Letters tell of war experience 50 years ago

Friday, April 6, 2018

“Vietnam turned boys into men”

In April 2018, these letters are 50 years old, and I felt the need to publish them in surrounding towns in the immediate area.

Over 58,000 men were lost in Vietnam.

My parents saved all of my letters, and now it is my privilege to print them date-by-date 50 years later.

Richard Strobel was 19 when he was drafted into the United States Army on Aug. 31, 1967. The war in Vietnam was raging, and protests in America against the war were building.

Strobel and his parents, Leo and Cornelia, and younger brother, Bruce, had moved to this area in 1957, and he had enjoyed life on the farm southeast of Concordia. When he graduated from Concordia High School in May 1965, he said he “kind of knew I would end up on the farm.”

Two years later, Uncle Sam had more immediate need of his services, and Strobel’s experiences over the next 20 months helped shape the rest of his life. The youth said goodbye to his parents and brother, and left for eight weeks of basic infantry training in Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri.

After basic, Strobel’s advanced infantry training was in Fort Lewis, Wash. His first plane ride was on a propeller-driven aircraft from Fort Leonard Wood to St. Louis. From there, he and the 11 other men in his charge flew to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

During the two or three hour layover, Strobel introduced himself to an elderly gentleman who was reading a novel while waiting for a flight.

“He was wearing a white suit, with a black string tie. He had a black cane with a silver tip, and had a white mustache and goatee. I remember he put down his book and we sat and talked. He seemed to really be interested in me,” Strobel recalled.

It was Col. Harland Sanders, the man who, at the age of 62, started the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain in l952.

Strobel was trained for an 81 mm mortar squad during his first six weeks of AIT. On Dec. 15, he left by train for home.

“It took 52 hours and cost $52. It was my first and last time on a train,” Strobel noted.

After the holiday, Strobel returned for Fort Lewis for two more weeks of advanced infantry training. By then, it was pretty clear that he was going to Vietnam.

“The 9th Infantry Division was being established as a new unit headed for Vietnam. We had all new jeeps, rifles, equipment—everything was new. The scary thing about it was that all of the men in the division were new ,too. We were totally green,” Strobel said.

On March 12, Strobel came home for a two-week leave before returning to Fort Lewis on March 29. On April 4, Strobel recalled, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Strobel’s unit left Fort Lewis by plane on April 6, and they arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon on April 7, Easter Sunday.

The 9th Infantry was based out of Saigon, through which the Mekong River runs on its way to the South China Sea. The division’s assignment was to patrol the Mekong Delta in about a 50-mile radius around Saigon.

Strobel was the mortar squad’s gunner—the man who feeds the rounds into the mortar. The squad included a forward observer who would be in a position to see the enemy. He would radio the fire direction center at the base camp with instructions on where to place the shells. The fire direction center would then radio the mortar squad with the directions for the next shell.

“The delta is all rice paddies, no hill country. I think April, May and June were the dry period, there would be cracks in the rice paddies. The other nine months were wet.

“Then it was really muddy, a different kind of mud than we have around here. We could be in mud up to our waist — you did not want to put your feet together or you might not be able to move. When it was too muddy to support the base plate for the mortar, then we would be turned into plain old riflemen,” Strobel explained.

“Our feet seldom dried out during the wet season. I wore one pair of boots for nine months, the longest of anyone. They were coming apart when they made me get new ones.

“We would sleep on air mattresses in the rice paddies. I’d go to sleep on dirt, the tide would come in, and I’d wake up floating on the water.

“You got used to being wet all the time. When you got off guard duty, you’d just lay down and go to sleep on the ground with your clothes on. When you got up, in five seconds you were ready to go.

“You can learn to sleep under bad conditions. . . you learn to adjust to whatever the situation dictates. It really didn’t hurt anyone to sleep in dirty clothes,” Strobel said.

There were 28 to 30 soldiers in a platoon, and 4-5 platoons in a company. It was usually a company of multiple platoons that went on patrols searching for the enemy. If they moved by helicopter, they would load eight to 10 men in a heli-