Ret. Master Sgt. Albert J. Spurlock of Cottondale was prime US Army material when he was 18 years old. And he stayed that way for more than 20 years before leaving the armed forces with his honorable discharge. He practically ordered the military to induct him right out of high school and did order the Army to send him to Vietnam so he could be there for the TET offensive of 1968. He joined the Army in 1953 and had no idea the war in Korea was winding down when he did. (And he saw combat there after the armistice—read below.)
No, Spurlock didn’t know he was going to be there for the biggest enemy offensive of the Vietnam War, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. He had Gen. George S. Patton’s love for the Army and all that went with it; if it called for battle, he was there. It wasn’t enough for him to be a drill sergeant at Fort Benning, Ga., training men for combat and sending many of them off never to survive one of America’s deadliest wars. He wanted to go the Southeast Asia too. So he did—twice.
Sgt. First Class Spurlock arrived in Vietnam three days after Christmas in 1967. One month later would come the TET Offensive. He was assigned to “Mac V” or military assistance command as a military advisor. “On the very first day of TET,” Spurlock, now 80, explained at his Lovewood Road home just north of Cottondale, “a major and I were pinned down between two of the Vietnamese-style above- ground gravesites. Bullets were whistling by us as we dove into a ditch and awaited the Cobra helicopter team we had called for help.”
Spurlock’s Mac V assignment had him living with the South Vietnamese people near the Mekong River, not on a military base. A lot of his work was classified and involved Cambodia. Aircraft pilots would call him for permission to shoot at the enemy. For example, a chopper pilot once spotted two boats going down the Mekong River “after curfew,” he explained. “It was after curfew,” Spurlock said, “and they were clearly enemy boats so I gave the order to fire. There were huge explosions on both boats because they were loaded with ammunition.” Spurlock added that there were civilian casualties as well “because the Communists would use them as a shield.” The Master Sergeant would pull another tour of Vietnam in 1970-71.
Once fired by his commanders for being too rough on the drill sergeants below him, Spurlock may have been just too mean to ever get killed or wounded in battle. His career in the Army began with combat. He was sent over to Korea to clean up after the fighting ended in the 1950-53 war. But Spurlock became involved in a skirmish that never should have happened. “I was in a brand new unit,” he explained. “We were at the port of Puson and there were large supplies of oil and gasoline that had just been unloaded. I began to see burning material coming over in the air that could have ignited the whole place and exploded everywhere. I warned the company commander that this was an enemy attack. We were able to get prepared and my unit soon killed 27 attacking enemy soldiers. I never got credit for this battle; it wasn’t supposed to happen because the war was over. But I did get promoted to sergeant. I was only 19 but I was made sergeant. I would take a lot of name-calling from the older sergeants for that later.”
Spurlock had just joined the Army at the age of 18. A “100 percent hillbilly,” he said admittedly, Spurlock wanted to leave the hills as soon as possible. He came out of the Appalachians from Jackson, Ky., and went to the first recruiting station he could find. “I went to the Navy,” he explained, “and they said I had to wait six months. I went to the Air Force and they said I had to wait six months. I went to the Army and they said, ‘Sign here.’ The recruiter was a lady and she told me to go to Louisville and I told her I didn’t have the money for a bus ticket. So she said she would give me the money if I signed up. After the physical, they sent all the draftees back home, but they kept five of us and took us to Fort Knox.”
First trained as a paratrooper, Spurlock had a bad landing with an injury and was eventually transferred to the 24th Infantry, 2nd battalion. Spurlock tells two tales that help explain what made him so mean: “I didn’t want the sergeant’s stripes,” he explained. “I knew I was too young. But the commander said, ‘You take these stripes or I’ll take the two Corporal stripes you have now.” Later, his peers formed a club for sergeants only and one time when they wanted to have a beer party, they made Scurlock pay for it with the last money he had in the safe.
Spurlock’s life as a drill sergeant began at Fort Benning after his Korean mission, but it was in 1960-61 when he was stationed in Germany that he heard then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declare over the radio that he would draft 200,000 men and he didn’t care if they could read or write. “But I had 12 of the best drill sergeants in the Army,” Spurlock explained. “We graduated the whole 200 men every time--training them how to shoot, take tests and march.”
Spurlock was sent to Vietnam after a visit to the Pentagon in 1967. The war was raging but he insisted. “I told them to put me down for Vietnam,” he explained. “They said, ‘but we don’t have your orders.’ I told them to cut me some new orders, then. Ten days later, I got my orders.”
Spurlock decided to leave the Army and was honorably discharged in 1975 as a Master Sergeant. He wound up teaching ROTC (those poor students!) at a high school in Haines City, Florida. He met his wife Mary there and they were wed in January 1984. They will celebrate their 33rd Anniversary in January, Mary said Friday afternoon. Family and a job brought them to Jackson County. After a few years of high school ROTC, Spurlock had mercy on the kids and joined a more fitting place to teach his lessons on discipline—the Florida Department of Corrections. After four years at the West Unit at Apalachee Correctional Institution in Sneads, Albert was able to qualify for state retirement, so he did and they settled down in Cottondale. Albert is a member of the Marianna VFW Post 12064.