Robert Frake Vietnam and Gulf War Oral History interview
USMC 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, 3rd Marine Division, Vietnam 6th Motor Transport Battalion, Gulf War
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski
Robert Frake graduated from Middletown North High School in Middletown, New Jersey, in 1967 and spent one semester at the University of New Hampshire before enlisting in the US Marine Corps on January 31, 1968. Frake told the interviewer that he “joined because I was brought up in a generation whose parents went through World War II, and so when you were asked by your country…to go, you go.” In 1990, while serving in the Marine Corps reserves, he was given the option of not going to the Gulf War with his reserve unit, and again chose to go. He said that he chose the Marines in 1968 because “I knew they needed infantrymen badly, and I felt that if I was going to be an infantryman, then I wanted the best possible training available, so the Marine Corps was an obvious choice.”
Frake completed three months of basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina in the spring of 1968, and he remembered the considerable “physical abuse” the trainees had to endure. He said that the instructors were combat veterans who “knew that 99% percent of the platoon was going into combat, and knew how important discipline was and [how] to get the training right.”
Frake recalled that some of his fellow recruits who were rowdy and insubordinate endured a “good beating” from the Marine military police, and that he saw the MPs “doing a ‘Rodney King’ on one trainee, who was then sentenced to a period of “hard labor.” After serving a brief term of “hard labor,” the offender was returned to the basic training cycle, and thus had to “extend his time on Parris Island, which was so miserable that it was the last thing anyone would want to do.”
(3rd Marine Division Insignia)
After basic training, Frake attended an advanced infantry training course “in the swamps at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.” He subsequently received jungle training in California, and more tactical training in Okinawa, but later found that “it still wasn’t enough.” After all his training, Frake flew to Vietnam via commercial airliner as a replacement in July of 1968, and he recalled that the airfield was under mortar fire when he landed. He remembered that on leaving the plane, he immediately encountered a wave of intense heat and the unfamiliar smell of Vietnam. Once on the ground, Frake and the other replacement Marines marched over to a large open-sided building, “where, when your name was called, you were sent to whatever unit needed replacements. Some needed more than others.” He remembered that he felt “very insecure without a weapon,” but was not issued a rifle until he reached his assigned combat unit. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division.
Frake felt that there was a lack of long term unit integrity in Vietnam because each unit’s manpower needs were dependent not only on replacing men killed or wounded in action, but men completing their individual tours of duty and rotating back to the United States. An enlisted man’s combat tour was thirteen months; officers and medics served six months in a frontline combat unit, after which they rotated to a rear area until the end of their thirteen month in-country tour. He recalled that the latter situation “was unfortunate for us, because when you finally got an officer who knew what he was doing, he would be transferred out after six months. The medical corpsmen were navy personnel and didn’t have the training we had, so I was happy to see them get relief.”
When asked by the interviewer if Vietnam was what he expected it to be, and if his training prepared him for the experience, Frake replied: “No, you can never expect it -- it was much worse -- the training was as good as it could be in preparation for horror – [but such preparation] is really impossible.” He said the first time he realized that he was in a really dire situation was when a Navy corpsman took a .45 caliber pistol and put a bullet into his own foot, because he couldn’t take being in the field anymore. He commented that “self-inflicted wounds happen all the time in war,” although he said he “did not hear any stories about that in the Gulf.”
Frake detailed the evolution of his duties within his assigned platoon for the interviewer. He was initially a rifleman, then a sniper, then a fire team leader, and finally a squad leader. He went on to explain the technical difference between the Vietnam era “starlight” telescopic rifle sight that he used as a sniper for night shooting and modern infrared telescopic sights.
Frake said his platoon spent very little time in the rear area, and then described typical preparations for a day in the field: “though every day was different, you always got up early, ate C rations, secured the area, packed and stowed your gear that weighed sixty pounds or more -- not only your own personal gear, but pop-up flares, hand grenades, cans of machine gun ammo, mortar rounds, rockets, and disposable bazookas [light anti-tank weapons or LAWs]. “ He recalled going up and down mountains in hundred degree weather dressed in a long sleeved shirt, pants and a flak jacket that retained body heat. Men passed out from heat stroke and heat prostration all the time. “We took salt pills and drank as much water as we could. You would do a random patrol or sweep, and when you got to where you were going at dusk, you would dig a fighting hole, which you really didn’t feel like doing, but had to for the incoming fire, or whatever can happen at night. Then you stayed up for three or four hours on watch; and, if you made contact with the enemy at night, then that would just add to the excitement of the day.”
Frake described the first time he came under fire: “I heard pops way off in the distance. I was exhausted from heat and everything else and then, all of a sudden, I noticed dirt fling up at my feet. I didn’t even know I was under fire until everyone started to take cover, and I just followed someone who had been there a while, and did what he did. I was far out of it. I was eighteen years old and under that kind of heat and exhaustion, I didn’t know what was happening. That was strange.”
