''...Words, there are no words....''
The Sobering Story of Corporal Eugene ''Ray Rob'' Robertson and the Tet Offensive
The Americans and South Vietnamese won nearly every battle of the Vietnam War. But as we would find out, the North wasn't looking to win battles. The capitalized on the American reaction to the press coverage. Here, in chilling detail, it another account of survival in the Tet offensive and the bloody cost of a victory only we defined as such.
This interview was among the most spontaneous and difficult I have ever done. Robertson got out of a large white older truck and came into the 7-11. It was a chance meeting. I saw his hat and extended a hand, thanking him for his service. He actually turned around, not knowing I was addressing him. He didn't know what quite to say. I began to ask a few basic questions and gradually eased into what would be a one-hour conversation while my 18 year old son waited unknowingly in the car!
As Robertson began to recall details, he exhibited signs of severe PTSD. I didn't want the man to have a breakdown, especially at my expense. I merely asked a couple of questions and suddenly he wanted to tell his story. But I watched him nervously because of his stuttering, stammering, and continued squeezing his beard. To those who know the science of body language, that is a sign of severe remorse. I couldn't imagine the scene he was setting, and I tried to set him on different courses. I could get him to talk about nicknames, emotional bonds with people he met in Vietnam, ect...
''The North Vietnamese were a very tenacious enemy who would have fought to the last women and child because of how they had been indoctrinated. We didn't have that same attitude, for us, we had homes we were going back to, Many of their homes were on fire.'' He said of the enemy combatants. Robertson spoke of the need he has not to ''bother anyone with things.'' I steadily reassured him that he was not bothering anyone and that his story was valuable. So we stood there in a noisy 7-11, and with each recollection Robertson seemed to want to talk more and more. He had a captive audience who cared.
When you read this short account, be warned that of all the soldiers I spoke to, he was the first front-line infantryman. He tells me the following story - as he said - ''because it does him good to finally find someone who cared...'' But this is very graphic detail and it's as fresh in his memory as if it were yesterday. You can tell he hasn't been able to run away from the memory, and it haunts him still. No other soldier has captured the essence of war, up close and so personal. So beware, this is a story with vivid imagry.
I try to write history in such a way that the reader can appreciate both sides of the same story along with an eyewitness account. It leaves you with the impression of three dimensions, ideally proposed so that neither one side or the other has a bias. The High-School text books that teach our next generation are referenced here, both enemy combatants represented.
The Cold War began almost the week after WWII came to a crashing end. The United States would enter conflicts that would quietly escalate dramatically in the 1960s. As the North Vietnamese claimed, the USA was stuck ''in a quagmire'' that would prove very unpopular in the States. A dramatic and epic series of battles in January-February of 1968 forced America to come to terms with the probability of losing an unpopular war and moreover, a lot of American boys. The brutality and stunning shock to the USA came into our dining rooms and by late summer 1968, the anti-war movement claimed a political casualty, Lyndon Johnson. All-in-all, it has been widely considered America's most controversial and disappointing war.
THE VIETNAM WAR - Overview in Vietnamese Textbooks
Beginning in March 1965, facing the danger of the total destruction of its '''Special War''' forces, violent America brought its expeditionary forces and vassal army with its artillery and war technology into South Vietnam to strengthen its invasion. It had become an occupying force. The total war in South Vietnam widend into a ''War of Destruction'' in the North.
THE TET OFFENSIVE IN VIETNAMESE AND AMERICAN TEXTBOOKS
How Vietnamese Schools Teach Their Children about Vietnam
Upon Viet Cong’s grand psychological victory in the Tet Offensive, the U.S. was forced to change its strategy to Vietnamization and escalate the war to the whole Indochina involving both Laos & Cambodia. Vietnamization is once again described as a modern American invasion war conducted mainly by Saigon’s forces under the support of American air and advisors. The U.S. continued to employ the so-called “using Vietnamese to fight against Vietnamese” strategy to reduce American deaths in the battlefields. American involvement in Vietnam ended when the Paris Peace Accords was in 1973.
We valiantly fought the imperialists with a strong resolve. After a series of defeats in its military, attempts to stifle the North Vietnamese failed again and again. the U.S. soon turned to torture and lies to murder innocent numbers of civilians throughout Indochina. It failed to undermine the spirit of the North Vietnamese brethren although the use of propaganda and lies did much to brainwash the brothers in the South. US oppression did not prevail and we tasted victory, while the American invaders tasted their own blood.
