Topeka Army veteran fought, ate, lived with South Vietnamese troops
More than 40 years after the Vietnam War ended, veteran Bob Dalton doesn’t know whether the South Vietnamese army troops he fought with — including his best friend — survived the war.
Does he wonder what happened to them?
“Absolutely,” Dalton, 73, said this week. “I have no way of knowing.” Dalton was in his 20s when he last saw infantry officers Maj. Nguyen Nhung and Lt. Nguyen Nam, the best friend.
“I don’t know what happened to my friends,” Dalton said. “I assume they were killed. I don’t know.”
Dalton, of Topeka, has read that some South Vietnamese troops were executed when the war ended in April 1975. Others were placed in “retraining camps,” which were concentration camps, and others were restricted to working in menial labor in post-war Vietnam. Still others may have moved to the United States after confinement for 15 years.
Dalton enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968 after a friend of his from Independence Junior College was killed by an enemy Claymore mine.
“I read his obituary in the Independence (Kan.) newspaper,” Dalton said. “I said, ‘It’s time to join.’ ”
Civilian to soldier
Born in Independence, Dalton graduated from Independence High School and attended the junior college for a year before he transferred to Utah State University. He graduated in 1965 with a degree in conservation and wildlife and worked at the university lab before he enlisted.
After graduating from Officers Candidate School, Lt. Dalton was a mortar platoon leader at Fort Carson, Colo., for five months. “Vietnamization” started to shift the fighting to South Vietnamese troops as American troops were withdrawn from the war.
Dalton underwent training to become an adviser to a battalion in the South Vietnamese army’s 25th division.
From 1969 to 1970, Dalton was a 25-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant who was in Combat Assistance Team 99, a four-member unit. The team commander was a major or captain and other members were a lieutenant, a sergeant and a radio-telephone operator.
“We ate what the Vietnamese ate,” Dalton said, including rat, cat, dog and cobra. “I was trained in the (Vietnamese) language.”
When he met the Vietnamese major, “I greeted him in Vietnamese. Maj. Nhung just beamed and he came to me and shook my hand,” Dalton said.
The title “adviser” was something of a misnomer because the South Vietnamese troops Dalton fought with in the 25th Division were well trained and had been fighting for 25 years. They knew what they were doing, Dalton said.
“I didn’t advise them,” Dalton said of the 4th battalion of the 46th Regiment. Rather, his job was to patrol with the South Vietnamese troops, then act as a liaison to call in American air strikes, helicopter gunships and artillery fire on enemy troops. They also radioed for medevac choppers to airlift out the wounded.
Dalton thought highly of the South Vietnamese troops he served with.
“They were great troops,” Dalton said. “They respected Americans.”
Lt. Nguyen Nam, his best friend, “would lead from the front,” Dalton said. “He was a gutsy combat soldier.”
Dalton recalled when he and Nam were taking a break in a village called Cho Nui.
Dalton glanced at a small 16-year-old Vietnamese fisherman walking past them, and Nam poked Dalton in the ribs, motioned to the fisherman and said, “North Vietnamese.” Nam ordered some South Vietnamese troops to retrieve the youth.
The teen fisherman turned out to be a 24-year-old North Vietnamese Army lieutenant, who was a sapper, Dalton said. The sapper was scouting the village for a potential attack.
What tipped off Nam?
Nam noticed the sapper had a military haircut, and Nam hadn’t seen him in the village before, Dalton said.
American troops invaded neighboring Cambodia in May 1970, but Dalton’s unit and some long-range reconnaissance units were in Cambodia the month before. American B-52s bombed the area.
“Those B-52s were hell on the enemy,” Dalton said. “They would leave a crater 30 feet deep and about 30 feet wide.”
“The baddest guys out there were the (U.S.) Navy Seawolves,” Dalton said, referring to the gunships armed with 50-caliber machine guns and rockets packed with flechettes, tiny darts.
“They would monitor our radio waves,” then come to our aid, Dalton said. “They were the bravest. They were always there: ‘We’re about three minutes out and we’re coming in.’ They saved our bacon so many times.”
Dalton has some vivid memories of animals in Vietnam. Before his tour, he had studied animals in Vietnam, but he missed the saltwater crocodile. In the field, he was taking a brief bath in a water-filled shell hole.
“I put my rifle up, jumped in and as soon as I got in there with my bar of soap, (the crocodile) popped up and was looking right at me,” Dalton said. “It was not a big one, but it scared the hell out of both of us. I did not know it was there.” Dalton leaped from the shell hole and lobbed a grenade in the water, but the crocodile had already fled.
In troop bunkers, soldiers kept a Burmese python, a constrictor, to eat the rats infesting the quarters. Dalton recalls waking to find a cobra — a venomous snake — curled next to him to stay warm.
“It was spooning with me,” Dalton said. “We ate the cobra for breakfast the next day.”
Dalton carried a 35mm camera in a canteen pouch to take photographs.
In one, he is in a helicopter which is firing machine guns at enemy ground troops. In the upper half of the photo, water spouts are kicking up from machine gun rounds fired into a small stream about 75 feet below the chopper.
Only much later, Dalton noticed an enemy soldier hiding under the clear water in the photo’s foreground.
Another photo shows three enemy Viet Cong soldiers in custody, two of them women and one wounded man.
The male soldier had been rigging a decades-old World War II-era grenade as a bobby trap when it exploded, blowing off one hand, shredding fingers on the other hand and striking an upper leg.
Dalton aided the wounded soldier.
During the war, Dalton received the Bronze Star, the Air Medal for more than 20 combat insertions, the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star. Why did he receive the Cross of Gallantry?
Dalton and Nam “were facing a machine gun, and we took it out,” Dalton said simply.
After the fall
The Vietnam War ended in April 1975 when the North Vietnamese army overran South Vietnam.
Dalton said South Vietnam was betrayed when the United States broke the Paris treaty and didn’t provide support and supplies to the South Vietnamese military to continue fighting as promised.
In short, the U.S. Senate “defunded” the war, Dalton said.
“We lost the war we never lost (before),” Dalton said. “We lost it politically, not in arms. If you don’t plan to be victorious, don’t get into it.”
The victors bull-dozed the South Vietnamese soldier cemeteries, which was devastating, Dalton said. In the predominantly Buddhist South Vietnam, a big emphasis is placed on ancestors, Dalton said.
“The North Vietnamese bulldozed all the soldiers’ cemeteries. It was (done) to destroy their ancestors,” Dalton said.
The return home
After returning from Vietnam and three years in the army, Dalton joined the National Guard in 1973 and retired as a colonel in 1999 with 29 years in the service. He was the Army National Guard chief of staff for Gen. Jim Rueger in the Kansas National Guard and was inducted into the Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Ga.