May, 1968. Somewhere over the North Pacific.
The airliner streaked above the ocean at 35,000 feet enveloped by blue sky and blue water. A peaceful scene. The flight time from Honolulu, where they had refueled, to Tan Son Nhut Airbase, South Vietnam was thirteen hours. The cabin was filled with young men wearing crew cuts and smart military uniforms; some asleep, some nervously chattering, others quiet, no doubt thinking about what the following twelve months held for them.
Second Lieutenant Merritt Wilson “Tink” Haney of Tanner, Alabama, wondered how many of them would return home in a flag-draped coffin or wearing a Purple Heart. Would he be one of them? He was an optimist – always had been – but in his heart of hearts, he told himself, “I won’t ever get out of there.” Statistics weren’t in his favor. By the end of the year, the American death toll would reach 30,000 in that beautiful land of green.
He had come a long way from his home, a hardscrabble, cotton farm near Tanner where he had chopped and picked cotton. His parents, Louis Maples Haney, Sr. and Bessie Compton Haney, had named him for his maternal grandfather, Merritt Haney, a well-known faith healer in Elkmont. Folks traveled from as far away as Nashville to seek his healing powers.
Tink didn’t claim to possess healing powers, but when he was 8 years old he rubbed a fellow cotton pickers noggin for a nickel and his headache vanished. On another occasion he rubbed a field hand’s wrist and the pain resolved. The appreciative patient compensated him by picking cotton and putting it in his sack. His grandmother said he was always “messing around and tinkering with stuff” and dubbed him “Tinker” which was later shortened to “Tink”.
After attending Wheeler School at Jones Crossroads, he went to Tanner where he was quarterback and co-captain, along with his cousin, Horace, of the Tanner Rattler football team. It was on the gridiron under the tutelage of Coach Ralph Brett that he began developing leadership skills. Following graduation in 1958 he cotton farmed with his father for three years then worked awhile at Auto-lite in Decatur. But he had greater ambitions.
One day, he promised himself, he would play football at Alabama and study Mechanical Engineering. But a dark cloud hung over his bright future – a green sliver of land called Vietnam. By the end of 1962, over 11,000 American soldiers were there and more were being drafted and sent daily. He knew that eventually he would be sent there, but he wanted to go as an officer. “I figured I would have a better chance of surviving.”
Coach Bear Bryant had led the Crimson Tide to the National Championship in 1961. Tink wanted to play football. ‘Bama could recruit anybody they wanted and weren’t courting Tink, but that didn’t discourage him. “I want to play,” he told Coach Ralph Brett. “I’m going to walk on.” Coach Brett knew Assistant Coach Gene Stallings and asked him to give Tink a chance to play. Stallings agreed. Tink worked out, ran full speed through deep leaves in the woods and maneuvered around trees pretending they were opposing players. He arrived at Alabama in good shape, and brazenly walked in the athletic office.
“I want to see Coach Bryant.” He was referred to Stallings. His effort paid off. There were nine walk-ons that year and I was one of them,” he said. “I played quarterback on the scout team. If we were going to play Auburn that weekend, I’d play the Auburn quarterback during practice. I never got to play a game. I was a grunt – but I enjoyed it.” Coach Bryant wasn’t a touchy-feely guy. “If you got knocked out, they’d just drag you over to the sideline. The name of the game was winning.”
ROTC was mandatory for the first two years in college. “I loved it. I wanted to go to Vietnam as an officer and I needed the money which was about $40 or $50 a month they paid me.” He excelled in ROTC. “I always tried to do the best I could whatever I was doing. I cleaned my weapon and polished my brass.” His diligence paid off. In 1963 he was chosen from 1,000 other students as cadet of the week. “The Sergeant tried to make me cower, but I didn’t.”
During his third year, he made Brigade Sergeant Major, the highest rank achievable. Following his junior year, he was sent to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina for nine weeks of basic training and came back to Alabama a Senior and was promoted to Brigade Commander over some two to three thousand men. It was a huge accomplishment. On Governor’s Day, he escorted Governor George Wallace and University President, Frank Rose onto the parade ground. While riding in the back of the Governor’s limousine to the grounds, they passed a bunch of hippies holding anti-war signs. “Whoa – Stop!” ordered Wallace. He got out of the car. “Be sure to get a picture of that,” Wallace said and got back in and turned to Dr. Rose. “A picture of this long hair will get me more votes than anything I can do today.”
Tink was stretched thin. Simultaneously, he was working on a mechanical engineering degree and studying forty hours a week. The ROTC professor called him in his office. “Haney, you made a B in ROTC. Our commander is supposed to make an A.” “Sir, I’m a B man,” replied Tink.
Tink didn’t own a car, but he soon got transportation. “There was a bicycle chained to a rack in front of McCorvey Hall. It had been sitting there two or three weeks with flat tires. I cut the chain, aired the tires and rode it for about a year.” He graduated January, 1967 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering and received his 2nd Lieutenant “Butter Bars.” He was also selected Distinguished Military Graduate, “displaying outstanding qualities of leadership, high moral character and academic achievement and exceptional aptitude for military service,” read the certificate.
After receiving an extension from the Army and working for TVA in Chattanooga for four months, he entered serviced on May 9. Naturally, he chose engineering. Following nine weeks of training at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia he was assigned to Ft. Rucker, Alabama. It was while there that he received orders for Vietnam.
The airliner began a slow descent. Tink looked out the window and saw the blue waters of the South China Sea slowly fading into green vegetation. The wheels touched down on the runway. His long journey to Vietnam had finally ended. Or rather, just begun.
By: Jerry Barksdale