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Veterans’ Voices
Honoring our men and women in uniform

By MARY DRENNON

Special to the Tribune-Herald

T

he first time Robert A. Plumb III got into a
firefight in Vietnam, a bullet hit his metal
helmet, causing it to bounce and cut his
forehead. It was enough to drive home the
fact that he could be killed.
Plumb was a long way from his Circleville, Kansas,
home.
Born in Holton, Kansas, Plumb grew up on a farm
in Circleville where they raised everything from cattle
and hogs to corn and milo. He remembers when he was
young and tractors took over the farm; his grandfather
refused to switch and continued to use horses.
Plumb graduated from Circleville High School in
May 1966 and spent the next couple of years working
on the farm, driving a truck for Kansas Power & Light
and drag racing in his spare time.

U.S. ARMY
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in October 1968.
“Starting in 1965, they just started picking them like
chickens,” Plumb said of the draftees.
Plumb was sure he would be sent home due to his
poor eyesight, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, he was sent
to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for his basic training.
Advanced training for prop and rotor mechanics of
helicopters and fixed-winged aircraft took place at Fort
Eustis, Virginia. By this time, he was an E-4.
He briefly attended Officers Candidate School
but dropped out when he discovered he’d be sent to
Vietnam in the Infantry as a military officer, an idea
for which he didn’t care. Instead, he went directly to
Vietnam.
But Plumb had a plan. He figured by the time his
year was up in Vietnam, it would be almost time for
him to go home.
Plumb flew to Alaska, Japan and Thailand before
arriving in Saigon in November 1968.
“That was interesting,” he said. They were fired
upon as soon as they landed. Plumb dove under a
building.
From Saigon, Plumb was sent to Phu Loi in
Southern Vietnam with the 539th Transportation Co.
Phu Loi became their home base. It was a general
support battalion, meaning they handled everything
themselves internally, from driving trucks to supplying
water.
Plumb, who had worked for a grain company and
had a commercial trucking license, was often tasked
to drive trucks when he wasn’t doing his duties as an
aviation mechanic crew chief. He even served as door
gunner on CH-47s and Huey helicopters.
“We had some 20 different aircraft in our unit,”
Plumb said. “We had to prioritize pilots and gunners
for aircraft.” It also helped that you made extra money
for flying.
Another task was guard duty. Each battalion had a
perimeter to protect and Plumb would take his turn at
guard duty. His scariest moment was on duty one night

Photo by Mary Drennon

Robert A. Plumb III served in the U.S. Army, as an aviation mechanic squad leader, during Vietnam.
when he was up in the guard tower.
“One of the tricks (of the enemy) was to try and bring
the tower down. We came under fire and had to defend
ourselves,” he said.
Plumb said soldiers didn’t always take things seriously,
such as the time two women were caught trying to destroy
communication wires. Some of the soliders laughed about
it.
When he got into that first firefight and cut his
forehead, that’s when he realized how serious it was. “It
helped me realize I could be killed,” Plumb said. “I knew
the war was serious, but I had never killed a human being
before. But if you want to go home, it’s either them or
you.”
Plumb said even the children were involved in the war
and could be quite dangerous. Children as young as 10,
11 and 12 would carry machine guns and rifles and knew
how to use them. Once, tragically, when soldiers were
transporting ammo, they came across a child in a tree with
an AK-47, shooting at the them. They had no choice but to
fire back.
“Life doesn’t mean to them what it means to us,”
Plumb said. “It’s like you went 100 years back in time.”

574 Youngblood Road, Waco, Texas, 76706 • 254.662.5571 • JRoof.com

That included the lifestyle. Many times, Plumb said,
the locals would take anything a GI would throw out and
make some astounding things with it, such as a beer can
house. “It was amazing to see the stuff they did with what
you threw out,” he said.
In addition, soldiers, like Plumb, spent some of their
own money on clothes, cigarettes and more for the locals
to help out.
While in Vietnam, Plumb also was exposed to Agent
Orange from both the ground and the air. The men would
wash the helicopters in their shorts because it was so hot,
and the coating of the Agent Orange got all over them. No
one knew at the time it was a problem.
But, it would cause him serious problems later in life.
Next week: Plumb survives Vietnam and goes to
Germany. He later worked for the VA until his health took a
turn for the worse.
“Veterans’ Voices,” featuring stories about Central
Texas veterans, publishes every Sunday. To suggest
a story about a Central Texas veteran, please email
veteransvoices@wacotrib.com.“Veterans’ Voices” is
proudly sponsored by Johnson Roofing.

At Johnson Roofing, we believe in America and proudly stand behind the men and women of our armed forces.

OFFICE, WACO, TX 76701

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