Published in the Rains County Leader on November 11, 2021:
In February of 1965, nineteen-year-old Robert Worley was accepted into the U.S. Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Class as a lance corporal E-3. He admits that, at the time, he had never heard of Vietnam – he was busy trying to adapt to college after Paducah High School. Three weeks later, everyone knew about Vietnam.
On March 8, 1965, President Johnson launched what became a three-year campaign of sustained bombing of targets in North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Operation Rolling Thunder. The same month, U.S. Marines landed on beaches near DaNang, South Vietnam as the first American combat troops to enter Vietnam. Still, Worley thought the war, which was being called a police action, would be over by the time he graduated from college in 1968.
However, before he received his degree he was being trained by Vietnam veterans, and the TET offensive turned 1968 into the bloodiest year of the war. In October of 1969, 2nd Lt. Robert Worley was sent to DaNang Air Base as part of the First Marine Aircraft Wing. He was assigned as the Supply Officer for Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron 1. In December, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
By then, Worley had learned some of the history of Vietnam. The French preceded the United States in South Vietnam until May 7, 1954 when North Vietnam defeated them at Dien Bien Phu. The U.S. provided the French and South Vietnam with money and became secretly involved in the war in 1955 as soon as the French left. The first official U.S. death in Vietnam occurred in 1960, and President Kennedy officially entered Vietnam in 1961 with troop buildup. By 1962, nine thousand American troops were in South Vietnam in an advisory capacity but some were being killed. In February of 1965, President Johnson ordered the bombing of targets in North Vietnam in Operation Flaming Dart in retaliation for a Viet Cong raid at the U.S. base in the city of Pleiku and at a nearby helicopter base at Camp Holloway.
The Vietnam War is a controversial part of our nation’s history with many attributing shameful and brutal behavior to the American military and touting the humane conduct of the North Vietnamese. Among the many spreading pro-Communist and anti-U.S. rhetoric were John Kerry, Dan Rather, and Walter Cronkite, to name a few. Most notable among these is Jane Fonda who toured Vietnam in July of 1972 where she visited several sites including the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. After her visit, Fonda concluded that the U.S. was unjustly bombing farmland and other sites far removed from military targets. She also claimed the Vietnamese provided their prisoners of war with the most humane treatment in the history of war.
John Kerry also spent three months in Vietnam. After returning home to run for congress, he told about how inhumane the U.S. military was. Kerry was once asked by David Frost if the South Vietnamese people liked U.S. soldiers. Kerry’s answer was that the Americans were hated. But Worley has a completely different story to tell.
Shortly after being stationed in DaNang, Worley discovered that his unit regularly sent medical civic action patrols far into the jungle to take medical teams – doctors, nurses, dentists, surgeons, and other volunteers – to offer treatment to South Vietnamese who had been brutalized by the North Vietnamese. They worked in crude conditions, doing amputations in mud huts and performing dental procedures on patients sitting in a regular chair while sitting on a four-legged stool. All personnel kept helmets and pistols at the ready in case of attack. The medical teams were always accompanied by a Marine reinforced rifle company for protection. Worley went once as an observer, and he said once was enough. He went on to say, “It was a sobering day, seeing the torture and cruelty the North Vietnamese did to Vietnamese natives who they thought were friendly to the Americans.” The First Marine Aircraft Wing received the Civic Action Medal from the South Vietnamese government for these trips and more that benefitted the South Vietnamese.
Although the medical missions were not for him, Worley still wanted to be part of what was included in that “more.” When he discovered that a group of Marines, enlisted and officers, and Vietnamese Air Force officers were teaching English as a Second Language at a Catholic orphanage, he wanted in. Every Tuesday night the volunteer teachers dressed in flak jackets and traveled through enemy territory to Ahn Sang School where they taught grades 1-12 and others. They were shot at on the way to the school, and classes were taught to the background of the sounds of war.
The students in Worley’s class included a high school principal, a nurse, and a teenage boy. The teenager was a Montagnard Indian, a generic term for Vietnamese natives who lived in the mountains and were fiercely anti-communists. One of Worley’s most treasured war relics is a hand-carved wooden water buffalo bell given to him by this student. His favorite ESL memory is the evening he spent explaining America’s favorite pastime to a class who didn’t know what baseball was.
In direct rebuttal to John Kerry’s claim that the South Vietnamese hated Americans, Worley said, “We were all that was between them and genocide.” When Nixon announced a phased withdrawal, his ESL class was in tears, asking why the Americans were leaving them. “They were terrified, and they all wanted us there,” he added. On his last night, Worley gave a graduation speech. “I told them to be strong. I said that even though the good guys were pulling out, their army could prevail. I lied.”
Of course, not all the natives were as cordial. The South Vietnamese bought garbage from the Americans, and some of those people were used to set up attacks on the base. One day Worley noticed a mama-san walking very slowly and carefully across the base. Later, it was realized that she was making markers for a planned rocket attack. In early 1970 during one of these raids, a Vietnamese rocket exploded close to his hooch, landing squarely on an enlisted hooch. One enlisted Marine was killed, seven were injured, and Worley eventually developed tinnitus and went deaf.
Another of Worley’s treasures is a signed copy of When Hell Was in Session, a book written by Admiral/Senator Jeremiah Denton. The inscription reads Robert, To one of the best who always got there 1st. In response to Jane Fonda’s comments about the Hanoi Hilton, Worley refers to that book. Denton was a prisoner at the time of Fonda’s visit. He says that, before she arrived, prisoners were cleaned up and given new clothes, and anyone who showed signs of being beaten or punished was secluded.The prisoners were lined up, and Fonda shook hands with each one. Denton says the man next to him palmed a note to her giving names of some of the other prisoners, and that she passed it on to the prison guards. After she left, that prisoner was beaten to death.
When asked what he most wanted people to take away from his story, Worley said,“We were not murderers.” He conceded that atrocities occurred in Vietnam. “There were a few who were vicious,” he said,“but there are vicious people in regular civilian life. The vicious ones of the 2.1 million who served in Vietnam were in the minority.
“One of the hardest times for those who served ‘boots on the ground’ in Vietnam was the return. We were aware of the nation’s attitude toward us during and after Vietnam. I only encountered the negativism a few times, and it wasn’t that bad for me. But I had friends who were cursed at, spit on and called ‘baby killers.’ That was really sad. I only got accused of being a baby killer once. Some of the most ardent promoters of that attitude – John Kerry among them – are still with us and still spewing out stupidity. To this day it is appropriate to say to a Vietnam veteran – ‘Welcome Home!’”
Worley left Vietnam in May of 1970 as a 1st Lt. He was transferred immediately to Okinawa, then to Camp Pendleton, California in July of 1971. He was honorably discharged in July of 1972 as a Captain.
Robert Worley is now the Director of Economic Development of the City of Emory Development Corporation. For more insights into the politics and strategies of the long Vietnam War, he suggests “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young” written by Army Lt. Col. Hal Moore and also the movie, “We Were Soldiers.”
NOTE: The photos are from Google and are intended to be representative of Worley’s experiences.