5:40 | As a mortarman, Bob Atkinson stayed close to the nucleus of the platoon, with the officer and the radioman. This was a little safer than being a grunt. When automatic weapons fire greeted them in a village, he listened as an artillery support call went out. "That's my country on the other end and they will get us out." It didn't quite work out that way.
Keywords : Bob Atkinson Vietnam mortarman mortar ambush listening post FO Corpsman sand Marble Mountain Chu Lai village paddy dike women children automatic weapon radio artillery Medivac Huey
The physical trials of Marine boot camp were not the first trials Bob Atkinson had faced. Poverty and an abusive, alcoholic father made the screaming drill instructors and the accidental injury just another link in a long painful chain.
When the door opened after landing in Da Nang, it was like opening an oven, the heat was a blast right in the face. It was that and sand fleas and combat on his first night there, remembers Bob Atkinson. He was a Marine rifleman, but then he was picked at random and told, "You're a mortarman." Never having seen, much less fired a mortar during training, he wondered, "Are we laying block and brick for these people?"
Bob Atkinson's favorite C-ration was the pound cake, and he tells about finding something unusual in his cake. R&R seemed non-existent but he did have one six day leave and met his mother in Hawaii because he was sure he would not survive the war. Flying back, he marveled at how pretty the country looked from the air.
At the Kilo One fire base, a relief platoon came in late and Bob Atkinson's platoon was told not to leave, but to stay the night. That was fortunate for them all because there were an extra thirty Marines in camp. Bob woke to explosions and shot a man running at him. Though he had never fired the mortar himself, he began laying down fire on the human waves of enemy. Part 1 of 3.
As the battle at Kilo One continued, Bob Atkinson's mortar team ran out of ammo and he had to crawl to another mortar pit under heavy fire to get some more. They kept getting incoming rounds until they hit the enemy firing a recoilless rifle from their own chow hall. The fright turned to bitterness as he ended the night alone on watch. Part 2 of 3.
When an officer wouldn't let up with the belligerent questions following his grueling, amazing and involuntary debut as a mortar gunner, Bob Atkinson finally just walked away. His actions earned him the respect of his group and he was made squad leader, Part 3 of 3.
They could hear their own artillery rounds going overhead. Then, all of a sudden, they were right on top of Bob Atkinson's unit. He dove for a small hole at the same time as another guy, who took the brunt of the blast. His picture was in Stars and Stripes but there was no mention of friendly fire.
Marine mortarman Bob Atkinson got to relax back at battalion only every now and then, and it wasn't that safe there because it was hit frequently. Nor was he immune to heartbreak there, as he found out when a swarm of children went after food scraps in the dump.
Bob Atkinson stopped talking to grunts. He was a mortarman and he was constantly meeting new riflemen and becoming close to some of them. He tells the story of Gary Jordan, his best friend, and why he feels responsible for what happened to him.
How did he spend his down time? "There was no down time," says Bob Atkinson, who was a Marine mortarman protecting Da Nang. He could relax enough at battalion, though, to play pranks involving a radio and a tape recorder.
Bob Atkinson remembers Operation Union for one reason. He found that there was something out there that could make him bleed as much as encountering the enemy. It was in a cold, clear mountain stream.
It was a lot of weight to carry. He needed the mortar tube and the strap, but there was no time to use the sight, the way the mortar was used in Vietnam. The base plate and the bi-pod added a lot of weight and also slowed down the set up. So Bob Atkinson started carrying just the mortar and setting it in a helmet, firing by sight and instinct. The Captain didn't like that.
First he had to jump off the Amtrac in a frenzy with extra ammo and full gear on his back. That busted up his knee. The vehicle was repaired and under way again, when he was hit with incoming and knocked off the vehicle in flames. Still, Bob Atkinson wasn't sure he was really hurt.
Back in the states, Bob Atkinson tried to exercise his leg and knee and get the strength back. He had four months to go and was at Quantico when Martin Luther King was assassinated and he was put on a street corner in Washington guarding a liquor store.
The war was bad, the injury painful, and the return home was tentative. Bob Atkinson seemed normal for a while, then the war caught up with him. First it was the back pain. Then the nightmares. Marijuana and alcohol helped for a while, but then, out in the world, he heard someone speaking Vietnamese and he lost it. Part 1 of 3.
A SWAT team wound up at his house before Bob Atkinson finally reached out for help with his demons from the Vietnam War. He had back pain, but it was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that was making his life fall apart. Part 2 of 3.
Home had not been much better than the war but Bob Atkinson's life began to look up when he saw an ad for hypnosis to stop smoking and he tried it and it worked. Would the hypnotist try taking him back to Vietnam? "Oh, hell no," came the answer, but it did happen and it was another step on the road back. Part 3 of 3.
While transiting the Mediterranean, the USS Manley stopped in Crete, where the crew got some liberty and a taste of the local beverage, ouzo. Al Stiles recalls the potentially embarrassing departure from the port which became an apparently graceful bit of ship handling.
One night, while Laurie was eating dinner, the USS Sanctuary got a call about a plane crash. She vividly remembers the patients coming aboard, and the aftermath of this incident, including one boy who was MIA. However, as difficult as this experience was, this was nothing compared to the Tet Offensive. They had new wounded coming in constantly, and trying to care for all of them at once was emotionally exhausting. (Interview conducted at, and with the assistance of, the Military Heritage Museum- https://freedomisntfree.org/.)
