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July Military Stories (July 19, 21, & 23)

Monday, July 19, 2021

Robert Hinson: Rifle Platoon Leader

Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007)

When Robert Hinson was a boy in LaGrange, he played army and dreamed of being a soldier someday. His father and four of his seven uncles were veterans of World War II, so Robert grew up hearing their war stories. When his father took him to Fort Benning to see the soldiers and weapons on display, the youngster was mesmerized.

Robert joined Advanced ROTC at the University of Georgia. In 1968, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Armor Branch. Since Hinson had always wanted to be a rifle platoon leader, he asked his uncle, a colonel in the reserves, to get him transferred to the Infantry. His friends wondered if he’d lost his mind to voluntarily go into the Infantry at the height of the Vietnam War.

He attended the Infantry Officer’s Basics Course (IOBC) at Fort Benning and from there went to Sand Hill to serve as a training officer for a basic training company. Then he flew to Panama for Jungle Warfare School before landing in Vietnam in January 1969 as a green second lieutenant. Before he left Benning, a first sergeant gave him a cigar and said, “When you get into your first fight, stop and light this, and think before you do anything else. Your platoon will be combat-seasoned, and they’ll know what to do.”

Within a week of landing in Vietnam, Robert got his wish to be a platoon leader. He would be leading First Platoon, A Company, 1 / 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division. Within a few days of taking command, the enemy ambushed his group in the jungles of the Ashaw Valley. Robert remembered the cigar. With trembling hands, he pulled the tin case out of his pocket. His mouth was so dry, he could hardly wet the end of the cigar, but somehow, he lit it and took a puff. His men were in awe. Their leader seemed as cool as a cucumber under fire. As Robert puffed on his cigar, he ordered them to lay down a base of fire and start to maneuver. They survived the first ambush, and Robert had their respect from that moment on.

For six long months, Robert and his men carried out search and destroy missions and ambushes in the Elephant Valley and the Ashaw Valley, the latter region made famous by the Battle of Hamburger Hill. While on operations in the jungle, they carried five days of rations on their backs in rucksacks weighing eighty to one hundred pounds. Robert learned to eat his peaches first. They weighed more.

They slept in the mud without a tent, wrapping their ponchos around them at night to deter the mosquitos and leeches. In one firefight, three enemy bullets whizzed through his rucksack, but luckily, he was not hit. After his tour in the field, Robert was assigned to II Corps Headquarters in Pleiku as an advisor. He worked for one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. military history, Lt. Col. David H. Hackworth. Hackworth and Hinson were instant friends in spite of their age difference, even going on R&R together in Australia. “Hack,” as he was affectionately known, later became a well-known columnist and military expert for TV. He and Robert stayed in touch after the war, and Hackworth stayed with Hinson whenever he had business at Fort Benning. (Hack is pictured below on the left and Robert on the right)

When Robert returned from Vietnam, he did not feel the country owed him anything. He was only relieved that his debt to the soldiers of World War II and Korea had been paid.


Wednesday, July 21, 20221

R.L. “Sam” Wetzel Encounters the Chinese Army in Korea

Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007)

Lt. General Sam Wetzel remembers Korea as the coldest place he has ever been. Summers were equally inhospitable. On July 4, 1953, at the MLR (Main Line of Resistance) battalion headquarters position, “it was raining like hell, and the trenches were full of water,” he remembers. Wetzel fell asleep on an air mattress floating in several inches of water but awoke when he heard some movement nearby. To his dismay, the entire South Korean battalion posted beside him was walking away from its position down the reverse slop of the hill, leaving Wetzel and only four other Americans in their battalion’s advance party to stand against the Chinese army if they decided to attack that night.

The following night Sam’s battalion moved into the abandoned position, and he could breathe easier. But the Chinese surprised him the next morning by greeting the battalion in English through the loudspeaker, “Welcome Forty-fifth Infantry Division.” Why they had not attacked the five lone men the night before remained a mystery. He could only conclude, “God was watching over us.”

A few weeks later, the war ended abruptly by an arranged cease-fire. Wetzel remembers that day well:

“On July 27, 1953, I was scheduled to lead a combat patrol down across the valley and up into the Chinese positions to discover their trench lines. I had twenty men including some KATUSAs (Korean Augmentation to USA). We rehearsed the patrol, as we did every patrol back on the reverse slope of the MLR, and we were ready to go. I was about to depart at 1800 hours and was told to stop. It was announced that the war would end at 2200 that night. For the next four hours all hell broke loose as both sides fired off as much ammunition as possible, so they would not have to carry it off the hill. A conscientious objector runner at the battalion command post took a direct mortar hit and was killed. Precisely at 2200 all firing stopped, and there was dead silence. The next morning the Chinese came out of their positions on the hill in front of me and there were so many of them, they looked like ants. My combat patrol would have had an interesting night to say the least. The next morning the Chinese put up a big white banner with black letters in English that read, 'Communist Congratulations.'”

