Excerpts from “Twelve Days in May” by Jerald W. Berry - May 6, 1970, LZ (Landing Zone) Fox, Binh Duong Province, Cambodia, with Company C, 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division.
Warrant Officers Gary Tuttle and George Knight disobeyed orders for no more attempts to land and headed for the besieged LZ. WO Knight radioed 1Lt. Phillips on LZ Fox as to the status of their situation on the ground. 1Lt. Phillips’ RTO (radio operator) replied, “The LZ is hot! We have serious wounded, and all aircraft have been ordered to wait until morning!”
WO Knight responded, “Dust-off 28 to Charlie 2-6. Ready the wounded. ETA to LZ two minutes. We’re coming in. Which direction is the enemy fire coming from?”
The RTO replied, “From all over! Come in from the east! That’s where we are receiving the least amount of enemy fire at the moment!”
Tuttle puts the Huey on its side, dropping 3,000 feet per minute at 120 knots. Automatic weapons fire erupts around the LZ the moment the skids touch ground. As the Medevac chopper waited for the wounded to be loaded, 1Lt. Robert Littleton Phillips prepared to move his men to the northern end of the LZ inside a tree line.
Platoon medic SP4 Julius Bartley recalls, “There were quite a few guys helping me load the wounded, and we had to work quickly because of the constant enemy fire. It was during this time that 1Lt. Phillips got hit.”
A lone enemy soldier concealed in a spider hole only a few meters away had suddenly unleashed a barrage of AK-47 fire.1Lt. Phillips was killed instantly. Medic Bartley: “There wasn’t anything I could do for him. He had been killed immediately by a shot in the head.”
Reinforcements arrived at the crack of dawn. In early afternoon the big artillery guns began to arrive and LZ Fox was slowly transformed into a fire support base. In memory of their slain commander, the soldiers of Charlie Company renamed the site FSB Phillips.
Thus began a lifelong heartbreak for one American family. This is their story as told by three siblings.
June Phillips Moore: “Robert was the second born in a family of eight. I was four years younger, his little sister. It was neat having a big brother in school with you. Robert played two instruments in the band, a sprinter and star football player, we were a military family, our dad career army. That may have been one reason Robert chose to attend North Georgia College. He liked their military program and was chosen as their cadet commandant his senior year.
“Robert was born Aug. 10, 1946, graduated from North Georgia in 1968, went straight to Fort Bragg for advanced training, married a girl from Eastman shipped out for Vietnam on Aug. 10, 1969 which was his 23rd birthday, and was killed in action on May 6, 1970 in Cambodia.
“I was attending college in Oxford at the time. Being a census year, dad was in Walton County taking census. It was a Saturday. Two cars drove up in the driveway with military officers. Mom was alone. She would not allow the military men to speak until dad was located and allowed to come home. That took time; no cell phones back then. Robert had sent mom flowers for Mother’s Day; they arrived that same morning.
“Mom had called my dorm and I was notified of the situation. It’s all a blur now. It took 10 days for Robert’s body to be returned. His casket remained in our living room until the funeral, a closed casket due to the head injury. Robert always loved to sit in front of the fireplace. He was buried in Oxford, full military funeral, 21-gun salute.
“I was in disbelief. Since the casket was closed I kept hoping a mistake had been made, that there was something wrong. I only gave up that hope with the passage of time. And my parents, well, they knew they would never see Robert grow up or hold their grandchildren, but faith helped and they finally were at peace, knowing where Robert was and that they would see their son again.”
John Phillips: “I was attending school in New England at the time. The family contacted a teacher and he relayed the news to me. ‘Are you sure?’ I kept asking him. But I always knew it could happen. I was in the midst of the 1970 anti-war movement and realized there wasn’t going to be much sympathy for my brother. On the trip home I saw so many soldiers in the airports. Why them? Why my brother? Why do young men have to die?
“It was surreal at home, all the family gathered around Robert’s casket. And I kept thinking, ‘Why him? Why Robert?’ I mean, he was the best at everything, sports, singing, football, life-guard, a musician...he taught me to drive, always had his hands on the steering wheel, he drove with discipline. His uniform was always so neat, his shoes shined to a glossy sheen….always the best.
