8:52 | 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.
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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?"
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.
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.
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.
Can I cut the mustard? Tom Agnew was apprehensive on the way to Vietnam and wondering if he was up to the task. He was assigned as a medic in a helicopter evacuation unit, known as Dustoff. On one of his first missions, he learned not to triage the wounded too quickly. (Caution: coarse language.)
When a new pilot checked in, David Farthing asked where he was before. The answer caused him to bite his tongue. They were always short of pilots in the assault helicopter company, but he didn't think this guy was going to work out. Overall, though, things were getting better and it was his opinion that it had a lot to do with the new top commander, Creighton Abrams. (Caution: coarse language.)
His first assignment was in a Davy Crockett platoon, but that field nuclear weapon system was short lived and John Le Moyne began training to be an advisor in Vietnam. When he got there, he walked out of in-processing and went looking for the unit he wanted.
It wasn't any ragtag Viet Cong, it was a battalion of NVA that was assaulting the artillery battery where Sammy Davis was stationed in the Mekong Delta. After an RPG hit his gun, he regained consciousness and found his position nearly overrun. After firing every round he had, he saw a wounded American on the other side of the river. He knew what he had to do and his actions brought him consideration for the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.
Following a harrowing first day of combat, Tom Buchan was surprised to find hot food flown in and cots to sleep on. He managed to finally get himself on a tank crew through sheer will and intelligence. It was the day he helped out one of the APC crews, though, that earned him recognition.
It could be tough getting resupplied in the field in Vietnam. Medic Marvin Cole nearly had a Chinook land on top of him in the fog. He and his medical platoon performed missions treating civilians in their villages and he relates a chilling story of a child used by the enemy to attack one of these operations.
When someone at work made a comment that America had lost the Vietnam War, Roye Wilson was shocked. Our soldiers never lost a battle there. The politicians decided they would leave and they did. To him, it was an honorable enterprise and the only right course at the time and it is his belief that it contributed to the fall of Soviet communism.
His first day in the jungle was memorable. American advisor John Le Moyne saw his South Vietnamese paratroopers stage a daring frontal assault, called in his first air strikes and Medevacs and, after it was over, he wondered if every day was going to be like this.
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.
While he was beginning his shift as the night duty officer, Lawson Magruder would marvel at the wrecked helicopters brought back to base. The brigade had moved and tactics had not been adjusted for the fact that there were anti-aircraft batteries up near the DMZ. He relates the story of LT Dick Anshus and a downed pilot who were captured.
Six months after John Le Moyne had battled entire regiments of the NVA in the Tay Ninh area, there were only isolated small groups operating. The war had changed. As a new company commander, he had a lot of questions and he was fortunate to have superiors who were patient.
The Air Force rescue crews flying the big helicopters known as the Jolly Green Giants began to get respect among the pilots of other services because they excelled at retrieving downed airmen. Pilot Dave Oliver was on one such mission, which was going badly, when the commander asked if was he willing to go in without waiting for backup. The situation was dire for the men on the ground so the answer was affirmative. He would be awarded the Silver Star for this action.
Platoon leader Bill Pearson sent out a squad to set up a night ambush and when they made contact, it was with a much larger VC force. With the rest of the platoon, he set out to find them and bring them back. When he located the besieged squad, the battle became intense and they were in danger of being wiped out. In a desperation move, he called in artillery on his own position.
Advisor training gave John Le Moyne a good grounding in Vietnamese language and culture. Reading books like Street Without Joy and The Ugly American gave him an idea of what to expect as an outsider in a nation at war. Once he was there, he found out that he had been taught the language with a North Vietnamese accent.
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.
John Le Moyne never asked questions. The American advisor just ate the dinner his Vietnamese partners served him every night. There was no real down time for the South Vietnamese Airborne. They were always on the move. One night, the battalion XO made contact on the radio with an enemy soldier across the border in Cambodia. This led to an interesting discovery.
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/.)
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 enemy was mainly NVA regulars where American advisor John Le Moyne was working with a South Vietnamese Airborne battalion. They would pour out of Cambodia every couple of weeks and attack. Some of the men with the Airborne had been fighting the Communists for twenty years.
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.
American advisor John Le Moyne didn't give the South Vietnamese Airborne unit much advice. He was there to call in air strikes, artillery, Medevacs and resupply. He marveled at the toughness and courage of the fighters who traced the unit's lineage back to the French Colonial Airborne.
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.
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.
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.
Vietnam was full of important lessons for John Le Moyne, who tried to pass the knowledge on throughout his career. Should we have been there? Maybe not, when you consider who was in charge at the time. At least he missed the ill treatment that many experienced when he returned.