A US helicopter takes off from a clearing near Du Co SF camp, Vietnam, 1965. The military convoy was on its way to relieve the camp when it was ambushed (inset). Photograph by Tim Page. [o]
You went off the rails with booze when you in San Francisco, right? Were you in trouble with the law?
BOB NASMITH No, I wasn't in trouble with the law. I possibly could have been but I was, I was shielded from that, I was protected from that. Influential friends. No, I would just, for example, on a warm summer day, go to my favourite bar and have 15 Tom Collins. So the combination of the booze and the sweetness would get you feeling a little frisky and, you know, that friskiness involved putting somebody through a plate glass window. And they thought, this will not do, this is unseemly conduct.
BARRY STEVENS What did you think of the free speech/left wing guys in San Francisco at that time?
NASMITH It’s very funny, I regarded them as disruptive and interfering. For example, I went to see Lenny Bruce live one time and I thought he was pretty ordinary. There were other people there like The Committee and other people who did comedy that I enjoyed a lot more. I wasn't on the cutting edge. I wasn't particularly radical.
STEVENS What was the attitude towards the Vietnam War at that time?
NASMITH The Vietnam War was very, very new. We were aware there was coverage. There were the green berets and there were the special assistance units going in to work with the Vietnamese units. But there was no real American presence there.
STEVENS Did you think you might get sent to Vietnam?
NASMITH This had been my intention from the start. Absolutely. When I had decided to go into the army I decided to go in all the way. That was it.
I thought it would please them that I should be into the cause.
STEVENS Did you want to get into combat?
NASMITH Absolutely! I wanted some adventure. And also getting extra money. I was getting extra money every month for jumping, and I got extra money every month for combat pay.
STEVENS Were you into the cause at all, or just adventure?
NASMITH I think that I may have been, in a little way, in the sense that I was a bit like a dog wanting to please people. So if I thought it would please them that I should be into the cause, or that I should buy the party line, then my tendency would have been to buy the party line.
STEVENS What was "the cause"?
NASMITH As I saw it then, it was communist aggression into a country that did not want them, and, furthermore, geographically and logistically, that they would take territory that was important to the business of other countries.
STEVENS The domino theory.
NASMITH It was the domino theory, in a sense, yes.
STEVENS Tell me about 173rd Okinawa.
NASMITH Very unusual within the army, they were an independent brigade [the basic deployable unit of maneuver in the U.S. Army], 3500 men led by a brigadier general with the 2IC, second-in-command, being a bird colonel [a full colonel wearing an eagle button]. And we had specialty training for tropical warfare and, obviously, jumping. It was a pretty good unit. I am guessing that with the infantry units, and there were two major infantry battalions, that it might have been 50 per cent black. And all volunteer.
STEVENS Was there a marine unit at Okinawa?
NASMITH Absolutely. The First Marine Division. We were completely surrounded by marines, and there was a great deal of competitiveness between us and the marines, and between us and any other branch of the service. On the weekends we'd go off to our bars and entertainment areas, and every weekend or second weekend there would be an agreed-upon fight between a small unit of Marines and a company [a few dozen to 200 soldiers] of paratroops from the 173rd, and they got pretty rowdy. I remember on one occasion a friend of mine was killed during one of these fights. I think he was probably kicked in the head a couple of times. So it wasn't playful and it was carrying a service rivalry a little bit far. But, you know, you're being conditioned to fight. So it shouldn't be too much of a shock.
Two South Vietnamese children cling to their mothers who huddle against a canal bank for protection from Viet Cong sniper fire in the Bao Trai area, Vietnam, 1965. Photograph by Horst Faas. [o]
STEVENS What did you think about that when your friend died?
NASMITH I didn't enjoy the fact that my friend was killed, and I'm sure I engaged in some revenge fantasies, but a real lid was put on all of these extra curricular activities by the brass. So it just, it just went on. And I think that's cultivated. I think that was at that time encouraged. I mean, take the Canadian example. They wanted to integrate the entire military, look at the opposition they ran into. They wanted their unit pride, this so-called competitive edge. I think it was integral to the notion of the military and how it was structured.
STEVENS What was it like when you arrived in Vietnam?
NASMITH We were the first ones in, and the Marines went up to Danang and we went south to a place called Bien Hoa, a big airbase north of Saigon. I sure remember the day we landed there. The doors opened and the heat hit you like a son of a bitch. We just sat on the runway until we trucked off to our base in the woods. Our initial job was to protect the airbase by putting perimeter guards around it. Then immediately we started doing sweeps in the surrounding areas, what they used to call search and destroy missions.
There were certain areas around that part of Vietnam that were given designations like "The Iron Triangle" or "War Zone D" or "Phung Tao”. They were held, if you want to say ‘held,’ by the VC. No, they were not held by the VC — there was a significant VC presence. Mostly they were held by poor sons of bitches who just wanted to be left alone and farm. [VC is Viet Cong, literally “Communist Viet”, established in 1960, an armed communist revolutionary organization in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that fought under the direction of North Vietnam.]
STEVENS Had you met any Vietnamese at this point?
NASMITH I have not really met, we have met in passing. But, no, I have not met any Vietnamese at this point.
STEVENS You said these were farmers.
NASMITH Yes. And just villagers.
STEVENS What were you searching and destroying?