Following Korea, Sam commanded an Infantry Battalion in Vietnam in 1968-1969 and later a Brigade a Fort Carson, Colorado. In Germany, he was Commanding General of the First Infantry Division (Forward), the Third Infantry Division, the Fifth (U.S.) Corps, and was Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army Europe. From 1981 to 1983, he was the Commanding General of Fort Benning and Chief of Infantry for the U.S. Army. While fielding the new Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Wetzel noticed that many of the parts on this vehicle were exorbitantly expensive. He invited the Chairman of the Board of the manufacturer of the Bradley to come to Benning. After dinner at Riverside, Wetzel brought out a box of the Bradley’s parts with price tags attached. When he showed the manufacturer such things as fifty-cent washer costing twenty-six dollars, the CEO vowed to return to his vendors to demand better prices – and he got them!

When Wetzel retired from the Army in 1986, he asked his wife Eilene, “Where do you want to live?” Of all the places on the Earth she could have chosen, she picked Columbus because she had met some nice people here. Eilene found their Green Island home where they had lived for the past twenty-one years. In retirement, Sam established an international consulting business and is involved in a number of community efforts. Today at seventy-seven, he has served on various community boards that enhance the quality of life in this city, including the Boy Scouts, the Civic Center, the American Cancer Society, the Columbus Homeland Security Board, and CB&T. He also remains active as the National Senior Vice Commander-in-Chief of the Military Order of the World Wars (MOWW). For Wetzel, the adage certainly rings true: “Once a general, always a general.”


Friday, July 23, 2021

Lonnie Jackson and the Power of Unity

Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007)

When he joined the army in 1946 at the age of seventeen, Lonnie Jackson was a Talladega, Alabama high school drop-out with no idea where he was heading in life. He planned to serve only two years, but Jackson found he liked the army and stayed for a total of twenty-four years. As a demolitions specialist, he defused mines in Korea, and he guarded North Korean POWs as they were marches across the Han River. That experience taught Sergeant First Class Jackson that ordinary people can accomplish great things when they unite.

“I was green, nineteen years old, just out of Alabama. I didn’t see how the North Koreans could run they were so beat up and wounded. But they did, with their arms locked, running together, carrying each other. I was looking at unity. We can all learn from that.”

Through three combat tours in Korea and Vietnam, Jackson stood out as a “steadfast organized soldier” and a good engineer. After he retired from the army, Lonnie worked as a security guard at Swift Textiles and then as a machine operator at the Dolly Madison factory. But in his free time, he imagined all that could be accomplished in his community with a little vision and a lot of unity. His discipline of continually looking for mines and booby traps in Korea and Vietnam evolved into a habitual scanning of the ground where he went. This caused him to notice more than others the litter in his neighborhood off St. Mary’s Road in South Columbus. The trash devalued the community, and he would not stand for that. Jackson began to organize the neighborhood children to pick up litter. This project became a full-fledged annual campaign that continues today as the Martin Luther King Pride Month Clean-Up.

In 1983, he founded “Combined Communities of Southeast Columbus,” an umbrella organization for scores of grass-roots programs using volunteer labor to fight littler, promote voter participation, and tutor at-risk students.

Wherever he spoke, he insisted that the crowd repeat his “anti-litter and beautification pledge,” promoting a cleaner environment, and he always left them with his motto, “Be the best you can be.”

Earning a GED and a college degree from CVCC later in life, Jackson especially valued an education, so the tutoring program was closest to his heart. Coordinating hundred of teachers and thousands of aides from local sororities and fraternities, as well as student from colleges and high schools, Jackson’s goal was to improve the children’s performance in the “3R’s.” Active to the end of a very busy life, he worked harder than all of the other volunteers combined. Even after falling ill to cancer, he continued to work for the causes he believed in. In fact, he was on his way to Eastway Elementary School the Saturday he succumbed to his final illness and died five days later. His tutorial program continues to this day as a living memorial.

A member of the Parkwood Baptist Church, Lonnie Jackson lived to serve others and to recognize the service of veterans. He co-founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park on Buena Vista Road and organized annual Pre-Memorial Day and Pre-Veterans Day ceremonies there. He received the Military Order of St. Maurice Award, and he as featured on ABC’s “Unsung Heroes” TV Show. Twice President Bill Clinton invited him to the White House to talk about the success of his grassroots programs and to receive the Jefferson Award for Public Service and the Volunteer Action Award. All total, Jackson received more than eighty awards.

Lonnie Jackson’s vision so inspired others to action that even after death, he continues to be remembered. Recently, Eastway Elementary School became the Lonnie Jackson Academy. More than all the other accolades and awards he received; he would have been proudest of this.


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