April 13, 2023

24. Vietnam War: The Trail

24. Vietnam War: The Trail

The story of the Vietnam War has been told many times in many different ways. But how often have you heard what it was like on the ground for infantry soldiers walking The Trail - that daily grind of cutting through the jungle in pursuit of the enemy?  The unbearable heat, leeches, C-rations, booby traps, ambushes and counter-ambushes. It’s a gripping and terrifying story which my guest Robin, a Vietnam Veteran, tells with passion and surprising humour. It’s a story that must be told over and over again so that we never forget. Welcome Home, Robin.

Rarely have I been so gripped than listening to Robin’s account of his time in the Vietnam War. Contemplating walking The Trail mesmerised me, one year must have seemed like a decade.  Once Robin started recounting stories, I couldn’t stop him; I wouldn’t stop him.  I’m delighted to say that I will be sharing many of these stories not included today in future episodes. Above all, it was a privilege to talk with Robin. Thank you.

As part of Robin's journey to process the experience of Vietnam, he wrote a cathartic memoir, Vietnam Combat: Firefights and Writing History. It's a hard-hitting account of his time in-country, the good, the bad and the very ugly. 

You can learn more about Robin and his extraordinary story at https://robinbartlettauthor.com/.

Robin has just produced a new video titled "Charlie Alpha: Jumping Off and Falling Down."  It talks about and shows what it was like to be in the lead bird on a helicopter combat assault. Just under 5 minutes, well worth a look.

Last week's episode
[Episode 23] - Access Denied: The Kursk Submarine Rescue Story - In August 2000, the Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, resulting in the loss of all 118 crew members. At the time, the UK Royal Navy's submarine rescue team was one of the best-equipped in the world, and they offered their services to help save the trapped crew. Access was denied. Today’s guest, Mark, was part of that team.

Next week's episode
[Episode 25] - Confessions of a Voice Actor - Today’s guest spends a lot of time in his garden. But he cultivates voices rather than plants. Tim is a voice actor and his garden is where the real magic happens - in his voice booth. It’s his own personal oasis, except instead of palm trees and coconuts, he has microphones and soundproofing foam.  Find out about the life of a voice actor as well as meeting a few of Tim’s friends; Liam Neeson, King Charles III, David Attenborough, Sean Connery and Nelson Mandela. His impersonations will make you green with envy.

- We love receiving your feedback - head over to www.battingthebreeze.com/contact
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Thanks for listening!


[00:00:00] Robin Bartlett: We were not quiet when we moved through the jungle. They could pick their battles. They were well trained to operate at night, to move at night, to fight at night, to ambush at night.  They would ambush our ambushes. [00:00:20] [00:00:40]

Early days

[00:00:53] Robin Bartlett: Well, I was originally born in... Sacramento, California, but I come from a military family [00:01:00] and my grandfather, father and brother all were in the military. So we lived all over. I went to... 13 different elementary schools and middle schools. I'd had enough of the military so, I wanted to go to college in California and ended up going to Claremont McKenna College in southern California, east [00:01:20] of Los Angeles. It's a private, liberal arts school, very popular at the time and still to today.

Robin Bartlett takes a breather

[00:01:26] Steve: This is Robin Bartlett. It's 1967, and the United States was fully entrenched in Vietnam. The war had been escalated by President Lyndon Johnson a couple of years [00:01:40] earlier, but the mood of the American people was starting to turn. Anyway, right now Robin had something closer to home to sort. After a slight detour from political science and economics, he became a comparative literature major, combining literature with French, which would be [00:02:00] of some unexpected relevance in the period that was to follow.

Ranger School

[00:02:04] Robin Bartlett: The... year between my freshman and sophomore year, I was literally reclassified during that period of time into 1-A. I was gonna be drafted. I said, "Not for me". It was building to the height of the Vietnam War. I joined the [00:02:20] ROTC 'cause I knew a) I had to serve my obligation as an officer, and b) I didn't wanna be drafted. So, I decided to volunteer for the most... aggressive and arduous thing that I could think of, and that ended up being Airborne Ranger School and requested assignment to the 82nd Airborne Division. And I got everything [00:02:40] that I volunteered for.

[00:02:41] Steve: He certainly did. After an introductory month with the 82nd, Robin was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he went through Jump School for four weeks, then six weeks on the Infantry Officer Basic Course, and finally Ranger School, which turned out to be [00:03:00] his best insurance policy for Vietnam.

