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Leonard F. “Budd” Russell, a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran, is now 75. He grew up in Millinocket, Maine, and after graduating from high school in 1966, went on to a two-year business college. “Everything was fine,” he said. “But then, in August 1968, I got the letter.”

Said letter directed him to report for an armed forces physical. He was advised that his draft notice would follow soon, and it did. Russell passed the physical and in January 1969 headed off to Basic Training at Ft. Dix. During in-processing, he found himself sitting in a classroom with other recruits.

Courtesy Department of Defense
Infantry Hall at Fort Benning served as the primary location for the Non-Commissioned Officer Candidate Course (“Shake ‘n Bake School”), which became an integral part of training non-commissioned officers in 1965 as the Vietnam War escalated and the Army faced a significant shortage of NCOs in the field.

“We took a series of what our drill sergeant called vocational aptitude tests,” he said. “About a week later I saw my name on a list of men whose scores qualified them for Officer Candidate School.”

Russell was briefly interested until he learned that OCS required a two-year enlistment extension. “There was Reserve time, too,” he said. “Overall, I’d have to sign on for a six-year obligation. No thanks, I thought.”

A few weeks later, Russell’s drill sergeant had another offer. “He got a few of us together and told us we showed potential and there was a leadership course we might be interested in. After that, we’d go on to AIT, like everybody else,” and “we’d be immediately promoted to corporal, and we’d be squad leaders.”

Although Russell did not understand at the time why he and others were being pushed to accept accelerated leadership training and quick promotions, he would later learn that the Army was facing a very large problem.

The Big Buildup  

U.S. forces were initially deployed to Vietnam as a small defensive and advisory contingent in the early 1960s. But by 1965, Gen. William Westmoreland, then commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command-Vietnam, concluded that the South Vietnamese military was essentially incapable of defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army without active involvement of American firepower.

Westmoreland devised what he saw as a blueprint for victory, one that would involve a much, much larger commitment of U.S. and allied forces. The first phase of his plan required a significant force build-up. Phase two called for the deployment of those forces which, in Westmoreland’s estimation, would wage a war of attrition, wearing down and ultimately defeating the enemy. A third phase would be needed only if the enemy “persisted” and would trigger a 12-18 month period “for the final destruction of enemy forces remaining in remote base areas.”

Westmoreland’s plan seemed reasonable at the time. With presidential approval, U.S. troop strength in Vietnam skyrocketed to more than 185,000 by the end of 1965 and would top 500,000 in 1968.

One effect of this rapid increase in manpower was the creation of acute shortages in critical military specialty areas, particularly infantry NCOs who could take on the unique demands of small-unit leadership in a jungle warfare environment. Although a few seasoned NCOs had the requisite skills and experience, the simple fact was that the Army did not have anywhere near enough infantry sergeants to meet its new wartime needs.

NCOCC Is Born  

The Army’s solution to this problem was modeled on Officer Candidate School, the same training program offered to Budd Russell. OCS was a proven approach going back to the early days of World War II, demonstrating that a rank-and-file soldier with aptitude and potential could receive six months of intensive training and qualify for a commission as a Second Lieutenant. It presumably followed that promising soldiers could receive similarly focused training and qualify for direct promotion as non-commissioned officers and go on to lead infantry squads and fire teams.

Not everyone agreed. Some senior officers contended that infantry NCOs could not be produced through a short-term training program, and that any such program was doomed to failure. Despite the objections, the Army’s personnel needs were at a breaking point, and the Noncommissioned Officer Candidate Course was established at Ft. Benning, now Ft. Moore, in Georgia.

Courtesy Budd Russell
Leonard “Budd” Russell, Jr.’s graduation photo from Noncommissioned Officer Candidate School on September 30, 1969.

The program’s benefits were measurable: excellent training, immediate promotion to corporal, higher pay – and no additional service obligation. Sergeant’s stripes were awarded upon graduation. The top graduates became Staff Sergeant, E-6s. The program was intense, launching with 12 weeks of skills training in weapons, hand-to-hand combat, first aid, map reading, and radio communications. Then came instruction in fire team, squad, and platoon tactics.

The newly minted NCOs who completed the program soon garnered a mocking nickname: “Shake ‘n Bake” sergeants. It referenced a product new on supermarket shelves in the mid-1960s that promised a “fast and easy” way to mimic fried chicken. “Shake ‘n Bake” training was supposedly also fast and easy – and like its food namesake, not quite the real thing. But the training was far from easy, and in time the performance under fire of NCOCC-trained noncoms would demonstrate that they were very much the real thing.

Feeling Like A Leader  

After Budd Russell declined OCS, he also passed on the offer to attend the new accelerated NCO training program. “I didn’t think I had any leadership abilities,” he said. “But I guess the Army disagreed, because my orders out of boot camp were straight to NCOCC.”

