Bill Akins was a forward artillery observer with 1st Cavalry in Vietnam
Bill Akins of Port Charlotte quit high school at 17 in 1966 and joined the Army with his father’s permission. After basic at Fort Bliss, Texas. he was sent to Germany with a self-propelled unit of 175 millimeter artillery gun battery attached to the 7th Army.
“I volunteered to go to Vietnam and got there in January 1968,” the 65-year-old former sergeant recalled. I got there just in time for the ‘Tet Offensive.'”
Tet was when tens of thousands of North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong soldiers attempted to overrun U.S. positions. They were slaughtered by American forces, but in the end it was a strategic victory for the North Vietnam troops with the folks back home in the States. It caused President Lyndon Johnson not to run for a second term and the U.S. to throw in the towel in Vietnam.
“I was with the the 1st Infantry Division based in Lai Kai. My unit was a battery of 105 mm guns. When the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong attacked us in ‘Tet’ a buddy and I headed for the bunkers, but they were all filled. So we found a hole in the ground and got in it. An enemy rocket hit 20 feet from us but didn’t detonate.”
Akins and his buddy spent the next three days fighting off the NVA an VC. It was during ‘Tet’ he went from being a truck mechanic to an artillery-man.
“I started off carrying the ammunition for the guns. I was a little guy and each round weighed 33 pounds, so it was okay,” he said. “It took me about six weeks to become a gunner. Then they needed someone in Fire Direction Control and they picked me.
“A few weeks later I volunteered to become a forward artillery observer. The very first day I was a forward observer we got in a pretty good firefight,” Akins recalled. “All the big shots and division commander were watching the firefight from helicopters. We were back at division headquarters when the division commander’s helicopter flew in. One of his aides asked who the lieutenant was calling in fire. I told him it wasn’t a lieutenant, it was me. He took my name and left.
“The next day the division commander flew back in, walked up to me and promoted me to permanent grade sergeant. This is something that doesn’t happen very often. I spent the next four years being a spotter.
“It was the 4th of July 1968 and we were coming back from a search and destroy mission when our Armored Personnel Carrier hit a mine and blew me 50 feet in the air,” Akins recalled. “I was sitting on top the APC when it hit the mine. Two people inside the vehicle were killed.
“A couple of days later I realized my dog tags were missing. Six years ago, while living in the Pensacola area, I got a call from a man who asked, ‘Are you Sgt. William Akins?’
“I said I was. Then he asked, ‘Did you ever serve in Vietnam?’
“I said, yes.
“‘Do you remember your service number?’
“RA951507,” I replied.
“‘I’ve got your dog tag,’ he said.”
“The man and his wife had gone to Vietnam on a vacation. When in a little shop near Lai Kai they found a bunch of American servicemen’s dog-tags and bought them. The couple was tracking down the people who owned the tags when they called me.
“They were amazing,” Akins said.
He finished his first tour of Vietnam in December 1969. By July 1970 he was on his second tour of the country.
Akins ended up with the 23rd Infantry Division Americal based in Chu Lai. He was with the 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment as a forward observer.
“We were involved with he last big offensive with the South Vietnamese Army. Our armored cavalry unit lead the whole operation,” he said. “It got pretty ugly.
“At 9 p.m. we got a call to return to Chu Lai immediately. We were 40 miles away,” he explained. “When we got back to Chu Lai at daylight we were met by an MP and an officer at the gate and told to follow them.
“Nobody had a clue where we were going. That evening about 5 p.m. we reached the docks and went aboard a ship that sailed from South Vietnam into the South China Sea. For the next three days we steamed in circles off the coast.
“On the forth day we steamed into Hue and got off the ship. The colonel came by and told us to get on Highway-1. He told us not to turn off the highway until he said so. A sign we spotted read: ‘Khe Sanh 64 Kilometers.’
“That’s the way we went toward Khe Sanh. As we were going through the mountains of Vietnam I looked back and as far as I could see there was nothing but vehicle lights. It was the biggest convoy I had ever seen.
“We reached Khe Sanh and went on to the Special Forces camp at Lang Biang closer to the Laotian border. It was kind scary because we could see evidence that a large North Vietnamese unit was in the area.
“While on a patrol in the jungle one night at 2 a.m. I heard this: ‘beep-beep.’ A second later a couple of our jets flew over. What I had heard was a North Vietnamese SAM missile battery tracking the two jets. The enemy missiles unit was probably only a mile or two from us.
“We were out there along the Laotian border a couple of weeks when we got word from our helicopter pilots that 100 T-44 and T-55 Russian tanks were headed our way.
“To reach us the enemy tanks had to go through a bottleneck. I set up all our artillery pieces to fire into that bottleneck,” Akins said. “The North Vietnamese saw what they were getting into and stopped.”
This was the last big joint operation of the Vietnam War U.S. and South Vietnam troop took part in.
“The reason I made two tours in Vietnam was because I figured if I left, some poor kid would get drafted, sent there and get killed. I said that because I knew I wasn’t going to get killed. I made a second tour.”
He spent 9 1/2 years in the service. Akins got out of the Army in May 1976.
“They were transitioning to the ‘All Volunteer Service.’ They didn’t want people with a lot of experience. They wanted people who were more politically correct,” he said with a pained expression.
He spent the next three decades of civilian life living in north Texas working in the retail management business. He and his second wife, Kathy, moved to Southwest Florida in 2011. He has two grown children, Will and Julie, from a first marriage.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017 and is republished with permission.
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