LeRoy Roberson thought joining the Navy would land him on a ship far away from the war in Vietnam, but he was wrong.
Roberson, 74, graduated from Waynesville Township High School in 1962. After having trouble at both Mars Hill and Wake Forest Universities, he moved to Florida, where he worked for a food service company delivering hot meals at the NASA Space Center. Then he got his draft papers, but to avoid entering the Army and going to the war-torn country, he decided to voluntarily enlist in another branch.
Becoming a corpsman
“I went home and talked about it with my father and he mentioned something,” Roberson said. “I don’t know if I brought up the Navy or he did, but we talked to the recruiter.”
“If I went through with the draft and didn’t go into the Navy, I would have gone into the army,” he added, “And I’m pretty sure I would have been in Vietnam, so I said I’ll join the Navy and be on a ship and not really in Vietnam.”
Initially when he went to the recruiter, Roberson was under the impression he would have a three-year contract. But just as he was about to seal the deal at a fort near Columbia, South Carolina, he was told it’d be four.
“The guy said I’d have to sign up for four or go home,” he said.
Roberson went home. But only four hours after arriving at the Waynesville bus station — which is now the Sweet Onion — he was back en route to Columbia to enlist.
“When I got there, name was in big red letters sitting up on a board and I said, ‘oh, this isn’t a good start,’” he said.
Roberson went to boot camp in San Diego. From there, he worked briefly as a postal clerk at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California before going to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego for corps school, where he learned to be the Naval equivalent of a medic. After corps school, Roberson was given his choice of duty station, and he chose a hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which unbeknownst to him was the staging ground for troops from the east coast to go to Vietnam.
Next, Roberson went to Field Medical School at Camp Pendleton, where he found out what it took to be attached to a Marine unit. Along the way, he learned the things he must carry in his satchel, which would generally include bandages, tape, antibiotics, and some single-dosage syringes of morphine (which he said he never had to administer) that came at the ready with a needle.
He was ready to go.
A sailor among Marines
“50 years ago I was in Vietnam,” Roberson said. “I missed Tet by two or three weeks.”
On the way to the country, at a pit stop in Okinawa, someone told him something he’d never forget.
“The man who was talking to us, and I don’t remember if he was a Marine or what, said, ‘look to your left, look to your right. One or both of the people on your side won’t make it back,’” Roberson said, adding that the man called it “John Wayne Syndrome.”
“That is when somebody hollers corpsman, and you jump up and run to them to help them,” Roberson added. “And he said, ‘that’s exactly what they want you to do. They are gonna shoot you right there. That’s what they want. If somebody hollers corpsmen. You crawl to them on your belly.’”
But that wouldn’t be Roberson’s fate. In a lucky twist, instead of being assigned to an infantry unit that would be spending most of its time humping through the boonies, he was assigned to Marine Air Group (MAG) 13 in Chu Lai, about 50 miles south of Da Nang.
When Roberson got there, he wasn’t sure what his duty would be, but before long a, a strange tragedy dictated his fate. Two men, one of whom was a pharmacy tech, were messing around with an M16 that was loaded and placed on the automatic setting, when the pharmacy tech was shot twice in the shoulder, wounds that would prove to be fatal.
“He got killed because a friend and him were just playing around,” Roberson said.
“I ended up in the pharmacy the whole time,” he added.
Dealing with Marines proved interesting, especially when it came to officers, Roberson said. And although he didn’t have a lot of friends who were Marines, he always appreciated what they did.
“I’d gripe about the Marines … and yet if somebody was coming in the fence or something I’d be finding me the Marines and getting with them,” he said with a laugh.
Roberson noted that Marines would accompany the corpsmen during a MEDCAP, which sent the sailors out to surrounding villages to provide medical care to Vietnamese civilians.
“They would come out and were happy to see us,” he said. “I always contended that there were probably some Viet Cong that we were treating.
On those visits, Roberson and other corpsmen would mostly treat wounds and open sores, an effort he considered to be frivolous in the long-term.
“I remember one lady, you could actually see the bone,” he said. “It was like the skin was cratered. What are you going to do with it? You can put a bandage on it but that’s something that would need to be followed every day.”