He reported – and promptly tried to drop out. “I was told to give it two weeks, and if I still wanted to leave, they’d let me go. I’d ship out to Vietnam and that would be the end of it.”

Those two weeks proved decisive. “The training was first-rate,” he said. “I’d never experienced anything like it – hands-on, highly detailed, very specific. I realized I was learning stuff that could keep me alive.”

As much as he admired the curriculum, though, Russell still worried he was not NCO material. “I told my CO how impressed I was with the training. Except I wasn’t a leader, so I asked if I could stay for the full training and not take the stripes.”

But something changed as training continued. Russell discovered he had abilities he didn’t think he had. “There was a kind of final exam called Range Week,” he said. “Patrols and ambushes, learning to set up perimeters, jungle navigation, all out in the field. Everybody got a turn at being platoon leader or company commander as we went through different exercises.

“We each had a Ranger instructor shadowing us. My turn came and the exercise involved getting hit by heavy sniper fire. I had to react and make decisions. The Ranger was all over my ass, laying on the pressure. ‘What’re you going to do, Candidate? What now, Candidate?’

“He was so hard on me that I finished the day wondering about my performance. I thought this was probably where I washed out. But later that night the Ranger came around and said, ‘Candidate, you did very good today.’ For the first time, I really felt like a leader. I knew I could do the job.”

Budd Russell graduated and moved on to AIT at Fort McClellan, Alabama. He was an official “Shake ‘n Bake” NCO.

A Different Man  

Delta Co. was in the shit all the time,” Russell said.

He was assigned to D Company in the 1st Battalion of the 11th Infantry Regiment at Firebase Fuller, on a mountain about five miles south of the DMZ. “At one point we took over 600 mortars in 43 days,” he remembered. “We had six guys killed on that mountain from mortar fire alone.”

Russell was on patrol with his unit in May 1970 when his medic stepped on a booby trap and lost both of his legs and Russell took shrapnel in his left thigh. “We were on the side of a hill so there was no place for the medevac chopper to land,” he said. “Somehow, I managed to scramble up to where I could put my hands on the chopper’s nose and help the pilot hover there.

“Russell got pulled up into the chopper and was lying next to one of his men who was in bad shape. “I reached over, telling him that it was okay, we’re on a medevac. And it was as if I could feel the heat leaving his body. I was talking to him – but I realized he was already dead.”

Russell was operated on at the 18th Surgical Hospital. “My doctor said I would likely be out of action for seven months, so I thought my tour was over. But I healed faster than expected, and rejoined my guys in just over a month.” Later sent to Japan for medical evaluation, he got word he would be discharged. He had served 22 months, and in that short but fiery and all-consuming period, his life had fundamentally changed.

“I certainly knew I was a different man,” Russell said. “I just didn’t grasp how deep that change was.”

Back home, he returned to a paper mill job he had worked during summers in high school and while attending business school but was limited due to damage related to his leg wound. Despite a 10 percent VA disability rating, he was bluntly advised that if he could not do the job he would be laid off. Unaware of how to fight back – and without the emotional wherewithal to do so – Russell got a job as a night watchman.

“I didn’t have a name for what I was feeling,” he said. “The VA didn’t offer counseling back then. After a couple of years, I met my wife, and she helped me understand what I was dealing with and how to fight back.”

Russell returned to the paper mill, got his old job, and received seniority for his time away. He and his wife raised three daughters, and life was good. But when Russell’s wife died in 2000, he plunged into an extended period of grief. His daughters insisted he seek counseling. It took the counselor just two sessions to identify his underlying PTSD. He found himself talking about nearly three decades of brutal war-inflected nightmares.

“I had never put in a VA claim because—well, I was the sergeant telling the men to suck it up, no matter how bad things got. That’s how it was back then. I had to be strong for my men. Claiming PTSD felt like the opposite of that.”

The counselor referred Russell to a psychiatrist who specialized in helping veterans with PTSD claims. A few months later, his claim was approved.

The Keeper Of The Scrolls  

Beyond his personal story, Budd Russell has played a pivotal role in accounting for other “Shake ‘n Bake” sergeants and documenting the history of the training program as its unofficial historian.

“I got started with a Tandy computer in 1988,” he said. “I had a set of home addresses of men from my NCOCC class who went with me to AIT at Ft. McClellan. I did a form letter and sent letters out to the guys. I put ads in magazines. I started getting replies – and I never realized how big the program was. What I’ve been doing for the last 36 years all grew from that.”