[00:03:02] Robin Bartlett: It was the most arduous training I have ever been through. The overall objective of Ranger School was to get you as exhausted, physically and mentally exhausted, as you could possibly become and hungry because you only got one meal a day.[00:03:20] And then when you reached that point of total exhaustion, that's when they made you the leader and said, "Okay, take over". If you made your objective in Ranger School, they fed you. If you failed to meet your objective, you didn't get any food. I lost about 25 pounds in Ranger School, put it all [00:03:40] back on, but I lost about 25 pounds.

[00:03:42] Steve: After six months back with the 82nd Airborne Division, Robin received orders transferring him to Vietnam, although there was some initial confusion about exactly where he was headed. It was May 9th, 1968.

Arriving in Vietnam

[00:03:58] Robin Bartlett: [00:04:00] And finally at about two o'clock in the morning, I was awakened and they said, you're going to the 101st, you're going to the First Cavalry Division. Get ready to go at six o'clock in the morning. So that was my introduction. And the division had a great reputation in that [00:04:20] because they had so many helicopters, more helicopters in that division than any other unit in Vietnam, so you flew everywhere. And that meant you carried more water, more ammunition, and less weight on your back. That was the good news. The bad news was that it also meant you made these tremendous number of [00:04:40] helicopter combat assaults called a "Charlie Alpha" - combat assault. Those were traumatic moments. Combat assaults were always traumatic moments.

General conditions

[00:04:49] Steve: First up for Robin... acclimatization.

[00:04:53] Robin Bartlett: In three-canopy jungle, the temperatures are magnified because the humidity is super . Intense. [00:05:00] We weren't allowed to drink water from streams or purify water 'cause of the Agent Orange poisoning. So they brought water into us every day, pretty much every day. And if they couldn't land a helicopter they'd kick it out in containers. And you had to live off that water. You had enough water to drink, period. I brushed my teeth. That was it. [00:05:20] Didn't shave. You were out in the field... wearing the same clothes for an average of four to six weeks. It got pretty stinky after about the third day. But then you got used to it.

[00:05:29] Steve: The next stage of acclimatization was with the food.

Food rations

[00:05:35] Robin Bartlett: Food was C-Rations. Typically they would bring in a helicopter [00:05:40] each night to bring in water and C-Rations and additional ammunition. So we ate C-Rations. We ate C-Rations all day long. And occasionally they would bring in cooks, and we would have a hot meal. And we might have breakfast for dinner, we might have dinner for breakfast. It was depending upon... helicopter support and when they [00:06:00] could bring the cooks out. The cooks did not like being there no matter how... secure it was. We did get one Coke and one beer with the night logistics resupply. And they would put them in a... waterproof bag with some ice, which would melt by the time you got it. So he had a lukewarm beer and a lukewarm Coke [00:06:20] every night. The liquid was the best.

C-rations... US Military Rations, Vietnam War

Cutting trail

[00:06:22] Steve: Walking The Trail was the relentless daily grind that all Vietnam soldiers experienced and never forgot. One of Robin's first literary pieces when reminiscing about the war was a short story about The Trail, [00:06:40] which he's immortalized in his war memoir, Vietnam Combat: Firefights and Writing History. Check out the show notes.

[00:06:48] Robin Bartlett: We wanted to stay off main trails because if you were on a main trail, the possibility of ambush was much higher. And that was Ranger School training right there. You never followed [00:07:00] a road. You never followed a trail. So we had to cut brush and typically single file had to be very cautious about men keeling over from heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Your point man had to be rotated every... 10 to 15 minutes. They had to chop trail with a machete. It was the cover man who covered the point man, [00:07:20] as they chopped their way through what we called "wait a minute" vines and thorns and that was an experience which was never forgotten. I have never forgotten that experience of what it was to walk trail.

[00:07:32] Steve: The Trail involved walking through very muddy rice paddies, which were infested with [00:07:40] leeches.

The Trail - leeches

[00:07:40] Robin Bartlett: And even though you would tie your pants down, the leeches seemed to find a way to get under your pants and under the skin. So after you came out of the water, everybody took off their pants and looked for leeches. They loved to work their way up toward your groin. There were two ways to getting rid of 'em. You [00:08:00] smoked a cigarette and you burned them off, or you squirted them with insect repellent. Unavoidable.

The Trail - face to face with the enemy

[00:08:05] Steve: Even comfort breaks weren't without incident, especially if you left your weapon behind.

