Thursday, November 8, 2012

Big & Rich -- "8th of November" (2005)

On the 8th of November 
The angels were crying 
As they carried his brothers away 

Big & Rich's Comin' to Your City album, which includes the "8th of November," was released almost 40 years to the day after the Vietnam War battle that is the subject of the song.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade -- the first major U.S. Army combat unit to be deployed to Vietnam -- arrived there in May 1965, and participated in over 50 combat operations before returning to the U.S. six years later.

The "Sky Soldiers" had a peak strength of about 3000 soldiers.  I don't know how many different men served in the 173rd in the six years it fought in Vietnam, but 1736 died there.  The Brigade's soldiers were awarded 13 Medals of Honor and over 6000 Purple Hearts.

On the 8th of November, 1965, units of the 173rd were conducting a search-and-destroy operation code named "Operation Hump" about 30 miles northeast of Saigon.

Companies B and C of the 1st Battalion were ambushed by some 1200 Viet Cong troops the morning of the 8th.  The Americans repelled the attacks, and the Viet Cong eventually withdrew into the jungle.

Some 48 Americans were killed, and many more wounded.  The official estimate of the enemy's casualties was 400 dead, although some believe it was twice that number.

One of the wounded was Niles Harris, a friend of Big & Rich.  He was one of a group of 30 soldiers who were isolated during part of the battle.  

Harris met Big & Rich (a/k/a/ "Big Kenny" Alphin and John Rich) when the duo were performing in Deadwood, South Dakota in 2003.  The three men shared a beer or two that night, and Harris showed the musicians around the Black Hills the next day.  He told them about his Vietnam experience, and they were inspired to write a song about it.

Niles Harris with Big & Rich
Harris was a typical infantry soldier of that era:

Said goodbye to his momma
As he left South Dakota 
To fight for the red, white and blue 
He was 19 and green
With a new M-16 
Just doing what he had to do 

Here's the song's description of how November 8 began for Harris:

He was dropped in the jungle
Where the choppers would rumble 
With the smell of napalm in the air 
And the sergeant said,
"Look up ahead!" 

The 1200 enemy soldiers descended on Harris and his comrades "like a dark, evil cloud." 

With the fire raining down
And the hell all around 
There were few men left standing that day 

An M-16 rifle
Harris was 58 when the song was written, some four decades after that battle.  Every 8th of November, he pays tribute to the men of the 173rd who died that day:

He puts on a gray suit
Over his Airborne tattoo 
And he ties it on one time a year 
And remembers the fallen
As he orders a tall one 
And swallows it down with his tears 

"8th of November" may be "awkwardly jingoistic," as one reviewer described it.  It's also sentimental and manipulative and mawkish.  

But I don't mind any of that a bit.  Anytime I'm on a bike ride to Lake Needwood and "8th of November" pops up on my iPod, I hit the repeat button at least three or four times -- and I sing along to the chorus at the top of my lungs.  

Here's "8th of November" (featuring Niles Harris):

Click here to order the song from Amazon:

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