Vietnam War oral history interview
Date: September 6, 2001
Veteran: Sergeant Gary E. Rieth
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Gary Rieth was born in Newark, New Jersey in May, 1948. He enlisted in the army in July 1966, following his graduation from Matawan Regional High School. By enlisting, Rieth was following a family tradition of military service. His father was a member of the New Jersey National Guard’s 102nd Cavalry (Essex Troop), during the 1930s, and his uncles and older brothers had all served in various branches of the military. Rieth received his basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey and advanced individual training as a radio operator at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Following his training, Rieth was assigned to the First Battalion, Thirty-third Field Artillery, stationed at Ansbach, in the Federal Republic of Germany. His three years of German language study in high school proved a great asset in communicating with the local people. Rieth had married his high school sweetheart in October, 1967, and the couple lived in a small farmhouse on the outskirts of Ansbach.
Rieth reenlisted in the army on the verbal promise that he would attend Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia and then Special Forces Training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in March and April, 1968. Near Christmas, 1967, however, he received orders for Vietnam and assignment to the First Infantry Division as of March 21, 1968. On arrival in Vietnam, however, his orders were changed, and he was assigned to the First Squadron, Eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment (Blackhorse Regiment). The Eleventh was considered a good combat assignment in Vietnam, as it was a unit with considerable esprit de corps.
Rieth was assigned as a radio-telephone operator (RTO) on his squadron’s administrative logistic armored personnel carrier, a tracked vehicle (admin/log track). His first combat mission was in support of the Special Forces Camp at Bu Nard, north of Phuoc Vinh. The Special Forces and their indigenous soldiers had sighted track trails made by Soviet made PT-76 amphibious tanks which, although light vehicles and lightly armed as tanks go, were very dangerous to lightly armed Special Forces. The First Squadron of the Eleventh deployed to detect, engage and destroy the PT-76s if possible.
Although the squadron did not succeed in finding the enemy tanks, Blackhorse patrols from the squadron’s A Troop succeeded in capturing several Viet Cong soldiers and brought them in for processing and interrogation, allowing Rieth his first look at the enemy. Every soldier in the troop had to pull ambush patrol duty, and he recalled that his first ambush came the day after a patrol killed a Vietcong paymaster and his two bodyguards. Once established, an ambush patrol would lie in wait for passing enemy troops. As Rieth lay on the ground on his first ambush, he felt too scared to move and thought everyone around him could hear his heart pounding in his chest. After a while, however, such patrols became routine. With no enemy armor to contend with, the greatest danger to the Eleventh Armored Cavalry’s armored vehicles were mines. The Vietcong became very adept at planting them along roadsides and under roads, and American engineers attached to the cavalry were kept constantly busy sweeping for and eliminating them.
One month after his arrival in Vietnam, Rieth received a telegram from the Red Cross advising him that his first son, Sean, had been born. Two months later he was promoted to sergeant and made radio team chief of the admin/log track. He was satisfied with the quality of the equipment he was issued and found the food the army provided was palatable once he got used to the idea that he wasn’t going to get anything better to eat anytime soon. On most days he would have two cold meals of C-rations and one hot meal, the latter usually featuring chicken, prepared by the unit’s cooks. During a one week stretch when his squadron was attached to the First Infantry Division he was fed “lamb” for his hot meal for five days in a row, which he and his comrades did not appreciate a great deal.
Rieth recalled that his unit was constantly on the move, traveling through numerous Vietnamese villages. He spent ten of his twelve months in Vietnam in the field, only returning to the Eleventh’s base camp three times. He and his men could immediately tell whether or not villages they moved through were friendly or hostile. In friendly villages children would run alongside the tracked vehicles smiling, asking for candy or food. In hostile villages the Americans were met with stares and glares, and there was an absence of friendly children. Whenever the Blackhorse Regiment encountered the enemy, whether Vietcong or North Vietnamese regular soldiers, Rieth said, they always defeated them.
On his return from Vietnam in 1969, Rieth initially landed in California, where he was issued new uniforms, and then flew on to New Jersey. He was met by his wife, son and parents at Newark Airport. Shortly afterward he called the mother of one of the men who served in his vehicle crew, who was from New Jersey, to assure her that her son was doing well. Following his discharge from the army, he worked at the Matawan Post Office for four years while attending Brookdale Community College and then attended Stockton State College, where he received his BA degree. Rieth enlisted in the New Jersey Army National Guard’s Fourth Battalion, 102nd Armored Regiment in March 1972, and completed Officer Candidate School, Infantry Officer Advanced School and the Army Command and General Staff College, the latter two as a resident and nonresident student. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the National Guard.
Gary Rieth feels fortunate to have been a member of the Eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam and have survived the war. He was never sick or wounded during his entire tour of duty. Rieth benefited from his unique experiences and developed lasting friendships in the Eleventh, which were renewed at the several unit reunions he has attended across the country. He also attended his Regiment’s 100th anniversary celebrations in Washington D.C.
Rieth has visited the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, where he has seen the names of several of his buddies and reflected sadly on their deaths, including that of a high school classmate who stepped on a mine. He is comfortable, however, discussing his experiences with other veterans, and feels that young people should realize that their cause was a good one, and that the Vietnamese people today do not enjoy a free society. Freedom, said Rieth, is often only achieved with significant cost. He stated that if need be he would not hesitate to volunteer again to fight in a war, stating that many U. S. citizens truly do not appreciate the blessing of liberty, and that he would like to be remembered as a guy who saw his duty and did the best job he could.
Gary Rieth’s service awards include the Presidential Unit Citation, Valorous Unit Award with Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Service medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze campaign stars, Good Conduct Medal and National Guard Meritorious Service Medal.