I’ve written before about my family’s service in the military. I am the proud daughter of Lt. Colonel Albert C. Erbes, who fought in the Pacific during World War II and went on to serve thirty two years in the US Army. One vivid memory of our home growing up was a tray hanging on the wall that said, “Duty, Honor, Country”.
I’ve been thinking about that tray a lot since reading the reports of Trump’s disparaging remarks about the men and women who serve in the military.
And before I go any further I want to say that I know there are those reading this who don’t believe those reports. It’s fake news from people who hate the president and want to see him defeated by Joe Biden. And to that I say – Fox News has even confirmed this along with most other major media outlets. Based on past comments by Trump, especially related to John McCain, I think it isn’t a very far stretch that these stories are true.
And maybe you do believe he said these things but it doesn’t matter to you because… the economy. To that I have two things to say. The stock market is not the economy. And, if all you care about is money than Trump is the right guy for you. But don’t try to convince me that you are a patriot and you care about the men and women who have and are now serving in the military.
My brother, who just celebrated his 78th birthday, is a true American hero. I don’t throw things like that around lightly.
He graduated from West Point in 1965 and went on to serve in Vietnam in 1967-68. By the end of his tour he had been awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for heroism, Army Commendation for heroism and three Purple Hearts.
Upon his return home he received a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from Ohio State. He then made a career change. He attended and graduated from Baylor College of Dentistry at age thirty-three. He truly loved the dental profession and always said that was what he was supposed to do as his life’s work. He retired from his dental practice in his early 70’s.
According to our draft dodging president, who in my estimation is the epitome of a coward, this highly decorated war hero and accomplished man is a loser and a sucker.
About a month ago, my brother shared with me the following essay which tells the story of his time in Vietnam. When I first read it I was aware of the almost detached way he describes the horrors he witnessed and the injuries he endured. I suppose that is typical of people of great courage and character. They tend to downplay their achievements. They tend to be humble.
My brother is the exact opposite of Donald Trump. I couldn’t be more proud of him. With his permission, here is his story, in his words.
VIETNAM September 2,1967-August 27,1968
I was assigned to the Vietnamese Airborne Division, the Vietnam Army’s most elite unit. Our unit was Advisory Team #162. We were headquartered at Tan Son Nhat Air Force Base in Saigon and I lived in a BOQ in Saigon when not in the field.
As part of a security force, I accompanied a convoy to Vung Tau on the South China Sea, known as Vietnam’s Rivera.
Later in the month, we flew to Hue/Phu Bai and eventually made our way to the DMZ at Dong Ha.
Basically, we sat on the DMZ doing patrolling and preventing infiltration from the north. Occasionally received some incoming fire from 155mm North Vietnamese artillery from across the DMZ. It was scary to hear them fired and then whistling toward us before exploding nearby.
Came back to Saigon late October and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion as the Assistant Battalion Advisor. The command structure of these 600 men Airborne Battalions was that three American advisors were embedded in each Battalion. The Senior Battalion Advisor was always with the Vietnamese Battalion Commander (BN CO). The Assistant Battalion Advisor, which was my job, accompanied the Battalion Executive Officer (BN XO) and we were almost always situated with the Battalion’s lead elements. The Non-Commissioned Officer (Sergeant) was usually with the rear elements.
I replaced my West Point classmate and 1st Captain Bob Arvin who was killed near Quang Tri City in late October. He was an awesome guy and sad loss.
Late November, The NVA laid siege to the town and airfield at Dak To. They had control of the mountains that encircled that area. They had already destroyed several C 130 aircraft on the runway. The 2nd Battalion was deployed to Dak To.
We flew from Saigon to Kon Tum and then convoyed to the Dak To area. In a day or two we had our mission and the entire Battalion made a helicopter assault into a landing zone (LZ) near Hill 1416m. As soon as we came off of our choppers, we came under heavy fire from NVA troops on the mountain.
