Bob Beebe served in the United States Army from 1963 to 1968. He graduated from Bozeman High School. He served in the Battle of the Ia Drang, one of the bloodiest and most severe, which was highlighted in the book and movie "We Were Soldiers Once and Young." This is part of his Vietnam story.
Gazette: In 1963, did you know anything about Vietnam?
Beebe: "Not until March 1964 — that's when I first I heard about Vietnam because it started hitting the news."
Beebe did basic training in Fort Ord, Calif., and then did artillery school in Fort Sill, Okla., for advanced individual training. In January 1964, he went to "jump school" in Fort Benning, Ga.
Beebe: "The U.S. government at that time was getting interested in the Vietnam War, and we started experimenting with helicopters, so we formed the 11th Air Assault Division ... We spent three months in North and South Carolina in maneuvers and experimenting with helicopters."
In August 1965, the Army put an entire division on five U.S. troop ships, going through the Panama Canal, through the Pacific Ocean, headed for Vietnam in Qui Nhon Bay on Sept. 18, 1965.
Gazette: You were being trained for Vietnam. What did you think when you learned about this place?
Beebe: "I was watching on the five o'clock news every night. Probably a 30-minute newscast there was 10 minutes on the Vietnam War, of people getting shot and America getting more deeply involved in it. President Johnson decided to send more troops over there. They planned us. We were the first fighting division planned to go over there strictly for combat duty. People prior to us were there primarily for advisers and support. We were the first division to go over there to actually fight against the North Vietnamese. We had the guerrillas, the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and the Sappers. We had four of them."
Gazette: Was this what you wanted to do when you signed up?
Beebe: "I had no idea. I wanted a future. I had no idea what I was getting into. I mainly wanted a future with a better education. Being a farm and ranch boy, I knew that I wanted to do more than milk cows."
Gazette: You went over there as a unit, not just replacement?
Beebe: "When I went over there, there was less than 100,000 people who were Americans. We just kept building up from there. What a lot of people don't know for every one soldier in the field fighting, you got seven people in a rear echelon doing their finances, their personal records — all kinds of stuff. If you got 100,000 people in South Vietnam, you probably only got 8,000 or 9,000 fighting soldiers. The rest are support."
Gazette: You're trained in artillery and air assault. That's a lot of combat training. Was that exciting, scary? And then you were actually going to a place — it wasn't practice anymore.
Beebe: "When we got to Qui Nhon, they were so primitive that they didn't even have ports out there, so we were about two miles off shore in a troop ship. We pulled in during the evening time and they were going to wait until the next morning to get on the assault boats and take us onto shore. Well, we stood on the decks of the boats on that first night in Vietnam watching tracers up and down the mountain. I thought, 'Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?' When we got there, I can't repeat the words, but the first words I heard when I got there was something to the effect, 'Get on that blankety blank truck over there.'"
Gazette: What did Vietnam look like, feel like when you got there?
Beebe: "Part of it was jungle. And part of the area that I was in was mostly — if you go down toward Big Timber and look at all the rolling hills, it was kind of like that. A lot of red dirt."
Gazette: From Qui Nhon you went where?
Beebe: "An Khe — 46 miles inland. That's where our base camp was."
Gazette: An Khe was a pretty tough area. Was it tough when you got there?
Beebe: "Yes, it was. But with our presence right next to it, we had 15,000 troops there all of a sudden, just about over night. We built a basecamp and hired local people to cut down the trees and shrubs. The village itself wasn't bad. Once we got situated and started to go on search-and-destroy missions, then things got a little scary."
Gazette: You had to build your own quarters because you're establishing the military in that part of Vietnam, correct?
Beebe: "We lived in pup tents for the first three months."
Gazette: Were you taking fire then, and were you a target?
Beebe: "In the base camp, we didn't. Our base camp, when I was there, we didn't have any in the camp. We had a perimeter (patrol) every night. We had miles and miles and miles of concertina wire up. Our basecamp was probably a square mile. That's how big it was.
" ... My job was the artillery. I was a buck sergeant, but every time the infantry would go out on maneuvers or search and destroy missions, my job was to go with the infantry, and when we came under fire, I carried the radio and I called in the airstrikes and artillery fire.
" ... If the infantry comes under fire, the first three people they look for — number one: The person with the machine gun; number two would be a man with a radio on his back, which I had; number three would be an officer or a person in command. That was the three priorities the enemy had to take out first.
" ... When we first started out in Pleiku, mainly sniper fire was what we got. One sniper can hold a whole company down for two or three hours. But then, around the first of November, things started getting real tough on us. We started meeting more and more resistance because we were halfway between the Pacific coast and the Cambodian border up where An Khe was at. Being the first Americans there, the North Vietnamese pretty much had control of the center part of South Vietnam ... Intelligence went in there and found out where the bulk of them were, Chu Pong Mountain. They figured close to 2,000 North Vietnamese regulars were there, and they sent us in to see if we could take over."
Beebe was part of the fighting force that would begin what became known as the "Battle of Ia Drang," Nov. 14, 1965, just a little more than 50 years ago. It was to become one of the most severe and prolonged battles of the war.
" ... Our first assault was all done by Huey (UH-1) helicopters where you have five soldiers at a time. We sent in 16 helicopters ... The minute we get to the ground there, we find this young soldier — this North Vietnamese soldier — we actually captured him and come to find out, we landed right in the middle of their base camp. There were 1,800 North Vietnamese had us surrounded within the first few hours.
