After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Potsdam Agreement stipulated that Berlin would be occupied by the four major allied powers of World War II: the Soviet Union, the United States, the UK, and France. But the war’s end seemed to herald an even graver danger: a world split into two hostile camps, both armed with nuclear missiles. The East, with the centrally planned economies of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, faced the West, with the democratic, market-driven economies of the United States and its NATO allies. Nowhere was this tense rivalry more starkly depicted than in the divided city of Berlin, deep inside Communist East Germany.
In the summer of 1961, Cold War tensions heightened when East Germany built the Berlin Wall to halt the exodus of its citizens seeking freedom in West Berlin. US troops from the Berlin Brigade stood ready for war, just feet away from their Communist adversaries, safeguarding West Berlin and any who sought asylum there. A year later, in 1962, global destruction appeared imminent when the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at the United States. That conflict was resolved diplomatically at the eleventh hour, when the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles in exchange for the removal of US missiles from Turkey.
Soon, it appeared that instead of duking it out in a head-to-head war, the two superpowers might settle their differences—or at least champion their opposing ideologies—in Southeast Asia. There, a conflict was brewing between Communist North Vietnam and the emerging democratic nation of South Vietnam. By 1967, the United States had lost some 8,500 troops and military advisers in South Vietnam. Nearly half a million Americans were stationed there, with another 350,000 stationed in Europe. Meanwhile, an antiwar movement at home was gathering steam.[i]
A 20-year-old kid from Fort Myers, Florida, was in the middle of it all. Robert Eugene Whitten was a member of the Berlin Brigade—three US Army infantry battalions supported by armor and artillery. Their job was to be the trip wire should the vastly more powerful Soviet ground forces invade the small enclave of West Berlin. In that event, the Western powers would be outnumbered by hundreds to one, and the United States would likely opt for nuclear war.
To uphold the US presence, Bob Whitten made daily patrols in a quarter-ton M151 jeep, armed with a 106mm antitank recoilless rifle, opposite East German and Soviet troops in East Berlin. And in the summer of 1967, when tens of thousands of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops were attacking US Marines along the DMZ or swarming out of neutral Laos and Cambodia against the US soldiers defending South Vietnam, Bob did what he felt was the right thing: he volunteered for Vietnam.
He arrived at Cam Ranh Bay on Tuesday, August 8, and again he volunteered, this time for the LRRP/Rangers—small, heavily armed long-range reconnaissance teams that patrolled deep in enemy-held territory. His unit, assigned to the First Air Cavalry Division, fought in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam against local Communist guerrillas—the Vietcong—and their better trained, equipped, and led collaborators, the NVA.
On Thursday, January 11, 1968, I was assigned to Bob’s Second Platoon at LZ (for “landing zone”) English. By then the NVA had launched a massive offensive against the marines at the Khe Sanh combat base, a remote outpost near Laos and the DMZ, so our division was ordered north to I Corps. It was a hurried affair, and our platoon arrived just south of Quang Tri City on the rainy Friday evening of January 19. We were twenty-five miles east of Khe Sanh and sixteen miles south of the DMZ, in a destroyed former French army camp. We pitched our tents over the ruined walls of buildings and made hooches inside, with dirt-filled ammo boxes protecting where we slept. We named the place “LZ Betty.”
Both Bob and I were corporals, and since we each had served in Germany, we became hooch mates and friends. The general shoddiness of our LZ, combined with its location next to Quang Tri, meant that rats, snakes, and cockroaches were a fact of life.