A few minutes later, I was told over the radio that my boss, the Senior BN Advisor had been wounded by friendly fire from the attacking US Air Force jets that were giving us cover as we disembarked from the choppers. He was med-evacuated and I was now the acting Senior BN Advisor. I was located with the lead company as we advanced toward the hill. After paralleling the hill for a while, the Vietnamese leadership decided to start up the hill. The old French maps were not very good, but I thought we should continue and turn up the ridge line about a 1000m farther. Since this was my first combat operation, I acquiesced to their idea. This turned out to be a huge mistake as we then had to advance up a super steep hill with the enemy controlling the high ground. Upward movement was painfully slow and darkness approached. We were probably half way up when we became stalled on the side of the hill. We used the cover of darkness to stay put. The enemy had a large mortar on top and fired it occasionally on our position.
About 1am a US Air Force C 47 came overhead and asked if I needed his help. I answered that his help would be greatly appreciated. The nickname for this aircraft was Puff The Magic Dragon based on a popular song by Peter Paul & Mary. This plane was designed to assist beleaguered ground troops at night. It was equipped with a 50 caliber Gatling gun and dropped flares to illuminate the battle area.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the enemy on the top fired their mortar at us. The pilot saw the mussel flash and immediately began firing his Gatling gun at the mortar and silenced it for the rest of the night. Under cover of darkness the VC/NVA retreated from the mountain top. The next morning, we moved to the top of the hill with no resistance. We found the mortar that was destroyed by Puff during the night. We found four dead VC wearing Mickey Mouse sweatshirts. To this day I have no idea how they got them.
That morning I got a new boss, Capt. Tyrus Raymond Cobb USMA Class of 1963, to replace the one wounded the afternoon before. As we left the hilltop headed west, we got on some parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail. We were fairly quickly attacked by the rear guard of the unit we had been engaged with the night before. After about 30 minutes, they fled. For the next week we patrolled that mountainous area, but never had any more contact. We headed down the mountains to the town of Dak To. There we had a belated Thanksgiving dinner at a small US garrison. A couple of days later we flew back to Saigon.
While in Saigon our battalion was assigned to guard the Presidential Palace and Vietnamese Pentagon. During this time most of our troops were on stand down to rest and see family. For us advisors there was not much to do either. We occasionally drove up to Bien Hoa, a super large US joint military base with a large airstrip. We were usually looking for military equipment that our Vietnamese unit could use. We always had many captured enemy AK 47s that were used to trade to these rear echelon US supply units.
Some evenings we would walk to one of the old French Hotels to have supper. There was always a large bar on the first floor. On several occasions over the year, I would happen to sit down next to an US Air Force pilot. We would often share our war experiences with each other. Once a pilot told me he had been flying over Hanoi that day. He was frustrated at seeing Russian and Chinese cargo ships unloading war materials and not be able to engage them. These ships were not approved targets for fear of bringing either the Soviets or China into the war. Some other time another pilot would report flying over Cambodia and witnessing thousands of enemy soldiers in plain view. They were basically on R&R, knowing US policy did not allow US attacks into Cambodia. This also was frustrating to him as well to me. These NVA or Viet Cong troops could traverse the 30 miles from there to Saigon in two nights. Almost every night they would launch six feet long surface to surface rockets indiscriminately into Saigon killing a few civilians. This was terrorism in 1967-68.
A lonely Christmas came in 1967 with me anticipating the Bob Hope show with Raquel Welsh on the 27th in Saigon. However, we got orders on the 25th to leave on the 27th to head north to Quang Tri City about 20 miles south of the DMZ on the coast.
The first 10 days we patrolled the coastal plains in that area never seeing anything. We got complacent at the end of one day’s search. All the leadership gathered in an open space with all of our radios highly visible to discuss something. After a few minutes, I heard a muffled puff and a few seconds later a US made M79 grenade launcher round landed among us wounding several of us, including me. Luckily all of us received only minor flesh wounds. Mine was extremely embarrassing as it was in my butt. Hard to explain to Doctor who removed it. It was so minor that I immediately returned to my unit.
