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.
During the second deployment of the USS Manley to Vietnam, the destroyer was called on to use its guns to breach the wall in the old city of Hue without harming the palace within. Two other ships had failed, but Al Stiles directed the fire that accomplished the mission. The Manley was getting a reputation as the go-to destroyer for precise fire.
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.
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/.)
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.
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.
The destroyer had been off the coast of Vietnam for about a month when tragedy hit. One of the five inch gun mounts exploded in a freak accident. Al Stiles describes the chaotic aftermath as the sailors rushed to contain the fire and prevent further explosions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Al Stiles was from a Navy family and was set on being a Navy man himself. After boot camp and service on two ships, he re-enlisted and went to fire control school. He headed for his first deployment in Vietnam, stopping in Pearl Harbor, where he was taken aback by something he saw at the Memorial.
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. He also encountered a nun with an AK-47. His action during this time earned him the Navy Cross.
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 a mathematics major, but John Waller was also an ROTC cadet, and this led to a commission as a new 2nd Lieutenant. The Air Defense Artillery School at Fort Bliss was a lucky assignment for him, though he would have gladly gone to Vietnam if that was his fate. His real goal was to be a math teacher.
With one five inch gun mount out of commission, the USS Manley returned to duty off the coast of Vietnam. Al Stiles recalls the tragic death of a crewman from a sudden heart attack and, as the crew was getting over that, another bizarre accident caused the explosion of a second gun mount. Lightning had struck twice.
Landing at Tan Son Nhut air base to begin his second tour, Tom Pemberton could see flashes on the ground. It was VC fire aimed at his plane. The transportation officer had a staff job monitoring motorpools and cargo operations. Then he had a highway traffic control job in which he tried to keep convoys from running into each other.
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.
It was over a hundred degrees and there was a garbage strike when Tom Grissom arrived in Saigon. After he got used to the aroma, he had to get used to a new kind of war, a war in which there were no battle lines and anyone could be an enemy. He had a desk job, but even in the compound where high ranking officers lived, there were booby traps.
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.
During his first tour of Vietnam, medic Franklin Monroe was happy to be issued a .45 because it could get pretty dangerous when the compound was attacked. Eventually he sought out some heavier weaponry. He recalls those firefights and also the traumatic time a soldier stepped on a mine.
Following personal leave to attend his father's funeral, Tom Pemberton returned to Vietnam with a new assignment, auditing stevedore contracts at the Saigon port. When his time was up, he returned to the Army Reserve Advisory Group in Jacksonville. It was a good post, but there was one difficulty. It fell on this unit to notify families in Florida of a soldiers death.
Curtis James was the first officer in charge of a Pentagon effort to manage crises during the Cold War. It was a brand new office inside the giant headquarters and, after running that for a while, he served in Vietnam at MACV in Saigon, managing the logistics of the war effort.
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.