The Mekong Delta.
The vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands in southern Vietnam normally used for rice cultivation is a battlefield as Nathan Robinson fights to stay alive.
He hides behind rice paddy banks to keep from getting his head blown off by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. He is often bogged down in thick mud, particularly during the wet season, but he must maneuver as best he can to avoid bullets flying straight at him.
Some of his men get hit, but he is thankful he has the ability to call in airstrikes or gunships to help support the mission. It is a mission that often involves fighting for his life and the lives of others along an intricate plain stretching hundreds of miles.
“You had to stay alive. It was not easy. It was rugged. You had to fight out there. You got to lay flat down. You can’t hold your head up. If you do, you were gonna get hit," Robinson said. "We had to roll."
The 69-year-old Orangeburg resident recalls his experiences while serving two tours of duty in the Vietnam War. His first tour lasted from March 7 to Dec. 15, 1967, when he served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade as a specialist fourth class. His second tour was from Feb. 10 to Oct. 15, 1968.
“My main motto was that if I’m going to be captured, I’m gonna have two grenades on my side. And when the enemy come at me, I’m gonna let them go," Robinson said. "It was as simple as that because you don’t want to be captured by a North Vietnamese, Chinese or Viet Cong. We’d be tortured to death."
The infantry soldier recalled his first tour of duty as a member of an assault unit that became adept at jumping in and out of helicopters to avoid enemy fire.
“You got about eight to 10 soldiers in a helicopter. You got a pilot and a co-pilot, along with two door gunners, who deal with machine guns and protect you as you’re getting into the helicopter if anybody is trying to shoot at you," he said.
“The helicopters did not land because there were mine fields, but this is what assault unit guys do. They load up in their choppers and go directly to the battle. Some of them made it and some of them didn’t,” Robinson said.
He said he was in 104 assault missions and never got wounded.
Robinson became all too familiar with seeing and picking up the bodies of those who were not as fortunate as he was, but he said his training as an infantry soldier toughened him to the realities of war.
“I was a combat infantry soldier. I was designed to fight. That’s all we did. We’d go out and fight, run ambushes and patrols and sweep the areas. It didn’t make any difference,” he said.
The Mekong Delta, Saigon, Bien Hoa, Tan Son Nhut, An Khe, Long Binh and the Iron Triangle were some of the places he fought, Robinson said.
His said his most memorable experience in Vietnam was during his second tour of duty, when he had changed his military occupational specialty, or MOS, to wheel vehicle mechanic.
At that time, Robinson was serving with the 584th Engineering Company (Heavy Equipment), which was attached to the 4th Infantry Division and stationed at Pleiku Air Base.
“This time I was up north and close to the demilitarized zone,” but the 4th Infantry Division was not spared attack by the North Vietnamese, which began on Valentine’s Day of 1968, he said.
“It was a Tet Offensive, and that’s when the enemy comes at you with all their firepower. The Fourth Infantry Division compound was getting overrun. We had about 5,000 troops on the base at the time, and we were getting hit from all directions,” Robinson said.
The North Vietnamese fired 122mm rocket launchers, or “grave diggers,” which would create holes six to seven feet deep and throw scrap metal all over the area, he said.
Robinson said his expertise as an infantry soldier helped him advise his company commander on how to best save lives.
“I told him to not get in the trenches that we had because the enemy had all of them scoped out. I told him we would get in the hole that the 122 (rocket) made because the North Vietnamese nor the Viet Cong is good enough to put two rounds in the same hole," he said.
“None of our troops got wounded. Nobody got missing, captured or killed. He awarded me with an Army Letter of Commendation for saving the company from getting injured. It was just part of my training, and that’s what saved his company,” Robinson said.
He added, “Some of the other guys from the other units in the 4th Division got in the trenches, and a lot of them got wounded or killed.”
Robinson's other awards for his service in the Vietnam War include: the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry; the Silver Star Medal; the National Defense Service Medal; the Combat Infantry Badge; the Good Conduct Medal; three Meritorious Service Medals; and the Army Expert Shooting Badges for his prowess in the use of M60 and M16 assault weapons.
His worst memories of the war include narrowly escaping being strangled by a giant 20-foot python and nearly drowning in the Mekong River. He also recalled tripping a booby trap in a pineapple plantation that, fortunately, did not go off.
“I had survived again. What got me through was, quite naturally, God, and number two was the training I received at Ft. Jackson. I also had a young lady back in the states, and I said, ‘Well, I wanna get back to see my girlfriend,'” he said.
“I went out on about 250 ambushes, and I got ambushed one time. When you go out on ambushes, you always leave out at about dark. You don’t know where you’re going sometimes, or where the enemy’s at," Robinson said.
“We had to go in parts of the jungle where we had to take machetes and cut our way through. We did all that. I always figured I was John Wayne. 'Top Cat' was my nickname, and when we’d go out on missions, we did not play around,” he said.
The soldier was able to play a little, though, when he got some R&R in Bangkok, Thailand.
“I partied. We had drinks, we had women and we had a good time. You just take it easy,” he said.
Including his service in Vietnam, Robinson spent approximately 21 years in the U.S. Army. His assessment of the war is largely positive, and he said he does not consider his service a waste of time because it was what they had to do “to protect the free people of South Vietnam.”
“We had some tough days, but I would definitely do it all over again because I would go with the mind that I had back then, and that was to defeat the enemy. We really showed our power and strength while we were in South Vietnam, and that’s the way I see it,” he said.
Robinson, who is divorced, is the father of two children, and he has two grandchildren.