Still another Text-Book records this:
“Resistance War Against the United States (to protect the country)” (chien tranh chong My cuu nuoc). The U.S. was another colonist power and imperialist just like the French and that for our great brothers is not a civil war but instead a war against American invasion. The reason it was never considered a Civil War is because our brothers in the South who wanted to be part of the North were led by a puppet governor whose greedy and selfish eyes toward American money helped to brainwash him.
Meanwhile, the Americans looked on it as such.... Bombs and Gunfire suddenly erupt around General Westmoreland's headquarters. On January 31, 1968, at 2am, some 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the Tet Offensive (named for the lunar new year holiday called Tet), a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. Every major city and capital in the South is targeted. General Vo Nguyen Giap, leader of the Communist People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), planned the offensive in an attempt both to foment rebellion among the South Vietnamese population and encourage the United States to scale back its support of the Saigon regime.
Tam Ky, the radio-hub of American forces, attacks are called in from everywhere. As the sun rose the next morning, the confused actions of the night gave way to a grim realization. Hundreds of thousands of mortars were brought into the South hidden in truckloads of rice, flour, and salt to be used for the celebration of Tet.
Sixteen commandos breached the embassy wall in South Vietnam. To the east, in the ancient capital of Hue, a greatly outnumbered American and South Vietnam army, face off against the NVA.
Outside Khe Sanh, a few marines are holding hill 861-A, where the US needed to reinforce a company of marines that are trapped. Rumors of atrocities committed by the NVA turn out to be well founded. Hundreds of dead NVA lay scattered on the hill-top.
Though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces managed to hold off the Communist attacks, news coverage of the offensive (including the lengthy Battle of Hue) shocked and dismayed the American public and further eroded support for the war effort. Despite heavy casualties, North Vietnam achieved a strategic victory with the Tet Offensive, as the attacks marked a turning point in the Vietnam War and the beginning of the slow, painful American withdrawal from the region.
And Now, A Primary and Personal Account of Tet by Eugene ''Ray-Rob'' Robertson
I wanted to be on the frontlines of battle. It was all I knew as a kid, playing good guys and bad guys. Naturally, my parents wanted me as far away from the frontlines as possible. Mom insisted I become a mechanic for the Air Force. So, to please her, I took an exam to test the candidate pool for mechanics and I failed it on purpose. If they showed me a picture of a wrench, I said it was a screwdriver. Mom couldn't understand it because even as a kid I loved to tinker with things. She asked me, ''Gene, why do you want to go into the army so bad?'' My dad had fought in WWII and my great-grandfather served in WWI. ''They fought for my freedom. It's my turn to do my part.''
In a matter of days I was reporting to Fort Campbell Kentucky as an infantryman. It takes a certain amount of heart to be in the Army, let-alone to be on the very front. I earned a nick-name real quick. I was ''Ray-Rob'' and almost at once you are with your brothers. I was never lonely one day in the Army. I had so many friends, they just don't say hello and goodbye. They are with you all the time. In 1966, I was sent to Panama under the leadership of Joe Ronnie Hooper. He was one of the most amazing men I ever met and one of the greatest heroes of the Vietnam War.
Hooper won 37 awards and decorations and received a Medal of Honor too. Hooper was fearless, completely and utterly fearless. Even in Panama he showed his bravado. There was a man under his command who came to him for help with a heroin addiction. Hooper went to his CO, whose name I forgot, and asked what to do. He was told to ''not let that worry him too much because he (meaning Hooper) was up for promotion and he wouldn't have to worry about this soldier much longer.'' Well, not long thereafter, the soldier died of a drug overdose. Hooper was irate. He went to his CO's office and knocked him out cold.
It seemed like Hooper was always trying to avoid trouble but kept finding it. After this happened he had an Article 15 where he was reduced to the rank of Corporal. We just loved that guy however and the military leadership saw they had something special in Hooper. They promoted him again, this time to Sergeant. He would become my squad leader in Vietnam.
North Vietnam announced that in honor of the Vietnamese New Year that we would be taking a week off from hostilities. For seven days we would be able to breathe a bit. (The) problem is, we didn't believe it. Our leadership couldn't get the South Vietnamese to fight, believing that there would be a cease fire for Tet. The officers acted as if they didn't know that Tet was coming. But we all knew it. It's just one of those things, just, well you just knew.