Although many Corpsmen were experiencing untold dangers in the boonies, Roberson still came under fire from time to time in the form of rocket attacks. The rocket attacks were essentially, as an infantryman may call it, spray and pray, meaning they were fired randomly with the blind hope of inflicting damage.
The way they lined them up, they said they would get three sticks and they would line up the rockets with those three sticks so they would move those sticks in the ground and just aim for an area, and the rockets would go off and they would leave immediately. The rockets would hit randomly. Some would go short, some would go long.
Many of the injuries Roberson would encounter in the line of duty were basic cuts and illnesses, but sometimes he’d encounter something unique. Specifically, during rocket attacks, he’d have a rash of officers with cuts on their feet.
“The pallets they brought ordinances in on were metal, and all of the officers got the metal pallets and they’d put them in front of their hooches, so they had nice sidewalks and all the enlisted men just had the sand,” he said. “But sand doesn’t cut up your feet. When there’d be a rocket attack, you head for the bunker, but you don’t stop to put on your boots. You jump up and run. We had all these officers come in with foot injuries because they’d tear up their feet on the metal pallets.”
While in Vietnam, Roberson kept a diary that he titled “My Bitch Book,” in which bitch is synonymous with complaint.
“You know, I’d bitch about this, bitch about that,” he said. “It was just a place to complain about things.”
Inside the book is page after page of blue-inked entries detailing day after day of just trying to get by. Most entries read more like notes than prose, and many of the days simply describe the weather and the bone-rattling sound of F-4 Phantom jets taking off and landing. However, some are more stark.
“I’m getting quite the sunburn,” a March 25 entry reads. “The pharmacy is so situated that there is little ventilation. If we don’t get air conditioning in here this summer I’ll melt. I watched the planes take off tonite. How many will die tonite. The light of flairs stabbing @ the void. They are questionable; pretty?”
For so long, Roberson never read the diary.
“It’s really been over the last couple years that I looked at it,” he said. “You know, Vietnam was just something you didn’t really talk about.”
In fact, there were some stories that Roberson didn’t even remember until revisiting the books. One, he recalled, was particularly poignant.
“One time, two guys were killed in a rocket attack, and I had to help remove one body,” he said. “It was unnecessary in that there were two guys that were killed because they were on top of the bunker watching the ‘fireworks’ and a rocket hit the bunker. I didn’t even remember that until I read it.”
He also mentioned another nearly forgotten memory about a Vietnamese man in one of the villages who had long been an ally of the American soldiers and Marines.
“I was reading about him in the diary,” Roberson said. “This is another thing I hadn’t remembered. But his daughter had been shot and killed and he was never the same after, and there was no more help from him.”
Life after Vietnam
Roberson came home after just short of a year in Vietnam, and within a week, he’d been discharged. He immediately enrolled at Western Carolina University, and upon graduating went to a school for optometry in Birmingham, Alabama, where he also met the woman who would become his wife. He said being exposed to so many elements of the medical field as a corpsman helped narrow his options. In addition, he said the military gave him the focus necessary to finish the difficult schooling.
“I benefitted greatly from the service,” he said. “It helped me a lot. I was not very focused prior to that and it made me buckle down and have better discipline. I attribute that to being able to finish college and going to optometry school.”
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have moments of pure disdain while he was in.
“There were very few people I knew of that did not complain bitterly about being in the service,” he said. “But once they finished their tour or whatever, they’d say, ‘yeah, it was good for me.’ And I feel the same way. It was good for me.”
Like a lot of others who fought on behalf of their county during the conflict in Indochina, Roberson had reflected a lot on the war in ways he was unable to while he was in Vietnam just trying to survive.
“While I was there, I didn’t think about it that much other than the fact I might get hit with a rocket attack,” he said. “At the time, I assumed it was right. Now after hearing all the other things that were going on I feel that things didn’t have to be how they were. There didn’t have to be over 50,000 Americans and no telling how many Vietnamese killed.”
Roberson said he has also been saddened to see what he thinks of as history repeating itself in the 21st century.
“We didn’t learn our lessons then from the French,” he said. “That was a good history lesson right there that they didn’t learn. Part of it was we’re the US, we have the most powerful army, navy, air force. Who can defeat us? I think that was their idea, and they still haven’t learned with these other wars.”
© 2018 The Mountaineer (Waynesville, N.C.)
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