(WDVM) — Petty Officer First Class Robert Smith from Kearneysville, West Virginia knew he had no business taking his Patrol Boat River, also known as a PBR, up a narrow canal off the Mekong River in South Vietnam to relieve an outpost that was under attack by the Viet Cong.
“When we were in PBR school at the U.S. Navy assault craft school in Coronado, California we were instructed never to go into a hot canal,” said Smith, “and by hot canal we mean one where we could be ambushed.”
Smith told me he had a gut feeling the Viet Cong would be waiting for him to enter the canal. And he was right despite being ordered to relieve the outpost or face a court martial for refusing to obey an order from a young Navy lieutenant.
“I had my cover boat remain outside the canal while I went in alone, because I didn’t want the VC to get two birds with one stone,” said Smith as he described what happened next.
Creeping in a couple of hundred yards and seeing nothing, Smith turned his heavily-armed patrol boat around and headed back to the river.
“That’s when all Hell broke loose,” he said. “We were hit first with small arms fire and then rocket propelled grenades and machinegun fire.”
As Smith’s boat fought its way out of the kill zone, the Viet Cong fired two RPGs at his patrol boat.The first rocket-propelled grenade hit the port [left] side below the forward gun tub on the boat, blowing off both legs of the gunner’s mate behind a pair of .50 caliber heavy machine guns.
“I saw him go down and die when he bled out,” said Smith, who was blown overboard when a second RPG hit the radome above his head amidship. “The blast blew me over the side into the water. I had a flak jacket on and helmet and went straight to the bottom.”
When Smith struggled to surface, he saw his beloved boat burning along the riverbank. Two other crew mates were fished out of the river by the cover boat’s crew, but the mechanic who manned a single .50 caliber heavy machine gun on the rear of the boat later died of his wounds.
Smith was nominated for a Bronze Star, but the decoration was downgraded to a Navy Commendation Medal.
It didn’t matter to him. “I wasn’t over there to get medals,” said Smith as he stood beside a glass case containing memorabilia from his days as a Brown Water Sailor. “I was over there just to do my time, do the best job I could and get home to my wife and two children.”
After more than 200 combat patrols and endless firefights in the Mekong Delta from 1968 to 1969, Bob Smith went home and finished out his Navy career stateside.
A few years go, Smith wrote a book entitled “Open Wounds,” about his tour of duty in Vietnam, intercepting contraband the Viet Cong was shipping by sampans and junks to its forces in the Saigon area.
The book was appropriately named, because Smith still suffers from some open wounds and recurring nightmares. Smith confided to WDVM he thinks he suffers from PTSD, Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder, but he has never applied for treatment at the nearby VA Medical Center in Martinsburg.
“I think I can handle it,” said Smith as he and his wife showed some letters they wrote to each other while he was gone, “But it’s just something that won’t go away.” One day while they were shopping for groceries, Smith started crying uncontrollably for no reason. “But there had to be a reason,” said Bob, “There had to be.”