By mid-January, we got orders to head West into the mountains between Quang Tri and Hue that paralleled the coast line approximately 2-3 miles inland. After a few days, I told my immediate boss, Capt. Cobb, that there had to be thousands of the enemy around somewhere because of all the human feces visible everywhere we went. We patrolled in the mountains for approximately another 10 days with no enemy contact. We received orders to head back down to the coastal plains. As we approached the west side of the last mountain ridge line, we received very minimal AK 47 fire from our front. The enemy scouts fled as we got closer.
Much to our surprise, we found a huge field hospital dug into the west side of this ridge line.
There were four caves consisting of very large operating rooms. They were outfitted with an abundance of medical supplies, instruments and operating tables. An adjacent cave was filled with weapons and large amounts of ammunition. A water buffalo left behind became our dinner! The next morning, we blew up everything and came back down that mountain to the coastal plain. We were not smart enough to realize all the unseen enemy forces and the field hospital were in preparation for the forthcoming Tet Offensive.
By then it was near the end of January. We set up camp about 10 miles north of Hue.
BATTLE OF HUE
Early on the morning of January 31st, the Vietnamese 1st Division headquartered in the three hundred year old citadel of Hue radioed us that they were being over run by an overwhelming NVA force and could we come to help. That was at 4am.
We had transport trucks so estimated it would take us several hours to get organized, feed, and load 600 troops with all our equipment and depart after dawn. It was only a 12 mile journey. However, the first bridge on Vietnam Highway 1 was blown up so we had to abandon our vehicles and head south on foot. Moving 600 men on foot crossing several more streams took to about 4pm. As we approached the stone fortress from the north, we came under intense 50 caliber machine-gun fire from the top of the 16 feet high parapet wall. We slowly moved farther south closer to the walled city.
Fortunately, there was a huge cemetery with large headstones and mausoleums that provided us with cover just northeast of the wall. We were pinned down and could not move. After an hour or so, a helicopter gun ship pilot from the US 1st Cavalry Division came up on my radio asking if we needed his help. I, of course, said yes! I told him our predicament and where the machine-gun was located. He radioed he would reconnoiter the situation and then circle back to take it out. However, on his fly by he was shot down.
Once darkness came, we slowly began moving toward the wall. As an advisor, I was usually assigned to accompany the Vietnamese Battalion Executive Officer (second ranking officer in the battalion). Sometime after midnight as we were trying to sweep around the enemy’s right flank my Vietnamese counterpart was killed by an AK47 round thru his helmet. We fought the rest of the night and after daybreak were able to get into the NE gate. This gate was secured on the inside by the beleaguered Vietnamese 1st Division. This was the morning of February 1st. For almost the next two weeks we were engaged in urban warfare. We had no training in this type of fighting as all of our operations had been in the jungles or rice paddies.
During the next twelve days, we slowly and painstakingly proceeded house by house and block by block. During this battle for Hue, the well-armed 7500 NVA troops occupied all the roof tops and wall tops. Therefore, we were at a tremendous disadvantage.
Our 600 man Battalion suffered tremendous casualties. By the time we were replaced by the US Marines on February 12th, my battalion was down to 90 soldiers. While inside the walled citadel, I had no idea the US Marines had been fighting so courageously for the same entire time on the other side of the Perfume River. After the US Marines had destroyed the NVA and secured that area, Walter Cronkite was there broadcasting that he did not see how this war could be won. This was the rainy season so we never saw the sun during that two week period. It was chilly at night (mid 40’s). Also, we had almost no food for the first week. I ate many bananas, coconuts and crackers the civilians had left behind in their homes. Because of the historical and cultural significance of the citadel, we were not allowed to use air or artillery support. During our time inside the citadel, we sadly saw many civilians (approximately 15-20) who were executed with their hands tied behind their backs. We were evacuated by US Navy LST barrages via the Perfume River to the Phu Bai airport from where we eventually flew back to Saigon.