[00:08:16] Robin Bartlett: We were on a night defensive position. It was the morning and I [00:08:20] had to take a crap, and I did not take my weapon with me. And I walked into the brush just a few feet, maybe five meters or so, 10 to 15 feet, did my business, pulled up my pants, looked up and here was an enemy soldier about 50 feet away. He didn't have a weapon. [00:08:40] He was definitely a soldier, he had a uniform on and it scared the living crap outta me. It really did. I turned around and he waved at me. This was an observer who was tracking our unit. And he was a young kid. I mean, I looked at him for all of about two seconds before I turned around and ran like hell. And I never made the mistake of not having rifle with me [00:09:00] ever again. it was married to me.

[00:09:02] Steve: Robin had arrived in Vietnam as a Second Lieutenant. Within three weeks, he was promoted to First Lieutenant. He was 22.

Platoon leader - Gaining the trust of his men

[00:09:12] Robin Bartlett: One of the smartest things I did when I first took over is I sat down with my platoon sergeant and my squad leaders and I listened [00:09:20] to them and I trusted them. And they came to know that my first priority in a firefight was their welfare, which probably meant  I was not going to be a successful infantry commander because attacking the enemy and getting body count, was the priority. But it wasn't my priority.

[00:09:39] Robin Bartlett: It didn't mean that [00:09:40] we didn't attack the enemy, because if you were ambushed,  the worst thing you could do was just hug the ground and pray. that was total annihilation insured. You had to attack, you had to maneuver, you had to move out of the ambush zone.  Most of my soldiers, 90% of 'em, were draftees and they wanted to complete their tour [00:10:00] as much as I wanted to complete mine.  

[00:10:02] Steve: Rumors persisted that platoon leaders had a survival rate of less than 90 days in country. Unfortunately, they were easy to spot and a prime target for the enemy.

Platoon leader takes special precautions

[00:10:14] Robin Bartlett: I was the man with the map in his thigh pocket, with the radio operator, who had an [00:10:20] antenna sticking up above his head, walking behind me. And the radio operator and the platoon leader were the favourite targets, especially if we were walking single file and you had to walk single file in in the jungle, they knew there was a point man and a cover man and one or two soldiers and then came the leader. So [00:10:40] that's when they liked to have the sniper fire. You got very adept at falling to the ground instantaneously.

Robin's team - spot the platoon leader?

Spot the platoon leader? The one with the map in his pocket!

Walking point

[00:10:48] Steve: Perhaps there was one even more terrifying position on The Trail, platoon leader or not, and that was being at the front of your unit. Walking [00:11:00] point.

[00:11:00] Robin Bartlett: I only walked point one time. That was a horrendous experience. I wanted to do it just to have the experience. And we were within, we were actually moving up to our night defensive position, I said, "Well, I'm gonna walk point". And my platoon sergeant came up and said, [00:11:20] "Sir, don't, don't do it. Don't, don't walk point". I said, "I'm gonna do it". I need the exp... I want to have this experience. Well, let me tell you, it was extremely frightening because as you walked along, you had to look ahead, you had to watch for booby traps. And so you were constantly looking down, [00:11:40] looking up, looking down. I was sweating so much... my hands were so slippery on the stock of my rifle. And of course, you carried your weapon on full automatic with the safety off, and it was not unusual for your point man to trip and fall and pull the trigger at the same time. Of course, then everybody hit the ground, but he had tripped on a vine or, [00:12:00] or something. But that was my one and only experience. I never walked point again.

[00:12:05] Steve: Well, Robin never walked point again, but he was often called to the front by his point man.

[00:12:11] Robin Bartlett:  If you were walking through the jungle and you didn't hear birds, and you didn't hear monkeys and you had a bad feeling, and the point man had this [00:12:20] intuitive feeling, they would call me to the front and say, "I don't like... I don't like what's going on up here". And my usual... reaction in cases like that was what I called 'reconnaissance by fire'. I called for artillery in front of us and I shot a lot of artillery. I shot so much artillery, they actually had to put [00:12:40] a budget on me. But when we walked through an area... my men felt much more comfortable and I blew away everything that was in front of us before we walked through it.

[00:12:48] Steve: Robin recalled a typical incident on one such call from his point man.