Back at home, anti-war protests grew throughout the 1967 summer and leading into the 1968 election. The press found itself increasingly on the front lines, and images of burning villages, chaos, and dead civilians brought the war painfully into our living-rooms. The Tet holiday is usually marked with a Cease-Fire.
''The pressure at Khe Sanh is terrible for the marines. And it has been a terrible week for them.''
For nearly a year, 40,000 troops from North Vietnam have made it across the border. 6,000 Marines were trying to stop them. ''Mr. President, Robert McNamera said, The North Vietnamese have finally made their long awaited attack on Khe Sanh and the full out assault has been initiated.'' The phone call from the Secretary of State couldn't have come at a worse time.
The city is located near the border of North and South Vietnam and their main mission is to prevent movement of enemy troops and supplies from the North into South. Instead, they find themselves increasingly under siege. Saigon and other main cities are 550 miles from the border and are considered safe.
50 million Americans are brought into the war as 90% of all News Coverage happens to be on Vietnam. By afternoon, of January 31st, the Viet Cong had taken the US Embassy in Saigon. Soldiers on the outside are fighting to get back in. Explosions are being heard from within the embassy and clearly, this is a huge embarrassment for the President, who couldn't seem to understand how the United States was being pushed around in this manner.
''Make no mistake, Johnson tells a stunned nation. ''....we will win. We WILL win.''
Don Webster of CBS was evacuated from the Radio Station where Armed Forces Network did their broadcasts. Suddenly, grenades blow up from inside the building. He reported from outside the radio station. ''The north has taken the radio station and an unknown number of Viet Cong soldiers are in charge of it.""
After a six hour fight, the marines take back the US Embassy. In the surprise attack, much of South Vietnam was under VC control. As chaos spreads, US Soldiers and journalists are told that the fighting is not limited to Saigon. More than 100 other locations are also under attack, and it is here that we first hear about the historic capital of Hue.
Images of American bodies being dragged from buildings throughout Vietnam. ''It all amounts the most ambitious attack by Communists - the entire length of the country.'' Reported ABC Newsman Frank McGee. ''Alarmed, but not surprised'' a statement by LBJ. There were systematic attacks on US outposts and even Red Cross centers.
Having never strayed far from home, I was experiencing a bit of culture shock. How are we supposed to tell friend from foe? I remember wondering that outloud and one of the guys sitting beside me half-jokingly said, 'you can't tell them apart, shoot them all and ask questions afterwards. If you don't, you'll be in a bodybag.'' That sure didn't help my apprehensiveness about the whole thing. From above, you could see parts of town living as normal. People in the streets, even a parade. A few blocks over, you'd see small fires and hear gunfire. There was simply no preparing for that.
We were being brought to Hue. As we got closer, more and more villagers were streaming out of the city on the road. Within a mile, the dead. One here, another there. As we got close into Hue, the mood grew very tense. We was nervous. Something had happened here, but what? Finally, while we are on the back of the truck, our staff sgt comes out and tells us what's going on. Many of us heard a battle of some sort had happened here, but you can't be prepared for what you seen. Little babies, I mean, just wasted.
(Robertson paused to gather himself. It seemed like he wanted to say more about this subject but I couldn't let him at the time. It was a busy 7-11 and the appropriateness and sensitivity of what he was saying were of a concern for me given where we were standing....soon, I wouldn't have the choice of changing the subject. For this - I brought him back to Hue.)
Hue had this old city gate tha faced to the west, the setting sun. We were briefed that the NVA was going to take over Hue and then hand it over to the communists. The gate was only guarded by a few guys who were easily taken out. Before the sun really finished coming up in the morning, the VC flag had flown over the tower in Hue. It was that quick.
We were met with fierce resistance as we approached the city. From our side there were 50-cals resounding in the distance. Land-mines were in the roads. Up ahead, the smoke rose from one that had been set off somehow. We didn't see any sign that there was a vehicle of any kind so someone speculated that perhaps a motorcycle or bike had set it off. Slowly we got to site of the land mine.