After the column was devastated by an NVA ambush, wounded Americans were scattered in the darkness. After his captain heard one such group calling for help on the radio, Freddie Owens joined a patrol to find them, guided by a gunshot every few minutes. Once there, medic Daniel Torres volunteered to stay with those who couldn't move and protected them through the night with medicine and a machine gun.
His company command at the Cua Viet River was just the way Richard Jackson liked it. He was given free reign to take care of his area. He describes the tactics he used to fight the enemy and recalls one memorable fight in which his men and an NVA unit charged at each other in darkness.
It was the most intense action he saw during the war. Mike Morris describes the hour long battle with an NVA unit that made an unusual frontal assault. When daylight came, it was a grim scene, with hundreds of enemy dead.
In a letter home, Tommy Clack expressed his worry that something bad was going to happen and it did when his unit engaged the NVA near the Cambodian border. He saw the enemy soldier stand and fire the RPG that changed his life forever.
It was hard to find the enemy. Charlie would disappear into his holes and only come out once the Marines of Mike company had left. Richard Jackson's men tried probing the ground with sharp sticks, but they broke too easily. What they needed was steel. Thus was born the "Mike Spike." Part 1 of 2.
The RPG that severed Joe McDonald’s foot didn’t kill him. The machine gun fire that hit him as he still tried to help others didn’t kill him. The grenade taped to his hand might have killed him if the VC had found his hiding place.
As Marine Captain Ron Christmas fought to regain the city of Hue, he found the enemy adept at concealment and surprise. Every soldier in a spider hole was armed with a rifle and a RPG launcher. His action during this time earned him the Navy Cross.
They were hunkered down after fierce fighting when the call came from "Ghost 4-6." It was a group of wounded men who had pulled themselves together after the ill fated march to LZ Albany and were lost in the dark. George Forrest sent a patrol to find them, and in an incredible act of bravery, medic Daniel Torres stayed through the night with them and saved many men. Captain Forrest still had to write a gut-wrenching letter to the mother of a missing soldier. Part 3 of 4.
Before Mike Morris got to Vietnam, he heard a lot about the booby traps. It was a terrible fear in the back of your mind. What if I fall into one of those pits? It was a very dangerous place where the people wanted you gone.
You went unassigned to Vietnam, a roll of the dice. Sgt. Major Henry Rice joined the staff at 1st Brigade, 1st Division headquarters. That didn't sound like he would be in a chopper much, but he was. He was offered a prestigious assignment at MACV, but he was ready to retire after three wars.
They tried to put fighter and test pilot Bob Titus in logistics, but he wasn't going to sit at a desk and order supplies. He managed to avoid that fate and went to his third war in Vietnam to test new planes in a combat situation. Once that was over, he extended with another unit and scored three MiG kills.
When Mike Morris got to Vietnam, he was issued an M-16 rifle, which was new to him. His first mission ended with him covered in mud, but he still had access to a shower at this point. That wouldn't last. In his backpack you could find socks and candy, supplied by his mom, which was a big help.
Newly minted Lieutenant Mike Paque was at Fort Polk, moving large numbers of draftees through training and on to Vietnam. It was not a satisfying job, so he volunteered to go ahead and go himself. He knew he would be going, anyway, so he might as well get out of that place.
It was a culture shock, arriving in Vietnam. Mike Morris remembers the wire mesh on the bus windows to keep out hand grenades. He was an NCO, but totally green, and the old hands began to groom the newbie. The first night, artillery shook him awake. Was it theirs or ours?
He was drafted, but with a college degree, he was eligible for Officer Candidate School. Mike Paque went through basic training and advanced infantry training, then it was off to Fort Benning for OCS. It was tough, maybe tougher than what was coming.
Mike Morris thought the Vietnam War would go on forever. After serving there, he just didn't see any way you could prevail. He resumed working for the Chicago White Sox, but eventually, he returned to the Army as a chaplain's assistant and then as a recruiter for chaplains.
Al Stiles remembers that it seemed to take forever steaming into home port at Charleston. The USS Manley had returned from Vietnam and he was anxious to see his wife. He adapted his letters home to her, along with deck logs and other materials into a book.
The medics were respected and protected by the rest of the unit and given the title of "Doc" once they were in combat. The medic who treated Mike Morris the day he was wounded later died himself in the same battle.
When a ship pulled into Hong Kong for liberty, a call went out to a lady named Mary Sue, who had a big operation painting the sides of warships. The USS Manley had a lot of port visits there and elsewhere for repairs and refitting after she lost two gun mounts.
People were rotating in and out of Vietnam all the time. When you got close to the end of your twelve months, you started to duck for cover a little faster. While recovering from a wound, Mike Morris lucked into a clerk typist job, and with only a couple of months to go, it looked like he was going to make it through his tour.
The USS Manley was heading to Singapore for repairs when the route was adjusted slightly to make sure the ceremonies associated with crossing the equator could take place. Al Stiles provides a colorful description of the initiation of the Polliwogs.
He was in the Marine Reserves, but in training, a doctor told him he needed hernia surgery and he was out. Mike Morris still had a military obligation, though, and the draft put him in the Army as soon as he was able. He did well because of his previous experience and was sent to NCO school.
Transportation officer Tom Pemberton's first job in Vietnam was at Tan Son Nhut Air Base taking care of cargo. Later, the Army inherited responsibility for the Saigon port from the Navy and he moved to that location. During the offloading of tanks from a ship, a crew member forgot some basic safety, with expensive results.
Before the Tet offensive began, there were reports of enemy movements and infiltration, but no one expected the size or scope of the attacks. For Mike Morris, it was the beginning of three months of chasing the Communist forces away from Saigon and back to the north and west.