“I spent a year and thirteen days of being afraid in Vietnam,” said Frank Schroder of Gillette.
Schroder could have used the Sole Survivor Policy to avoid serving in Vietnam as he was an only son and an only child and was exempt, according to this policy. But he didn’t take advantage of it.
He graduated from high school in South Dakota in 1964. He then trained as a mechanic in Denver. In 1967, he was drafted and completed his basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, then went on to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for helicopter maintenance training. After a 30-day leave, he left Oakland, California by plane for a series of flights that finally ended in Long Binh, Vietnam. When he arrived, he saw men sitting behind a fenced area on bleachers. They were on their way home. Schroder had just arrived.
Some 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the Tet Offensive (named for the lunar New Year holiday called Tet) on Jan. 31, 1968. This effort was a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. After Tet, both sides had great losses while both claimed victory.
During 1968, the U.S. lost 15,000 soldiers. America and the military grew weary of this conflict. For the Americans serving in Vietnam, life was more dangerous than ever.
Immediately after Tet, SP5 Frank Schroder arrived at the replacement center at Long Binh, Vietnam, near Saigon in Feb. 1968.
Initially, Schroder was ordered to serve on guard duty at Phu Loi with the 539th Transportation Company, even though that was not his military occupational specialty. He refused but was required to complete a month and a half as a perimeter guard.
“When I was on guard duty, there was a large group [of Viet Cong] and they were trying to get through. They were headed to Saigon. We knew they were out there,” recalled Schroder. “We started hitting them with air and ground artillery. They [the military] dropped tear gas to keep them away. Then they brought in some jets that dropped something. The Hueys went in and dropped more. At the same time, it blew in and we knew to get our gas masks on. We found only 30 bodies. The enemy was good at dragging the dead away. Our government required proof of kill, so if you saw bodies you were supposed to multiply by two.”
Leaving for Darkhorse
After a month and a half, he and some other soldiers were loaded into a 6 x 6 military truck and were transported to their permanent base at Phu Loi, called Darkhorse, some 25 miles north of Saigon. The air was stifling. The temperature was over 100 degrees while the humidity fluctuated to nearly 100 percent. This base had seen fierce fighting during the Tet Offensive.
Crew chief on a Huey
At Phu Loi, Schroder’s assignment was crew chief/gunner on a Huey helicopter with the 539th Transportation Company, the Hexmates, a part of the lead group of the 520th Transportation Battalion. This helicopter is easily recognized as it became a symbol of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The Huey was used for air assault, cargo transport, medical evacuation, search and rescue, electronic warfare, troop transport and later, ground attack.
For six months as crew chief/gunner, he manned a machine gun and flew into the jungle carrying troops to the the landing zone for patrol.
“The closer the mission got the more afraid you became,” Schroder said. “Five Huey gunships gave you cover as you dropped down into the smoke and left the troops on the ground. There were five of us [helicopters] at a time. We rotated the location of the ships so the danger was distributed. It was dangerous going in and coming out. Going in wasn’t good for anyone. Being in the back was the worst position; there was nothing behind you, so no protection”.
Serving on commander’s ship
After six months as a crew chief/gunner, he was transferred and served on his commander’s ship. “It was one of the best jobs I ever had. We were further away from combat. However, there were some flights that should have never happened.”
“One day we flew with an old warrant officer and major to Vung Tao, Vietnam. They were older and neglected to find out what was going on around them. All of a sudden the gunner calls in and says, ‘What’s going on? Look below us.’ We flew right through an artillery strike,” Schroder said. “Another time we had U.S. fighter jets fly through us. Those men should not have been flying. However, there were many other times that we had really good pilots.”
“Another day, we flew into Long Binh because these two officers — one a new warrant officer — had a meeting. When we got ready to leave, this young pilot picked up the ship, and it slid. The bottom of the skid had caught on the side of the runway and picked it up. He kept trying to lift up the copter, and he’s caught the side of a runway made of steel mats,” Schroder said. “A helicopter hits pretty hard when you go down straight, but the pilot came down, tilted on one skid and it collapsed. The impact threw my gunner out on the ground. He should have stayed there because the copter rolled to one side. Instead, he got up and took off running. The rotor barely missed his head by that much [inches]. The copter then rolled on its other side. I thought about jumping but didn’t. That was a brand new helicopter, and we destroyed it. No combat or nothing, and it was wrecked. … We had a group assigned to us called Pipesmoke. It was a Chinook recovery unit that completed recovery of equipment and remains. They gave us a free ride home.”
Good and bad memories of Vietnam
Today, he tears up as some memories are only his to remember.
When asked if he had any positive recollections, Frank produced a letter he sent to his parents in Dec. 1968.
It’s two days after Christmas. I hope you had a very happy one. I was surprised at ours here. I didn’t think it would be worth a darn because I was so far from home.
The company brought in all of the house girls and Vietnamese workers to have dinner with us. That made Christmas for me. We all had dinner in the mess hall just like we were one big family.
You should have seen them when they came in the mess hall. They looked big-eyed like they have never seen so much food in their lives. While we were eating, Santa Claus came in and gave each child a toy. I have never seen a happier bunch of kids anywhere.
Everyone was happy — the kids, the old people and every GI. It wasn’t as good as being at home, but it was something I will remember for a long, long time. I found out what Christmas is all about. The smile on the faces of those kids was more than I could have hoped for. For the first time since I’ve been here, I felt we were doing something good. I will stop here because I can’t express on paper what I felt. Sometime when I am home I will tell you more about it.
For Frank Schroder, “I spent a year and 13 days of being afraid in Vietnam. It’s true.”