An elderly woman was blocking the road, on her knees, screaming and sobbing. People just stood around, facing different directions. Then one of the translators told us what happened. She was pushing her grandson in a stroller weighed down with whatever belongings she could get out of her house before the North successfully claimed victory. They shot her husband, daughter and son-in-law, her brother and another child who was visiting their house at the time. While pushing the stroller it became entangled in a piece of barbed wire.
She stood back to let a kind man untangle the stroller when - without realizing it - he pulled the detention device. She must have been in her seventies - and not one person left in her family...and keep in mind, this was a culture that placed a heavy emphasis on the family.
''The wounded just kept coming and coming'' This image was shot at the Battle of Hue in January 1968
I found an excellent resource to learning about this pivotal time in our history, www.vietnamwar.info Recently this Marine, Allen Grantham - was just located a few months ago and added that seeing his picture was ''kind of eerie, but I am proud of it too.'' He said that he suffered shrapnel wounds and was bleeding out when a medic saved his life. He has never located that medic. Grantham built a website to find those who fought at Hue in January 1968 - you can find this site here: www.tet1968.com
We were stuck on the outside of the city awaiting more men and orders to take the city back. The South Vietnamese people were very angry and they would have gone in on their own and possibly could have taken the town back. But instead, we urged them to wait. On the North side of Hue the number of casualties coming through was increasing. On February 21st, 1968, all hell broke loose when we were west of Hue. We were supposed to take back Hue. We had been on the move for weeks and exhaustion, hunger and despair was beginning to set in.
Meanwhile, the situation becomes more desperate. At Hue University, American troops were stationed inside on the second floor under the command of Col Ernest Cheatam, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion and the 5th Marine Corps. They will be covering FoxTrot company. They are fighting house-to-house, room-to-room.
The NVA captures the Citadel at Hue, an almost impenetrable stone fortress built in 1804. VC guerillas infiltrated the South dressed as civilians, and as previously mentioned, we were unable to tell friend from foe. Even the South Vietnamese couldn't tell! I thought of that advice given to me, and I thought, 'perhaps this is the only way to ensure you survival.' So when I hear people talk about how the USA took the war to innocent civilians, I am made sick to my stomach. No one who hasn't faced such circumstances can understand the actions of our guys. Fact is - we tried our level best.
We could hear a great excitement coming from a huge building that most of were told was under friendly control. We never considered that it could be over run by the enemy. I can't confirm this, but I remember hearing how a number of boys had their detachment destroyed and ran toward the Citadel for safety, dragging as many of the guys along as they could. They were met with a hell and bullets.
There seemed to be no real objective in what we were doing. We were between two ridges and we were trapped on both sides, just outside the old city. We had no air support and no confidence in anyone except ourselves. And one-by-one, we were dying. It was the only time we went through the knapsacks of our soldiers. We were scrouging for aything we could in order to eat or even better, find a canteen. (NOTE: AT this point, Robertson began to pull stressfully at his beard and began to stammer, stutter and weep as he recounted his story.)
We were forced through this narrow ridge onto the outskirts of town where it had become a real hell-hole. There were mass graves and the skeletons of the dead still rotting in the street from the North Vietnamese Army and their manner in dealing with anyone who supported the South or the United States. Hue - a city that was really nice before the war, was now ashes and its people were dead or dying. I was scared because I was now aware that this was one of the worst battles of the war. A massacre took place outside the city and no one knew what lay ahead for us too.
Finally, the sound of a distant chopper could be heard over the rise. It was just getting dark and round-after-round was just relentless. It never stopped. Never. This USA flag on the side of the chopper was a welcome sight. As the chopper lowered to about 30-40 feet, we were anticipating a fair amount of supplies.
Walter Cronkite made the trip, sensing this to be a turning point. It was believed that the US would quickly turn this around. The weather was 'frightfully poor, low clouds and lots of rain.'' He adds, ''...The battle for Hue has taken an odd turn here. It is believed that the Marines were going to be resupplied and take this back. Only 120 VC are there, but they are well-armed. The city is cut-off and the weather is keeping air support and air supplies from making it. Much of the US technology advancements are not able to be deployed, and the marines have taken so many casualties that over half of them have been killed. Yet the official line is that we are winning - everywhere.''
We prepared for the drop of supplies but heavy rain made this impossible. We were in shambles. The worst part is not knowing where they are, hiding in the gutters, garbage and even hiding under the dead bodies of their men stacked on the side of the road. We weren't being resupplied and we weren't being supported, my friends were taken from me - just so quickly.
