Before Chuck Robb became a U.S. Senator or the governor of Virginia, he started his career in service to his country as a Marine. Robb was catapulted into the national spotlight when he married Lynda Bird Johnson, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson. “In the Arena: A Memoir of Love, War, and Politics” pulls back the curtain on Robb’s life and career.
The jungle at night isn’t like it is seen in the movies, where it always appears to be half-lit in a gauzy blue from some mysterious source. In Vietnam in 1968, there were many nights when there was no moon and the jungle was pitch-black. It was the kind of dark that drew over your face like a blindfold and left you practically unable to tell the difference between closing and opening your eyes. The use of night-vision devices was still in its early stages, and the types of goggles that let troops see an unlit battlefield in greenish hues wouldn’t be widely used until the Gulf War in 1991. So, on moonless nights in Vietnam, the only way to advance through the thick, inky vegetation was by moving forward single file, each Marine with a hand on the man in front of him.
One night, as a part of a battalion operation called Mameluke Thrust, my company headed out from our combat base and along the Song Vu Gia, a river in Quang Nam Province. When we got to a spot where the river was low enough to wade across, we held our weapons and ammunition over our heads and crossed into an area U.S. forces had nicknamed the Arizona Territory. Leading the advancing column, I would have one Marine “walking point,” a highly vulnerable position that had to be rotated frequently during the night. As we walked single file through the dense vegetation, the Marine walking point quite literally stepped on a sleeping North Vietnamese soldier. There was one stunned moment before M16 and AK-47 shots rang out in short bursts. And then, almost as suddenly as it began, the firing stopped. It was so dark that neither side could see where it was shooting. I asked my artillery forward observer to get us some “willy peter.” He radioed to the artillery battalion some five miles behind us, requesting that they fire burning white phosphorous into the air over our heads. In a few minutes we heard the pop of the artillery shell opening and saw the bright-white flare of the burning willy peter, held aloft by a tiny parachute, floating toward the earth, drifting with the wind. Each flare illuminated the area between us and the enemy, giving us eerie bursts of half light — snapshots of the battlefield. These thirty seconds of twilight were enough to give us a picture of the situation as we held our position and waited the hour or so until dawn.
The new visibility in the first light brought intense fighting. Now the bullets were really flying, and I saw one of my men get hit and fall in a spot where any attempt to rescue him would almost certainly result in more casualties. An enemy soldier was firing in the area where my man had fallen, either to make sure he’d hit his mark or to knock out rescuers, and the only way we could hope to pull him to safety would be to create a diversion.
Suddenly, a Marine I had disciplined only days earlier — one of the very few times I’d had to discipline a Marine in my company—stood up to fire, exposing himself, and drawing the attention of the enemy gunner. It was a perfect diversion, allowing two other Marines to crawl over and drag the wounded Marine to safety. But no sooner had the first Marine stood up than he was cut down, ripped apart by bullets from an enemy AK-47. I’ll never know for certain whether he intentionally created a diversion or whether he’d simply stood up to get a better firing position, but it didn’t matter. He had displayed great courage in the line of duty, and I subsequently recommended him for a posthumous decoration.
We engaged the enemy, but, having lost their advantage of darkness and faced with superior firepower, they didn’t stick around for long. We regrouped and made sure that our casualties — including the courageous Marine killed creating a diversion and the man he helped to save — were medevacked to battalion headquarters. Then we moved to a new location to lie low during the day. We waited for the cover of nightfall to move out once again.
Combat continued every day, whether that day was your first or your ninety-first, and there was no additional training period for new commanders. The day that I had gotten command of India Company I got in the company’s Jeep and rode out to our combat base, a four-acre fortified zone about twenty miles southwest of Da Nang, called Hill 65. The numeric name was consistent with the American military system of naming hills for their height in meters. India Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (I/3/7) consisted of three infantry platoons of, on average, forty-one men each and several attached units assigned for specific missions. This meant that an average of between 130 and 150 men were under my operational control at any given time from that point forward.
The Marines were all likely sizing me up on that first day. They understood that whoever was giving the orders was going to put them in a situation where they could be injured or killed, and it was up to me to do my job effectively and earn their respect.
I can’t say how many of them knew about my connection to the commander in chief on that first day, but I’m sure they all found out through word of mouth eventually. Aside from a few innocuous questions along the lines of “What is it like to visit the White House?” I don’t believe that I ever spoke about it with the troops while I was in country, because it simply wasn’t relevant.
