CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES

Vietnam War

Wilbur Bishof

Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Army, SWS MACV, CDC (CEA), Army General Staff (ODCSOPS)
Date: September 15, 2001
Interviewer: Robert Pontecorvo
Summarizer: Chris Murray 
Veterans History Project

Summary

Wilbur Bishof was born in July 1930 in Newark, New Jersey. He developed an interest in the military at an early age. Bishof was a United States Army veteran who served as an enlisted man and an officer, including positions as First Sergeant, Platoon Leader, Company Commander and Battalion and Division Staff Officer in the New Jersey National Guard’s 50th Armored Division. He volunteered for active duty in 1967. Bishof served as an advisor to South Vietnamese RF-PF Forces – Regional Forces and Popular Force – during the Tet Offensive battles of 1968.

COL(Ret) Wilbur Bishof

In his junior year of high school, Bishof and a friend enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard at the Red Bank Armory. Bishof spent the next nine years in the Guard as an enlisted man, rising from private to the rank of master sergeant, and he became a company first sergeant in 1956. His battalion commander suggested that he consider accepting a direct commission as a second lieutenant, noting that the National Guard would shortly require potential officers to attend Officer Candidate School, and that Bishof would be required to do so if he wanted a commission and waited any longer. The commander told Bishof that, at the age of 26, he was “too old” to put up with the 14 week OCS course. Bishof agreed and was directly commissioned in October of 1956. In 1957, he attended a Basic Officer Course in Fort Monmouth and then served in the 644th tank battalion. After Bishof’s promotion to captain, he attended the Army Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. During this time, the Vietnam War was raging. In 1967 Bishof, then a major, volunteered for active duty.

Major Bishof reported to Fort Dix in February 1967 to await orders for Vietnam. He recalled that, when he was told that he would be assigned to be a RF–PF (Regional Forces–Popular Forces) adviser, his response was “what in God’s name is that.” RF stood for Regional Forces and PF for Popular Forces. The RF-PF, referred to as “Ruff-Puffs” in army slang, were South Vietnamese local militia. The Regional Forces were assigned to protect critical road outposts, bridges and ferries. Popular Forces were similar units designated to protect local villages from the Viet Cong.

To perform his assigned job, Bishof had to acquire a basic knowledge of Vietnamese language and culture, as well as complete a Military Advisor course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. During the course’s eight-week duration, he and his family lived at Fort Bragg, where his homework each night included studying lists of Vietnamese names and places, and listening to records to help him learn the language.

A “Ruff-Puff” in the field

After completing his course at Fort Bragg, Bishof was sent to Oakland, California, where he boarded a plane bound for Saigon. Soon after landing, he was immersed in Vietnamese life and culture. Bishof recalled that, during his time in Vietnam, he tried his best to learn and respect the customs of the Vietnamese people, saying “I learned to live, eat, sleep…Vietnamese.” On one of his first days in the country, Bishof was invited to a mountain retreat for a luncheon. When he sat down and saw a pair of chopsticks next to his plate, he was embarrassed by the fact that he had no idea of how to use them. To remedy that deficiency, Bishof practiced in private, using the Asian utensils to pick up peanuts, which dramatically improved his dining dexterity. He firmly believed that, since the United States troops were guests in Vietnam, they should get to know the Vietnamese people. Bishof recollected that he felt it somewhat ironic to be an advisor to South Vietnamese troops who had been fighting this war since 1954.

His attitude earned Bishof respect from both American and South Vietnamese soldiers. On one occasion, his position was under heavy fire; and, a South Vietnamese lieutenant who was also a friend was badly wounded. Bishof called for a helicopter medical “Dust-off” to a hospital for the lieutenant; its pilot responded, “we don’t save Vietnamese.” Bishof demanded compliance with his request, and the helicopter landed, saving the officer’s life. His dedication to helping his South Vietnamese comrades was noted by the men he was serving with.

Bishof’s memories of the Tet Offensive were particularly vivid. Tet is the Vietnamese New Year, the most important annual celebration in the country’s culture. Prior to 1968, both sides had agreed to a three-day truce during the holiday. In 1968, however, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese used Tet to launch a major offensive across the country, attacking every South Vietnamese and American base. As his compound at Bien Hoa was attacked, Bishof sprinted to the second floor of the headquarters building he was in to better observe where the enemy was coming from. He remembered seeing a flash of light and instantly concluded that a B-40 rocket had just been fired at him. The rocket hit the building just a few feet from where Bishof was standing, and it collapsed the whole side of the headquarters. He and his Ruff Puffs were surrounded by the Viet Cong and fought for three days and nights, until they were relieved by a detachment of South Vietnamese rangers who landed in helicopters and evacuated them to a nearby safe town.

In October 1968 Wilbur Bishof returned home to what he referred to as the most beautiful sight he ever saw, his wife dressed all in white standing with his children waiting for him. After his return, he was assigned to Fort Monmouth until 1971, during which time he completed his BA degree and earned an MA degree at Monmouth University.

In February 1971 Bishof returned to duty with the New Jersey National Guard. In 1974, he was accepted for a statutory tour of four years of active duty stint at the Pentagon, where he worked in the office of the deputy chief of staff of operations and planning. During the assignment, Bishof performed a wide variety of jobs, from editing speeches for generals to answering questions from visiting congressmen.

In 1987 Wilbur Bishof retired from the New Jersey National Guard at the rank of colonel. He went on to become Director of Public Works in Union Beach and Business Administrator in the Boro of Atlantic Highlands. Bishof concluded his interview by sharing his thoughts on universal military training. He believed that most high school and even college graduates don’t have a plan for what they want to do in life, and that two years of service would clarify the situation for them and point them in the right direction. Colonel Wilbur Bishof passed away on October 6, 2016. He was a dedicated soldier and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart, among many other awards, and he spent most of his life serving his state and his country.

Researchers

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