NASMITH We were trying to break up any strong assemblages of enemy forces, and trying to root out any storage areas. For example, on one search and destroy mission we were going through it and we came across a huge weapons cache.
And these are just platforms camouflaged in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. You can't really see them unless you walk through on the ground — and why would anybody be there? So you would destroy them. One of the platforms had a Czech sniper rifle with scope. It was a beauty. Single shot, the real deal. So I kinda slung that over my back and I was going to try to figure out a way to get it back to camp and keep it as a souvenir. Of course relieved of it by an officer who I am quite sure slung it over his shoulder and took it back to camp and tried to figure out a way to keep it.
Tim Page [1944-2022], a photographer for UPI and a friend of Nasmith's, who would have been carrying a similar rig as Page's here. Photographer unknown.
STEVENS What were your sergeants like?
NASMITH The sergeants were pretty damn good. Pretty professional.
STEVENS Did you like the commanders?
NASMITH I liked my sergeant, Sergeant Pratt. There was a lieutenant colonel [commanding battalion-sized units, 300-1,000 soldiers] named Blackjack Bowen. He was a tough-ass son of a bitch and he ran a really tight infantry battalion. He did not inspire any fondness, but you had the sense that if you were going out into combat that you were in fairly good hands. With some other people, that feeling was less pronounced.
STEVENS Any examples?
NASMITH And I will go on the record as saying that [a senior officer in charge] of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1965-1966 was a little martinet piece of shit and not worth the powder it would have taken to blow him to hell. He was a destructive, glory-seeking, glory-hungry little piece of crap.
But that's the kind of guy he was. He just wanted the glory.
STEVENS What made you feel that way about him?
NASMITH He would send off a company from a battalion to take an area. We will call it a hill. There was no goddamn reason on earth to take this hill because you're gonna be leaving it in a couple of days anyway. But there's some action up there so he sends a bunch of guys out to do that, 4 or 5 or 6 of them, who will get killed, another bunch will get wounded, and you won't take the hill. And he sucked up to the press in a way you would not believe. It is a good thing he had shoulders because the rest of his body would have followed his head up the media's ass. It was like he was a little lick spittle. And then to top it off, he would occasionally fly in a helicopter over a battle area, or the area of a sweep or an operation site, and on one occasion the shit really hit the fan and there were quite a number of casualties. It was a complete disgrace. But that's the kind of guy he was. He just wanted the glory. And his second-in-command, Colonel Duddy, put him in for a Congressional Medal of Honour.
STEVENS What kind of terrain were you traveling through when you were going on these missions?
NASMITH I never went down to the Mekong Delta, so I have no idea what the Mekong Delta is like, that flat patty area. The areas that we worked in would be light jungle, rice paddies of course, fields, and gorgeous thick woods. Very, very overgrown. When you get to the central highlands. up to Pleiku, Kon Tum, there is gorgeous old forest with heavy vegetation and little lakes scattered among the hills. It could be tough going, and absolutely miserable during the monsoon seasons. If I never experience another monsoon season I'll be a real happy guy.
STEVENS Did you have contact with the enemy?
NASMITH Rarely, rarely, rarely any even visual contact with the enemy. Very rarely. Fire from a tree line, some mortar, and as we for example swept through an area that had been napalmed or bombed or artillery had done, we were find VC bodies. But no eye-ball to eye-ball. At this point it is important to mention that I spent very little time in the infantry, even though that was my training.
A wounded Vietnamese ranger during a Viet Cong attack during battle in Dong Xoai, June 11, 1965. [o]
STEVENS And that was because you were offered a new role.
NASMITH Well, I'm a lucky bastard. The combat photographer in our unit got killed right off the bat. And they knew from my resumé, from my record, that I had a little bit of university, from San Francisco State, and some time at Berkeley, and I’d done a little bit of photography, a little bit of writing. They said, how'd you like to be the combat photographer? I said, great, fantastic, I’d love it. So that's what happened, I became the combat photographer. And this would have been in ‘65 and ‘66. But what that also meant — and it was a real turning point in my life — was that the war was new. I was going out into places where there was nobody else there with a camera. Journalists would come and I would liaise with them and take them out. So here I am, a 21-year-old punk with shit for brains and no experience, I’m going out into the field with guys who had covered Korea, Second World War, Algeria, French Indochina — the most experienced journalists in the world.
STEVENS Who had seen a thing or two.
NASMITH Who had seen a thing or two. And some of them I got along with real well. My two best friends were two guys who won the Pulitzer Prize in ‘65, Peter Arnett [AP, Associate Press] and the photographer Tim Page [UPI, United Press International]. And the photographer Horst Faas [AP]. These guys are opening my eyes up. While I'm seeing this and I’m saying this and I’m spouting the party line, they're sitting me down with a couple of drinks or a joint and saying, look . . . this is what's really happening. And I go . . . oh, oh, oh. Really? ≈ç
BARRY STEVENS is a documentary filmmaker and writer. He was an editor of Peace Magazine and a member of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament; his documentaries include Offspring (Emmy nominated), Prosecutor, and the series War Story (about Canada's military participation in war), which has won multiple awards. He lives in Toronto.
This interview was conducted by Barry Stevens for an episode of the TV series 'War Story,' in which Bob was featured.
If we had photographs of Bob's we would show them, but they are the property of the US Army and we have not been able to access them.