Bob Sorensen is a Billings native. He graduated with honors from West High. He studied at Cornell University. His family moved to the San Francisco area before moving back to Billings. He was trained as an Army medic, but was reassigned to an artillery unit. This is part of his Vietnam story. To hear the complete interview, download the podcast from the Billings Gazette or watch the video on YouTube.
Sorenson: “On my very first day at Cornell (in Ithaca, N.Y.) ... I received a knock on my (door). There was a wild-haired, amped up young man recruiting new students to join the anti-war movement. I was quite taken back by it. I didn’t know at that time how serious the anti-war movement was on the Cornell campus. In California, in the Bay Area especially, we had the counterculture hippies, Berkeley ... just a half-hour from where my parents lived. We had the racial tension of the Black Panthers and the anti-war movement, which I ended up having some up-close and personal experiences with.”
Sorensen studied chemistry at Cornell, but the campus atmosphere was a distraction. He wanted to be a research chemist. After two years at Cornell, Sorensen felt he needed a break. He left Cornell temporarily to live with his parents and get a job.
Sorensen: “The long arm of the Yellowstone County Selective Service didn’t take long to find me. It took two months. ... I remember clearly receiving the letter from the selective service board in Billings. There was kind of an iconic leader of that association. Her name was Mrs. Ward, and when I opened her letter and saw her name, I instantly knew what I was in for. My mother was standing next to me when I opened the draft letter and I uttered an expletive I had never had used in her presence. The one and only time it’s ever occurred in my life. Then it was a short wait and bused to the Oakland Induction Center. It was a very chaotic experience. The anti-war protesters were up the next couple of blocks from the bus and the center. We arrived in the center, they were banging on the sides of the bus. There was a mass demonstration. I exited the bus to try navigate through to the induction center and some of the fellows who were on the bus actually took up the protesters request to not go in. From there I did go in, and went through the induction procedure. In short order, I was in Fort Lewis, Washington, for basic training.”
Gazette: You’re met by protesters — what was that like? What were the sights and sounds?
Sorensen: “The sounds were just loud slogans and chanting. They had all kinds of signs. And they were fairly up in your face.”
Gazette: Did you sympathize with their position?
Sorensen: “Not at all at the time.”
Gazette: Were you afraid? Was it a scary experience?
Sorensen: “To be honest, it was more a deer in the headlights. I didn’t have a feel for where I was or what I was going through until I looked back.”
Gazette: What did you think of the people who did what the protesters said and didn’t go in?
Sorensen: “I was shocked that it could happen. I knew that the way I was brought up here in Billings, that I was accountable for my actions. By virtue of being drafted, I had some responsibilities to follow through with, and there was just no room for my decision-making to do otherwise.”
During training to be an Army medic in Texas, there were three other Montanans with Sorensen. He recalls one in particular.
Sorensen: “One bunk over there was another Montanan, Anton Schnobrich from Clyde Park, Montana, 18 years old, just out of high school, he was not drafted, just enlisted, and to put it bluntly he was a naive kid. And I wondered at the time what he was doing there, but he was so excited about his future in the Army and he wanted to be a combat medic and fly in a dustoff helicopter. At 18 years old, he had that vision.
“I want to jump ahead two years. Anton Schnobrich lost his life in Vietnam in October of 1971 when his dustoff helicopter crashed on a nighttime mission in bad weather. When I learned of that, I was already at home for a few months. It devastated me because all I could remember was this 18-year-old that wanted to be a dustoff medic and in two year’s time lost his life. It was a seminal moment for me to just try and wrap my head around the cost of being engaged in Vietnam — just one little slice of the cost.”
When Sorensen arrived in Vietnam, he was informed that he would be a member of an artillery unit, not a medic as he’d been trained. Sorensen had no training in that field.
