Summary written by Dan Elder, CSM USA Retired
By the end of 1966 the US military presence in South Vietnam had grown to 385,000 with the majority soldiers in the US Army. During the Vietnam build up many of those doing the fighting were enlistees and draftees, the Reserve forces were not mobilized for this action. Without “calling up” the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve Army leaders had to induct and train raw talent, and to distribute these new recruits and existing personnel worldwide to stay ready and prepared. The size of the active component was not large enough to provide all requirements for the expanded Vietnam commitment and the Army found itself without plans for expanding its strength. The rapid buildup, coupled with a Department of Defense directive that established a 12-month tour of duty in Vietnam made the replacement program a fundamental problem.
The Skill Development Base (SDB) was a program of formal instruction and on-the-job training (OJT) to address the Army’s shortage of deployable enlisted personnel, and to fill requirements (mostly overseas) in pay grades E-5 and E-6. To meet an unprecedented requirement for NCO leaders a solution was based on the proven Officer Candidate Course where an enlisted man could attend basic and advanced training, and if recommended or applied for, fill out an application and attended OCS. The expectation by Army leadership was the same could be done for NCOs. If a carefully selected soldier can be given 23 weeks of intensive training that would qualify him to lead a platoon, the belief was that others could also be trained to lead squads and fire teams in the same amount of time. From this seed the Noncommissioned Officers Candidate Course was born.
The NCO Candidate Course (NCOCC) was designed to maximize the two-year tour of the enlisted draftee. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold K. Johnson approved the concept on June 22, 1967, and on September 5 the first course at Fort Benning, GA began with Sgt. Maj. Don Wright serving as the first NCOCC Commandant. NCOC was divided into two phases. Phase I was 12 weeks of intensive, hands-on training, broken down into three basic phases. For the Infantry noncom, the course included tasks such as physical training, hand-to-hand combat, weapons, first aid, map reading, communications, and indirect fire. Vietnam veterans or Rangers taught many of the classes, but the cadre of the first course were commissioned officers. The second basic phase focused on instruction of fire team, squad and platoon tactics. Though over 300 hours of instruction was given, 80-percent was conducted in the field. The final basic phase was a “dress rehearsal for Vietnam,” a full week of patrols, ambush, defensive perimeters, and navigation.
With the success of the course, it was extended to other career fields. The Armor School began NCOCC on December 5, 1967 and some schools later offered a correspondence “preparatory course” for those who anticipated attending NCOCC or had not benefited from such formal military schooling. The NCOCC graduate had a specific role in the Army-they were trained to do one thing in one branch in one place in the world, and that was mostly to be a team leader in Vietnam. It was recognized that they were not taught how to teach drill and ceremonies, inspect a barracks, or how to conduct police call. Many rated the program by how the graduates performed in garrison, for which they had little skill. But their performance in the rice paddies and jungles as combat leaders was where they took their final tests, of which many receiving the ultimate failing grade. Four would go on to earn the Medal of Honor.
As part of an Army study in the late 1960s it was determined that a three-level developmental system would be implemented during “the post hostility period” (Vietnam) to train NCOs and specialists for the level of responsibility in which they are to serve. NCOCC was selected for expanding into the first level Basic Course. In July 1970 during a lull in NCOCC, the first Basic Course pilot course was taught at Ft Sill, OK, and then the first Army-wide courses began in May 1971. By late-1971, existing post or regimental NCO Academies began the transition to the Basic Course as part of NCOES. In Nov 1971 the Department of the Army directed that NCOCC end after January 1972. Over its 4 1/2-year existence, SDB, including NCOC, trained about 33,000 NCOs at the various NCOCC locations.
Medal of Honor recipients
SSG Robert J. Pruden, Class 2-69
SSG Hammett Lee Bowen, Jr., Class 4-69
SSG Robert C. Murray, Class 38-69
SGT Lester R. Stone, Jr. Class 37-68