By Drew Bergman
On June 8, 1966 Private First Class Avery G. Smith of Russell County was killed in action defending a column of over 150 United States soldiers from a Viet Cong ambush along Highway 13 at Ap Tau O. That road would come to be known as “Thunder Road” for all of the attacks that occurred along its path. Four months later his family was presented with his Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award the United States can bestow, for Avery’s selfless and heroic actions in defense of his column.
Last week we looked back at Avery’s time before the war with his family on the farm. This week we will look at what life was like for Avery during his six months in Vietnam.
Were someone to tell you to close your eyes and picture the Vietnam War many images would certainly come to mind: Huey helicopters flying low over the jungle canopy, dropping platoons of infantrymen off into combat zones; those infantrymen patrolling quiet in the jungle carrying M16s; in the sky A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms fly over endless expanses of green; that green burning red and black with napalm.
Few would immediately picture the cavalry units who worked in constant support of the ground and air forces.
“We supported artillery, we supported transportation, we supported the infantry, we supported the combat engineers. If we weren’t all out, there was at least one of our platoons out,” said Robert Corbin, a maintenance man and M60 operator with the 2nd Platoon, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam.
“Cavalry’s work, armor’s work, wasn’t really thought of until they needed us,” said Richard Keesler, also of the 4th Cavalry Regiment. “We would have security for whomever, the patrols, whatever was needed. When the choppers would bring in the infantry, we’d already be there with a perimeter set up, and we’d set another one up for the infantry when they left.”
Officially nicknamed the “Quarterhorse,” of the “Big Red One,” the 4th Cavalry has been in service since 1855 is one of the most storied forces in the history of the American military.
There, Avery G. Smith of Kentucky met Robert Corbin of Missouri and Richard Keesler of Indiana, two men who would help carry his memory home.
Richard had been the first of the three men to arrive, coming in just around Thanksgiving of 1965, around two weeks before Avery and about two months before Richard.
Richard had trained to be an MP, but as soon as he arrived in Vietnam, he and the men he came over with lined up and the first six of them, Keesler included, were sent over to the armored division.
“I was driving the armored personnel carriers,” Keesler said. “A troop had been in a big battle in the middle of November and they had lost a bunch of vehicles and lost a bunch of men, and I was just a replacement.” Keesler never saw service as an MP, but instead as a gunner manning an M60. His training for that role was on the job.
“They just told us to watch for the tracers, every fifth round was a tracer,” he said. “I knew how to shoot. All farm boys knew how to shoot.”
“I came in during February of ’66,” Corbin said. “One of the reasons I knew Avery was because I was a maintenance man. I was around each platoon with different tanks and different personnel carriers, so I got to know guys a lot more than some of the others did.”
Keesler couldn’t recall how he first met Avery Smith, all he could remember was that Avery was fun and easy-going, “Everybody likes somebody that can smile and laugh,” he said.
Getting to know the other men was something of an issue, even in the earlier years of Vietnam life on the front lines was precarious, so men didn’t get as close and personal to each other. “I’ve talked to some of the other guys in the platoon and they just don’t remember him,” Corbin said. “Most of the guys we either knew by their last name or a nickname. Keesler called me up once and asked if I knew him.”
Corbin sat on the phone fumbling through his memory until Keesler offered a clue, “Whiskey.”
“All of a sudden I placed him,” Corbin said.
“They called me ‘Whiskey,’ because of my last name. Evidently there’s a whiskey, the Kessler Whiskey,” Keesler said. “They didn’t know me, but they know my face and they know my nickname.”
The three men were stationed together at the Phu Loi Base Camp just north of Saigon, but with the nature of the war, they were hardly at base camp. “I think I spent maybe eight or nine days total at Phu Loi,” Corbin said. The rest of the time he was out on one mission or other.
Even when they were given assignments at base, such as pouring concrete for the maintenance areas, oftentimes they would have to leave the job for someone else to finish while they went back out into the bush again and again, Corbin and Kessler in armored personnel carriers, Avery Smith in a tank.
“You had four men in a tank crew,” Keesler explained. “There’s a tank commander, and a gunner, a loader, and a driver. And between the four of them there’s not a whole lot of room. On top of that you have all those rounds that a tank uses. They shells are packed around the inside edge, and they’ll tell the loader what they want, whether it’s a high explosive or a shaped charge. If you’re in the tank and shooting a bunch of rounds you also have the empty shells all around inside.”
Avery Smith worked as a loader. “As little room as there was in a personnel carrier, there was even less in the tanks. They would have had to put grease on me and used a shoehorn to get me in that drive’s hatch now,” Keesler said. “Avery, there was nothing to him, he was all skin and bones.”
When they weren’t acting in direct support of other units, they still had their own missions to accomplish. “A lot of times we were sent on search-and-destroy missions,” Corbin said, “because we were fast and could get in and get right back out.” Other times they were sent in to clear out villages.
“Those villages, we’d go in and try to get the Viet Cong out,” Corbin said. “When we did have to clear a village, we’d set the perimeter around it and engineers would come in and move the whole village out into a camp or other area. The engineers would then come back in with bulldozers and push the whole village down.”
The Vietnam War didn’t operate like wars before in Europe or in Asia, where armies held towns and battle lines and secured territory. Towns and villages and hills and creeks and rivers had to be taken and taken again.
And unlike the infantry who could move quietly through the jungle, the cavalry could always be heard coming.
“Sometimes I’d have rather been walking,” Corbin said. “You don’t sneak up on anybody, but they do sneak up on us with 500-pound bombs in the middle of the road.”
When they set up a place to sleep at night, the men slept on and around their tanks or personnel carriers in between guard shifts which ran two hours on and four hours off.
“Sometimes out on patrol, it would be Avery from the tank, me and then someone else from another personnel carrier, but you couldn’t talk to each other. We knew who was on duty with us, but that was about it.”
Back at camp, when they were back at camp, there was the opportunity to mingle, “but you didn’t really mingle,” Corbin said. “You didn’t make real good friends because you might lose him the next day. People really didn’t get close. It’s one thing to lose someone you know, but to lose someone you get real close to.”
“The only people that you got close to,” Keesler said, “were the guys on your track or your tank. The others were acquaintances. When we would come back to base camp it would only be for a couple days. We were supposed to get rest there, but our rest was to guard the perimeter and service our vehicles. We didn’t have time to get together, that I know of. I didn’t have any money, so I didn’t go to the beer hall. The mess hall was up there, but I wouldn’t eat there because I got sick every time I ate there.”
Instead Keesler, and many others, subsisted off C-rations leftover from World War II. “We liked the pecan rolls and the fruit cocktails and the ham and lima beans, but the beefsteak and potatoes, though it sounds great, you’d have to be starving.”
Elsewhere in the camp, other men found their way to the beer hall. One of their chief sources of fun was an orphaned monkey called Charlie that they adopted. Charlie was a fan of food and perhaps a bigger one of beer. He had a particular fondness for Robert and Avery and anyone else who would feed him or let him have a cold one.
“Charlie loved his beer, and we had a sergeant who had this little black and white dog that would roam. Charlie would get a drink and jump down on that dog, grab his collar and off they would go with Charlie riding him like a horse,” Robert said. Charlie was also known to hang out and sun by Robert’s M60, at least until the first shot was fired.
“He would take off and you wouldn’t see any of him until after it was over.” He was a small monkey when he first came to the camp and grew up around the soldiers stationed at Phu Loi. “I don’t know whatever happened to him. When I left he was still there.”
The downtime excursions were few and far between as most of the time spent in camp was spent repairing and refitting the armored vehicles. They spent a lot of time on Highways 1 and 13 on their patrols and in and around the Iron Triangle between the Saigon River, the Tinh River and Highway 13.
Around the end of May 1966, Richard Keesler drew leave time in Bangkok, Thailand. He had no money of his own, everything he had he would send home to his family. He also had no real use for money in Vietnam so, when he drew the R&R, he had nothing to carry him over.
“Avery said, ‘Hey, how much do you need, do you want $300?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, that would be great.’ He told me I could just pay him when I got back,” just that easily Avery made sure his buddy could enjoy his break. “He was just the kind of guy that would do anything he could for you. There was no selfishness in him. He wouldn’t think about making a sacrifice, it just came natural. It was a matter of ‘this person needs this.’ He would give without thinking.”
When he got back from Bangkok on or about June 7, 1966, Keesler’s money had come in from home and he paid Avery back as the company was getting ready to go out on their next mission.
Next week we will look at the events of June 8, 1966.