CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES

Vietnam War

Robert A. Rischmann

Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Army, 139th Engineer Company
Date: April 19, 2004
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Jeff Bryant
Veterans History Project

Summary

Robert A Rischmann served in the US Army from December 1965 to December 1968. He joined the army at age nineteen, the first in his family to serve in the military. Prior to his military service, Rischmann worked at a Grand Union store in New Jersey as a grocery clerk. He never wanted to go to Vietnam, as the thought of fighting there terrified him. In fact, rather than waiting to get drafted, Rischmann enlisted voluntarily, in the hope it would decrease his chances of being sent to the war.

Rischmann entered the army with four of his high school classmates. When they were asked where they would like to be stationed, he was the only one out of the group who specifically requested not to be sent to Vietnam. Ironically, Rischmann ended up being the only one out of his friends who ended up there!

During the initial two years of his three-year term of service, Rischmann first went to Newark for induction, then to Fort Dix for Basic Training, followed by Fort Belvoir for advanced individual training in the Engineer Corps, where he became an “engineer parts specialist.” After training, he worked with engineering supply units in Columbus, Ohio before returning to Fort Belvoir to perform the same duty.

Rischmann went to Vietnam in July of 1967, where he was assigned to the 139th Engineer Company. He recalled that every soldier who traveled with him was enthusiastic about seeing the war; yet, he personally feared for his life. Rischmann arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam, where he remembered the odor coming from the corpses of troops killed in action.

While in the south, Rischmann and his comrades lived in “hooches,” which had infrastructures made of wood, screening, and tin roofs, and were hidden within trees. When he and the engineering company transferred further north, they lived in bunkers composed of sandbags. Rischmann recalled that the bunkers were unbearably hot, to the point where soldiers slept outside on the roofs at night.

When Rischmann’s unit traveled north, it was assigned to Cua Viet River Base, near Quang Tri. Upon arriving there, he immediately perceived it as a dangerous place where he did not want to be. Rischmann sighted a ship with cannons guarding the camp, additional artillery dug into the sand, and the mountains of North Vietnam off in the distance, which indicated he was close to the enemy’s border. He quickly realized he was right, as rocket attacks from the North fell on the base every night.

Area of operations.

During the day, Rischmann traveled upriver on a barge to get supplies, with battles and skirmishes occurring daily. He believed the people in charge were disorganized and irresponsible. Rischmann also detected  a lack of motivation on the part of his fellow soldiers, which he felt as well.

He believed the lack of motivation was because the men ignored what was happening around them. Furthermore, “friendly fire” incidents among troops working the night guard were common, because there was a lack of communication between the units. Rischmann himself was fired at while sleeping, but uninjured.

Rischmann next moved to Quang Tri Province, where one village two to three miles away from base had been previously overrun a couple of times.

During the Tet Offensive of 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces delivered a major strike on the 139th Engineering Company. Rischmann remembered standing near a gun jeep shot up during the offensive. An enemy rocket also almost hit him at the American base. He said everyone panicked and rushed into the bunkers, from where he remembered seeing an enormous tower of smoke resembling a flower. Rischmann was also aware of the destruction in Saigon and other communities throughout South Vietnam, both by the enemy and the American Air Force.

According to Rischmann, one could never tell what side a Vietnamese was on. He noticed civilians, especially children, searching for food in the dumpsters where the military dumped their trash. The children would even jump on the truck Rischmann drove to search for garbage. As a solution to the scenario, troops would hire these children to fill sandbags for them, and in return would give them rations. They removed the food from the cans before giving it to the children to prevent them from potentially using them as mines.

Rischmann never took R&R (rest and recuperation) leave while he was in Vietnam. He worried that if he had done so, he might never return to the war. Rischmann knew a couple of soldiers he was close to who took R&R in Australia and never returned. Neither of them was ever heard from again, which influenced Rischmann to never undertake such a getaway. He did, however, recall how he had some fun while in Vietnam, and formed bonds with people who went through similar circumstances.

The main diet of a Vietnam War soldier, as recalled by Rischmann, was canned food referred to as C-Rations.  They contained several different types of food, meats, pastas, and vegetables, which were easily poured out and quickly cooked. He also ate large white cookies, which were shipped from Korea. Rischmann was hospitalized for two to three days due to a back injury. He temporarily could not straighten his back, but was able to do so by the time he was discharged from the hospital. Rischmann remembered the temperature in Vietnam going up to as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. He said soldiers developed large red rashes on their skin because of severe sunburn. Rischmann also spoke of how people needed to take salt tablets due to excessive sweating.

When May of 1968 arrived, it was time for Rischmann to go home. He first flew into Tacoma, Washington, before returning to New Jersey. Rischmann was advised not travel in uniform when he returned to the United States, due to the increasing antiwar protests. He worked several months in Maryland at an ordnance facility until his term of service expired, when he was discharged in December 1968. After moving back home, Rischmann worked maintenance at the Old Country Store. He referred to it as a very pleasant job, working from 9am to 3:30pm and often visiting Laurel Racetrack with his co-workers.

Rischmann said the hardest part about his entire experience in Vietnam was that there were moments when he felt alone, despite being around people. Alongside his periodic loneliness, he feared for his life when being out on the frontline. Rischmann stated how war is not something anyone ever forgets. The experiences remain in one’s mind throughout his or her entire life. He himself went through a period of eight to ten years where he relived horrendous moments from his war experiences. However, Rischmann would eventually live out the rest of his life without any severe trauma. At Manasquan VFW Post 1838, he serves as Chaplain.

Researchers

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