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Eastern Panhandle veteran shares tales of Vietnam

By Staff | Dec 19, 2018

U.S. Navy veteran Robert W. Smith shares stories from his book, "Open Wounds," at a signing event at South Jefferson Public Library on Sunday. Photo by Toni Milbourne.

SUMMIT POINT — Robert W. Smith retired from the U.S. Navy in 1977, after serving his country from 20 years. Following his retirement, he went on to serve as a U.S. Capitol policeman for 16 additional years.

On Sunday, he shared the story of his Vietnam experience to attendees at South Jefferson Public Library in Summit Point. The veteran has completed work on his memoirs, with the assistance of his son-in-law, Peter Morneault, and the two previewed the book at a signing event.

“Without Joyce [Smith’s wife], this book would not have happened. She kept every letter I wrote her,” Smith said, as he showed a shoebox filled with handwritten envelopes.

“We made a deal when I left that I would tell her everything, no matter how bad it might be,” Smith said. “That’s what I did in these letters.”

According to Smith, he had initially not been in favor of writing the book, “Open Wounds,” but Morneault encouraged him to consider the idea.

“On July 28, 2017, I was reading the local paper, having my coffee and I noticed the date,” Smith said. “That’s the day I arrived in Vietnam in 1967. So, I thought I’d go ahead and have Peter help me with a book.”

Smith told attendees that he was stationed in Norfolk in 1967, intending to serve two years there. To his surprise, he was selected – “nominated” he told Joyce — to go to Vietnam.

Securing his wife and young son with her parents in northern Virginia, Smith said he recalls the family dropping him at Dulles Airport.

“I fought like crazy to not cry,” Smith said. “I got on the plane and could see my son bouncing around in his little red hat, like three-year-olds do. Taxiing down the runway, I lost it.”

Smith would face 15 months of separation from his wife and young son, and miss the birth of his second child, daughter, Cathy.

During the event, Smith shared stories of training he received in California and Washington before heading out of country. The training consisted of language lessons and SERE training (survival-evasion-persistence-escape).

“That SERE training was designed for pilots who could be shot down and placed under questioning by the Viet Cong,” Smith said. He shared stories of tactics used to tempt the soldiers in training to crack under pressure including being locked in confining boxes, having cold water poured over them and being interrogated and threatened in efforts to make them say anything other than name, rank and serial number.

Once training was complete, Smith landed in Vietnam where he served on a Patrol Boat River, a fiberglass boat, 37 feet-long and seven-and-a-half-feet-wide, fully armed with machine guns and other weapons.

“My position was River Division 532, 70 miles from Saigon,” Smith said. I was stationed at My Tho (pronounced mee-toe) and traversed the rivers in the lowlands of Vietnam.

“We would check water travelers to make sure their IDs were correct and their papers up to date,” Smith said, mentioning they faced fire from Viet Cong operatives along the river banks.

“My forward gunny was shot three times by snipers,” Smith told. “The last time, he lost an eye. He’s still alive, but he has a false eye.”

Smith shared one story where he was ordered to travel into a canal, something he said he knew he should not be doing.

“That junior grade Navy lieutenant ordered me,” Smith said. “I told him I wasn’t going. He threatened me with court martial. I went.”

Smith told that his boat traveled into the canal approximately 300 yards but saw nothing. After turning to head back out, his boat was attached by artillery fire as well as a B40 rocket.

“That B40 rocket hit the forward gunman and took his legs off. I reached down to pick up something when another B40 blew me over the side into the water. The current took me out and cover boat picked me up,” Smith said. “Three days later I was back on the river.”

“I hope you read and learn things,” Smith said of his book. “Americans had no idea we [Navy sailors] were even in those boats.”

“It’s not a war book,” Morneault said. “It’s a book about a man’s struggles to keep everything together while dealing with moral dilemmas. The central theme is ‘I just want to get home.'”