By the time Tom Block arrived in Vietnam in 1967 he was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army with time spent learning to be an Army Ranger, Senior Parachutist and a Pathfinder. He graduated from college a decade earlier with a degree in accounting. He also received his ROTC 2nd lieutenant bars at the same time he got out of school.
In his first overseas assignment Block was a company commander and first lieutenant with an outfit in Korea in 1960. He spent 14 months there as a “Cold War” warrior.
He returned to Fort Benning, Ga. and joined the 82nd Airborne Division as a small arms training instructor. By the time he completed this tour, Block had five years in the Army and was considering getting out of the military.
“I returned to Fort Benning from my folks’ home in Buffalo, N.Y. and got back on post just in time for “Retreat.” The flags were being lowered and the bugle was playing. I got hooked on the Army once more,” the 79-year-old Lake Suzy, Fla. Army officer recalled half a century later.
“I was reassigned to Aschaffenburg, Germany where I was the operations officer (S-3) for my unit. By then I was a captain. We were part of the 3rd Army’s mechanized infantry located along the Rhine River,” he recalled.
Part of his job as the S-3 was to help upgrade the soldiers in his outfit until he returned to the States and Benning once more nine months later where Block joined the 199th Infantry Brigade there.
“I went to Vietnam with the 199th Brigade in ’67 and ’68. I left there a month before the enemy’s ‘Tet Offensive’ that started in January 1968. “
This is where tens of thousands of North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong troops overran many of the major cities and military bases in South Vietnam.
“I started out there as the commander of C-Company, 199th Infantry Brigade,” Block said. “We had a big problem with replacement soldiers from the sates. A lot of these replacements were too fat and out of shape for our air mobile unit.
“When the new promotion list came out I had been selected to be the new billion S-3 (Operation Officer). Our base there was at Long Binh, I think it was northeast of Saigon.”
For a few weeks Block filled in as the liaison officer for some New Zealand and Australian troops. It was an eye opener for him.
“I learned about soldiering in the British Army. It was kind of neat,” he said. “They had their tea and cookies at 4 p.m., their cocktail hour and their formal dinners at night,” he explained. Soldering with the British was a different war in Vietnam.”
It didn’t last long for him. After a couple of weeks Block returned to the 199th Brigade at Long Binh. After a 30-day in-country indroctration his outfit moved to Bhen Nha along the Saigon River.
“Our brigade had three battalions surrounding Saigon on the south. Our headquarters was in a Shell Oil tank farm,” he said. “I became the operations officer for these three companies in the 199th.”
It was Block’s job to get the troopers ready for air mobile attacks in their Hueys.
“Our helicopters would fly into the Shell tank farm and fly off with our three companies. They would take them somewhere out there where the NVA and VC were waiting for a fight. I flew in the Command and Control helicopter hovering above watching it all,” he said.
“The VC were moving in and out of tunnels around Saigon. We would run into some of those people and a firefight would break out. They were always small groups of people.”
At one point while in Vietnam, Block told his boss they needed to get involved in a bigger battle. His commander, a colonel, told hm have at it.
While looking at a military map he and his colonel decided to attack a 10-kilometer long island in the middle of the Saigon River, just south of the country’s capital city. On one end of the island was an ancient castle that appeared to be abandoned.
For the island attack Block brought in the works: Reveries, heavily armed shallow-water patrol boats, gunships, artillery and his airmobile unit.
“Our big problem was how were we going to keep the information about the pending attack from getting to the enemy? We knew if ARVIN troops (South Vietnamese soldiers) got word the NVA and the VC would be tipped off,” Block said. “However, our general forced us to tell the ARVIN ahead of time about the proposed attack.”
When Block and his soldiers came ashore from air, land and sea the enemy was no where to be found. A note left by enemy forces indicated they got word ahead of time.
“That was the most disheartening thing about fighting in Vietnam. You couldn’t trust anybody,” he said.
When he returned from Vietnam in ’68 he was selected to go to Syracuse University and complete his NBA in accounting.
“After I graduated with a Maser’s Degree in Accounting I was sent to the Pentagon to become a comptroller and budget officer. I went around the country and overseas training people in the Army about business management techniques. It was a nice assignment, particularly when you were sent to Europe or Hawaii.”
After three years working in the Pentagon, Block pulled an assignment in Europe working with the 8th Infantry Division in Germany. By this time he was a lieutenant colonel and he became a battalion commander.
“I was stationed in Hamburg, Germany with the 1st Battalion, 54th Infantry Regiment. When I got there I quickly realized our Army in Europe and been stripped of all its equipment. All of it had been sent to Vietnam,” Block said.
He spent the next 19 months in Germany trying to rearm and retrain his brigade and get it up to good military standards.
“My battalion became the leading American unit in Europe in reenlistments. I accomplished that by turning the battalion around,” he said. “I tried to let the troops know I was concerned about their welfare.”
Block returned to the Pentagon once again to a dead end assignment. After 20-years and 3-months in the Army and an MBA in accounting I decided it was time for me to move on and find a civilian job,” he said. “I was hired by Electronic Data Systems as an on-site manager. I spent the next 15 years working for Ross Perot.”
He and his wife, Norma, moved to the Punta Gorda, Fla. area in 2004, immediately after Hurricane Charley devastated the town and the surrounding area. The couple has six children: Tom, Denise, Terri, Dana, Michelle and Thomas.
Name: Thomas Ronald Block
D.O.B: 29 June 1936
Hometown: Buffalo, NY
Currently: Lake Suzy, FL
Entered Service: 8 June 1958
Discharged: 30 Sept. 1978
Rank: Lt. Colonel
Unit: 199th Infantry Brigade
Commendations: Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Joint Commendation Medal, Air Medals Six awards, Army Commendation Medal 4 awards, Senior Paratroopers Badge, Pathfinder Badge and Ranger Badge
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015 and is republished with permission.
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