Bob Hayes of Port Charlotte was a member of Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division when he got to Vietnam in 1966. As an 18-year-old gun-toter it didn’t take long for him to receive his first Purple Heart for combat wounds.
They called themselves “The Walking Dead.” His unit was deployed in Thừa Thiên-Huế near the South China Sea in northeastern South Vietnam. With Hayes during the incursion was Bernard Fall, a war correspondent who covered the disastrous French invasion of the same area in ’53. He wrote a book entitled ’Street Without Joy,’ about the French military disaster.
He planned to write a sequel to his first book about the Marine invasion of the area more than a decade later. It was never published because Fall stepped on a land mine and was blown to bits.
“Fall was on my left. Suddenly there was an explosion. He was killed instantly. His camera, blown from his body, landed at my feet,” Hayes said.
“We began to take heavy casualties. Choppers were called in to take out the dead and wounded. Our objective was a small river. We were facing superior forces. Nobody had been there since the French had gotten beaten by the Vietcong in ’53.
“I was in the second wave that attacked. The first wave had been hard hit. We had to deal with enemy snipers and booby-traps,” Hayes recalled more than 60 years later. “I was a squad leader and I told the one guy with me there was another Marine detachment over to our right we needed to hookup with.
“It was night and we reached an opening. All of a sudden there was a god-awful sound,” he said. “The guy behind me had stepped on a mine. The concussion from the explosion sent me flying. I remember blood pouring down both sides of my face. I had shrapnel in both shoulders and legs.
“The incident happened on Feb. 21, 1967. People from the unit to our right came and got me and put me on a homemade stretcher,” Hayes said. “I was sent to a hospital in Da Nang. Nothing major had been penetrated. After I was able to walk pretty good I was sent back to my unit.
“By then my outfit was involved in a major operation near the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ that continued into North Vietnam. During a firefight, which was part of this advance, our unit was pinned down by enemy fire. I was shot in my right arm by a .30-cal. machine-gun. I had considerable damage to my arm.
“I went back to a hospital in Japan. I ended up at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. Then I was transported to Chelsea Naval Hospital in Boston. I stayed there for over a year. They did numerous operations on my arm to try and put the nerves back together again so it would work properly. They did an excellent job. I was discharged in May 1968.
“Let me say something about how I feel about Vietnam. The civilians in Vietnam were caught in the middle. They are a peaceful, hardworking bunch.
“We had just taken this village. About that time one of our squads-members stepped on a mine and was killed. The villagers knew where all the land mines were, but they wouldn’t tell us where they were because the NV A and VC would kill them. So they didn’t tell us and that put them at odds with us.
“Right after my man was killed I went to a briefing with my lieutenant. When I got back I found my squad had taken their anger out on an elderly village man. I found him hanging from some ropes. I went over and cut him down.
“Then I asked my people who strung the old man up, why? They told me because he knew where the land mine was that killed their buddy and didn’t tell them.
“Then I told my people, ‘You can’t do this!’ I explained that the old man is caught in the middle. If he tells us about the NVA and VC mines they will kill him. And if he doesn’t tell us, we might kill him.
“Fortunately, the old man lived.
“Another complaint I had with our military operation in Vietnam: We would be told to take Hill-64. So we’d take Hill-64 and some of our people would die. We’d secure ’64 and then we’d get orders to take Hill-78. Again some of our people would die, but we’d take the hill. Then we’d be asked to re-take Hill-64 all over again because we had let it go and the NVA or the VC moved back onto the hill again.
“Because I quit high school before I graduated I took advantage of the G.I. Bill. I got my high school diploma, then I went to Middlesex Community College and got an associate’s degree. Finally I got a teaching degree from the University of Massachusetts.
“While finishing up my teaching degree I decided the manners of the students I’d be teaching weren’t what I was accustomed to. I had a friend who told me I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. He suggested that since I working part-time in the grocery business I should make that my career.”
Hayes took the friend’s advice. He spent the first 20 years, after college, working for various supermarket chains in the Boston area. The last 11 years he worked for a food cooperative called Hanover Food Cooperative.
“It was an absolutely fantastic operation,” he said.
Hayes and his wife, Janice, moved to Punta Gorda last year. They had two daughters: Nicole and Stacy. Stacy is deceased.
Name: Robert Nicholas Hayes
D.O.B: 5 Jan. 1947
Hometown: Lynn, Mass.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 1 July 1964
Discharged: 20 May 1968
Unit: Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Regiment, 3rd Marine Division
Commendations: Two Purple Hearts, Presidential Unit Citation, National Defense Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Vietnamese Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Camping Medal, Rifle Marksman’s Badge.
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, July 23, 2018 and is republished with permission.
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