One Marine who served in my company told a reporter after returning from Vietnam that “Of course everybody had heard about Robb coming over to Vietnam … but he’s just a regular Marine captain.” I thought he put it best when he said, “If you’re wearing Marine green they shoot at you … and it doesn’t matter who you are.”
The men in my company came from every walk of life and every part of the country. Military service is one of the rare equalizers in our society, and the strength of our training and experiences in battle developed a solid bond between brothers-in-arms. I spent the first few days getting to know the men in my company, the missions they’d conducted, the operations of my command post (CP), and the conditions in our tactical area of responsibility (TAOR). I got to know the strengths and weaknesses of the very capable officers under my command — the platoon leaders and the other staff in my immediate circle, like the company gunnery sergeant and tactical radio operators. We would all need to work together effectively, because we were all dependent on each other for our mission’s success and our survival.
Like all companies in Vietnam, India Company was made up of a mixture of experienced fighters and young men fresh from boot camp. At the time, troops were rotated individually, instead of by unit, so Marines started and finished their thirteen-month tours at different times. This policy contrasted with the unit rotation that America had used in previous conflicts, like the Second World War and Korea. Some of the men in the company were nearing the end of their tour, while others had almost their whole combat tour ahead of them. Some amount of unit cohesion was lost when a unit didn’t arrive in country as a team, carry out combat missions as a team, and return home together, as a team. Thankfully, the Marines returned to rotations by intact units after Vietnam.
The strong feeling of comradeship that I shared with the Marines I served with has never diminished over the decades since I hung up my utilities. Like most who serve in combat, I developed stronger personal connections with the Marines who served directly around me, such as my gunnery sergeant and my platoon commanders. In May 1968, a young second lieutenant named Terry Hale was assigned as one of my replacement platoon commanders, leading about forty men. A recent graduate from the University of Texas (UT), Hale was likeable and gung-ho.
Lieutenant Hale sticks in my memory because in the first few days after he reported in, I got to know and like him. Lieutenant Hale and I traded stories about UT — he shared the alma mater with my wife — and the UT football team, where he had been team manager. We talked about the platoon he was taking over and what we’d seen outside the wire. Fair-haired and lean in his new gray-green combat utility uniform, he had that clean, healthy look of a recent college graduate, ready to take on the world.
And on his very first operation in the bush, Lieutenant Hale was killed by a booby trap. Sadly, and without warning, he was gone.
When one of my Marines was killed, the company first sergeant, who normally remained at the combat base, would see to the proper preparation of the Marine’s body. But if an officer was killed, I — if I was not on an extended operation away from my combat base — traveled to division headquarters and personally identified the officer’s remains.
The first thing that hit me when I entered the mortuary tent at division headquarters was the smell. It wasn’t the smell of decomposition but that of the chemicals that preserve bodies. The chemicals were used in large quantities to counter the effects of the heat, and the result, when several of those bodies were together in one tent, was overwhelming to the senses. The bodies themselves quickly lost their color of life. Pale and still in an unzipped black rubber bag, Terry Hale was laid out for identification. It is not something one forgets. The astringent smell stayed in my nostrils long after I left the tent.
There was no time for the fitting ceremonies and remembrances that I’m sure Lieutenant Hale received when his body was returned to the States. As company commander, I didn’t even get to write to Hale’s parents — that was always done back at battalion headquarters, where all the personnel records were kept. I did receive a letter from his parents a short time later, however, as they were hoping to find out more about how their son had died. They also asked if we might be able to find the new Bowie knife that they had given him before he shipped out. Though we made a quick search for it in the area where Hale had been killed, the Bowie knife — a prized possession if happened upon by the local Vietnamese — was, sadly, never found.
I would have liked to have had time to grieve for Lieutenant Hale, but war doesn’t allow for that kind of luxury. I simply headed back to my combat base and got back to the daily life of combat operations. Within a few days, a replacement for Lieutenant Hale arrived at Hill 65.
From “In the Arena” by Chuck Robb, courtesy of the University of Virginia Press, ©2021. “In the Arena” is available to purchase now.
Chuck Robb served in the United States Marine Corps on active duty from 1961 to 1970. In 1967, Robb, then a captain in the Marine Corps and a White House military social aide, married Lynda Bird Johnson, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a ceremony in the White House. Soon after, Robb served in combat in the Vietnam War, where he commanded India 3/7. In 1981, Robb was elected governor of Virginia, and he went on to serve as a United States senator from 1989-2001.
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