North Port, Florida - When 1st Lt. Ward Abbett, now of Englewood, arrived in Vietnam he was a well-educated, seasoned soldier. A graduate of The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., he 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. "I replaced a platoon leader who had been killed. I wondered what I was getting myself into."
Abbett was in command of eight Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicles. Each had four aboard -- two gunners on either side, a man with an M-79 grenade launcher 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," he said.
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.
"I was very disappointed in Colonel 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 his first four months, Abbett received a Silver Star and three Bronze Stars with Combat-Vs for Valor.
"It was a very active four months," he recalled. "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 a (Rocket Propelled Grenade) and two of my people were seriously wounded. The RPG had penetrated (the) 2 to 3 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, their mascot "Leslie" went with them. He was a spider monkey that 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 the enemy Vietnam could be a trial.
"One of the biggest problems we had in the jungle were ants. If our assault vehicle hit a tree that had an ant nest, if 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."
Throwing one of the tracks on their vehicles could also be a problem that sometimes took hours to fix, or they could get stuck in a rice paddy.
"If that occurred we would daisy-chain several of our vehicles together and use them to pull the stuck track out of the mud," he said, adding sometimes more extreme measures were necessary. "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 loose."
During the Tet Offensive in January 1968, Abbett’s unit was ordered to Saigon in a hurry. North Vietnamese Regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas were overrunning many U.S. military bases and major towns in South Vietnam. It was a military disaster for the North, but caused the U.S. to pull out of the war.
"We took our armored vehicles and drove 40 miles nonstop 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."
Abbett also received three Bronze Stars.
"They were much the same as the first encounter (where he received 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 Lieutenant 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 (Vietnam Memorial) wall in D.C."
In addition to the death of his friend, Abbett remembers the trip home to the states.
"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. "It was difficult."
After being discharged from the Army, Abbett went to work for Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. After decades with Kodak, he worked for six years as a civilian consultant to the Air Force.
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," Abbett said. "It didn’t make me any braver, but it gave me assurance there was a higher power."
He and his wife, Nancy, moved to Englewood four years ago when they retired. They have two grown children: Ross and Kelly.
If you have a war story, or if a friend or neighbor has one, contact Don Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-?426-2120. Visit www.?donmooreswartales.com.
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