Veteran Robert Bennett taught English in Vietnam

BELLE GLADE — Veteran Robert Bennett was working his way through college bagging groceries during the 1960s. At that time, they were drafting but joining was more complicated, he explained. You could join for four years, but if you wanted to join the reserves, there was a long waiting list. Above all, he did not want to be drafted, he said. He put his name on a waiting list for the Navy Reserves and hoped for the best as he continued going about his life. He was a student at FAU when FAU was just a baby, he said. His parking sticker was number 45, and now the numbers are six digits. He was a pioneer! He graduated in 1967 and got a teaching job immediately but kept a part-time job as well because at that time, teaching only paid about $100 a week which was not enough to pay the bills.

Veteran Bob Bennett sports his favorite “Dad” cap. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

One day, his mom called to tell him she had accepted a registered letter for him. She did not seem concerned, but he said he knew immediately what it was, and sure enough, it was from Selective Services! He was supposed to go for his Army physical, but about two days later, the Navy Reserves called and said he was accepted, so he raised his hand and joined the Naval Reserves about eight hours before he was supposed to be on the bus for the draft.

That gave him a reprieve of about a year to finish his first year of teaching school, and what a chaotic year it was, he said. There was a state-wide teacher walk out, and it was a very difficult situation. He was finally called up for active duty about a year and a half later on April 1. He had already been through boot camp through the reserve system, so they sent him straight to Charleston. He said he had envisioned himself on a big boat out on the Mediterranean. “I can do that for two years,” he thought. But it was not to be. “It was 50 years ago, and I can still see it today,” he said. “We were lined up and there was this woman sitting behind what looked like a ticket booth behind glass, probably so no one could get to her to make her accountable. And as I remember, she was enormously pregnant! Anyway, they read the orders to you, and mine said I was to report to Virginia for escape and evasion training. I thought, WAIT! That doesn’t sound like something you would do on a ship. Sure enough, the next thing she said was, you will report to Naval support activity Saigon of South Vietnam.” He had joined the Navy to stay out of Vietnam. All the guys ahead of him were getting destroyers, and he got Vietnam.

Veteran Robert Bennett wears his Navy whites. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

So, he went to Virginia and did his training which he said was just wonderful since he was never what you would call a big-time athlete. Then he went to Vietnam, and by then, it was clear he was to be on river patrol boats which was practically a death sentence.

He was flown to Vietnam via commercial airline, complete with stewardesses. He said you could look out the windows of the plane and see the jungle and everything going on out there. As they were coming in for the landing, the stewardess announced over the speaker, “We are now landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The temperature is 103 degrees. Ground fire is light. Please exit the aircraft immediately as we will be taking off immediately.” It was quite an experience, he said.

When they arrived, he was taken to a transfer station and told he would be there for a few days. He was given various duties including guard duty. One day while on guard duty on a well-traveled road, he was carrying his M16 and doing his best to be watchful and alert when all of a sudden, he felt a tug on his uniform. He looked down and saw a little Vietnamese woman standing there with her bag waiting for him to check it. He had not seen or heard her approach him, and he said that was when he realized this is what it is all about. This was what they had told him about.

He was not at the transfer station for a few days as he was told, but was there for a few weeks. He began to think they had lost his paperwork, he said. He decided he was going to be stuck there for his entire year, but maybe that wasn’t so bad. It seemed relatively safe.

Finally, the day came when he was called to report to Lt. so and so he said. When he arrived, he was offered something that amazed him. The lieutenant told him he was the head of the Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese, and he offered Mr. Bennett the opportunity to teach English as a second language to Vietnamese sailors, but Mr. Bennett explained he did not speak Vietnamese. The lieutenant said that would not be a problem because they wanted the sailors exposed to English only, all the time. Well, that sounded great to him, especially compared to river patrol boats. His blunder though, he said, was choosing the wrong school. He was given a choice between Vũng Tàu and Saigon. He said he knew nothing about Vietnam, but he knew so far it seemed fairly safe in Saigon so he chose to stay there. He found out later that Vũng Tàu was a resort type place, and would have been a much better choice.

While he was there, a directive came down that the Viet Cong (VC) did not like the language schools and were going to blow them up, so everyone was to draw out a weapon and keep it on them at all times. He thought that was fine. He would just get a sidearm — no big deal. “Oh nay, nay, nay, nay, nay! I wound up being assigned an M2 carbine which is a big honkin’ rifle!” A favorite trick of the VC, he explained, was to take what is called a satchel charge and ride up next to a bus on a their scooters and hang them on the side of the bus, and then take off. The charge would go off and blow up the bus, picking off any number of military people along the line. Because of this, the Vietnamese bus drivers would not stop the buses for passengers to get on. They expected them to run and jump on. Well, on the day he and his friend got their rifles, he needed to get on the bus. “I’ve got this huge honkin’ rifle slung over my back. I’m running, and this gun is beating me to death. I finally swing in, and I’m mad. I’m really fed up. I’m cussing up a blue streak. You get into a habit that people can’t understand you, and you say anything you want. I turn and there are two nuns sitting there, and they very obviously understood every word I said. I started spitting out apologies as fast as I could.”

Walter “Pop” Bennett is pictured with his son Bob Bennett. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

Mr. Bennett lived in a converted hotel with two to four guys per room. There were Australians, Koreans and Americans. They weren’t all Navy. They lived in the Chinese district and there were lots of restaurants. They especially enjoyed one nice restaurant owned by a woman who lived in the U.S. All the waiters spoke fluent English, said Mr. Bennett, but when you go out with a group, there’s always someone who has to show off, and one guy decided to order in Vietnamese. After he ordered, the waiter started laughing, and said, “Well, if that’s what you want sir, but what you’ve just ordered is not iced tea but was a glass of frozen urine.” So, lesson learned, if you aren’t really sure of the language, be careful!

When he returned home after his time in the service, Mr. Bennett went to work at Glades Central in Belle Glade, and he met his wife Sarah soon after. They both taught ninth grade in classrooms side by side, and they said their students credited themselves with getting the two teachers together. Mr. Bennett and his wife Sarah retired a few years ago after teaching in the same school for 40 years. They have one daughter named Lindsay.

Sarah, Bob and Lindsay Bennett enjoy a Disney Cruise. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment