I’ve known Bob Dalton for quite some time. He is a soft-spoken, handsome man with an honest face and, if there was more of it, he has the kind of silver hair that younger men would die for. Bob is also a gentleman, top to toe. Originally from Independence, Kansas—a school mate of famed TV journalist, Bill Kurtis—Bob now calls the capital of Kansas his home. I met with Bob one hot, humid evening at the Blind Tiger brew pub in Topeka.
Tom: When did you first arrive in Vietnam?
Bob: I left the states on Halloween of ’69. I went from language school at Fort Bliss, Texas, straight over to Vietnam. Arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon a few days later.
Tom: So, you speak Vietnamese?
Bob: Not now [laughter]. But yes, back then I could get along with the villagers.
Tom: It already sounds like you were a cut above the average troop who hit the tarmac there. What was your function?
Bob (right): Combat support. We’d be in the field and call in support . . . Cobra gunships, Huey gunships, artillery, they would go through us . . . medevacs for the wounded, that sort of stuff. We were a four-man advisory team assigned to a Vietnamese battalion of infantry . . . usually a major, a lieutenant, sergeant, and an RTO. Our job was to turn the fight back over to the Vietnamese.
Tom: So, this is after Tet, and the US is now into “Vietnamization.” Right?
Bob: Yeah [pause]. Well, the issue with Tet . . . it was our greatest victory, but it was turned into a political defeat that got us out of there. We had blown the VC back into the stone age and . . . and that was also the turning point that brought about the final outcome.
You bathe when you can; you don’t get naked, you just take your bar of soap and scrub your clothes and everything, that’s how you wash your clothes, too. I found a shell crater where the tidal water was spilling in and making a pool and I slid in and started washing when, just like a submarine, these eyes and the end of a snout rose above the water. Nobody told me there were crocodiles! He was only 5 or 6 feet long but for a minute we both splashed nearly all the water from the crater trying to get out. . . . I think he was as startled as I was [laughter].
Tom: How long were you there before you met Charlie?
Bob: Three days. They dropped me down, I shook hands with the major and he said, “Come on, we’ve got some action.” It was a small firefight. They caught some VC in a cemetery who were dug in.
Tom: Fort Apache. Welcome to the Wild West.
Bob: Yeah . . . I don’t want to sound too trite here but a lot of it was cowboy and Indian stuff. It was small units against small units, and at night. We got most of our kills at night . . . setting up ambushes on the riverways. If anybody was moving at night that wasn’t you, it was them.
Tom: What were your thoughts during that first fight?
Bob: Well, you don’t really realize that you are in a war until you see your first . . . I mean, until you see the guy on the ground dying; then you realize, “yep, this is war.” You don’t recognize it from a distance or even 50 feet away. But at your feet, it’s real. I didn’t fire a round in that first fight.
We didn’t have MREs. We lived on the “economy of the land,” as they say. In other words, we lost a lot of weight. We ate fish heads, chicken heads, duck heads. . . . See, I’ve eaten some strange things. I’ve eaten dogs, cats, rats . . . . Dog is better than cat. We were out in the Mekong Delta, about fifty of us. There was water and swamp everywhere. When we finally pulled up I found this mud foundation of an old hooch, then crawled in and went to sleep. There was a moon out. When I woke up, this Vietnamese guard yelled out, “Rang Ho, Rang Ho,” and he came down and really busted me hard on the shoulder with his rifle. But he eventually got what he was after. The “Rang Ho” was a five or six foot long cobra. He had just snuggled up against me. It can get cold in the jungle at night. Had I rolled over, or had that guy not seen it, that would have been really bad. I’ve seen a man die from a cobra bite, and it’s not good. It took about 30 minutes and his eyes were rolling around. He was asphyxiated. Well anyway, that cobra the guard killed? We ate him for breakfast.
Tom: How did you deal with combat, or, rather, how did you cope with death?
Bob: [pause] I had this . . . let’s call it the “switch.”
Tom: The “switch?”
Bob: Yeah, you know, when I realized, “Hey, this is your third day out and you’re already in it” . . . the switch . . . just the switch. . . that they were things [pause] . . . and, let me tell you, you can get pretty cold about . . . them. . . . You needed a switch.
Tom: When were you most concerned? When was it that you thought, “Hey Toto, we may not make it back to Kansas this trip?”
Bob: Well, I’ll tell you . . . if you don’t care, you’re better off [silence].
Tom: So you didn’t care?
Bob: Yeah . . . it’s just bizarre. One night I had a nightmare—we were going out on air mobile ops the next day and, you know, in my dream I just saw this big flash . . . just this big flash, and I figured, “I’m dead.” So early next morning I put all my stuff neatly away, cleaned up my wall locker . . . and for some reason I thought I was going out there to die. And so we were all lined up on the pad, waiting for the slicks to pick us up, and I was on the radio talking to the pilot and he says,”We’ve been diverted . . . we’re picking up a unit over here about ten klicks away.” We monitored that flight and . . . the helicopter I should have been on tripped a wire at the LZ and was blown to bits. So, ah, that was just weird. . . . Had to be a coincidence. I don’t believe in telepathy. That was the one time I thought I was going to die. . . .
Tom: Just the one time?
Bob: Only once.
Tom: Were you wounded?
Bob: Well, I don’t have a purple heart, but I do have this [holds out his hand]. The only scar I brought from Vietnam is this tooth mark right there where this sergeant on our team went nuts, went bananas, and they took him away in a straight-jacket. He was a three-year man; he wouldn’t go home, and he just went nuts.
The bridges are very small in the boonies, very narrow, and sometimes they are very, very old. I was six foot something, wore a size 13 boot, 195 pounds, plus another 35 pounds with radio equipment. And so I sometimes broke these bridges while leading my men across. Those people were small; a man might only weigh 90 pounds. And so I kept breaking these bridges and actually broke two in one day. Finally, this friend of mine, a Vietnamese lieutenant, recommended that I be the last to cross when we came to a bridge. My men were very happy when I agreed to go last or just wade across when I could. The Vietnamese were awed by the size of my boots. One night, they were stolen. It must have been for the novelty because no one could have worn them.
Tom: So, you did one tour?
Tom: You arrived stateside, October, ’70?
Bob: Yes. In 1973 I joined the Kansas National Guard. I became a member of the full-time staff in ’78. . . . You know, some people say the Kansas National Guard wasn’t used. Well, that’s wrong. We had 41 dead in Vietnam.
Tom: Yes, I know. I had some friends in the 69th and I can guarantee you that they were “used.”
Bob: Right. They were at Fort Carson, Colorado, before they shipped.
Bob: Not many people remember this.
Tom: I know what I was thinking when I saw those tanks crash through the gates of the presidential palace. What were your thoughts when you saw the fall of Saigon on TV?
Bob: That really hurt. . . . That hurt so deeply. That was the toughest part. I got close to the Vietnamese. I had great respect for them. I could just assume until 1975 that they were alright. Then, when the country fell that year, it hit me that my [Vietnamese] division . . . that they were the last to go. After Saigon, they were still fighting in the Delta. Yeah, so you see, I lost. . . . [pause].
Tom: You probably have faces right now in your head.
Bob: Sure. I even have pictures of some of them. . . . You know, it was a common saying, even before the country fell, every GI you talked to would say, “We were winning while I was there.” No matter what: “We were winning when I was there.” We never lost a battle. Never lost a battle. But we lost the war.
Tom: If you had to describe your tour in five words or less, what would you say?
Bob: A lifetime in a year.
Tom: What are you up to now?
Bob: I retired in January of ’99 as a colonel, chief of staff, in the KNG. Now, I’m secretary/treasurer of the 35th Division Association of World War II.
(Bob Dalton is a published author who is currently working on a novel about the post-Civil War period in the American West. He enjoys biking and shooting black powder weapons. He and his wife, Jennie, have remained together for thirty years. They have two daughters. Bob is also a distant relative of the Daltons–as in “The Dalton Gang.”)