The Loss of Innocence

Russ Vibberts (*see email below)

The Loss of Innocence
By: Russell E. Vibberts Jr.

The Binh Son Rubber Plantation, located north of the Mekong Delta, in Vietnam, was sunny, hot, and serene the last week of January 1968. The atmosphere was different from when I had first arrived, a few months earlier, to join my unit at the Plantation. That first day had been cloudy and overcast, and within a few hours, I had been introduced to my first body bag, adding to the day's gloom. The bag was filled with the remains of a young American soldier killed by shrapnel that severed his abdomen.

The entire last week of January 1968 had been hot and dry without incident. In fact, the last few months had been extremely quiet as we enjoyed the Christmas cease-fire and the celebration of the Tet Holiday. Contact with the enemy was almost non-existent to our knowledge, absent the feigned pleasantries exchanged in the villages and along the roadsides. While we observed the traditional holidays, the covert infiltration of enemy troops and supplies ensued with a magnitude beyond imagination.

I had just received word from home that my son was born on the 26th of January 1968 and in good health. I dreamed the of all the things that I enjoyed growing up and longed to share them with him. The protection of living in a great society and the ability to live in peace offered him the opportunity to pursue his dreams. Conflict and brutality were of no concern. I quietly prayed in thanks for these freedoms, unaware of the high price that I was about to pay for these privileges.

We were a jovial bunch that last week of January as I recall it, building bunkers, cleaning weapons, drinking beer, playing cards and reminiscing about boyhood frolics. Signs of an impending hell were all about us but we were oblivious to them. Our minds were branded with the security of our youth and the military might about us confirmed those illusions. For most of us Vietnam's carnage had not yet become a reality.

In the sunny afternoon of January 30, 1968, we made what appeared to be a non-essential move out the Rubber Plantation to an objective just south of Long Binh in the Province of Bien Hoa. Traveling through the village of Long Thanh we received warm smiles and waves of artificial cordiality. Our assignment was to provide security for the 2nd Field Force Command Post for the Republic of South Vietnam.

Our new base camp was cut out of the jungle with an opening about two hundred yards across with an oval perimeter. It was just about dark as we finished setting up base camp that evening at the end of a tranquil sunny day. Unknown to us our sheltered lives and the innocence with which we viewed that day were about to be altered forever.

Military procedures continued that evening with normality but there was an unfamiliar flow of procedure. My intuition was activating feelings of instability. The night sky was illuminated by Snoopy a C-47 (airplane) that circled the Long Binh Compound and our base camp dropping flares for most of that evening. The dingy yellow lights from the flares hung on small parachutes as they drifted to the ground. Snoopy was famous for her machine guns of awesome firepower, each expending six thousand rounds a minute. Still ignorant of the death waiting beyond our perimeter, we reveled in our military might. It was about midnight when I fell asleep under the security of Snoopy's blanket of protection with little concern for what tomorrow would bring.

At about four hundred hours (4:00am) I was shaken awake by an officer with the words "red alert" and a kick to the sole of my boot. Within a few minutes the entire battalion was in line and ready to move. The officer gave me orders to move to the front of the column of Armored Personnel Carriers and we took our place at point ready to lead the column. In the next few moments the strangest feeling came over me as we paused for orders on our next move.

Death hung over everything like a mist; I could feel it, as my sixth sense grew stronger. The darkness of the morning revealed a green haze and feelings that everything was moving in slow motion. It seemed possible almost to smell death and to sense the organized chaos of war that was about to begin. The officer ordered me to "move out" and quickly my carrier was in full flight. The battle for Saigon and the Tet Offensive was about to begin.

Out on highway 15 with the battalion of Mechanized Carriers behind me our column moved swiftly. At the intersection of highways 15 and 316 in Long Binh the war became reality. Military Police vehicles were flipped over and burning, bodies littered the highway, as we charged into the intersection and I brought my carrier to a stand still. Quickly, the orders were given by hand signals (pointed index finger) to continue up highway 316 into a sea of tracers and rockets that looked like thousands of fireflies.

The North Vietnamese 88th Hard Core Regiment and three Viet Cong Battalions had launched a major assault against the 2nd Field Force Compound. My unit went into the heavy enemy fire, dispersing in many directions. Elements of B Company supported by the Recon Platoon fought the Battle of "Widows Village". C Company defended the Bien Hoa Airstrip. The remainder of B Company fought off sappers at the 2nd Field Force ammo dump and A Company followed me into the village of Ho Nai to rescue of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.

The battle in the cemetery in the village of Ho Nai would become the topic of chapter seventeen entitled "Total Annihilation" in the book "The Battle for Saigon Tet 1968" by Keith William Nolan. Chapter fourteen in Nolan's book would be dedicated to the battle of "Widows Village. Many lives changed that day and many were lost.

January 31, 1968 left many scars in my mind that will never heal completely and today I know that somewhere in that cemetery in Ho Nai my innocence was buried. The words written by Vietnam Veteran, Poet and Writer, Larry Winters are true, "When a man kills another man, he must dig two graves. One in the earth for the dead man. One in his heart for his own spirit, or he will not return".

At the end of the battle late that day, I walked through the carnage of bodies. I stopped over a dead enemy soldier and leaned over and unsnapped his backpack. Opening the backpack, I found a wallet wrapped in plastic similar to mine. I unfolded the wallet and it revealed a picture of a Beautiful Vietnamese Women, with braided hair and a soft and loving smile. In the arms of the woman was a young child and at my feet was her dead soul mate. I chose to dig a grave in my heart and there I buried my spirit.

I remember as a young boy of twelve, walking a woods road along with my dad, he was my great protector, and nothing could be more comforting. I was beaming with pride carrying my newly purchased shotgun, it was my first squirrel hunt. Yet, I had little understanding of what was about to happen. My dad treed a gray squirrel and I was to shoot it out of the tree, which I did. The animal fell to the ground, wounded and dazed from the shot. Quickly my dad grabbed its tail and with a stick in one hand and the squirrel in the other he hit it on the back of the head. I thought how cruel, I felt alone, filled with grief. The squirrel's nerves quivered and then its body stiffened and went limp as it released my innocence with its death. Those same feelings resurfaced in the cemetery in Ho Nai as I stood over the dead enemy soldier holding the picture of his loved ones.

*Email from Russ

FATS:

Sgt. Russell E. Vibberts, Jr. (Call sign "Panther 33") June 67-68.

I started my tour of duty with B Co 2/47th (Doc Petersen would be proud of me if it were 1st Platoon, but I can't remember) and after about a month transferred to HHC, Recon Scout Platoon until sometime in the September and finished my tour of duty in HHC and S-3 tactical operations. I served in S-3 under Major William Jones, with Spec 4 Robert Dorshimer and Spec 4 Richard Ulhich. On a few occasions I had to deal with OB, Sarge, "the man" you know, "Joe" Robert Oblinger.

Currently, I'm still married after 33 years with three wonderful children (all college graduates) and two wonderful grandsons. I've spent the last 25 years in the insurance business and very involved in my community in politics (Secretary Board of Education) and civic organizations (Past President of the Rotary Club) in addition to continuing my college education.

Additional Writings On My site

For The Future
The Man On The Bus
Tet Offensive Jan.'68
One Day in Nam (for Chuck)

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