But our bigger battle concerned food. With our sudden move north, the lack of supplies and refrigeration had taken a grim toll on the menu, until we were reduced to eating black-eyed peas whipped into a greasy beige glop. The other dishes were awful, too—just varying shades and consistencies of bland: cornbread, powdered eggs, instant potatoes, and, to quench our thirst, powdered Jell-O poured into a large pot of room-temperature water. The mess hall was in one of the raggedy bombed-out buildings, where the food was unrefrigerated and left open to the flies and cockroaches. Soon, anyone foolhardy enough to eat in the mess hall was racked with vomiting and diarrhea—except for the cooks, of course, who had their own stash of real food. With no end to the monsoon rain and mud, the whole LZ stank of rot and excrement. Indeed, conditions were vastly more sanitary out on patrol. We resorted to eating dehydrated LRRP rations—the same food we ate in the field. It got so bad, we even fell back on the canned C-rations that line infantrymen carried—nasty-tasting slop bearing the dubious label “ham and eggs” or, even worse, the universally loathed “ham and lima beans,” more commonly referred to as “ham and motherfuckers.” Even the rats would eat the latter only as a last resort.
On January 21, the 304th and 325th NVA divisions completed their encirclement of the Khe Sanh combat base and its hill outposts and cut off Route 9, forcing all marine reinforcements and supplies to be ferried in by air. On January 29, we learned that North Korea had seized the USS Pueblo a week earlier, killing one crewman and imprisoning eighty-two others. The world seemed on the brink of apocalypse, but at Quang Tri, all we saw of battle was jet fighter-bombers winging off to North Vietnam, and low-flying helicopters lumbering over to Khe Sanh. So far, our fight was limited to scrounging for food and killing rats.
Two days later, early on the morning of Wednesday, January 31, 84,000 enemy soldiers across South Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive—the biggest battle of the war. Suddenly, the fight came to us. Five enemy battalions and a platoon of sappers attacked Quang Tri City and our LZ. To stop allied troops from intervening, three other enemy infantry battalions deployed around the city as blocking forces, supported by a 122mm-rocket battalion and two heavy-weapons companies armed with 82mm mortars and 75mm recoilless rifles.
In launching this massive coordinated attack, the enemy had hoped to take over a number of cities and spark a popular uprising. Instead, by fighting a set-piece battle against armed forces backed by aircraft and armor, more than 900 NVA and Vietcong soldiers were killed in and around Quang Tri City and our LZ. But across South Vietnam, 1,000 Americans, 2,100 South Vietnamese soldiers, 14,000 Vietnamese civilians, and 32,000 NVA and Vietcong lay dead.
After Tet, I went on eight reconnaissance patrols. Then, on my ninth, Bob Whitten was made assistant team leader (ATL) on SGT Doug Parkinson’s six-man team, which I was also on. On that patrol, we killed two NVA soldiers and almost got killed when enemy troops saw us approaching their bunker. But apparently, they mistook us for a much larger nearby US infantry company, so they fled from a tiny force they could easily have annihilated.
A few days later, everyone in our division was pulled out of the field for a developing operation. On Thursday, April 4, 1968, our team arrived at LZ Stud, nine miles east of Khe Sanh. Stud was a quickly improvised staging area for the First Air Cavalry Division’s Operation Pegasus, to break the siege of the marine combat base at Khe Sanh––the second-largest battle of the war. When we arrived, all three brigades from our 20,000-man division, and all its 450 helicopters, had already launched this vast airmobile operation in concert with a marine armor thrust west from Ca Lu, along Route 9.
Sunday evening, April 7, at 1905 hours, an hour before dusk, our team was inserted into the ongoing battle. Corporal Dish, a Montagnard, was front scout, followed by Parkinson as TL, me as radiotelephone operator, Bruce Cain as medic, Bob Whitten as ATL, and Corporal Pong, another Montagnard, as rear scout. Our mission: make a reconnaissance patrol on Dong Tri, an eight-mile-wide, 3,300-foot mountain overlooking the combat base believed to be occupied by the 66th Regiment, 304th NVA Division. Hidden deep beneath triple-canopy rain forest, our team started climbing Dong Tri from bottom to top, in search of the enemy.
