Waco native Robert T. Allen, 78, knew from the time he was 5 he wanted to be a Marine. At a wedding he attended, he saw a Marine in his “dress blues” and decided he wanted to be one, too. Later, when a recruiter spoke at high school, it only reinforced his dream. “It made quite an impression on me,” he said.
Allen, who grew up in South Waco, graduated from University High (formerly Waco Tech when he first started) and joined the Marine Reserves in 1955. He went on active duty long enough to get his basic and boot camp training completed.
In January 1960, he joined the regular Marine Corps and went to Camp Pendleton, where he applied for flight school in Pensacola as a Marine aviation cadet. In early 1962, he graduated first in his class as a commissioned second lieutenant naval aviator and was awarded his Navy League wings. He returned to Camp Pendleton following his training.
Allen flew several planes during training; initially, he flew the HOK-1 and the fixed-wing OE, smaller crafts used primarily for observation. Up to this point, life had been routine, but his new skills would soon be put to the test.
On Oct. 22, 1962, the crew got word that everyone was to report to duty stations immediately. In the “ready room,” as it was known, the pilots gathered to listen to President Kennedy address the nation on the growing Cuban Missile Crisis.
“We had 48 hours to load the entire squadron on the helicopter carrier,” Allen said. “We set sail for Cuba.” It was his first trip through the Panama Canal. “Life was exciting in those days. We knew where we were going — to exciting times!” Allen said.
He would get plenty of practice. The carrier participated with others in the blockade by sailing in an oval pattern within its designated area. Allen flew his small plane on and off with ease as part of Marine Observation Squadron 6.
In 1963, Allen became part of a cadre replacement in Okinawa, which rotated in and out of Vietnam every four or five months. He flew his small OE out of Da Nang in support of American helicopter pilots. The pilot would lead a squadron of Vietnamese troops to a previously scouted landing zone, where they were dropped off to fight.
Over four months, Allen counted approximately 50 bullet holes in his plane, but he was never wounded. “We took many rounds because we were flying low,” he said. His next rotation was to Atsugi, Japan, where he flew people and supply missions to Mount Fuji.
His real test was yet to come.
It was his worst Vietnam trip — and the one that still troubles him today — and it came after his commanding general took lead of the 1st Marine Air Wing at Da Nang. Allen, now a captain, agreed to go as the general’s aide for three months and fly with a squadron the final nine.
Three months later, in 1967, Allen was flying daily. Having had jet training by this time, he flew the A-4 Skyhawk almost exclusively, racking up 400 missions in the I Corps region, the northernmost point in South Vietnam. He would be called from the “hot pad” to immediately execute a strike from a spotter on the ground or in the air, dropping napalm one time, or aiming a direct strike at a group of Viet Cong penned in underground. When he fired into the ground and he saw it swell up, he knew they were gone.
Living with the past
“I still live with it every day,” he said. “It tears me up to think about this.” It’s also why he’s never talked about it until now. As a compassionate Christian, it conflicts with his values. “It’s a terrible thing to know how many people I’ve killed.”
He has learned to live with his memories, perhaps aided by his wife, Lynn Hairston, whom he married in September 1969, a year after they met on a blind date. Allen was stationed at Quantico, Virginia, at the time. In 1972, he resigned his commission as a major, serving a total of 12 years of active duty and four in the reserves.
Allen enrolled at the University of Texas at Arlington and earned his bachelor’s degree in classical guitar music. He taught others at UT-Arlington, the University of Texas at Austin (as a graduate assistant), the University of North Alabama and even McLennan Community College. In 1986, he went to work in Baylor University’s financial office, retiring in 2008.
In September, the Allens will celebrate 48 years of marriage, just two days before he turns 79.
The couple have two boys, one of whom now serves as a captain in the Marines, no doubt influenced by his dad’s career.
Today, Allen has mixed emotions about his own military career. One thing he’s sure of: Given the same situation, “I would do it all over again,” he said. “I just wish we could learn to live together in peace.”