The weather broke briefly and a chopper made the perilous journey through a volley of rockets and small arms fire. We organized ourselves to quickly get what we needed and send him on his way. Just then, a mortar hits the chopper. It burst into flames and many of the guys were directly underneath it. They didn't have the time to even duck and they were soon under an exploding helicopter with bodies falling from it. One of them was on fire as he tumbled from the helicopter. I seem to remember seeing his name, Dunn. (This would be SGT George Dunn) (NOTE: Once again, Robertson broke down, this time almost completely. I tried to get him to slow down or even stop talking about it, but he now said that it was a 'good idea' to talk about this subject.)
There was a rain of mortar fire and the air would choke you with the foul smell of gunpowder all around you. We were covered in dust, dirt, mud, blood, whatever.....At one point we were in a full retreat. The bodies were everywhere. While I was running backwards, and firing my AK-47, my foot became entangled, and....and my right foot, stuck. I was firing my gun in the general direction of where the mortars were coming from. I was stuck, and I kept, you know, just kept, like kicking.....people yelling. (NOTE: Whatever was about to come next was something that was causing Robertson to angerly squeeze and pull at his beard. Hie eyes were cast downward and watery, hands clenched hard around his beard. I had tried to stop him earlier but he continued to stutter and stammer and ultimately put his hand up in order to be heard with what he was about to say. I let him continue....)
We were in full chaotic retreat now. Hue was turned into rubble and other than the one chopper who came to assist us, we weren't getting air support. And now, I couldn't move real well. I looked down and my left foot was deep in the mud. But my right foot was caught. I looked down and instantly saw that I was standing inside the rib-cage of one of our boys who was blown all to pieces.
I freed myself and began to walk but now I was in some sort of shock. I couldn't shoot anymore. All around me there were bullets and explosions and the tat-tat-tat of machine gun fire. I knew TAC were on the way but the day was drawing to a close and visibility was tight. It didn't matter. I couldn't hear anything anyway. I could see, but I couldn't hear. I just sat down in the middle of all of this exploding around me and fell into some kind catatonic state.
I was easy pickings too. It seemed like hours went by before one of our boys partially snapped me out of it. I had been shot twice, but it didn't hurt. I was shot moments before my buddy snapped me out of it. If he had gotten there seconds earlier, I would have just sat on the side of that ridge, legs crossed.
All I could smell was gunpowder. All I could see was smoke everywhere. But when I walked, every rock, every branch, every impediment, I was terrified it was one of our dead brothers. When they show guys in the movies about Vietnam these days who go crazy, well that was me. It really happened to a lot of us.
Back in the USA, Americans were stunned at how the Communists could have taken such initiative. The NVA takes their rage to the countryside, executing men, women, children and livestock. Even in the Chalon district of Chinatown in Saigon the NVA stung with mortars. The streets of Saigon are ablaze with war.
The most shocking moment ever caught on television however was the execution of Nguyen Van Lem, an NVA officer accused of murdering the family of a South Vietnamese general. He was marched down the streets with cameras rolling, wearing a blue plaid shirt and lightweight pants. The chief of the police force was waiting for him, and in an instant, he blew his brains out. Despite the fact there was no doubt the man was an assassin, the image poured fuel on the Anti-War fire.
Robert McNamera encouraged a re-thinking of our war strategy. The VC was good at inflicting war casualties, and he believed a show of force would be necessary. '''Under recent weeks, after being in touch of General Westmoreland and the Joints of Chiefs of Staff have briefed me on the surprise attack on the Tet Holiday. I believe that the forces under the United States and the South Vietnamese armies will be giving a good account of themselves in short time.'' The President offered. The speed at which the advance took place was something the Americans hadn't prepared for. Roads that were cut through jungles added to the river transportation that the North had mastered so well, so stealth-like. Just five days after Tet began, on February 5th, 1968, the Khe Sanh marine base was being surrounded by the NVA.
All air observation and supplies came from Khe Sanh, and we always thought it was a safety spot. The Air Force couldn't use larger C-130s to bring supplies into Khe Sanh and simply put, fewer supplies were coming in. ''Mortar Magnets'' we called them. The 26th Marine Corps offered protection. The marines are used to the shelling and the day-by-day coverage of bunker madness is covered by the press. In fact, the continuing presence of the reporters begins to get under the skin of the soldiers.
