U.S. Army veteran Jim Roberson, a 1st Lieutenant with the 9th Infantry Division, was a combat platoon leader during the Vietnam War.
Roberson got an early start on his military career. When he was 14, his parents sent him off to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo. — a 4-year college preparatory high school and military junior college.
“I was always getting into fights … and I think my parents wanted to keep me away from girls and beer,” he said laughing.
Roberson was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and trained at Fort Benning, Ga., where the 20-year-old completed a 4-month combat platoon leaders course.
“I became proficient in how to blow up bridges,” he said.
Most of his platoon’s action took place near the Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam.
While he was still a 2nd Lieutenant, he was assigned to Graves Registration duty. It was his job to go back after every battle to identify those who were killed in action.
The soldiers were collected from the battlefield and were brought to a Quonset hut where they were ID’d.
“The first time I didn’t believe what I was seeing. There were literally hundreds of guys.”’
“Another Quonset was the ‘quiet hut.’ Men who had wounds who wouldn’t make it another hour.”
Roberson said his men were under fire for most of the day while they were on missions.
“They’d pick us up in the morning, then we’d come back and ‘reload,’ then off we would go for an afternoon operation. We’d come back, then go out overnight. We got one day of break a week. We were busy.”
Sometimes the intel wasn’t always accurate.
“We’d get the wrong information. They’d tell us there were 20 people at a village, and we’d get up there and there’d be 200. We’d pull back a little, call headquarters and start calling in a lot of artillery. If they wouldn’t leave with the artillery, we’d ask for air strikes.”
Somtimes they’d bring in a massive gunship, nicknamed “Puff” to finish the job.
“The C-130. Puff the Magic Dragon. Quad 50-calibers – 6,000 rounds a minute and a whole house would be gone.”
Sometimes the men would come across the Viet Cong’s well-camoflauged tunnels.
Headquarters might call in B-52 bombers to pummel the area, “Or they’d say, ‘go on down and get what you can.’ That was so scary. It was pitch black dark.”
To get an idea of what they’d encounter once they got below the surface – where the Viet Cong built rooms that could be as big as houses, Roberson said – they’d throw a grenade down and listen to the sound.
“If it was less noisy, it meant it rolled down a long way. A guy crawled down on his stomach and would have to shoot his sidearm from that position.”
The loud sound of gunfire in such a confined space meant oftentimes, the soldier’s ears would be be bloody when he returned to the surface.
They took no prisoners — but they did gather whatever intelligence was available.
The enemy’s plans were etched on the walls of some of the rooms, he said.
Roberson had his share of close calls during his tour of duty in Vietnam.
While walking across a bamboo bridge, a spray of bullets crashed into the thick wood. The gunfire was heading his way, and Roberson, frozen in his tracks, watched as bamboo shattered closer and closer to his position.
“It stopped in front of me,” he said. “It came within inches. I think the guy ran out of ammunition.”
Another time, he jumped over a patty dike and when he landed, he felt a series of sharp pains jolt across his torso.
“The medic came running though a hail of bullets. He pulled me out, ripped off my fatigues, and started laughing. I said, ‘I’m dying here, what’s so funny?’”
The medic explained that Roberson had jumped into a huge ground nest of wasps.
The poison of the stings was painful, but Roberson got himself up, got the platoon out of harm’s way, and “salvaged the situation,” he said.
Roberson was hit by shrapnel on more than one occasion, but said he was fortunate and that he suffered little compared to other men who were severely wounded.
One piece of shrapnel — from a rocket propelled grenade — struck the base of his spine and sidelined the soldier for a couple of weeks.
He was sent to a hospital in Cam Ranh Bay – “It was beautiful there,” he said – where he rehabilitated.
Nurses took the soldiers on the beach to walk, which he had to relearn after his injury.
“I was rubber legged for a little while,” he said.
Born: Nov. 22, 1946
Hometown: Arkansas City, Kansas
Residence: Palm Desert
Branch of service: U.S. Army; 9th Infantry Division; 2/39th
Years served: April 9, 1967 – March 4, 1969 (active duty)
Rank: 1st Lieutenant
Family: Wife Elizabeth; two children from a previous marriage; one grandchild