“I was impressed with my brother, an exceptional human being. I still recall dad asking him, ‘Why go to Vietnam? Stay in school longer, get more education.’ Robert replied, ‘If I don’t go, they will have to send someone else. This is what I’ve been trained to do.’ Robert knew an infantry officer needed combat experience, and Vietnam was the place to gain combat experience. I’m still shocked by what we ask our young people to do, to fight our wars….Robert was only 23 when he died.
“Two of my other brothers and I attended a reunion of Robert’s unit in Reno, Nevada. Frank Brokaw, another 1Lt in Cambodia, was seriously wounded by the same enemy soldier that killed Robert. We talked to him, and their First Platoon Sergeant, Darrell Holbrook. Holbrook took over the platoon after the officers went down. He visited my parents, they talked for hours. We heard the same thing about Robert from all the men…..a great leader of new troops, he cared about his men, cool under fire. It was amazing how these guys could go back in time, like it was yesterday, all the details. Once medevac pilot told us Robert was instrumental for him being alive.
“We also found out Robert was not in the first assault wave, his Huey pilot didn’t want to go back down because of the heavy concentration of enemy fire. Robert insisted. The pilot got him close enough to the ground for Robert to jump out. I guess I’m saying our brother didn’t have to be there….but that was his job, and Robert was not going to desert his men.”
Charlie Phillips: “I was 12 years old at the time, delivering newspapers in our hometown of Oxford. The front page reported a clash between peace demonstrators and hardhats in New York and I’m thinking, ‘why are they doing this, these are our soldiers, and this isn’t right.’ I walked about 200 yards to our house and found out Robert had been killed in the war. My family had called the Scout Master and he came over to take me fishing. I spent the afternoon in a boat; we didn’t talk about my brother. I spent the night at a buddy’s house; went to church with them the next day…everything was confusing, I guess my parents didn’t know what to do with the kids and all the visitors.0
“It wasn’t real to me. I couldn’t comprehend things and people didn’t know what to say. Later in high school I became very liberal, debated in class that we should pay North Vietnam for the bombing. That was the 70’s of course, and I’m not that way now. Robert was a fine brother, a fine son, those boys made their decisions, we should respect that.”
June: “Mom went into depression. Not sure when she got out of it; we were all in school. I was glad to get out of the house after high school; it was tough at home.”
Charlie: “The holidays were toughest for mom. But I do remember the time she said, ‘Okay, this Christmas we can be joyful.”
John: “One of our other brothers took it real hard. He was troubled in high school and took the wrong route, drugs, rehab, drifted into a cult. He’s okay now. Robert’s death didn’t cause all his problems, but it hurt all the family in so many different ways.”
June: “War is destructive. There are a lot of casualties in a family when a soldier doesn’t come home. Within time you can move on with your life, but…….”
John interrupted: “June is right, but folks can be cruel without knowing it. While mom was in mourning, one lady told her, ‘Now you know why we are opposed to the war.’ Rather than comfort mom, the statement offended her. Mom supported her son, not war, it’s not a political issue to be debated.”
June: “One of my memories is how people thought we should just get over it. I mean, it took two weeks for Robert to come home; it’s hard, it’s never over.”
Word spreads fast in small town America. On the same day the Phillips family received the tragic news, Professor William ‘Squire’ Carlton who taught Robert’s father at Oxford College, penned a heartwarming short letter to the family.
June recalled: “Squire Carlton always wrote positive letters. It’s strange how life has its twists and turns….on the day before Robert was killed a classmate of his from North Georgia, Robert Ira Rabb, was killed while on a secret mission inside Cambodia. His helicopter took a direct hit from an RPG.”
North Georgia College’s alumni paid a high price in the dangerous skies, murky rice paddies and dense jungles of Southeast Asia, 27 fine young soldiers, America’s best. Panel W11, Row 116 on the Vietnam Wall is etched with one of those names: Robert Littleton Phillips.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.