For two weeks, the Tet Offensive raged. Anti-War protests continued to escalate. 5000 civilians died in Saigon, tens of thousands were displaced in a nation weary of war. The allies may have successfully pushed the enemy back, but the victory came at a price.
Walter Cronkite perhaps summed it best. ''Here in Saigon, there are ruins everywhere. These ruins were left here by an act of violence and war. Vietnamese against Vietnamese. Hundreds died here. Here in these ruins can be seen physical evidence of the Viet Cong's Tet offensive. At far less tangible is just what these ruins mean; They mean either victory or defeat; success or setback, depending on who you ask.''
Somewhere in the distance you could hear Air Cav on the way. All you can do is sit and wait, sit and hope. Everyone is exhausted. The ground never stops shaking and your nerves are shot all to hell. I kept telling myself this was all going to end, but it echoes even today.
I was surprised we were out there in the first place. We knew TET was well underway but you never seem to think youre going to be in the middle of it. A lifetime of preperation and desire didn't prepare me for this. Nothing prepared me for this. Nothing really. An ominous sound now came over the entire ridge. It was the sound of many more men, and I knew they weren't ours. Any thought of retaking Hue was now out the window.
I was shot twice, once in my shoulder, once in my back. I just sat there for an eternity before the boys dropped me in a bomb crater with another wounded soldier. He was bleeding out real bad, so I snapped back into reality and took my shirt off and wrapped his thigh up best I could. I was able to tie a shirt around his leg and barely keep him alive. He was twenty-six years old but to me he looked like he was a weathered older man.
''What are you still doing here? '' I asked him. He told me that ''... there wasn't ''...nothing for him back in the States.'' Well, if nothing else, his commentary brought a little levity to the situation. I was very surprised. ''What? Is it so bad that you have to come back HERE, for this?'' ''hmmm, i thought...perhaps a harbinger of things to come. '' It seemed like hours because the sun had set and it gradually grew quieter and quieter. Soon we heard the voices of American medics. I was hurting. I just wanted to come home.
Two choppers landed and took us in. Vietnamese children, wounded and pleading for help, well they had to be left behind. Had we done our job better, had more of us survived, we could have taken some of them little children with us. I live with that more than anything else i can think upon. I saw a little boy, holding his sister's doll. He couldn't have been more than four or five years old, somehow wounded with his arm crooked backwards, bone sticking out. Had we not had so many wounded, we might have saved him. There's no way he could have made it out of there, his sister surely was killed.
In fact, over half of the 5th Marines, (1st Division) were killed. Hue looked like a World War II battleground.
I had to recover in Saigon. Hated it there too. I was in the hospital for almost three months because one of the bullets was lodged near my spine and there was a question as to whether they were going to get it or not. I could feel it, near my spine, up here. (Pointing to his neck) Every time I cocked my head a certain way, the pain was intolerable. The shoulder didn't heal right either, and then while I am in the hospital I get a staph infection. If it could go wrong, it did.
In December 1968, I was told I could go back to the front or go home. I wanted to stay in, really. But I didn't want to be on the front anymore. I had seen all I wanted to see. Somehow, before long, I was on a plane to the A Shau valley in North Vietnam. I wasn't mentally prepared. Thy dropped us from a chopper toward a filthy command center. The air stinks from human waste. I am taking it all in when one guy speaks to me and says that I had to take my stripes off. ''What do you mean, take them off? I earned them!'' But it was explained to me that the North Vietnamese are targeting leaders.
We were at Hill 937. I turned off my back pain and the fact that one of my legs was barely more than an appendage. We were in a jungle covered hills and we were to set off a group of one hundred men who were supposedly sneaking into the South. It was a God-Forsaken hell, because instead of a small detachment - we ran into an entire regiment of 2500 men. ''What will I miss? (Assuming I would die out there you know) We ran out of water and had fewer than 10-seconds of machine gun fire. We had to go to 484 after three days without supplies and now they want us to attack and take a hill? There's no solution without losing people. I looked around and making out faces is very hard. But you sit there and do your duty as a soldier - you don't let down the American flag.
