Vietnam War Leaves Haunting Memories

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Three weeks ago, a bell was going off in my head as I wrote about a friend I made during reenlistee basic training.

We called him Hoppy because he limped from an unhealed injury, a fact he hid from our DI, thereby making it back into the Air Force.

Several times we asked Hoppy where he got the courage to face such pain. He always just grinned and fobbed us off, but the day after we finished basic, he told me about an experience he'd had a few years before, something so grim that it gave him the courage to face literally anything.

But a bell kept going off in my head as I was writing about Hoppy. I remembered someone else who'd had a similar experience.

With a very different result.

I met Fred Robbins when I was assigned to Hill AFB in Utah. Fred was a rare individual, one who truly loved to laugh. There was just no way to make him unhappy. For example, even though he excelled at his job, he was still a three striper after several years, but did it sour his outlook on life?

It did not! He took it in stride, as he did everything else.

He and his wife Elsa, a German girl, and their two children, Freddie and Kim, lived two houses down from us in base housing.

Elsa and Lolly became friends, which is how I met Fred. Our two families spent a lot of time together, and had some great fun. We fished, we camped, and we picnicked, but most of the time we just sat around and talked, and maybe barbecued, while Fred picked out tunes on his guitar and sang. He was pretty good at it too.

And we laughed -- a lot. Give Fred the credit for that.

Other than an occasional beer, Fred didn't drink. He often said he didn't need anything to relax him, he was born relaxed.

Sadly, it being the Vietnam era, Fred and I both shipped overseas quite soon after we met. I was lucky, I took my family with me to Okinawa. Fred was not so lucky, he shipped to Vietnam unaccompanied.

Fred and I kept in touch through Lolly and Elsa, who wrote to each other regularly. I'm not a great letter writer and neither was Fred, and the one letter he did write from Vietnam was a short, angry note about the war that didn't sound like him at all.

Lolly and Elsa wrote letters back and forth, and we all hoped we might somehow get assigned to the same base after we finished our overseas tours. But it never happened. Fred barely got his feet on the ground in the States before he shipped out on an assignment to Germany, with Elsa and the kids this time.

Elsa's letters grew farther and farther apart over the next two years, and became oddly strained, as though she had something to say but didn't want say it. By that time they had four kids and Lolly was worried that Elsa was suffering from some postpartum problem, but try as she might, she could get nothing out of Elsa. As the months passed it became increasingly obvious that there was something seriously wrong, but we had no idea what it was.

Then came the bombshell.

We got a letter from Elsa saying she and Fred would be on their way home within a week, and that she was certain that Fred was going to abandon her and their four kids at McGuire AFB the minute the plane hit the ground.

She told us that he was being kicked out of the Air Force for nightmare-induced drunkenness, that she had begged his squadron commander -- with no luck -- to give her part of his last paycheck, and that she didn't know what she was going to do when he just took off and left her stranded.

We wired her $500, told her to come to us, and said we would help her work something out.

A week later Elsa, Freddie, Kim, Teddy and baby Karen arrived. Looking like a woman who had been through hell, Elsa told us a story that Fred had told her over and over again.

You have to understand that Vietnam was a very frustrating time for those of us in the service. We felt that Washington would not let us fight, that our hands were tied in ways that could only lead to an inevitable and shameful defeat, with the tragic waste of the lives of many fine young men and women in the process.

Which is, of course, what happened.

Like a lot of people stationed in Vietnam, Fred and a trio of other men in his squadron, one of them his best buddy, rented a little place off-base to get away from the anger and frustration of not being allowed to give the Army the support it needed.

One day, he and two of his buddies were sitting on their front porch. Fred was leaning back in a cane chair tilted against the back wall of the porch, sweating and picking out a tune on his guitar. His best buddy and another man were playing cards on a wicker table near the railing.

As Fred watched and picked, an eight- or nine-year-old Vietnamese boy on a rickety old bike peddled by. He waved and smiled, and Fred waved and smiled back.

Then, just as he passed the porch, the young boy reached into a basket on his handlebars, grabbed something, and tossed it onto the porch.

Seeing the smoke, Fred yelled, but it was too late. The fragmentation grenade hit his best friend in the chest, landed on the table, and rolled into the lap of the other man.

Fred was knocked over by the force of the explosion, which probably saved his life. He got up, dazed, ears ringing, and half deaf, and staggered over to the place where the table had been.

The table was gone and the man in whose lap the grenade had landed had been blown nearly in half. One half lay draped over the edge of the porch. The other half was a tangled mass of flesh and blood lying on the straw matting.

Fred's friend turned around to him as he staggered up. His mouth was working, but no sound came out of it. He held out his arms, two mangled stumps blown off at the elbows. Fred ripped off his sweaty t-shirt and tried to stem the blood streaming from the stumps as he yelled for help.

It came in just 10 minutes.

Five minutes too late.

His friend died in his arms without ever uttering a word.

We never heard from Fred again. I doubt he lived very long.

A few weeks ago a wall came to Payson, a wall inscribed with the names of men and women who gave their lives for this nation.

It was missing a name.

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