Oral History of Mitch Roberts

The war between the United States and Vietnam lasted for over fourteen years from 1959 to 1975. To be more specific, the war was between the U.S. and the South Vietnamese armies, and the North Vietnamese Communist rebels who had attempted to separate themselves after the war with France in which they tried to gain their independence. The war was inherently fought to prevent communist rule of Vietnam and consequently communist dominance in South Eastern Asia. The total death count came to almost sixty thousand American troops and over three million Vietnamese (soldiers and civilians). Unfortunately, the United States and South Vietnamese armies were unsuccessful in their attempts to conquer their foes, and in 1975, the communist influence spread throughout the country and became one nation under Communism.

Born in 1947 Mitch Roberts grew up into a militaristic family. Both his father and his grandfather had served in the armed forces during their lives and had passed their legacy to Mr. Roberts. In fact, he can trace a history of family military involvement all the way back to the Civil War. Because his upbringing was so supportive of the military, Mr. Roberts gladly enlisted with the idea that he would be fighting, struggling, and ultimately winning for his country, for his family, and for the freedoms that he and all other Americans share and enjoy. When he found out that he would be spending a good deal of time of his service in Vietnam, he was excited to serve his country, yet nervous about being in a new, unfamiliar place - and in a war zone at that.

His branch of the military was the United States Navy and he served as a Warrant Officer – an officer without commission. In his own terms, “a Warrant Officer is the lowest rank officer that someone could be.” He served eight years active duty, fourteen months of which were actually spent overseas (from late ‘67 to early ‘69). He spent most of his time patrolling the rivers of Vietnam, a task which gave his unit and others who did the same the nickname, “Riverrine Force.” Each patrol could last up to three weeks which created a strong bond among all of the men in each unit. Many of the units, and the military as a whole, consisted of a large percentage of Korean and World War II Vets, many of whom had enlisted in the military as their lifetime career. Because of events such as the My Lai incident, the Vietnam War had many dissenters (i.e. Hare Krishna Peace Movement); however, as Mr. Roberts states, “People didn’t support the war, but we got a lot of support as troops.”

Mr. Roberts detailed that the hardest part of his entire military experience was, “being away from my family. They didn’t know what was going on with me; I didn’t know what was going on with them. There was a lot of confusion.” He had very little connection with his home as each of the soldiers was only allowed two phone calls per year; one about every six months. “That war was different from the kind of war we have today,” says Mr. Roberts. “There was no T.V., no news; the only thing we knew about was what was told in family letters.” Mr. Roberts dealt with a great amount of emotional strain as he and his wife had gotten engaged only four days before he was sent overseas. He told of some of the things that were done with the letters sent between the soldiers and their families. “Often times, wives and girlfriends would paste the stamps upside-down on the outside of the envelopes as a way of saying that they were still remaining loyal” says Roberts. “Also, many soldiers would write the numbers 1-4-3 on the backs of the letters, symbolizing their love (one letter, four letters, three letters -> I LOVE YOU).”

Though he was mostly thinking about his family, his hardships did not end there. The Vietnam soldiers’ weapons and rations were those that had been left over from World War II. Some of the manufacturing dates on the bottoms of the cans and the sides of the ammunition were marked as 1943 and 1944. There existed very few comfort items for the soldiers while they were overseas – the food in particular being near unbearable. Roberts recalls, “The only time that I ever had ice cream in Vietnam was on Christmas. Yeah, that was my Christmas present for that year.” Many of the soldiers simply counted down the days until they would get to return home. Once a soldier reached the time in their service when they only had thirty days left, they became known as “short-timers” to the rest of the soldiers in that unit. “It’s funny,” says Roberts, “because after a little while, because we were in the middle of a jungle, you could tell how long someone had been there just by looking at them – at how tan they were.”

And while these things were definite discomforts, there existed the always present fact that the soldiers were constantly in a war zone. This war zone was different than those of other wars. Roberts notes, “We were sent as individuals, not as units. We came as individuals and left as individuals.” The actual kind of fighting that was going on was known as “guerilla” fighting, which included a lot of quick reconnaissance missions with very small units. This kind of warfare had not been used in the past and was very dangerous and frightening for the soldiers. In one incident, Mr. Roberts’ unit was ambushed during the night by a group of Viet Cong and three of them were killed. And because the fighting style was so chaotic and unorganized, most of the soldiers were kept in the dark about what was going on until only a few hours before their missions. Often times, they would be awoken in the middle of the night and the Quartermaster, a naval term for navigator, would let them know they would be going on a Seal Team Drop twenty five miles away and then hopefully return a few hours later.

After the war was over, it took almost ten years for the government to officially appreciate the Veterans for their efforts, their struggles, and their sacrifices. This came in the form a grand, celebratory parade. Led by General Westmoreland, over fifteen thousand Vietnam Veterans marched through the city of New York. The event was so massive that the parade, which only spanned about seven to ten miles, began at 8:00 a.m. and did not end until 4:00 pm. The amount of paper used for the entire celebration was measured as the highest total, in tonnage, that New York had ever used for any other celebration.

Immediately following the end of the war, the conditions for veterans were very poor. The Veterans Affairs groups and other similar Associations put pressure on the Congressmen and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to turn this trend around. After about five years of solid pushing, the veterans were granted a great deal of thanks and appreciation in the form of veteran benefits. The Vietnam veterans paved the way for future veteran’s conditions to come. Mr. Roberts detailed that the Vietnam veterans also affected the rest of the United States. Without the Vietnam vet’s, “the voting age may still be twenty-one, instead of eighteen like it is today. People forget that freedoms are rights that are granted because of Veterans” concludes Roberts.

Researched By Nicholas Tyler Dambacher
Volunteer For The Cold War Museum
Cosby High School

Sources:

Roberts, Mitchell. Personal interview. Apr. 2008.
“Vietnam War,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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