Remembering a Soldier

My training instructor in Rhodesia was SGT. Trevor Hodgson (Bronze Cross – the big one). He taught me, a clumsy American hillbilly (who had previously been playing bass in an LA rock band) to be a soldier. He was credited with personally killing more people than lived in the town I grew up in. Yet he was a perfect gentlemen with no annoying "tough guy" affectations.

I first noticed that he was different when I realized our training platoon was not doing the same silly things as the others. Things characterized by soldiers as "chickenshit." We were busting our butts but everything we did made sense. (I was older than the rest and given to trying to make sense out of the war – a futile exercise.) Once he marched us into the bush near our barracks and told us to look around. We did, and saw nothing. Then he walked into the bush and pulled out the numerous deadly bits of hardware that were in plain sight, had we but eyes to see. Then he had his batman, an African in a black dusty coverall, simply walk into the bush. He seemed to disappear. The war began to take on a rather serious aspect for us at that point.

Then I was assigned to help load chairs for an officer’s mess "do" – and spent the day helping out himself. I saw him in his domestic world – the perfect country squire – polite to servants, genteel to women, and kind to all he encountered – except recruits. Because he knew that to be kind to us, he had to turn us into to soldiers because the only kindness that mattered was teaching us to stay alive. Yet he was never cruel.

In our first field trip (army style – battle camp near a beautiful game reserve where I was nearly trampled by an apolitical rhino – another story!) he was unsatisfied with our sense of urgency in building our "shell scrapes" (Brit for foxhole). He addressed us quietly but said "you lot have heard about me…." and held out his right hand. His ever present African batman and jack of all sinister trades handed him an AK 47. "You know what I’ll do…" quoth he. We knew "what" and trembled.

Last time old Trevor had been on training troop duty it was widely rumored that he had shot up the first battle camp his recruits had made because he found it "unsatisfactory." Apparently, it wasn’t a rumor. "Pooool Feengar you lot!" he shouted. (That’s "pull finger" in American.) We did.

He stood over me one night as I was slumped in my own vomit and tears having gone down in a rigorous little ordeal called "change parades." He was satisfied. I’d done my best. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. "You’ll lead the squad tomorrow. But first – get cleaned up and be useful. I’ve heard you are a musician. Write three marching songs for tomorrow!" And turned on his elegant heel and strolled out of there. One problem though, it usually took me around a month to write a song. But I delivered one, and it was well received by all. I stole it from the Rivieras:

Our NCOs are strong and mean. The nastiest people I’ve ever seen. It’s all right, it’s all right – it’s ALRIGHT Because we’re out here having fun, in that warm Rhodesian sun!

Trevor Hodgson was content.

When I was injured in training and in danger of being sent to a soft job in motor transport I confronted him and demanded a combat assignment. He grinned at me in a way that said, "don’t presume too much sonny…" but gave me what I wanted.

Next time I saw him we were both on combat ops (invading Mozambique in a rather colorful and exciting action called Operation Miracle) and he looked major froggy and totally in control. I, on the other hand, had become a "character," the COs personal shooter, and manned a big old 50 cal and added a little dash to the hq group of an armored outfit. But when I saw Trevor, even in the middle of a major op – I snapped to attention. . But his response was clear: "none of that – we’re doing the same job now." Second proudest moment.

He was the meanest, toughest man I ever met. And had the best manners. He was the deadliest killer in the Rhodesian Army (no small claim) yet was the best parade ground soldier to ever stomp his foot in that appallingly difficult (to me) British Army style drill.

To a sick solder he was a doctor, to a weak soldier he was a very stern coach, to a woman he was the perfect husband and absolute gentleman. Am I idealizing this man? Absolutely.

But he’d been kicked out of Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) and was running out of options. When (Southern) Rhodesia fell, the Hodgson brothers (Percy was cut from the same mold) didn’t stop fighting. Trevor was killed I hear, by a rocket in Maputo in a raid with the South African Security Forces. He had no choice but to fight. Yet one is sad to think how war has deprived us of so many of these "special" people.

It was said of Marshal Murat that had he been born in another age, he’d have amounted to a whole lot of nothing. He was made for war. Well, so was Trevor Hodgson yet I can say of him that had he been born in another age – he’d have made a darn good neighbor, family man, and friend.

I miss him. One could count on him, always. Peace has been good to me. But war showed me some people I’d not have met otherwise, and I’ve no regrets, or only one. That they are not here to enjoy peace with me.

January 11, 2000

Michael Peirce, a Confederate-American, served in the Rhodesian Army.