CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Navy, Corpsman
Date: February 17, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Colin Critchlow
Former U.S. Navy Corpsman and Vietnam War veteran John Robinson was born in September, 1945 into a family with an extensive military history. Robinson’s grandfather served in the United States Marine Corps in France during World War I. An uncle served in the Marines during World War II, and he was nearby at the famous Mount Suribachi flag raising on Iwo Jima. Robinson’s father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, the ship on which the official Japanese surrender took place in 1945.
In 1966, Robinson enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve, after being encouraged to do so by his father’s friend, a Lieutenant Commander working at Lakehurst, New Jersey, Naval Station. The officer encouraged Robinson to enlist by telling him that service in the Naval Reserve would help prepare him for college. Robinson was in his senior year at Manasquan High School when he enlisted in the US Navy reserves as a Medical Corpsman. While still in high school, he took the GTC ARI aptitude test and scored 144 out of 150. After a year as a student in the Pre-Medical program at Rutgers University, Robinson went on active duty. He was initially assigned to the Naval Hospital Corps School at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois, where he graduated at the top of his class, and where he met his friend Ralph David Hammell III.
After Robinson’s initial training at Great Lakes, he was assigned to Fort Smith Naval Base in Virginia, where he received further training to become a Neurology Technician because of his unusually high score on the GTC test. He was also one of nine corpsmen to be assigned to a task force setting up a Combat Medical Assessment Team aboard the U.S.S. Rowley. This detail lasted for 20 days, and during that time, Robinson sailed down to Puerto Rico, where the task force conducted an amphibious assault exercise and set up a temporary hospital on Vieques Island beach. When the exercise was completed, he remained in San Juan for ten days.
Following the task force exercise, Robinson was assigned to the U.S. Navy Fleet Marine Force. He was sent down to the United States Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where he received preparatory training for Vietnam, and was a trainee platoon leader. Robinson graduated in the top 50 of his class at Camp Lejeune.
After his training at Lejeune, Robinson received orders for service in Vietnam. Before departing, however, he was allowed leave to return home to say goodbye to his family members, and to write a will, as it was said that two out of three Medical Corpsmen sent to Vietnam would not come back. In 1967, Robinson left San Diego for Vietnam, landing first in Japan, spending a night in Tokyo, and then moving on to Okinawa and finally to Da Nang, Vietnam.
During his first night in Da Nang, Robinson slept in a hut. The next day he was assigned to the First Platoon of Delta Company, First Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, which was part of the First Marine Division. His unit was stationed outside of Da Nang in Hoi An, where he received the nickname “Doc Robby” from the Marines because he was a medic. While stationed at Hoi An, Robinson and his platoon performed combat patrols to the west along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During these patrols, they would occasionally cross the border into Cambodia and Laos. Robinson recalled that there were many Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers in the region, and it was hard to tell the difference between them and the civilians in the area.
Robinson’s platoon was also often called on to support and reinforce other Marine units. During these missions, he was limited to the supplies he could carry on his person. For example, if Robinson was given 21 meal rations for a seven-day period, he could only take seven rations, because it was all that he could carry, along with his medical supplies, two canteens of water, water-purifying tablets, weapon and ammunition. During his time in the unit, he was involved in Operations Kentucky, Medina, and Tennessee.
Many of the missions Robinson participated in were quite dangerous. One night, he and two Marines went out with a lieutenant to find a wounded comrade. They had to sneak past hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers carrying the injured man back to their lines once they found him. Over the next two days, Robinson’s unit and the marines they were reinforcing, with air support assistance from Phantom fighter jets, fought off an attack by an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 North Vietnamese troops who had surrounded the village they were in. The enemy left about 1,500 dead behind when they retreated. During the battle, Robinson was under heavy enemy fire and accidentally exposed to tear gas. In the end, he was one of only five men in his platoon of 40 not wounded or killed in action.
After being decimated in the fight with the North Vietnamese, Robinson’s platoon received a large number of replacements, most of whom were inexperienced in combat. Since Robinson had more experience than the new men, he was often asked for advice by his leaders. The lieutenant commanding the platoon and the platoon sergeant would confer with him when reading maps of the operations area, because Robinson was more familiar with the countryside. He was also assigned to call in medical evacuation choppers, and to perform other tasks that would normally be done by a higher ranking person.
The missions for the reconstructed platoon did not become less dangerous. On one occasion, Robinson was on patrol and a sergeant named West accidentally set off a booby-trapped grenade. The explosion caused a ringing in Robinson’s ear that continues to this day. On a mission near Con Thien on November 2, 1967, he ran from behind cover to save wounded Marines under fire. Although one died, Robinson managed to save seven of them, and he received the Bronze Star with “V” device for his heroic action. A photo of him trying to save a marine in another instance made the newspapers, including the Asbury Park Press, the Daily News, and the New York Times.
Robinson’s unit was also sent to Doi Hanh in the Demilitarized Zone as part of a force intended to secure an area for the construction of an airstrip. In the process, his platoon was engaged several times with the enemy, and his friend Mike Thirkettle was wounded and died in his arms near Con Thien. Robinson lost two more friends during the war, Ralph David Hammell III, who he had met during his training at the Naval Hospital Corps School, and another Corpsmen whose last name he remembered as Novembre, who died during the fighting in Hue City during the Tet Offensive after Robinson returned home.
Robinson’s active duty and Vietnam tours ended on January 19, 1968, when he was stationed in Hue City. A Marine Corps chaplain drove him to Quang Tri Airstrip where he left on a flight home.
John Robinson lives in Colts Neck, New Jersey and is currently a member of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He has a granddaughter and spends his time trying to re-establish contact with some of his old war friends.