The next evening, after an exhausting climb with a heavy load and limited food and water, we made it halfway up the mountain and stopped to bivouac. We hadn’t found the enemy yet, though we could hear helicopters and jets attacking various positions, and the prolonged rumble of B-52s dropping their massive high-explosive payloads. Later that night, at 0330 hours on Tuesday, April 9, those of us not sitting watch were suddenly awakened by the high-pitched scream of an incoming artillery shell. Seconds later, it exploded in a blinding flash forty feet below us, shaking the earth and showering us with dirt and stinging gravel.
Birds erupted noisily from the trees, and moments later we heard stealthy movement coming our way. As we stared into the black void, weapons ready, we heard the loud, throaty growl of a tiger. It was close enough for us to smell its musky reek. Preferring to face the teeth and claws of a single tiger over the crack troops of the NVA, we didn’t shoot. The beast stood snorting and huffing for a few more seconds, then turned and padded silently away—discouraged, perhaps, by our strange potpourri of scents.
At 0735 hours, shortly after sunrise, our Tactical Operations Center (TOC) came on the radio and informed us we were going to be extracted in one hour because a sweep of the mountain was scheduled, starting with an artillery barrage. Since we were on the side of the mountain deep in the jungle, we would be extracted by McGuire rig––a 120-foot rope with a loop on the bottom to sit in.
A short while later, we found a small hole in the trees, where the rigs could be dropped. To avoid getting entangled on the way up, we stomped the undergrowth down and made a small perimeter to provide security. At that point, Parkinson said, “I want Ankony, Cain, and Whitten to go out on the first lift. Dish and Pong go out with me.”
At 0900 hours, we heard a chopper approaching, and Sergeant Parkinson guided it in on the radio. Once it came to a hover overhead, our company’s operations sergeant, Tom Campbell, dropped two McGuire rigs, rolled and weighted with sandbags to get through the trees. Parkinson moved out with Dish and Pong to secure our perimeter.
Seeing only two rigs instead of the three we had expected, Whitten turned to me and said, “Since you’ve got the heaviest load, Ankony, why don’t you take this one, and Cain and I’ll take the other.”
“Up we go,” I said, grabbing a sling.
As the two of them stepped into their loop and sat tightly together, Cain put his wrist through the single safety strap, and I did the same in mine, wrapping my legs around Whitten and Cain to keep us together. When we were set, Whitten waved, and the three of us were suddenly yanked up out of the dark, damp world of heat and bugs and up into cool blue sky.
Soon we were a thousand feet over Dong Tri Mountain, heading northeast above ravines brimming with soft, white morning fog. Taking in the lovely view, I kept my legs tight around Cain and Whitten. But after bucking ninety-mile-an-hour winds for a minute or so, straining all the while to stay upright with the heavy load on my back, I couldn’t make my legs hold on any longer.
Instantly, we were swinging wide apart and spinning like dervishes. Clutching the rope in a death grip, I looked up at the helicopter, praying that one of the door gunners would see our plight. But nobody looked down. As we swung wildly back and forth, missing each other by inches, I was terrified, thinking, what’s gonna happen if we hit? when suddenly I smacked, rucksack first, into Cain and Whitten.
The collision pushed me halfway out of my rig, leaving me balanced on the small of my back. Cain was knocked all the way out, dangling by his wrist safety strap and grabbing frantically on to the rig with his other hand, while Whitten hung upside down by his knees, watching his rifle and rucksack tumble lazily earthward beneath us. If something didn’t change in a hurry, we would be following a similar trajectory.
As we continued swinging wildly past one another like fairgoers on a carnival ride gone amok, through the wind blast I could hear Cain and Whitten screaming, “Stop! Stop! Help! Oh, God, please help!”
I screamed, too, for my arms were fast losing the fight to the wind and the weight of my rucksack. But with the three of us strung so far below the aircraft, and the aircrew wearing helmets and exposed to wind, rotor, and engine noise, there was little chance of anyone hearing.
As we struggled, I stared at the radio handset fastened next to my chin, then at my rucksack’s quick-release strap underneath, wishing I could use either one. But that would require freeing one of my hands, which I couldn’t do if I wanted to avoid Whitten’s plight. At a loss, I glanced at my .45, hanging upside down at my hip, holster flap whipping in the wind, and had the idle thought, why isn’t that thing falling?
Then the screams of Cain and Whitten brought me back to the terror at hand. Glancing around, I realized there was nothing I could do but help myself. If I wanted to live, I had to get right-side up in a hurry; otherwise, gravity and my rucksack would win the battle and pull me out.
Mustering the last of my strength for one final effort, I slowly heaved myself up against the wind and the weight of my rucksack. At that instant, Sergeant Campbell leaned out of the helicopter and saw the trouble we were in. At once, the pilot dived toward a clearing on the far side of the mountain while we fought to hold on just a few seconds longer.
In not much more time than it would have taken us to fall the distance, we were within feet of the ground, being lowered onto a rocky streambed. Lying there motionless, exhausted, and dizzy, I stared at the fresh, glistening water flowing by until Sergeant Campbell and a door gunner ran up from the helicopter.
“Are you guys all right?” Campbell hollered.
“I, uh . . . think so,” Whitten said feebly as they lifted him from the stream and helped him walk to the helicopter.
Moments later, they came back to help Cain and me to the helicopter, where we sat silently on the floor with Whitten. After everyone was aboard, we lifted off and were soon back at LZ Stud. By then our strength had returned, and the three of us stepped out into the hot sun and whirling dust being kicked up as other helicopters took off and landed.
“I thought I’d never see this place again,” Whitten said, looking around. Then, resting his hand on my shoulder as we walked away, he said, “Bob, I saw you coming after we broke apart, but I didn’t wanna stop you with my feet.”
“How come?” I asked.
“Because I figured I’d knock you out of your rig.”
“Well, thanks,” I said, realizing he had risked his life to save mine.
Moments later, we passed a big twin-engine C-123 Provider parked on the tarmac, where a row of twenty or so dead American soldiers lay faceup on the ground. Each body was wrapped in a poncho, on a stretcher, awaiting shipment to Graves Registration and then home. Pausing a minute, saying nothing, we stared at the dark human shapes under the rubberized ponchos and forgot our problems.
We returned to our company area, relieved to see the rest of our team there for the debriefing. They, too, had experienced some of the same problems. But our company commander, CPT Michael Gooding, had more time to prepare for their extraction. He had pulled them out on three rigs, not two, and set them down before anyone broke loose.
When our debriefing was over, we learned that the siege of Khe Sanh had ended the morning before. The fight cost the lives of 205 marines on the base, another 200 in the hill fights, and 59 cavalrymen. In turn, because of concentrated bombardment that made Khe Sanh the most heavily bombed area on earth, the enemy lost more than 10,000 men.
Our platoon returned to LZ Betty, and by then Bob was smoking heavily. He and I had three and six months respectively left in the field, and we knew that the odds were stacking up against us. We both had served in the battles of Tet and Khe Sanh and, in the process, had learned that survival in combat depended not just on skill but also on sheer dumb luck. As small five- and six-man reconnaissance teams, we faced the enemy, sure, but the greatest threat came from friendly fire: US artillery, mortars, and aircraft. And there were also the unexpected threats from tigers, McGuire rigs, and whatever else humans or nature might throw our way.
With nationwide antiwar protests back home, Walter Cronkite’s negative on-air assessments of the war, riots happening everywhere following Martin Luther King’s assassination, and President Johnson’s halt to most bombing of North Vietnam, the world seemed to be going crazy. Bob and I knew we were winning the battles, and we had faith we were winning the war. We talked about this and about our experiences in Germany. I had served near the Fulda Gap, where the Soviets were expected to launch World War III. Bob joked that at least I would have had a fighting chance, whereas his little garrison in West Berlin would have become the Custer’s Last Stand of the twentieth century. That struck us both as immensely funny.
Our next patrol took place on Sunday morning, April 21. Operation Delaware had already begun two days before, with two brigades—about 11,000 men and 300 helicopters—from our division air-assaulting A Shau Valley, near Laos. This was the most formidable enemy-held territory in South Vietnam. Teams from our company rappelled down to the 5,000-foot peak of Dong Re Lao, the mountain known as “Signal Hill.” We were there to provide a vital radio relay site for the troops slugging it out in the valley, for approaching aircraft, and for communication with headquarters in the rear. This was day three, and a lot of the fighting had already happened. Approaching Signal Hill from the air, we could see a crashed helicopter on the peak, several dead Americans, and dozens of men who had survived the fight so far.
Enemy snipers were still a problem, so Captain Gooding ordered Sergeant Parkinson to make a patrol around the peak. Parkinson mapped out the details with Whitten, and we slogged through the mud to the western side of the mountain, where we pushed through a dense wall of mud-covered branches and trees that had been twisted and broken by the blasts to clear the LZ.
After an hour of slow, painstaking progress, I had just grabbed a sapling so I could step onto the roots below, when shots went off right in front of me. Raising my rifle, knowing that Whitten and two other men were covering the rear, I crept forward to find an NVA soldier lying on his back. Parkinson and Dish were still shooting him, making his body quiver with every shot. Since the shooting had compromised our position, we returned to the mountaintop.
Ten days later, on the drizzly morning of Wednesday, May 1, Captain Gooding ordered me to attend the US Army’s Fifth Special Forces Recondo School in Nha Trang, a big, modern base way down south, near Cam Ranh Bay. Why he picked me at that time, I never learned. But just after I gathered my mud-covered gear, Bob walked over, lit up a Pall Mall, and said, “Well, Ankony, I don’t know how you pulled it with Gooding, but you’re one lucky bastard to be gettin’ outta here!”
“Damned if I know, Bob,” I said, giving him a backslap and a grin. “But I’ll try not to miss you too bad!”
Unbuttoning his shirt pocket, Bob pulled out a handwritten note on the back of a cardboard C-ration lid. He said, “Mail this as a postcard when you get back to Evans.” It was addressed to his fiancée, Anna, letting her know that he was okay and couldn’t wait to get home in July, in time for their September wedding. I boarded a Huey for Camp Evans; and as we lifted off, I waved to Bob and the rest of the team, content to let the battle of A Shau finish up without me.
Operation Delaware came to an end a few days later. The enemy lost 800 dead, and our division suffered more than a 140 dead and 530 wounded. Because of operational needs, LRRP team One Zulu was quickly cobbled together to make a patrol in the mountains southwest of Camp Evans, near enemy Base Area 114. That area of Thua Thien province had been patrolled by our first and third platoons, and Bob was made a sergeant and team leader of men he hadn’t worked with before, in an area of operation he was unfamiliar with.
Our company had suffered numerous casualties in recent battles, but there was an urgent need for intelligence. NVA regiments were thought to be preparing another attack against the city of Hue, where four thousand civilians were killed during Tet. The enemy was in steep mountain terrain ranging from two thousand to four thousand feet in elevation and marked on military maps as a “national forest reserve.” It was a hot area, and Bob’s team called it “Cherry Valley” because this was his teammate Red McConnel’s first patrol.
On Tuesday evening, May 7, Bob’s team made several false helicopter insertions, to confuse the enemy about their actual landing site, and were inserted on a mountain ridge. Bob Teagle was front scout, Bob Whitten was TL, Pat Lyons was radiotelephone operator, Al Voelkel was medic, Randy Kimes was ATL, and Gerald “Red” McConnel was rear scout. Bob Teagle had volunteered for the mission even though he was being treated for battle fatigue. He had just been awarded the Silver Star for rescuing men pinned by enemy fire on Signal Hill and for recovering the dead and dying.
Immediately after insertion, the team discovered two freshly abandoned enemy bunkers dug into the mountainside. Whitten knew that his team was compromised in remote, difficult terrain, so he started maneuvering them down the ridge. Bracing their feet against the trunks of trees to keep from sliding, they hurried to escape the line of enemy fortifications. As darkness fell, they seemed to have left the enemy behind, so they set up a nighttime defensive perimeter, with claymore mines facing the likely approaches.
The next morning, they continued to maneuver and discovered another bunker. Whitten signaled his team to halt and listen. Just then sharp cracks of semiautomatic gunfire erupted. Red McConnel was hit by five bullets and fell dead almost at Teagle’s feet. Raising his CAR-15, Teagle emptied two twenty-round magazines at the bunker. From another direction, automatic rifle fire let loose, and the team returned fire to establish fire superiority. Whitten then ordered his men to set up a defensive position, spreading far enough apart that one grenade wouldn’t take them all out. He then radioed for helicopter gunships and the “Blues”––a highly experienced quick-reaction infantry platoon.
Small-arms fire erupted again, and both sides threw grenades. Kimes unslung his cutoff M79 40mm grenade launcher and loaded one fragmentation round after another, firing them at the enemy. The NVA were close enough that the LRRPs could hear distinct metallic clacks as they inserted fresh thirty-round magazines into their AK47s. The enemy closed in, and Whitten continued to lead his team, firing bursts from his CAR-15, until a bullet grazed his head, another penetrated his chest, and shrapnel peppered his body. Voelkel exposed himself to enemy fire and rushed to Whitten’s aid.
A gunship arrived, and after working the surrounding area with rockets and machine guns, the door gunner was hit by enemy fire. The helicopter crew dropped a stretcher through the jungle canopy so the team could carry Whitten, then flew off to care for their wounded, leaving the team on its own.
The enemy inched forward, and an RPG zipped in and exploded in a thunderous flash. Teagle was blown down the hill and landed next to an enemy bunker, with shrapnel wounds to his chest, left elbow, and arm. Someone above yelled, “I’m hit! I’m hit!” Teagle recovered from the blast and tried to throw a grenade into a group of enemy soldiers. Kimes reached him and tossed the grenade, stopping enemy fire from that direction.
Teagle and Kimes regrouped with Voelkel above and grabbed Whitten and laid him on the stretcher, but they couldn’t find Lyons even after repeatedly hollering for him. They started to carry Whitten, with Kimes leading the way through thick undergrowth in steep terrain, stumbling and falling as they fled. They had gone only a short distance when an automatic weapon let loose. A bullet grazed Voelkel’s neck, and another hit him in the back. The team sought cover and returned fire. As green tracer rounds sailed in from several directions, Whitten stopped breathing and died quietly on the stretcher.
The enemy was now attacking from multiple directions with a much larger force, and the survivors had no choice but to flee the murderous fire, leaving McConnel’s and Whitten’s bodies behind and Lyons, the radiotelephone operator, still missing. Not only were the three men now on their own, but they had no way to communicate with the outside world.
By this time, TOC was uncertain whether any of the team had even survived, so they pounded the surrounding area with 105mm artillery as more helicopter gunships scrambled. The smell of high explosives and gunpowder permeated the musty jungle.
Kimes led the two remaining team members farther down the ridge as Teagle covered the rear, clutching his .45-caliber sidearm in his right hand, his useless left arm dangling at his side. Each man carried a rifle, rucksack, and web gear weighing eighty pounds, and Voelkel carried Teagle’s CAR-15. Maneuvering quickly through steep, difficult terrain, Voelkel fired Teagle’s weapon in the direction of the enemy, emptying the twenty-round magazine. “They’re still coming!” Voelkel cried, his voice trembling with emotion. The team continued to flee, with Voelkel still carrying both weapons and bearing the agony of his wounds.
It began to rain, and the three exhausted men hid for the evening in the killing zone, with artillery pounding all around them. Sitting huddled back-to-back in a small ravine, hearing each other’s quick breaths, they waited for dawn. Throughout the night, shells screamed in, exploding in thunderous bright-red flashes and slinging shrapnel and mud through the trees. Illumination shells burst overhead, casting eerie moving shadows over the ground as they floated down, hissing beneath their little parachutes.
The next morning, the rain and artillery stopped, and through an opening in the vegetation, the survivors spotted a helicopter gunship far below on the ridge. It was rocketing and machine-gunning enemy positions, assisting the advancing infantry, whose casualties mounted. Having no other way to communicate, Teagle dropped his .45 and pulled out his signal mirror, flashing it repeatedly at the helicopter. The helicopter saw the reflection and climbed to the team’s position. Circling for a moment, it tilted its nose at the survivors, in preparation to fire. Teagle took off his hat and waved so the crew could see his light complexion and light-brown hair. After seconds that seemed like hours, the pilot gave thumbs-up and came to a hover low enough that the three men could run through the rotor wash and climb onto the skid. A door gunner hauled them aboard through the gap between the rocket pod and his M60 machine gun.
Meanwhile, Lyons was still alive on the ridge, hiding in dense vegetation. During the ambush, an RPG had hit his position. When his team yelled for him, he couldn’t respond, because he was wounded and struggling to stay silent as the enemy took up a position only a few yards away from him. Hours later, with the enemy still lurking nearby, he managed to break squelch on his radio handset a predetermined number of times, quietly informing TOC that someone was alive.
The infantry platoon sent to rescue the team got pinned on the ridge and lost three men and several wounded. An infantry company eventually rescued the platoon, and together, the next morning, they slowly made their way up the ridge and rescued Lyons. They also recovered Whitten’s and McConnel’s bodies but lost another man.[ii] The enemy lost forty-seven.
Every team member was recognized for his action. Randy Kimes and Al Voelkel were awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action, the third-highest military decoration for valor that the United States Armed Forces can confer. For Bob Whitten’s leadership, he was posthumously awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart. For his past twenty-six combat patrols and military service, he was awarded a Bronze Star, Air Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, Expert Rifleman Badge with Expert Pistol Clasp, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Army of Occupation Medal with Germany Clasp, and National Defense Service Medal.
Following the normal process for our killed in action, Bob’s body was sent to Graves Registration at Camp Evans for identification by two LRRP members. He was then flown south to the US Army Mortuary at Da Nang Air Base, where he was positively identified through medical records. His body was bathed and embalmed by civilian morticians and placed in a body bag inside a sealed metal container.
At 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 12, an Army sergeant carried the news of Bob’s death to his home in Fort Meyers, Florida. It was Mother’s Day, and Bob’s mother, Mildred, answered the door. The sergeant, struggling for words, said, “Your son, Bobby, is dead. He was killed in Vietnam as a result of enemy action.” The words washed over Mildred, leaving her too stunned to react. Then the tears came and wouldn’t stop as her husband, Paul, their daughter, Linda, and sons Paul Jr. and Harry gathered in the family’s living room, giving each other what meager comfort they could as they awaited details of Bob’s return.
One week later, a US Army colonel and a major, both of whom had served in Vietnam, came to the Whitten home to convey the nation’s gratitude. They carried with them a small box containing Bob’s medals—a sad reminder of his bravery and sacrifice. In the highest tradition of service to his country, Bob had disregarded his personal safety to protect his men. In the first two weeks of May 1968, over 1,300 US servicemen died in Vietnam, 750 in the first week alone, overwhelming the two mortuary facilities at Da Nang and Tan Son Nhut.
Near the end of May, Bob’s body was flown, with dozens of other casualties, on a commercial Boeing 707 to Alaska, where it stopped to refuel. Afterward, the plane touched down at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, the destination of some of the onboard personnel. It then departed for Travis Air Force Base, California, with other personnel and the sad cargo of fallen servicemen. At the Center for Mortuary Affairs, Travis AFB, a dress green uniform with appropriate awards was added to the metal container, and a soldier escorted Bob’s body to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. He was then escorted on another commercial aircraft to his hometown.
At the funeral home, Bob was dressed in his uniform and placed in a casket. In accordance with US Army regulations, an honor guard of six servicemen and one bugler, dressed in class A uniforms, arrived from MacDill Air Force Base. An army chaplain conducted the funeral service. On Sunday afternoon, June 2, beneath the thick black clouds that accompany a typical Florida thunderstorm, Mildred Whitten pleaded, “Dear God, he lived in the rain for the last eight months. Can’t he at least be buried when it’s dry?”
Three volleys from six M14 rifles cracked in the air and resounded in the broken hearts of Bob’s loved ones. The honor guard meticulously folded the United States flag that draped Bob’s casket, twelve times, into the shape of a tricorne hat in remembrance of George Washington. The stars of the flag pointed up, in homage to our nation’s motto, In God We Trust. The escort walked to Bob’s mother, Mildred, holding the flag to his heart, in white-gloved hands. He knelt and presented it to her, saying, “On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” One hundred feet from the graveside, the lone bugler stood in the rain and sounded “Taps.” Its mournful melody ended with “’Neath the sun, ’neath the stars, ’neath the sky, As we go, this we know, God is nigh.” The honor guard and escort rendered a final salute.[iii]
Bob Whitten, Gerald McConnel, and seventy-eight other US servicemen were killed on Wednesday, May 8, 1968. Bob’s death in the Vietnam War was number 27,285. When the war eventually ended on April 30, 1975, 58,191 men and 7 women had died. Bob is memorialized on panel 57E, row 12, of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. His body lies at Fort Meyers Memorial Gardens Cemetery.
* My deepest thanks go out to Bob Teagle, both for his service and for providing information on Bob Whitten’s last patrol. And I am grateful to my former team leader, SGT Douglas Parkinson, for his wealth of knowledge on our unit’s history, and to Curtis “Randy” Kimes, for his book One-Zulu (Auburn, CA: Paper Marche, 2009). Thanks also to CDR Ken Davis, US Navy (ret.), of the Coffelt Database of Vietnam casualties, for his invaluable help in my research and for his 220 bombing missions over North Vietnam and Laos. His service as an A-6 Intruder pilot undoubtedly saved many American lives. And I thank my wife, Cathy, the unseen editor of all my work, for her years of proofing the text on emotionally difficult subjects; my editor, Michael J. Carr, for tidying things up and correcting errors of fact; and my Webmaster and friend SFC Kelly Hyde at Airborne Ranger, for his input. And I especially want to express my gratitude to Harry Whitten, Bob’s brother, for his personal insights.
* Bob Whitten’s engagement announcement to his sweetheart, Anna, was published in the Fort Meyers News-Press on Sunday, April 21, 1968, the day Bob and I touched down in A Shau Valley.
Robert C. Ankony, PhD, is the author of Lurps: A Ranger’s Diary of Tet, Khe Sanh, A Shau, and Quang Tri, revised ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).
[i] It was widely believed that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, neighboring countries would fall one after another, like dominoes. This “domino theory,” first proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, had its skeptics. It can be argued, however, that America’s lack of political and domestic resolve allowed South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to fall to Communism in 1975; and Afghanistan, Grenada, and Nicaragua to follow in 1979. Also in 1979, a similar lack of political will allowed Iran to capitulate to religious fundamentalism when President Carter abandoned our ally, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, paving the way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return from exile. Our decades-long fight against radical Islam is thus intricately linked, through Iran, to the Vietnam War.
[ii] The infantry company sent to rescue the team was the Second Platoon of Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade. The company that fought its way up the ridge, rescued Lyons, and recovered Whitten’s and McConnel’s bodies was Alpha Company of the same battalion. Killed by enemy action were CPL Jimmy Ray Brown, CPL Terrence Arthur Kandler, CPL Jimmy Ray Wheless, and a medic, PFC Russell William Jarick. The two units also suffered twenty-eight wounded, ten requiring field evacuation. Information provided by the Coffelt Database of Vietnam casualties.