His long-standing work of collecting names, addresses, and the current status of graduates makes Russell, in effect, the keeper of the scrolls. “Budd Russell is singularly responsible for preserving the memory of the program,” according to Bob Clark, the NCOCC reunion coordinator. “When Budd got out of the Army, he had the foresight to request the official roster of the NCOCs. Over the years he, at his own expense, painstakingly mailed and called a vast number of them. He also established and manages the NCOCC locator website, which now holds a large amount of information and photos.”

Courtesy Joe Gromelski
The 2023 Noncommissioned Officer Candidate Course reunion in Washington included a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

A former battalion commander who was an early doubter of the “Shake ‘n Bakes” revised his opinion when after-action reports clarified exactly what these men were achieving. “They proved themselves completely,” the officer noted at the time, “and we were crying for more. They repeatedly surpassed soldiers 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’re doing.”

More than a thousand NCOCC graduates were killed in Vietnam. Four were posthumous recipients of the Medal of Honor. Some have gone on to distinguished government careers. That includes Rep. Mike Thompson of California and Tom Ridge, who, after six terms in Congress, served as governor of Pennsylvania and as the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Courtesy Joe Gromelski
Reunion attendees had a special briefing during their visit to National Museum of the United States Army at Fort Belvoir in Alexandria, Virginia.

The NCOCC program was discontinued in early 1972, after graduating some 30,000 NCOs. The success of this Vietnam War training program created under duress and at top speed has proven to be a foundation for the NCO academies and training programs now operating throughout the Army.

Budd Russell’s NCOC Locator website’s address is https://ncoclocator.org"

With Bravery, Dedication, and Honor

Mike Thompson dropped out of high school in his senior year. At 17, he opted to leave his studies behind, believing enlistment in the Army offered a more meaningful path. So, the young Californian signed up for Special Forces training in the fateful Vietnam War year of 1968.

Following Basic, Thompson started Infantry AIT at Fort Gordon, but before the training began, the Army presented an unexpected opportunity: an offer to start the Noncommissioned Officer Candidate Course at Fort Benning. Thompson—who has gone on to serve as a California U.S. Congressman since 1999—then ditched his plans to go for a Green Beret and entered the NCO “Shake and Bake” Academy.

Soon after finishing, young Staff Sgt. E-6 Thompson arrived in Vietnam and went on to serve a tour of duty leading a 173rd Airborne Brigade platoon. His war was cut short six months later after a firefight during which one man in his squad died and in which Thompson was severely wounded, medevaced out, and eventually landed at Letterman Army Hospital in San Franciso. Thompson recovered from his wounds and finished out his four-year hitch, though he bears the remnants of shrapnel in his legs as a lasting testament to his sacrifice.

On September 25, 2023, Rep. Mike Thompson paid tribute to his fellow former Shake and Bake NCOs, who were having a reunion that week in and around Washington, D.C. “As a proud graduate of the program and fellow Vietnam War veteran, I ask my colleagues to join me in honoring and saluting these leaders” and “unsung heroes,” he said on the House floor.

Mike Thompson

Thompson lauded them for serving “our country with great honor under challenging circumstances.” He highlighted their remarkable achievements: “Four were awarded the Medal of Honor. Six remain unaccounted for. Many—1,118 in total—never returned home... These exceptional noncommissioned officers were an indispensable part of our armed forces, serving our country with bravery, dedication, and honor.”

A 'Bond Of Brotherhood'

The 2023 NCOC Reunion took place last September and October in and around Washington, D.C., and represented the group’s first big gathering in several years due to the pandemic. More than 100 former NCOs who went through Shake and Bake training came to the Nation’s Capital—many with spouses, offspring, and other family members—for four days of camaraderie and fellowship, in what Bob Clark, who coordinated the reunion, called “a bond of brotherhood.”

Courtesy Joe Gromelski
NCOC reunion attendees gathered on the steps outside the U.S. Senate on September 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

“We even had seven new guys show up,” Clark, a VVA life member, said, “and the meeting had a strong family feeling” as nearly all NCOC get-togethers do, because of “a special bond—a warmth—about this group of veterans.”

That bond, Clark said, has everything to do with the men’s shared experiences after being chosen to—and accepting—the job of undergoing accelerated training and becoming NCOs less than six months after being drafted or joining the Army. “It’s the fact that the guys selected were a cut above—you could say [they were] the cream of the crop. They were all of good character and had leadership skills and everything else that goes into making a good NCO.”

The NCOC course itself was “exceptionally good,” Clark said. “Every guy I’ve talked to” who went through it, “says it was the best training he could have had” before heading to Vietnam. That training “saved lives in Vietnam. It was the very glue that held their units together.”

NCOC training also paid dividends after the war, Clark, who did liaison work with the U.S. Allied Training Division at Ft. Benning during his hitch in the Army, said. “The men knew how to lead in civilian life, which has proved to be valuable throughout their lives.”




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