About mid-March we deployed west of Saigon to protect Saigon from another Tet like attack from the NVA Cambodian sanctuary. By this time during the war the NVA was heavily deployed in the Parrot’s Beak area of Cambodia which reached far into South Vietnam. It was only 30 miles from the Cambodian border to Saigon. We were engaged by the NVA almost daily. I was slightly wounded on April 6th by an enemy mortar round that landed so close that it knocked off my helmet and cut my head above my ear. It was so minor that I returned to my unit the next day.
On April 12th, we were engaged with a large NVA unit of at least two companies. This entire area was made up of rice paddies. Very tediously and dangerously as we moved from rice paddy to rice paddy. The enemy was usually dug into each corner of a rice paddy dike with machine guns that had great fields of fire as we tried to cross them.
In this type of combat, my job was to bring in US helicopter gunships armed with 30 mm rockets and 50 caliber machine guns. I would talk to the pilot on my radio and with the use of colored smoke grenades guide him to the enemy targets. In this type of combat operations, we were usually 25-50 meters from the enemy. After the gunships eliminated the machine guns, we could cross the rice paddy.
As the day progressed, we crossed numerous rice paddies. The NVA troops were filling the air with many B40 rifle propelled grenades whose projectile was about one foot long. This was an awesome weapon that could be used effectively against helicopters or advancing ground troops like us.
After crossing one of the rice paddies, I radioed my boss, probably 100 meters behind me, to alert him of the numerous B40’s flying over my head. Our lead element consisting of me, my radio operator (RTO), Vietnamese Battalion Executive officer, his RTO and a US Army artillery sergeant forward observer, who carried his own radio, eventually hunkered down behind a nice rice paddy dike for cover and to catch our breath after one of many such crossings. As we were trying to reconnoiter the situation to our front, all of a sudden my counterpart (Bn Executive Officer) threw out a red smoke grenade. I asked him why he did that. His response was his boss (Bn CO) was up in a helicopter flying near us and wanted to know where we were. My immediate response was the rest of the world now knows where we are too. Within seconds a B40 round hit the top of our rice paddy dike throwing shrapnel all over us. I was hit pretty badly, having a large gaping wound near my right knee. My back hurt really badly so I had the US Forward Observer next to me examine it. It felt like my back was gone, but he assured me just multiple lacerations and not bleeding too badly. My knee was bleeding profusely so I concentrated on applying maximum pressure to that site. In times like this your mind races back to recent soldiers you have seen with terrible wounds. One was a solider whose back was a gaping hole from a B40 direct hit. Since my back felt like that, I felt better after my companion’s assessment. Also, a week or two before, my counterpart at that time was hit by an AK47 round in his thigh and bled to death on the med-evac helicopter. So, you can see why I was worried about my wounds.
Within 10 minutes, a corpsman came to my aid applying first aide, a morphine shot and got me on a stretcher for removal to a med-evac helicopter. I was taken to a US Army Field Hospital in the town of Cu Chi. I remember in the triage area being asked my Mom’s maiden name. I answered Norton. Years later, I thought that was very strange as they would have had no idea the correct answer. They moved me to the OR to debride my multiple wounds. The surgeon left them open to drain for a week and put me on massive penicillin. During that week, I had a surprise visit from Bud Fish a close West Point classmate. He brought me a six pack of beer. It was great to see him. Years later I asked him how he knew I was wounded and in that hospital. It turned out the American FO beside me worked for him and had told him my name. After a week, I went back into OR for all the wounds to be closed with metal sutures. That night the hospital was mortared. Instinct caused me to dive from my bed onto the concrete floor under the adjacent bed.
The impact broke two of the wire sutures in my right knee and hurt like hell. The next day the surgeon said no way to fix; I would just have a larger scar. He was right.