Frake eventually received the Navy Achievement Award for taking part in over 160 patrols or ambushes in Vietnam. He noted that his platoon did not make contact with the Viet Cong on all patrols, but he recalled one incident during his first month “in country.” He told the interviewer: “I remember that the platoon walked into an ambush, and eight men were cut to ribbons. It was around dusk, and we couldn’t cover each other, so we had to listen to the wounded and dying groan through the night. All we could do was use our starlight scopes to make out movement. It was very bad. After experiencing something like that, I personally shut off all feelings and emotions and just became a machine. I became a soldier that just kills things and destroys things. That’s what soldiers do. You become as effective and efficient as you can possibly can.”
After being wounded on December 8, 1968, Frake was reassigned to a small squad in the 4th Combined Action Group (CAG) that worked with the Vietnamese Army as part of the Combined Action Program (CAP). As a member of a CAP team, he was assigned to an integrated unit with Vietnamese military personnel, and assigned to live in a village, where he noted the “plight and paradox the Vietnamese were in. They had to be friendly with us and also had to live with a threat [from the Viet Cong] they and their families were under.” He wondered, then and now, “how would we react under that situation?”
Frake recalled eating a meal of dog meat with a village chief, and mentioned killing a snake that the village women then cut up for food. He also remembered seeing a cow die on a trail and watching villagers stuff wood beneath it and roast it right where it fell. He said that during his tour he had very little contact with the US army, except at two army artillery base Camps, Camp Carroll and Con Thien, or when his platoon was assigned to escort supply convoys.
Frake remembered writing to his family “who were very supportive,” and “three girlfriends that I had in different parts of the east coast, thinking that maybe I would have one when I got back. It didn’t work out, but I got mail.” He mentioned asking his family to send Kool-Aid mix to counter the taste of the iodine pills that were used to purify drinking water. He also described spending his “rest and recreation” or “R&R” week on a beach in Sydney, Australia, during a monsoon.
Frake noted that “morale among the Marines was very good. We had close, comradely, esprit dé corps. We never left our dead or wounded on the field.” He recalled that “we were aware of what was going on back home, but we didn’t dwell on it. We just did what we had to do. We were there because our country sent us there.” He mentions “growing up on John Wayne movies that glorified war, but once you get there, you realize that the horrors are inexplicable. You can’t make anyone understand.”
Frake recalled that the commercial jet plane that carried him and his fellow soldiers back to the United States took fifteen hours to reach California, and that they were greeted by a single Red Cross person with coffee and donuts when the plane landed at 3:00 AM. “People treated the Vietnam veterans as scapegoats,” he said, adding that “we were the last people that should have been marked as such.” He contrasted the experience of the Vietnam veteran with his homecoming from the Persian Gulf in 1991. “The entire airport at Bangor, Maine was packed with people. They were cheering, waving flags and giving out homemade cookies and cakes. It was incredible.”
When Frake was asked by the interviewer if there was any re-acclimation period he had to go through after returning from Vietnam, he answered, “very much, and after thirty years it is still going on.” He recalled becoming sick from eating “regular food,” sleeping on the floor for a long time and being bothered by loud noises. He also remembered punching his brother who tried to “wake me up when I was sleeping on the couch. It was a reflex response.”
Frake left the Marines when his enlistment ended, but rejoined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1987. “My wife said I rejoined because I was going through a midlife crisis, but I joined because wearing the uniform again gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment.” In 1990 Frake’s Marine reserve unit, the 6th Motor Transport Battalion, was ordered to the Persian Gulf. Because of his previous combat duty, Frake was given the option of deploying or not with his unit. “I did not spend four years with this group to leave them now,” He answered.
Frake had initially been disappointed in the degree of training he found in the reserves, as well as some of the individuals serving in the unit compared to the recruits of the Vietnam era. “The reservists were older and smarter. They were in it for the college money. They were very lax. I believed it was impossible to train someone for two days a month and expect them to be good at it. But I give them an awful lot of credit on the way they performed over there [in the Gulf]. As a whole they really pulled off miracles.”
Frake said that he is stunned by how much military logistical support is performed today by reservists and the National Guard. He said that the only special training his unit had before shipping out to the Persian Gulf was a few weeks of Marine infantry refresher training at Camp Pendleton, California. He noted that all marines are considered basic riflemen, above and beyond their other duties.
