On Sept. 24, 1970, Bobby Gayton stopped drinking and gave his life to Christ. He's been preaching ever since, and our country should be grateful he wasn't required to give his life in Vietnam.
A Cartersville native, Gayton served as preacher of Conyers Church of Christ for several years until family health issues called him back to a preaching position in Cartersville. Few parishioners knew he had seen and lived through some of the most ferocious battles of the Vietnam War.
After graduating from Cass High School in Cartersville in 1966, Gayton met and eventually wed “a pretty girl named Linda” after his tour in Vietnam. The couple has made a life together for 44 years.
April 1967 - Gayton attends Army basic training at Fort Benning before advanced infantry training at Fort Pope, La. On Independence Day, '67, Gayton's first cousin Tommy Hufsteller, was killed in Vietnam. Gayton said, "When I was home on leave, Tommy's mom advised me to go to Canada. She was fearful I wouldn't be returning from Nam. I told her I had a job to do."
In Sept.1967, Gayton arrived at Cam Ranh Bay, then flew via C-130 to Camp Alpha in Saigon. He said, "From Camp Alpha, I ended up at Chu Chi on Highway 1 for a week of ‘in-country' indoctrination before my assignment to Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade of the 22nd Infantry of the 25th Infantry Division at Dau Tieng near the Michelin Rubber Plantation in Tay Ninh Province." Gayton remained in Alpha Co. for his one year tour of duty, 279 of those days away from camp, and 88 days in the field during the Tet Offensive of '68. By Dec. '67, Alpha Co. had 66 men still in fighting condition out of 160 but eventually was resupplied and reinforced for Tet.
Before Gayton's first patrol, he was briefed by his knowledgeable squad leader Sgt. Lowen Jones. "He was red-headed and freckled-faced, just like me," Gayton said. "He told me if I wanted to stay alive to ‘listen and learn,' and I did." On Feb. 7, '68, Sgt. Jones would lay down his own life so that Gayton could live.
New Year's Eve 1967 - Near a North Vietnamese base camp, radio operator Gayton calls his LP (Listening Post) men back into Fire Support Base Burt. "They were on the way back in when a NVA soldier stood up between us. Guys were screaming, ‘Shoot him, shoot him!' but we couldn't because we'd hit each other. Luckily, the NVA soldier wanted to surrender." Under interrogation, the enemy soldier told the Americans they'd soon be under a massive attack. He wasn't lying. On Jan. 1, '68 at 7 p.m., the battle of Sui Cut began.
The battle of Sui Cut was depicted in the blockbuster movie Platoon directed by Oliver Stone. Stone was a member of Bravo Co. during the battle. Gayton said, "We received a massive mortar attack followed by a ground attack by two regiments of NVA, that's about three or 4,000 men up against four or 500 of us." The brunt of the attack hit Alpha and Charlie Co. - Charlie Co suffered a 50 percent casualty rate. Enemy soldiers were inside the perimeter, fighting was hand to hand; Gayton is hit in his leg by shrapnel but fights on. Of Gayton's three-man LP, one was temporarily blinded, one couldn't hear, and one would lose his leg, but all three survived.
American 105mm and 155mm artillery is lowered to point blank range to stop the NVA from overrunning the entire camp. "Beehive" rounds are used (rounds with darts inside) to help stem the tide. Overhead, "Puff the Magic Dragon" gunships pour in a deadly stream of fire and B-52 bombers use their massive payloads on the enemy. Napalm lights up the night. Come morning, Alpha and Charlie Co. are air-lifted to Katum but return the next day for patrol activity around FSB Burt.
Gayton said, "I saw swollen bodies and the smell was unreal. If you saw that burial scene in Platoon where we bulldozed hundreds of NVA bodies into a huge hole, well, it's true. I was there. The memory of Sui Cut, the fighting, losing many friends, and bulldozing hundreds of human beings into a hole have remained with me all my life."
During Jan. 1968, Gayton and Alpha Co. dodge mortars at Katum, return to FSB Burt to be mortared again, suffer casualties, return to Dau Tieng and conduct patrols in the Michelin Rubber Plantation, more wounded, more killed, and leave Dau Tieng on the Jan. 26. They would not return to their home base until March 30.
During the hell called the Tet Offensive, Alpha Co. protected Chu Chi before being sent to secure the Hoc Mon Bridge near the village of Ap Cho. "We got hit almost immediately," Gayton said. "The NVA and Viet Cong were on one side of Highway 1 and we were on the other side." Come nightfall, Alpha Co. was ordered on a night march, rare in Vietnam, to once again relieve enemy pressure on Chu Chi. "We fought our way in, then fought across a big field, and kept on fighting, then had to go back to Ap Cho. Our boys were being killed, yet we couldn't get permission to level that village."
At Ap Cho, Sgt. Lowen Jones, with Gayton on the radio, maneuvered into position near enemy bunkers to direct artillery fire. "Sgt. Jones was on the ground ahead of me overlooking enemy bunkers," Gayton said. "He suddenly jumped up and screamed, ‘GET DOWN!' so I did, just as an RPG flew by and exploded behind me, sending shrapnel into my face." Sgt. Jones was mortally wounded. "I met his daughter at a reunion years later, a daughter he'd never seen; her son looked just like Sgt. Jones. I cried."
There were more battles after Tet. Gayton saw seven troopers from Alpha Co. drown in the Saigon River; he set up ambushes of enemy sampans; lost more friends; he participated in the Battle of Tay Ninh; lost more friends at Nui Ba Den - the Black Virgin Mountain - lost track of time, lost too many friends. His feats are worthy of a book, and he's written one – “My Thorn in the Flesh: A Vietnam Veteran Speaks about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Bible.”
Of all the replacements, the wounded and dead, only one man from Alpha Co. did not receive a single scratch during the year Gayton was ‘in-country' - their most proficient machine gunner, a Native American from North Dakota named Wilkie.
Diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) by the VA, Preacher Bobby Gayton is fighting his second bout with another wound from Vietnam - prostate cancer triggered by the herbicide Agent Orange.
"It will not defeat me," Gayton said. "Because PTSD really means, Pleasing the Savior Daily."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist, and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com or visit his website at aveteransstory.us.