Vietnam War oral history interview
Date: June 19, 2001
Veteran: Sergeant Robert Callahan
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Joseph Bilby
Robert Callahan enlisted in the US Army at the age of 18 in August 1962, shortly after graduating from high school, and he served on active duty as an infantryman for fourteen years, during which time he reached the rank of sergeant first class. After serving with the Third Infantry Division in Germany in 1966, Callahan was assigned to the Second Battalion, Eighteenth Infantry (2/18), part of the Second Brigade of the First Infantry Division, also known as the “Big Red One.” The First Division was then engaged in combat in Vietnam. At the time of Callahan’s arrival in March, the 2/18, along with the rest of the Second Brigade, was stationed at Bear Cat base camp. The brigade was at that time operating around Vung Tau and in the Rung Sat Special Zone, an area of mangrove swamps spreading out from the main channel of the Saigon River. The Vietcong had been threatening ships heading up the river to Saigon. Clearing the area of the enemy was an important assignment.
The mangrove swamps were tidally influenced and, what was shallow water at one time during the day, became deep water shortly afterward. The Big Red One soldiers climbed trees and strung hammocks made from parachute material for sleeping to stay out of the water. They crossed the numerous streams in the area using air mattresses to ferry equipment across, and they were constantly harassed by leeches and swarms of mosquitoes. The soldiers were constantly soaking wet and applied silicone lotion to their wrinkled skin to keep flesh from sloughing off. Callahan recalled that the temperature averaged 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
In such a hostile environment, the Vietcong thought themselves in a refuge which, while unpleasant for them as well, was safe from attack by U.S. forces. The terrain, temperature, and insects did not stop the First Infantry Division however, and the 1/18 penetrated the Rung Sat swamps, engaging and defeating the enemy. Sergeant Callahan noted that the Vietcong were often so surprised to see U.S. soldiers appear in what had formerly been a safe haven for them that they fled after a brief firefight, or without fighting at all.
Following the Rung Sat/Vung Tau operations, the Second Brigade turned over Bear Cat to the recently arrived Ninth Infantry Division and moved to Dian, establishing a new base camp adjoining the First Division Headquarters base camp. The Brigade’s new area of operations stretched from Dian towards the Cambodian Border, and included long time Vietcong sanctuaries like the “Iron Triangle.” The brigade often acted as a reserve or reaction force to assist other First Division units when they became heavily engaged. Callahan’s unit was involved in heavy fighting with main force Vietcong units on several occasions. Following one three-day battle, only fifty-one of Callahan’s company of a hundred and forty-five men remained uninjured. A Specialist Caruso, who managed to get a destroyed machine gun position back into action, turned the tide of battle and received a silver star for his valorous conduct in this fight.
On his return from Vietnam, Callahan remained in the service and was subsequently reassigned to Germany. He served a second tour in Vietnam with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade at Danang, when that unit was the last combat formation in Vietnam. Callahan left the country for the second and last time in 1972. The conduct of American operations during Callahan’s second tour stressed avoidance of heavy combat, since the United States was in the process of withdrawal from Vietnam. Callahan, who expressed disappointment in the way U. S. soldiers were treated by American civilians on their return from the war, left the service with the rank of sergeant first class in 1976.
During the interview, Sergeant Callahan displayed photographs of his service in Vietnam, including air strikes, tunnels, the Cambodian border, soldiers serving in his unit, First Infantry Division headquarters, and a USO show, with commentary on the locations and identification of the images. Included among the photos was one of a chaplain named Geary, ministering to the troops. Callahan recalled that he had heard that the chaplain was later killed in action, but was glad to see him at a reunion thirty years later in Washington DC, very much alive. After that he referred to Geary as “the Holy Ghost.”
Sergeant Callahan returned to service in 1999 with the New Jersey National Guard. He was still serving with the Guard at the time of his interview and retired in 2006.