Robin Bartlett

The Luck of Alphabetical Order: How I Survived My Vietnam Tour

I arrived in Vietnam in May 1968. It was the height of the war. There were more American soldiers in Vietnam in ‘68-’69 than at any other time. I was on orders to join the 101st Airborne Division. My previous assignment had been with the 82d, and the army attempted to keep airborne officers within airborne units. The Tet Offensive of December 1968 changed all that. Upon arrival at the Repo Depo in Bien Hoa, I was informed that because there had been so many junior officer casualties, all orders were cancelled, and I should standby for a new assignment. After a few days, I was awakened at 4 AM with the instructions to get ready to leave at 6:00 for assignment to the 1st Cavalry Division. The scuttlebutt on the Cav was favorable. The good news was that soldiers carried lighter packs, more water, more ammunition and flew everywhere by helicopter because the Cav had more of them than any other division. The bad news was that sometimes those helicopters flew into “hot LZs.”

After an acclimatization period at the division rear in An Khe in II Corps, where we drew equipment, sighted in our M16s but were not issued ammunition, I and a group of other officers and soldiers were flown to the division forward, a new basecamp still under construction at Camp Evans in I Corps. Further acclimatization and refresher training ensued and finally, we packed up and moved out to join our units. I had been in country for a little less than three weeks, adjusting to the heat and “getting organized.” I felt out of control and at a loss as to what to do with all my gear that I laboriously packed and repacked each day. That problem would be solved the next day when I joined my company with the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cav Regiment.

21 Days Later – A “Butter Bar” No More

On my 21st day in country, four other junior officers and I were loaded onto a HUEY helicopter along with all our gear and choppered out to a field position near Quan Tri. We spent the day waiting to see the battalion commander. While waiting, we were given the news that we had been promoted to first lieutenant after only one year! I was no longer a “Butter Bar.” (By comparison, it took my father eight years to advance to the rank of first lieutenant and it took my brother four. Such was the need for platoon leaders during the Vietnam War.) Finally, at 8 PM five first lieutenants were ushered into the battalion commander’s bunker. We went in alphabetical order; I led the group.

We stood at attention and saluted. The battalion commander looked exhausted. He could have put his head down on his desk and gone to sleep immediately. He spoke with a slow southern drawl, as if he had to think about every word he wanted to say. I was so nervous I barely remembered anything he said during his two minute speech. He clearly wanted to get us the hell out of his bunker and go to sleep. He muttered something about having had five platoon leaders killed in the last month and we were the replacements. With that, he asked the S-1 where these officers were needed. The S-1 said B Company needed two platoon leaders; the rest needed one. Then battalion commander said, “Well, it really doesn’t matter where I assign you.” So, he pointed at me as the first in line and counted us off, “You will go to A, the next two to B, the next to C, and the last to E. You’re dismissed.” We saluted and walked out of his bunker.

Of that group of five officers entering the battalion commander’s bunker that night, I was the only one to survive his tour. It was the sheer luck of alphabetical order that determined who lived, who was wounded and who went home in a body bag. The four other officers were subsequently killed or severely wounded in various firefights.

I had a brief encounter with the S-1 after my assignment to A Company. I told him that I had been an S-1 in the 82d and would like to have his job when it was time for me to come out of the field and assume a staff position. (Officers typically spent six to seven months in the field and then transitioned to a staff job.) The S-1 responded: “You’ll be coming out of the filed about the time I’m ready to return to ‘The World.’ However, your life expectancy as a platoon leader is 90 days, so we’ll make you the S-1 IF you survive your tour. Good luck!

How I Survived When Other Weren’t So Lucky

Soon thereafter I was assigned as the platoon leader of the 1st Platoon of A Company. My call sign was Foggy Day 1-6 and we started humping the boonies. While I was wounded once during my field tour, my wounds were superficial and required only a few days of light duty to recuperate. In thinking about my time in the field, I decided there were three things that I did that helped me to survive:

  1. I met with my platoon sergeant and squad leaders and told them that while I was the leader, I knew they had more field experience than I and I wanted their input. If they saw me doing something wrong I wanted them to speak up.
  2. I tried very hard not to do “stupid stuff.” This may sound silly, but I had a fellow officer who landed a helicopter while standing on a mound. You can imagine the result when the chopper landed, and the rotor blades connected with his head.
  3. I trusted my point man and cover man. If they called me forward from my position fifth in line, I acknowledged their “sixth sense.” Perhaps there were no birds chirping, no monkeys screeching or perhaps they just had a bad feeling about what lay ahead. My solution was “reconnaissance by fire.” I shot a lot of artillery in front of the area where we were about to walk. I shot so much artillery that the battery that supported my unit got to know my call sign and put a budget of 25 round on my reconnaissance barrage. But 25 rounds was sufficient to ease the fears of my point man and my men, and we proceeded with greater confidence.

And after seven months, I came out of the field and was understudying the S-1 to take over his job. That didn’t happen as I was called to division headquarters for an interview for another staff job. But that’s another story.

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