[00:12:54] Robin Bartlett: I came forward, they heard an enemy soldier coming up the trail. And as I [00:13:00] came up even with them, here comes this enemy soldier up the trail. And he saw me, I saw him, his weapon was on his shoulder. Mine was in my hands. Flipped the switch on the selector switch to full automatic, and when the M16 fires... you can go through... 18 rounds of ammunition in two and a half seconds. You just [00:13:20] point the weapon and pull the trigger. And that's exactly what happened, and the rounds just crossed his body and he was dead.

[00:13:36] Steve: Night time on the trail provided its own [00:13:40] challenges. Every night each platoon would send out an ambush, and every night, they knew the enemy was watching. One such ambush, nearly proved to be Robin's last.

Night Firefight

[00:13:53] Robin Bartlett: We had to cross a rice paddy to get to our ambush location. The enemy opened fire on us [00:14:00] with machine guns, and they started dropping mortar rounds on us. I had a couple of men immediately wounded, a couple of men killed right off the bat. I called for artillery. We were all behind the... rice paddy dyke, which was like concrete. And... a mortar round went off on the other side of the rice [00:14:20] paddy dyke, some shrapnel caught me in the shoulder and kicked me back. My helmet came off. Another mortar round went off in front of me. And the mortar round went into the mud before it exploded, and that was the only thing that saved me. And a piece of shrapnel caught me in the groin and kicked me back,[00:14:40] and my head hit the rice paddy dyke and I was out cold. And I was saved by my squad leader who took action to pull the dead and the wounded back to the original perimeter.

[00:14:54] Steve: Robin was still alive, but definitely not kicking.

[00:14:59] Robin Bartlett: They [00:15:00] thought I was dead because I had this blood all over me. So I was put in the dead pile. They brought additional platoons up, but it was night, it was the middle of the night, and we couldn't bring in a medevac until six o'clock the next morning. So I woke up after a while and I sat up, but by this time I had lost a lot of blood and I [00:15:20] fainted and nobody saw me. The second time I woke up, I moaned, and somebody said, "Hey, he's not dead". And then they came over and they put a bandage on me to stop the bleeding. So I laid there from about 10 o'clock at night until six o'clock the next morning when they finally were able to get a medevac in. [00:15:40] I spent a couple days on a hospital ship, they sewed me up, gave me a couple pints of blood. Two days in the hospital ship they said, "Okay, you go back to your battalion, 10 days of light duty". I wrote everybody up for awards and then went back out to the field, rejoined my platoon.

[00:15:55] Steve: [00:16:00] Robin had defied the odds as a platoon leader. He'd stayed alive to finish his tour. 365 days. It was time to go home. [00:16:20]

Time to go home

[00:16:22] Robin Bartlett: I wrote to my parents and I said, "I can't tell you what day I'm gonna be back. It's gonna be sometime between May 7th and May 11th". I got orders... May 9th. I left at about five or six o'clock in the morning. and we landed about 11 [00:16:40] o'clock at night. And I looked out the window of the airplane and I saw two people standing on the other side of the fence near the hangar, man and a woman. And I said, "Those are my parents". And I got off the airplane and I walked up to my mother and I kissed [00:17:00] her through the fence and she didn't recognize me until I got like two feet in front of her 'cause we were all dressed the same in fatigues. My parents met every flight coming back from Vietnam, from May 6th until I arrived. Every flight, no matter the time. So that was my return.

[00:17:17] Steve: Whilst it would still take [00:17:20] two more years for South Vietnam to fall, on March the 29th, 1973, the last American Combat troops boarded planes and left for home.

National Vietnam War Veterans Day - Welcome Home

[00:17:31] Robin Bartlett: It is recognized as National Vietnam War Veterans Day, March the 29th. Typically we [00:17:40] find, Americans saying, "Thank you for your service", and there's nothing wrong with saying that and I think many Vietnam veterans appreciate it.

[00:17:47] Steve: It's impossible to imagine the terror that Robin and his many countrymen had experienced during their time in Vietnam. On returning, many of them then had to [00:18:00] deal with a very unwelcome homecoming, ranging from indifference to outright hostility. For that reason, there's a special way to thank a Vietnam veteran for their service.

[00:18:13] Robin Bartlett: if you wish to give special recognition to a Vietnam veteran, to recognize what we went [00:18:20] through in our war, and the sacrifices that we made to secure American freedoms and American way of life,  you say, "Welcome home",  and you watch the reaction. And the power of those two words to a Vietnam veteran and the meaning [00:18:40] of those two words to a Vietnam veteran, very, very special. You will bring tears to our eyes and lumps to our throats by saying those words.

 [00:19:00] [00:19:20]