The sun is just peeking up over the horizon, At the base of hill 937 we hear of a marine detachment is in its tenth effort to take the hill, AND that they were fighting hand-to-hand. I was a lot bigger than those Vietnamese guys so I felt pretty good about my chances. Meanwhile, we're hunkered down while wave-after-wave of gunfire lick all around us. A bullet hit me in the heel of my boot. It was the strangest sensation because I looked down and half-my boot is gone. But my foot was just fine. On May 20th, after ten days, we successfully won the hill.
We took out 600 of them. I knew I was done though. One last heroic battle I guess. I didn't shoot my weapon much. Being the biggest guy in the group I was usually carrying heavy supplies. As I sat in a bunker smoking a cigarette, one of the guys is talking about the name of this hill. ''What do you mean it has a name?'' And he says, 'well we won this! It's called ''Hamburger Hill.'' So I went to look at the sign and it was there, right against a tree. Someone had scribbled a note underneath it, ''Was it worth it?''
So now I begin to wonder, ''Was it worth it?'' From the vantage point of hind-sight, 'hell no.'' But hind-sight is 20-20. At the time though, we were most aware that we had a job to do. I was there to radio in coordinates as soon as the enemy was spotted. By dawn, the enemy withdraws and runs as they always seemed to do. We didn't respect them for their cowardice. But I remember how little we regarded them. ''Stand up and fight like a man'' you know what I mean?
But I knew I was done. There's no question about it. My blood was boiling when I would see the civilian dead. The VC were hiding behind women and children. I got a discharge in 1969 but I was through. As I was leaving, I heard the news that we were sending troops into parts of Vietnam that we hadn't sent people before. I wondered, ''It's gotta end sooner than later.''
We had heard only the silver linings of news from our leaders. We were told the enemy is tiring. We were told they were running out of supplies. We were lied to, plain and simple. I was conflicted for my love of country never wavered, I mean, it didn't change. But this broke my heart at the time.
The reception at home was not a good experience. I was spit upon. I had things thrown at me. I was proud of the job I had done, but the natural thing is to find you buddies and stay close to them. Well, I hadn't been home long when I was asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral of a buddy of mine that was coming home in a box. So I put my uniform on to show my respect. Afterward, we went out to eat with the family of my buddy.
Out of nowhere this hippie and his buddy and a girl start screaming at me in the restaurant. ''You Baby Killer! You Baby Killer!!!'' They spit on me, one of them grabbed a drink off the table and threw it at me. It was as bad a day as I ever had. Burying a friend who served with me and getting this treatment. For what I did to them I should have gone to jail for, but the cops were military veterans themselves and they treated those hippies to some bittersweet justice of their own. But ---To this day, I have never worn my uniform. I'll wear my hat sometimes, but never again, my uniform. Not that I could wear it anyway, I am kind of fat these days. (Laughs)
I tell you, having you come up to me and thank me for serving...it's never happened. No one has ever even asked me about the war. I almost didn't know what to say to you when you reached out your hand to thank me. Words, there sometimes are no words. It means a lot to me. I don't want no recognition, none. I did what I had to do, but I did things that torment me. The only time I stutter is when I am remembering Vietnam, and I got no one to talk to about it. My wife don't need to know. But talking to you, well, I don't know about a book now....I am not sure i am wanting to be in a book.
But you make things better just by asking. If you really want the stories of the war, I don't have much to say. I seen a lot, but i didn't participate a lot. I only had to fire my weapon on ten or eleven different times in the war, and that's probabaly more than most guys. So there's not much there. But what is, it turns my stomach and makes me nervous, because I can't describe how I feel. (Note: Twisting and clenching his beard, Robertson begins to water up. I wanted to get him off the subject but every time I tried, he'd call me back for more.)
I carry my challenge coin with me every day. These stars represents every man that died in my unit, and I knew all of them. Nothing makes you closer to someone than when you are willing to take a bullet for them and vice-versa. That's how we felt; that's no storybook, it's real. Brothers, all of us.
'' Every one of them stars is a man's life. I have never counted them, because they aren't numbers to me''
I asked Robertson if he could give advice to himself now, as if he were eighteen, what would he say?
''Hmm, I would say, ''You have to have heart. You have to want to serve, and you have to have heart. Serving the country has to come from the inside, deep inside. I never knew what I thought about the war after it was all over with. It all happened so quick for me. And even now, when things get real bad for me, I still tend to freeze up and can't move. Just like then, paralyzed with fear. The only thing that consoles me now is that this time, I aint going to get shot.*******
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