After two weeks the sutures were removed, and I was transferred to a convalescent hospital at Cham Ranh Bay. This was on the beautiful South China Sea. This area was so secure that at some point President Johnson made a visit there. I spent four weeks there.
I returned to duty approximately mid-June. I was assigned to our detachment headquarters at Tan Son Nhat Air Force Base in Saigon after 8+ months in the field. I became the Detachment S-1. This is basically the personnel officer for the unit. I again replaced another West Point classmate, John Alger, whose tour was over and returning to the states. For the next 2+ months, I lived and worked in Saigon.
As the personnel officer, one of my functions was to pay all of the members of the detachment on pay day, the last day of every month. This meant I had to travel all over the country to find and pay our guys in the field. I had to hitchhike on aircraft to reach the troops in the northern provinces and then helicopter to their exact location. I do remember on July 31st helicoptering into some remote places taking mail and pay. After all my combat history, I thought this will be something to be shot down taking them money they can’t spend in the jungle. Luckily for me this never happened.
These two months was really an uneventful time as I was just counting the days when I would return home to family. Sherri had been three months old when I left and fifteen months old upon my return.
By the end of my year in combat, I realized this was an unwinnable war for many reasons. We obviously had superior firepower. This enemy fought like our revolutionary army did against the much stronger British forces. This enemy only fought when they knew they had the advantage and an exit plan. They only moved at night which they owned. They were able to resupply without planes and helicopters. We had to be resupplied by helicopter every evening with food and munitions. In the many combat encounters I had with the enemy, they never ran out of ammunition. They were also methodical about removing their dead and wounded from the battle field. This created a psychological advantage for them. We knew exactly our KIAs and WIAs and would find none or minimum on their side. This tactic lead US forces to have to estimate enemy KIA’s which was usually highly exaggerated.
My unit was welled trained and armed and I never worried about my safety. On many a quiet night, they would tell me they had been fighting since 1940 when the Japanese invaded. They were tired and happy the US wanted to take over the bulk of the war. On occasion, they would hold back and willingly let the adjacent US forces take the lead.
The government did not control the countryside so it was clear to peasants that they had to help the VC or NVA to survive. There was also much corruption in the government. They wanted to be free, but not sure they had the passion anymore for it. As I mentioned above, our policy not to destroy the ships in Hai Phong harbor or the troops in Cambodia was not how you fight a war to win. Our offensive plans were called search and destroy missions. We would search and only find them on their terms. This usually was some kind of ambush where they had the element of surprise. As I said earlier, they always knew where we were and only fought on their terms. Even in the large US bases, they had plenty of spies who always passed on information of troop comings and goings.
When I got home, I realized I did not want to go back and fight this same type of unwinnable war. Which as an Infantry Captain, I most certainly would have to do. After three Purple Hearts, I was not sure how much luck I had left. As it turned out, 26 of my West Point classmates were killed in action and I have no idea the number wounded. Now many others have died younger than normal due to Agent Orange exposure.
We were taught success meant winning the hearts and minds of the populace. However even the best intentions, were eventually worn down. It was impossible to distinguish the good Vietnamese from the bad ones. You would see friends killed or maimed by roadside bombs or the many creative booby traps. Hand grenades were thrown into passing jeeps. Except for those Vietnamese personally known, most Americans began to treat all other Vietnamese with disdain.
From an Army career standpoint this was an awesome assignment, as I was often engaged in frequent combat. During the Tet offensive, I just happened to be 10 miles from Hue when it began. It took almost a month of intense combat before victory. I was in the Citadel for almost two weeks before my unit was almost completely decimated. Dak To was also a significant 1-2 week battle. After Tet, the 30 miles between Saigon and Cambodia became a constant battleground as the NVA had large units in that area. I was lucky enough to survive receiving numerous awards for heroism. These included the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for heroism, Army Commendation for heroism and three Purple Hearts.
As I have told many, I was no braver than anyone else. I had a job to do and always tried to do it to the best of my ability. I was probably as best trained for this job as one could be; this training and luck saved my life.