" ... 72 hours later, 307 of my friends dead. We kept bringing in more troops and medevacing the wounded out, and bringing more troops in. There were more than 600 wounded in the 72-hour battle. One of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War and the first battle that the North Vietnamese were interested in how the Americans were going to fight. We say we won that battle. They say they won that battle. So, it was kind of a draw. They had over 1,000 dead. The heat — not the body heat — but the air heat was so bad that after five or six hours that the stink from all these dead bodies — I mean, there's just dead bodies on top of dead bodies laying all over the place. It was just something you never want to smell in your life."
Gazette: So when this began — if my math is right — it started with about 80 men surrounded by 1,800 of them.
Beebe: "People say it can't be done, but you've basically stayed awake for three days. You might cat nap for two seconds or something."
Gazette: How did you get there?
Beebe: "I was the second wave."
Gazette: By the time you got there, did you know what you were going into?
Beebe: "You could see it because air strikes were already going on ... But artillery fire and napalm was already coming in to support our troops. You could see that from two or three miles away — all this smoke coming up in the air."
Gazette: As you're coming into that, landing there, what were you thinking?
Beebe: "I had tears in my eyes. I was literally crying."
Gazette: Were other guys?
Gazette: How hard is it to get out of the helicopter?
Beebe: "It never touched the ground. It probably was six feet up. We just jumped."
Gazette: Were you under fire immediately?
Beebe: "We were under fire before we even landed on the second wave."
Gazette: When you hit the ground what happens then?
Beebe: "You go to your belly instantly. You wait for a command from the senior officer, which happened to be Col. Hal Moore. He sent us over to support, the left flank."
Gazette: Three days of fighting. What do you remember about the fight and what does it look like?
Beebe: "I don't know if you know what an elimination round is, but the scary part was at night time ... It's a great big light goes up in the air and it explodes. It comes down by parachute. It sits up there swinging ... Once it goes off, it takes 15, 20 minutes before it burns out and hits the ground. There were always five or six of them up there, kind of like a football field at nighttime with all the lights. To watch the Air Force come in with jets. The enemy's out in front of you and you can see the jets come in and drop the bombs way behind you, 500 or 1,000 pound bombs. You watch them tumble in the air like that. You think, 'God I hope that thing goes over me.'
" ... The shadows of the tree and the ground, you didn't know if it was a tree moving or Charlie was moving on you. It kind of different, you know?
" ... A basic load. We had 20 round clips but we didn't put more than 18 in the clip because for some reason ... the first M16s, that 19th round would jam every time. So, we put 18 rounds in a clip. You had 10 to 15 clips. You'd leave a box of C-rations at the base camp just to take two extra clips of ammunition ... Most of us had our M16s on automatic fire."
Gazette: Were they doing resupply to you during those days?
Beebe: "It was around the clock. They'd bring in a load of ammo in and we'd pick up the (killed in action) or wounded in action, put them on a helicopter and they'd take off."
Gazette: Was it loud and what were sounds?
Beebe: "You can be four feet from one another and you have to scream at the top of your lungs to hear what they're saying."
Gazette: Was it hard staying awake for three days?
Beebe: "I didn't think so. It's tough. We were totally exhausted when it was all over with."
Gazette: How do you deal with someone being wounded or killed? How do you deal with that and do your job?
Beebe: "That's a tough question to answer. You just respond. You don't think about that kind of stuff. You just automatically respond. You do what you can to help. You help your fellow man right there. But, also, you have to protect the interests of everyone else around you."
Gazette: You have to keep low, I imagine.
Beebe: "I was kissing the ground a whole bunch of times."
Gazette: What did you think of how the NVA fought?
Beebe: "I think a lot of them were half drugged up half the time. They'd rather die than get captured. They were pretty tough."
Gazette: During those three days, how much did you move?
Beebe: "Kind of back and forth. Assault here or an assault over there. Col. Moore had moved people around from one spot to another. He was a smart man. He had to be smart to do what he did in order to save as many lives as he could. I got a lot of respect for that man."
Gazette: At the end of three days what happens?
Beebe: "They kind of retreated back into Cambodia. We were only about five or six miles from the Cambodian line. We weren't allowed to go in there. Probably about noon of the third day, we discovered they were gone ... We got in minor skirmishes (as the American soldiers started heading toward artillery) because they were retreating the same way. We were trying to get back to the artillery batteries. It was probably another 24 hours of fighting after that."
Gazette: Was it chaos?
Beebe: "Yeah, because you were lost half of the time. Some people were out beyond our perimeter by themselves all night long, you know? You don't dare crawl in because we would think that was enemy crawling in toward us. There was a lot of our own that got killed by our own people."
Gazette: So almost 1,000 Americans wounded or killed, how long did that take to get that many back?
Beebe: "It was a continuous operation between fighting and loading the KIAs and the WIAs ... Under fire the whole time. The North Vietnamese came down from the north. They carried everything they had. They were well equipped and they were very, very determined. They wanted to know how Americans fought for future reference for what to do."
Gazette: Were you proud of how you fought?
Beebe: "Very proud. Very proud of everybody I was with. Somebody back here you might think, 'Well, he's a candy ass.' We get over there and probably one of the biggest heroes you ever want to be with. Nobody had no idea what would it be like until it actually happened to you."