(Marine convoy moving into Kuwait prepared for gas attack in the Gulf War)
Frake’s first overseas assignment with his reserve motor transport company during the Gulf War was with the company headquarters communication section as a field radio operator. He later became the company’s acting gunnery sergeant. He recalled running convoys with headquarters personnel who weren’t trained as truck drivers, with the danger of men becoming lost or separated from the unit while driving day and night on roads without road signs through windblown sand. He noted that men called “Roadmasters,” driving Humvees, were assigned to escort convoys to prevent separation, and to search for trucks that strayed off the route. It was demanding duty, but he concluded that even though “our company got stuck with old Mercedes Benz vehicles they had not been trained on, the troops should be commended, and they did a wonderful job.”
Frake stated that the American forces in the Gulf painted an inverted “V” on their vehicles to protect them from friendly fire mistaken air attacks. It worked, and he recalled that there “were a lot fewer [friendly fire incidents] in the Persian Gulf than in Vietnam, where it happened all the time because of equipment breakdown and human error.”
(Life Magazine profiled the Combined Action Program)
Frake mentioned how odd it felt to him being around the younger people in his unit all the time, and listening to their unfamiliar music and jokes, which graphically revealed the generation gap between him and them. He complained a bit about the attitude and lack of discipline of young soldiers, saying that “they didn’t want to work, they didn’t want to do this, do that,” but then, on reflection, reiterated that in the end, “the job they did over there was incredible. They did a lot of “BMC -- bitching moaning and complaining -- but by and large, they did an exceptional job.”
Frake commented on the fact that the Saudi Arabian nationals performed no physical labor, instead hiring foreigners to do the heavy lifting in their society. He also mentioned that the Saudis were very religious Muslims, and recalled one incident when the locals wanted a woman Marine, who was wearing a short sleeved T-shirt, to dress as their women did – and said that “it did not happen.” Frake recalled that the only American military women serving in Vietnam were nurses, but that in the Gulf War many women worked as rear echelon soldiers.
Frake recalled that most of the Marines in his company feared the possible enemy use of chemical weapons. “We had a Scud [ground to ground Soviet-designed Iraqi missile] air burst nearby, and we got into our chemical suits not knowing if it was biological or chemical. We had alarms going off all the time. They were all afraid of the stuff. We had a patriot missile battery near our base camp that gave the troops more comfort and security.” He showed the interviewer a photo of the sandbag bunkers and blast walls that were used to protect troops from incoming fire, and said that stressful situations in the Gulf War brought back a lot of the emotions from Vietnam that he thought he had buried.
Frake talked about mysterious diseases and infections that occurred among the troops. He said he suffers from Persian Gulf Syndrome, and described the symptoms. Frake also mentioned that medical care was excellent in the military, but was “another story when you get out.” He alluded not only to conditions resulting from the Gulf War, but also the effect of radiation in the post World War II era, and Agent Orange in Vietnam, as well as the Veterans’ Administration’s failure to accept its proper responsibility of caring for veterans.
Frake left the reserves as soon as he returned home. He said that he had joined but not participated in any veterans’ organizations over the years, with the exception of the Vietnam Veterans of America, “which was very helpful to me. They all stuck together, and that organization is unusual because it is destined to go out of business when the last veteran dies.” He said that he only got in touch with one man he had served with in Vietnam, and went out to visit him in Missoula, Montana. “It was like we were brothers and, although it was thirty years, it seemed like it was yesterday, and we were together the whole time -- then he brought his family out here for a visit.”
Frake said that the way the American public treated the soldiers who served in Vietnam, and the way we left Vietnam with Vietnamese people hanging on to the helicopters lifting off the embassy roof was a “national disgrace and a travesty. We should always support our troops whenever we put them in harm’s way, and either support them or get them out,” he concluded.
Frake showed the interviewer medals, mementos and photographs from boot camp and his service in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, including pictures of a damaged building and a burned out Soviet-made tank hit with a depleted uranium round in Kuwait, and pictures of a parade that his wife and two children attended held at Fort Monmouth when his unit returned from the Gulf War. He displayed a bracelet made in remembrance of the soldiers who did not return from Vietnam, and spoke of a football teammate at Middletown North High School who was killed in action in May 1969. One memento in his collection was engraved “Vietnam 68-69 -- The unwilling led by the unqualified to do the impossible for the ungrateful.”
In conclusion Frake displayed reports and other papers that explained his various missions in the service in both Vietnam and the Gulf War. He said a lot of scars from war never go away. He specifically mentioned flashbacks and waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweats. “War is a very serious thing, and the troops need all the support they can get regardless of the outcome,” he said.
During his active service in Vietnam and the Gulf War, Robert Frake was awarded the Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Navy Achievement Medal with Combat V, Navy Unit Commendation, Sharpshooter rifle badge, National Defense Service Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal with three bronze stars, Sea Service Deployment medal and Kuwait Liberation Medal. At the time of this interview, Robert Frake was living in Middletown, New Jersey with his wife and two children. He passed away in January, 2008.