The morning air’s temperature climbed with the rising Vietnamese sun.
With his rifle within hand’s reach, Sgt. Arnold Altaffer looked up from his letter home to scan the horizon. To the east, rice paddies dominated the landscape. To the south, the terrain turned rough.
Again, Altaffer paused his letter to scan.
An enemy patrol emerged from the rice paddy.
Paper and pen fell away as Altaffer grabbed his rifle, took aim and shot the enemy point man.
“Being the point man for the point platoon and the guy that had shot (the enemy soldier),” he said, “I was terrified they were going ask me to go in there after the rest of them.”
While setting up the outpost, Altaffer noticed “thousands of Ho Chi Mihn slipper tracks” on the road. He believed the rice paddy was an ambush, he said.
He only had a month in Vietnam under his belt, but his “ol’ country boy instincts” told him pursuit was a bad idea.
Ignoring Altaffer’s intuition, the company’s commander sent a patrol into the rice paddy, but he didn’t make Altaffer join them.
“They lasted about three or four minutes before they were all dead,” Altaffer said.
His commander responded by calling in air support. Helicopters flew in and rained fire on the hidden enemy.
“(The enemy) was running out of there,” he said, “and I was shooting at them, and they were shooting at me.”
After the firefight, the commander led a patrol into the rice paddy. Another quick battle ensued, but the patrol was overwhelmed.
“It was really odd,” he remembered. “(The enemy) came down and rifle butted the commander a few times, then cut the handset off the radio and left (the patrol) alive.”
It was February 1968, and the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive had begun.
Born in Gillette, Wyoming, Altaffer, 68, grew up with three brothers and a sister on a ranch northeast of Moorcroft.
After high school, he left the ranch to drive a hot oil truck in the oil fields.
“Undoubtedly, I was the youngest operator they ever had,” he boasted pushing his wire-rim glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. “It wasn’t something they would turn anybody loose with.”
Before he was drafted in July 1967, two of his older brothers joined the military. The oldest, Loren, joined the Army during the Korean War, but wasn’t deployed. And, the younger, Richard, made the Air Force his career.
While working in Linch, Wyoming, he received his draft notice.
“I was a ground pounder,” Altaffer said using the Army’s slang for infantrymen.
After basic training, he took leave to go home before deploying to Vietnam. And, at a New Year’s Eve dance in Hulett, Wyoming, he met his future bride, Penny.
On New Year’s Day, Altaffer boarded an airplane bound for Vietnam.
The Tet learning curve
“It was the best thing to happen to me over there,” he said from beneath a neatly trimmed, white mustache.
After watching his unit, complacent from months of mostly inactive road duty, get torn apart in the rice paddy, he was on high alert for the remainder of his tour.
“The learning curve was pretty steep when the Tet opened,” he said.
His superiors were quick to recognize his leadership qualities, and it wasn’t long before he was appointed a squad leader in Alpha Company of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 16th Regiment.
“Unless we were in a firefight,” he said, “I didn’t run around shouting orders. I just said, ‘Hey, this needs to be done.’”
Despite his position of command, he continued to spearhead his squad’s patrol formations.
“I walked point for like nine months,” he said. “I was reluctant to give it over when I got short.”
Looking for Charles
Spring brought with it Rodney Stevens, a replacement radio operator for Altaffer’s unit.
“I carried the radio for ol’ Arnie,” Stevens said with a drawl. “He was a farm boy, or ranch boy, whatever y’all call ‘em up there. And, I was a farm boy. We got on just great.”
Stevens remembered Altaffer as a capable outdoorsmen, astute leader and unrepentant funny man.
“He always had a joke,” he said.
At one point, the squad was flown in to reinforce another unit. Altaffer’s helicopter landed first to clear the landing zone for the rest of the reinforcements, but none came. Stevens said Altaffer checked the map and realized the pilot left them at the wrong location. After radioing command, they were told to hike to the rendezvous.
The territory was unknown, and everyone was on their toes. Eventually, they approached a village, and Altaffer decided to go through it rather than around, Stevens said.
“Arnie told us to keep walking and smiling,” he added. “We came up to this one hut, and Arnie knocked on the door. When mama san answered, he asked if Charles was home.
“I said, ‘Arnie what are you doing?’ But he just laughed, and told me to keep smiling.”
At another hut, Altaffer attempted to sell the inhabitants a vacuum cleaner, Stevens recalled. They made it through the village without incident and hooked up with their unit late, but none the worse for wear.
As Altaffer’s tour got “short,” his superiors offered him a promotion to tell them he would consider reenlisting. He turned it down. They emphasized he need only say he would consider it.
“I told them, ‘I haven’t ever lied to you, and I won’t start now,’” he said.
Looking back, he said he probably should’ve lied and taken the money.
Nearly a year to the day, Altaffer returned home on New Year’s Eve. His family threw a little party, and he considered his future. In letters, his soon-to-be wife and another friend encouraged him to attend the University of Wyoming.
“If it wasn’t for the G.I. Bill, I might not have gone,” he said.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance, and went to work for Farm Credit Services as an appraiser.
Penny became Mrs. Altaffer, and together they had two children.
The war still wakes Altaffer up in the middle of the night at times, but he refuses to let it control his life.
“I have never tried to hide behind the war,” he explained. “When I got home, I realized you just have to get up and get out there.”