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This Old Hat: A Veterans Day Story, Part Two

EDITOR'S NOTE:This is the second of three parts written by local author and Vietnam veteran Warren Robinson of Lenox in observance of Veterans Day this month.

Part Two

By WARREN ROBINSON
Special to the Tifton Grapevine

II first met my boys in the 1960s as they entered military service. They came from New York, San Diego, Hawaii, from the Aleutian Islands, Miami and all parts in between.

I met them as they entered basic training. It was really something to see how different they were after that first day. Some had long hair, some wore nice clothes and some looked ragged. I heard accents from all over the United States. It didn’t take long after getting a GI haircut, a set of fatigues, GI green down to the boxer shorts they wore, and everybody started looking the same.

Starting the second day of boot camp, all that individuality was gone and the process of molding these raw recruits into a homogeneous fighting team that would respond to orders without question began. They were young, just kids really, not long out of grade school, full of life with worlds of vim and vigor. Most were 18 or 19 years old, but a few were 17 and needed their parent’s permission to join. A few lied about their age and were only 16. 

It was fun just to see these kids laughing and joking, innocently thinking they had their whole life in front of them and were about to embark on a grand adventure. Little did they know their lives would change forever as more than 58,000 would never return home alive. They would soon become battle-hardened veterans with their boyish innocence gone forever.

Today, I watch the old survivors return to visit the long, black granite wall in Washington, D.C., with the names of all their fallen buddies etched forever in stone. I see them as their eyes tear over and they wonder why their own names are not on that wall. All my boys suffered from something as a result of their service in that war so far from home. Many were forever maimed with missing arms or legs, and most would carry the mental scars to their grave. Untold hundreds of thousands more would die later from Agent Orange or other complications of service or from suicide, not able to cope with the memories.

My boys were not perfect, but they were the finest America had, equal to any fighting force America has ever sent into combat. Many of their schoolmates fled to Canada, some hid in some graduate school, some joined the National Guard or used political influence to avoid service. They disgraced themselves and their country and don’t deserve to walk the same streets with my boys. When America called, my boys stood up proudly and said, “Send me.” They were the epitome of the motto, “Duty, Honor, Courage.”

Looking back, historians debate whether this war was a monumental mistake of judgment or the result of some evil conspiracy by arms manufacturers to make a fortune selling the weapons and ammunition of war, but I don’t believe there was any one clear answer. Success is always everybody’s creation, while failure always has an unknown author.

America’s leaders were convinced the free world had to stop the spread of communism, and they feared, as outlined in the “Domino Theory,” that if communism was allowed to control Vietnam, all of Southeast Asia would soon fall next. However, as in all our wars of the past, America fought for freedom, not for conquest.

My boys served proudly from every military branch. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard performed with pride and honor. I was with the Naval aviators as they launched from the decks of aircraft carriers such as the USS Oriskany, USS Enterprise, USS Midway and others. They attacked the North Vietnamese factories, roads, bridges and mined the Haiphong Harbor to cut off as much support of North Vietnamese ground forces as possible. 

I watched as many of our planes were shot down with the aid of Russian- and Chinese-supplied anti-aircraft missile systems. The pilots who were able to eject were soon captured and forced to endure years of horrible torture and abuse as they rotted in jail while Jane Fonda visited nearby to deliver aid and support to the enemy. Some were captured in Laos or Cambodia and were held in small bamboo cages, as if they were animals. Many were never heard from again.

My Marines in the I Corps area around the strategic cities of Hue and Danang fought a fierce North Vietnamese enemy that was determined, well-trained, well-armed and relentless in their attacks. The valor of these young men was equal to any ever displayed by an American fighting force.

In the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, my boys patrolled the rivers and waterways of the rice belt in their sleek attack boats that were heavily armed, trying to deny the enemy their food staple, rice. They would patrol for days with no enemy contact, then when they least expected it, a fierce battle would occur as they sailed into an ambush.  Later, the enemy would vanish into the thick jungle as if they were never there.

Further north, elements of the 101st Infantry Division made contact with the enemy on May 10, 1969, at Hill 937 while conducting a sweep of the A Shau Valley. The size and strength of the enemy force was at first unknown. The battle that followed became known as the “Battle at Hamburger Hill.”  My boys were ordered to attack and drive the enemy off that hill. Their first attack was met with overwhelming resistance and they were driven down the hill. Reinforcements were called in and the battle raged for the next 10 days as they attempted one attack after another, only to be repelled time after time, taking more casualties on each attempt. 

Some days they fought in relentless monsoon rains that were followed by intense heat and humidity. Boys with only minor wounds were ordered to continue attacking while their buddies fell around them, dead or dying from the constant machine gun and small arms fire from above. Air Force Phantom jets roared overhead, dropping their bomb loads and Napalm canisters. The concussions often caused eardrums to rupture and blood drained down their necks while the searing heat from the Napalm seemed to destroy everything in its path, literally sucking the air out of their lungs.  

Dozens of my boys died there, and hundreds more suffered arms or legs being torn from their body as they screamed for help. They cried out to their buddies, to God, and begged for their mothers and the mercy of morphine to help ease the almost unbearable pain. Eventually, the hill was captured by the 101st at the price of several hundred dead or wounded. After occupying the position for several days and destroying any food, weapons or ammunition, the 101st was ordered to abandon the hill and proceed on a new mission.  

Shortly after the 101st departed, the hill was again occupied by North Vietnamese troops.

Members of the 1st Infantry Division in central Vietnam patrolled the jungles day after day, crossing streams and waterways in pursuit of the enemy, often having to stop and remove the leaches they acquired in the polluted water. Many days were uneventful, then suddenly they were attached in a fierce ambush attack. They had to constantly be searching the path ahead for booby traps or stepping into a punji stick trap where the sticks were sharpened into a weapon with the tips smeared with water buffalo dung to infect the wounds.

The enemy would attack, then vanish into the jungle or an underground tunnel system where they could hide and pop up in the jungle in another area. Weary from the physical exertion and lack of sleep or decent food, they somehow continued to put one foot in front of the other.

I saw the bravery of the helicopter crews as they set down time after time into a hot landing zone to take wounded GIs on board for emergency aid until they reached the hospital. After landing and unloading their cargo, they would often have to spray the inside of the chopper with a stream of water to wash the blood from inside that was streaming out the doors onto the tarmac below.  

Inside the hospital, doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to save as many as possible. Young nurses tried to comfort them with assurances they would not die, then go outside and weep because they knew many would never survive.

I saw the young USO and Red Cross girls give them a gentle female touch and listen patiently as they tried to give comfort to my boys.