rice paddies and jungles.
Staff Sgt. Robert Prock, who spent 28 months in Vietnam as a platoon sergeant and later served as a course instructor, worked with squad leaders who were all NCOCC graduates and reported: “Most of them were good. Once they got their feet on the ground and showed the men who’s boss, they were usually OK. Besides, there isn’t time for resentment when someone’s firing at you.”
The Army’s historical perspectives on the skill development and NCOCC programs reported these findings in the 1969 Department of the Army Historical Summary:
“The skill development base program has had considerable impact on Army training concepts, manpower management, and the ability of the Army to fill its requirements in grades E-5 and E-6 [sergeant and staff sergeant]. The objective of the program is to train individuals so that they may perform satisfactorily in their initial duty assignment. This training is undertaken immediately following basic combat and advanced individual training and is normally of 21 to 24 weeks’ duration. During fiscal year 1969 approximately 11,600 enlisted men were graduated from 42 courses of instruction and promoted to either E-5 or E-6 under this program. Reports from commanders in Vietnam indicate that these men are
doing well in combat.”
As President Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization program shifted more combat responsibilities to South Vietnamese soldiers, U.S. troop withdrawals accelerated. Skill Development Base programs, including NCOCC, ended by January 1972. During their 4½-year run, the programs produced about 33,000 graduates in 86 military occupational specialties. Fort Benning alone was reported to have had 26,078 NCOCC graduates.
In Vietnam, 1,118 graduates were killed in action, five are listed as missing in action and four were posthumous Medal of Honor recipients. At least two NCOCC graduates went on to serve in top U.S. government positions. Jim Marshall was a four-term Democratic congressman from Georgia. Tom Ridge, a six-term Republican congressman and governor of Pennsylvania, was the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
As the Army emerged from Vietnam with the draft gone and an all-volunteer force arriving, there was a renewed focus on high-quality leaders in the enlisted ranks. To achieve that goal, the Army created career educational programs for noncommissioned officers similar to officer career training. NCOCC was selected as the model for what would become known as the NCO Education System. Thus, an expedient response to a short-term problem in Vietnam was such a resounding success that the NCO Candidate Course and its predecessor NCO Academies became the foundation for a renaissance in noncommissioned officer education and training in the U.S. Army that remains even today. V
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Dan Elder is an author and historian who specializes in the history of U.S. Army noncommissioned officers. A former active duty soldier of 26 years, he has served in overseas assignments that include Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Iraq. He has written four books and is wrapping up Shake and Bake Diaries: Stories from the Noncommissioned Officers Candidate Course. He lives in Temple, Texas. Elder can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Arthur Wiknik, an NCOCC graduate who served with the 101st Airborne Division and took part in the Hamburger Hill battle, contributed to this article. He is the author of Nam Sense—Surviving Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division and was featured on the History Channel show Vietnam in HD and the Military Channel show An Officer and a Movie. He lives in Higganum, Connecticut.
This article appeared in the December 2020 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: