When 1st Lt. Ward Abbett arrived in Vietnam aboard a purple Braniff Airline he was a well-educated, seasoned soldier. He was a graduate of “The Citadel” in Charleston, S.C. He also spent his first year in the Army stateside as the executive officer of a headquarters company, but he wanted to see action in Vietnam.
“We flew into Bien Hoa and I was taken by helicopter to my unit, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment,” he said 50 years later. “I replaced a platoon leader who had been killed. I wondered what I was getting myself into.
“I was in command of eight Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicles. Each one had four people—two gunners on either side, a man with an M-79 grenade launcher in the back and a driver. I was responsible for 32 people. Each vehicle was armed with a .50-caliber machine-gun and two M-60 machine-guns on either side.”
The 11th Cav was a hot outfit that could strike the enemy by air or in armored vehicles. They were in demand. Their regimental commander, Col. George S. Patton, Jr., was the son of the legendary World War II tank commander.
“To put it mildly, I was very disappointed in Col. Patton. Instead of softening up a target with artillery or air strikes, he’d call in the infantry and we’d experience a lot more casualties. I had the feeling he was trying to glorify himself. I have very little respect for him,” Abbett said.
“During my first four months in Vietnam I received a Silver Star and three Bronze Stars with Combat-Vs for Valor,” Abbett recalled. “It was a very active four months.
“My main concern: I wanted to get as many of my men back home as I could.”
His unit was near Loc Ninh — along the Cambodian border, part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when they ran into a reinforced battalion of North Vietnamese Army troops. A firefight broke out in the jungle.
“My lead vehicle, of the eight I was commanding, was hit by an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) and two of my people were seriously wounded. The RPG had penetrated two to three inches of aluminum our vehicles were made of and exploded. Eventually my two gunners died of their wounds,” he said.
“After they were hit, I pulled up beside their damaged assault vehicle and evacuated the wounded soldiers to my vehicle. Then we started working to kill the North Vietnamese on the ground. Before we left the area we dropped a white phosphorous grenade into the damaged vehicle that burned it down to its tracks,” Abbett explained.
“After that I called in artillery and helicopter gunships. The North Vietnamese started to retreat.”
When Abbett and his men rolled into battle in their assault vehicles with them went “Leslie,” their mascot. He was a spider monkey who didn’t excel in bravery.
“If we got in a firefight Leslie would go down in the bottom of my vehicle and wouldn’t come out for a couple of days,” he explained.
Even without running into the enemy Vietnam could be a trial, according to Abbett.
“One of the biggest problems we had in the jungle were ants. If our assault vehicle hit a tree that had an ant nest and it happened to drop into our vehicle we would vacate,” he said. “We’d get out of the assault vehicle and throw DDT in there to kill the ants.
We could throw one of our tracks. It that happened, it might takes us hours to fix it,” Abbett said.
“The third thing that happened reasonably often was that one of our vehicles would get stuck in a rice paddy. If that occured we would daisy-chain several of our vehicles together and use them to pull the stuck track out of the mud. We’d also put a quarter-pound of C-4 explosive under the stuck vehicle to break the suction of the mud. The explosion wouldn’t damage the vehicle, but it would break it lose.
During the Tet Offensive in January 1968, Abbett’s unit was ordered to Saigon in a hurry. Tet was the enemy offensive where North Vietnamese Regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas over-ran many U.S. military bases and most of the major towns in South Vietnam. It was a military disaster for the North, but at the same time the enemy won a big political victory which caused the U.S. to eventually pull out of the war.
“When we got the word about Tet we took our armored vehicles and drove 40 miles non-stop one night to Saigon. If anything got in our way we ran over them,” he said. “This was my first introduction to combat in an urban environment. It gives me a lot of appreciation for our people fighting in Afghanistan and other urban areas. It is a whole different world of fighting.
“The rules of engagement were: ‘If they shot at us we shot back.’ We opened up with our .50-caliber on the enemy. We did the best we could to neutralize the enemy fire. We just raised hell for several days.”
So what about the three Bronze Star Medals he received?
“They were much the same as the first encounter (where he was awarded the Silver Star). We had an enemy we tried to kill or capture,” Abbett said.
“The most dramatic thing that happened to me while I was in Vietnam was when Lt. Carl Harris got killed,” he said. “Carl had a platoon of three or four M-48 tanks. His tank was accompanying us when he was hit by an RPG. It killed him. His name is on ’The Wall’ in D.C.”
Besides the death of his friend and fellow lieutenant, the other thing that has stuck in Abbett’s mind all these years was the trip home. The ride back to the states and his confrontation with Vietnam war protesters.
“Coming back home we flew into Oakland, Calif. There were several of us coming back from Vietnam on the plane. The protesters were waiting for us in the airport terminal,” he recalled. All he said about the incident was, “It was difficult.”
Shortly after being discharged from the Army, Abbett went to work for Kodak. For 34 years he was employed in Rochester, N.Y. by the film maker. After decades with Kodak he got a job for a half-dozen years as a civilian consultant to the Air Force.
Then he and his wife, Nancy, moved to Englewood. Fla. four years ago when they retired. They have two grown children: Ross and Kelly.
Looking back on his military career Abbett said, “There were two things that got me through my year in Vietnam. As a platoon leader I couldn’t show my fear. I had 32 people depending on me.
Secondly, I read the Bible every night I was in Vietnam. One verse comes to mind: Romans: 14:8 —For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s.
“That verse carried me through the Vietnam War. It didn’t make me any braver, but it gave me assurance there was a higher power.”
1st Lt. Ward Abbott’s Silver Star Commendation
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918 (amended by an act of July 25, 1963), takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to First Lieutenant Ward Abbett, United States Army, for gallantry in action involving close combat against an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam.
First Lieutenant Abbett distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 28 March 1968, while serving as a Platoon Leader with Troop L, 3rd Squad, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, on reconnaissance in force mission conducted jointly with elements of the 25th Division, Republic of Vietnam, near Xom Cao Then, Vietnam.
When the lead unit of the allied force came in contact with a reinforced battalion of Viet Cong, Lt. Abbett led his armored cavalry assault vehicles against the enemy flank. Despite intense rocket automatic weapons and small arms fire, he assumed a fully exposed position on his vehicle, forcing the enemy to retreat. Lt. Abbett who had assumed command of three separate platoons, professionally directed supporting helicopter gunships and artillery fire against the fleeing insurgents.
During the assault on the retreating enemy, one of the vehicles in his platoon received a direct hit, inflicting severe wounds to several of the crew members. Reacting instantly, Lt. Abbett maneuvered his armored cavalry assault vehicle alongside the disabled vehicle, providing suppressive fire for the casualties. Despite painful burns received from the many brush fires in the area of contact, Lt Abbbett dismounted his vehicle and began a search of the area for remaining Viet Cong strongholds, personally capturing an enemy soldier. 1st. Lt Abbett’s extraordinary heroism in close combat against a numerically superior Viet Cong force was in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and rifles great credit upon himself, this unit, and the United States Army.
Name: Ward Abbett
D.O.B: 25 Sept 1943
Hometown: New York, NY
Currently: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 1967
Rank: 1st Lt.
Unit: L Troop, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment
Commendations: Silver Star, Three bronze stars with Vs for Valor
Battles/Campaigns: Tet Offensive, Vietnam War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, March 7, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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