Brother Rats forever: giving “Band of Brothers” a deeper meaning

Veterans Voices

GAINESVILLE, VA. (WDVM) — Whenever a classmate from VMI answers his or her “FINAL” roll call, surviving members of the class attend their funeral service in person, or via streaming. Their love for each other gives “Band of Brothers” a deeper meaning.

“Brother Rats,” a name given to all first-year cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, stick together like glue.

That devotion displayed in March when Colonel Spencer Wilkinson [Class of 1966] a highly-decorated Vietnam fighter pilot who was awarded an unprecedented four Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Silver Star for bravery was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel L. Randolph Williams Jr., also from the Class of 1966, helped his Brother Rat’s widow with the arrangements.

“Because of Covid-19, we were told that only 60 invited guests could be seated in the chapel at Fort Myer,” said Williams. Rank still has its privileges even when an officer hangs up his uniform, so Generals like John Jumper got a front-row seat. Deservedly so.

“It pays to have friends in high places,” said Williams. When General Jumper was Air Force Chief of Staff, Jumper, also a Brother Rat from the Class of 1966, arranged for a missing man formation flyover for Major Scott Dotson, another of their classmates who was lost in Laos for more than a decade, before his remains were recovered and brought home for a hero’s burial at Arlington.

Dotson was flying an F-100F Super Sabre “Misty Mission” at the time he and his backseater were apparently hit by ground fire along the heavily-traveled Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam and crashed in neighboring Laos. Williams says he had a drink with Dotson just two days before he disappeared.

“Mistys” were Fast Facs, Forward Air Controllers. “Scotty’s job was to drop his landing gear. lower his flaps, cut back the power and troll the trail in hopes of drawing fire from NVA troops,” said Williams.

North Vietnamese heavy machinegunners took a heavy toll on low-flying aircraft over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Once someone on the ground opened fire, Dotson would mark the target with “Willy Pete,” phosphorous rockets, so fast-moving F-4 Phantoms piloted by airmen like Col. Wilkinson who were hovering high overhead could swoop down and knock out the enemy gun positions. Randy says that’s how Spencer knocked out a SAM site that had fired three surface-to-air missiles at him that Wilkinson was able to destroy with missiles on his Phantom. “Despite pleas by his backseater that going into the jaws of death was suicidal,” said Williams, “Spencer wiped out the SAM site with 20 millimeter cannon fire from his F-4” and was awarded a rare Silver Star for an Air Force pilot.

The Class of ’66 paid a heavy price for its involvement in Vietnam. “We lost almost a dozen members in combat; more than any two classes combined at VMI,” said Williams.

Williams and his best friend Paul Wagner from the Class of ’66 talked to me recently about their days at VMI which is under pressure to become a more diverse military school. But Randy and Paul said one thing won’t change.

The “RAT LINE” is a time-honored tradition at the military school which was founded in 1839, well before the Civil War. Rats are viewed by upperclassmen as the lowest form of life on earth, and that’s why they chew them out like a rat, 24/7.

Brother rats are not only required to travel at attention along a prescribed route from their barracks to the dining hall. but they also have to sit at attention during their meals.

It’s in this crucible that Brother Rats forge friendships that last forever; even after death, their names and their deeds are never forgotten.

After Paul and Randy graduated from VMI in 1966, the newly-commissioned Second Lieutenants went their separate ways. Randy went to Germany as an Army tanker. Paul went to flight school in the Air Force and flew cargo planes. They met by chance when First Lieutenant Wagner flew supplies into A-222, a Special Forces detachment at Dong Tre, a coastal province on the South China Sea in Vietnam that Captain Williams commanded. Lieutenants in the Army make Captain much quicker than they do in the Air Force.

Had it not been for a cow that Wagner was bringing for a barbecue, compliments of 5th Special Forces Group, he would not have had a battlefield reunion with a Brother Rat. And that’s no bull.

Williams said camp commanders rarely meet arriving aircraft, but when he heard a commotion outside his bunker, he decided to investigate.

“The cow got a foot stuck in a tie-down chain in a C-123 Provider,” said Williams who was able to calm the animal down so the loadmaster could lead “dinner” of the rear cargo ramp. When Williams climbed a small ladder at the front of the cargo bay to thank the crew for bringing him and his men some fresh meat, he saw Wagner’s nametag on his fatigues.

“Paul, is that you? shouted Williams above the roar of the engines. “I thought Randy was still at Fort Lewis in Washington, not in Vietnam,” said Wagner as they enjoyed some face-time on my iPhone in Randy’s study.

Wagner could stay for the cookout. He already had one Puncture of the Provider Award to hang on his wall, along with a Distinguished Flying Cross, two Air Medals and other decorations. He didn’t need a piece of his C-123 with bullet holes in it. Aircraft attracted attention from enemy gunners around Special Forces Camps in the Central Highlands, so after a quick tour of Randy’s camp, he said “Goodbye” and took off.

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