Sorensen: “(The operations officer) had a manpower balance to handle in an area where he needed a resource. He didn’t need a resource as a combat medic. He made a business decision. All that training was put on the shelf and I had on-the-job training in the field. Most of the fellows I worked alongside in Vietnam had gone through field artillery school in Fort Sill, which is quite technical. There was a very steep learning curve. Looking back, had I been assigned to a field unit, my exposure would have been significantly increased from what it was for me. Who knows? I know this: Spending time at one of the fire bases ... at one called ‘The Oasis,’ two weeks later, after I left that unit on some temporary duty as a field artillery fire direction control technician, the firebase was attacked ... the battery medic with whom I had shared a hooch (bunkhouse tent, in most cases), he came out of the door of the hooch, and he was shot point-blank and killed. It’s just an example of what could have been.”
Gazette: How often does that come into your thoughts?
Sorensen: “Time comes into play, and it was into my thoughts for a number of years. I struggled with it, especially Anton Schnobrich. The death of the medic I was able to reconcile as the business of war. Somehow, Anton’s death affected me more deeply.”
Gazette: What’s daily job entail for a field artillery fire direction control technician?
Sorensen: “It was fairly easy because of the mentors that I had. Fortunately, the unit I was assigned to had great mentors. All of them were draftees. This is one thing that’s significant about Vietnam: How you could take a fellow soldier from Montana and plug him into military organization in Vietnam and get them trained up to do their job and to witness them doing their job effectively in a place they didn’t want to be in, but they did the job and did it well. So, I attribute the success to the on-the-job training.”
On his first day, the first thing that was discussed was “missions over the fence.”
Sorensen: “Over the border, Laos. To be very clear: We are not in Laos. If you look back in history of Vietnam, that became a very significant piece of Vietnam history. We had operations in Cambodia and Laos — special forces — the politically correct characterizations were that we weren’t operating there. We were informed not to discuss it with family or friends, never to write about it. We had our periodic calls back home and we were never to say anything about it.”
Gazette: Did that make you feel uneasy?
Sorensen: “It did because the political context at the time was we had rules of engagement that were prescribed and that the American public was aware of, but that wasn’t disclosed and that could have made a difference in the reaction of the public and how the Vietnam War evolved.”
Sorensen was stationed at a feeder point for the Ho Chi Minh Trail as it entered South Vietnam.
Sorensen: “There was always the presence of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong elements. The fire missions that we had over the fence, we supported the special forces operation and also to harass and interdict the traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”
Gazette: What’s an average day like?
Sorensen: “Monsoon season was half the year, and the rest of the year was either cool or kind of Indian Summer-like. Monsoon season dictated a lot of what we did. A typical day for me was living in a wood-framed hooch with galvanized steel roofing with about 10 other soldiers, and we operated out of a tactic operations center that was built by the Japanese in World War II in the 1940s. It was a cement bunker. It was on a base that supported by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN. ... We coordinated the artillery fire for all three of the six battalion’s firebases. Some firebases operated by other Army units and coordinated with the ARVN artillery so that everyone was on the same page where the artillery was being directed so that they could be out of harm’s way. One of the responsibilities was to keep the air operations informed of our artillery fire so that we didn’t expose them to harm. That was a very exciting piece of the job because we got to talk to B-52 pilots, all the helicopter pilots, the gunship pilots, the “Spooky” and “Spectre” pilots. It gave you a very close feel for what was going on and what was hot and heavy.
“... Our daily activities would go on for days on end, and then we’d get a rocket attack from a ridge just above the tactical operations center, which we operated from. Probably in the 14 months I served in that spot, it’s pretty typical to get a couple of attacks a week. Some of them were almost direct hits, and if you look back, by the grace of God, you’re not on the Vietnam War Memorial.”
Gazette: How did you keep sanity if you’re always under fire?
Sorensen: “The short answer is that you just have to cope. The rocket attacks were certainly designed to mess with you. The time of day was the night — just after you’ve gone to bed. I really have to hand it to the Viet Cong and NVA soldiers who were responsible for those rocket attacks. Not only the logistics of lugging the material by hand, which they did, but very crude weapons. They were incredibly smart and accurate and incredible from the psychology standpoint, right on with how they could mess with you.”