Letters from Vietnam: Remembering a Roderfield Soldier

By Cathy Patton

With his dark hair and dimples, Leonard Smith, Jr. contrasted markedly from his fair-skinned and freckled siblings. While his four sisters and two brothers would sometimes scrap and squabble, as siblings often do, Leonard would retreat to the quiet of his bedroom with transistor radio in hand. He loved listening to the radio, and he was fond of animals. Strays could always count on receiving a hand-out or a home from him. When little old ladies needed help with chores, he was the first to volunteer. When they tried to compensate him, he refused their payments with an "Ah, that's nothing"dismissal. Leonard's big and generous heart never allowed him to be unkind to anything or anyone.

So what did this peace-loving West Virginia youth do when he was called to war? First, he cried. "I've been drafted, and I don't want to go," he told his parents. Barely out of high school, Leonard was ill-equipped by nature and temperament to face foreign enemies in a far away country called Vietnam.

Excerpts of the letters he wrote from there tell a story as old as time itself. May his struggles and the struggles of others like him ever remind us: "It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag." May God bless and preserve our soldiers around the world.

Letter one, Monday Morning, no date, 1968 "I finally got over here and am OK. I had to stay at Ft. Dix two days, then we flew to Alaska, then to Japan and then here (Vietnam). This is the hottest place I have ever seen in my life. You should see how the people live over here. You couldn't give this place to me...

April 2, 1968: I am OK. I am with an Engineer Company, located at Dong Tam, about 30 miles south of Saigon. A river runs about 50-feet from the barracks, such pretty scenery to look at.

April 30, 1968: I went and bought a 1969 Cougar and got all the paperwork made up on it. Now, all I need is for Daddy to get me a letter of employment from Pocahontas Fuel. The Cougar will be delivered to Washington, DC, and I have to pick it up by October 5th. It will be financed through AMS. That's something that the military has set up so you can buy a car while you¹re over here. Why wait to buy a car when I can have one waiting on me when I get home?

May 5, 1968: Things are getting to be pretty bad. We are on alert because Saigon got hit today and they expect us to get it tonight. I had to clean my rifle today and get ready just in case the Viet Cong try to over-run this place. I will have to go out and reinforce the berm. I am in headquarters platoon and we would be the last to go out.

May 9, 1968: We didn't get mortared last night for the first time in a week. A mortar hit our orderly room and tore it all to pieces. I have to worry about mortars so I sleep in the bunker every night. For some of us, it really isn't as bad as it sounds over here. It's just that the Infantry has got it worse than anyone else. That's where most of the guys get killed. I heard on the radio where 25 miners got trapped in a mine somewhere in WV. Is that anywhere near home? I hope they get out safely.

May 30, 1968: "Z" has been writing to me every day. I am not worried about her because I know she is being good to me. "Z" just isn't that type of girl. I wouldn't trade her for anything. "Z" and I aren't going to get married until we get out of college. We already have everything planned.

June 4, 1968: We got mortared last night and that makes two nights in a row. I heard today that a whole Army company got wiped out in a battle not too far from here. You'll never hear anything about it in the United States Today is the day for the California primary. I sure do hope that Robert Kennedy wins. I am for him in the presidential race and hope you and Daddy are, too.

June 7, 1968: Wasn't that bad about Robert Kennedy getting killed? I sure hated to see him get killed because I was going to vote for him. I wonder if his brother Edward will try and run now. I think maybe he will. Most of the guys in the barracks here get drunk almost every night... It has been raining every night for the last three nights. It's been coming down so hard that it seem like it's going to come through the roof.

June 17, 1968: We got mortared four times last night. I am going to sleep with my boots on tonight so I won't have to get up in the middle of the night and run to the bunker barefooted.

June 21, 1968: There was a sergeant in our company that got killed last night by one of the American troops. They were set up a camp site and moved in the middle of the night. The sergeant didn't wake up until they had gone, and tried to catch up with them and came in from behind them. The last guy in the formation killed him because he thought he was a V.C. trying to sneak up on them. It wasn't the guy's fault. He had to defend himself and how was he to know that the sergeant he shot wasn't a Viet Cong. The sergeant that got killed was the best one in the whole company. I hated to see it. I believe I've gained a few pounds because all I do is sit around the mess hall and eat. I think I have got the easiest job in Vietnam.
(Leonard was a cook and truck driver in Vietnam.)

June 26, 1968: I am really glad now that I came in the Army when I did because now I am almost out and I will have the GI Bill so I can go to college. I don¹t think I will ever be more than a P.F.C. as long as I am in the Army because when I see someone doing something wrong, I can't help from telling them about it. Most of the sergeants in this company waste the government's money and materials like they don't cost anything. They don't have to pay all of the taxes or they wouldn't do it. If they could just conserve a little, they wouldn't need all of those tax hikes they are having. Well, Mom, I am through preaching my sermon for the night.

June 28, 1968: I just got back from going to a memorial service for the sergeant who got killed out in the field last week. He was the best sergeant in the company. It seems like only the good sergeants get it. We moved into our new area.

July 15, 1968: We may have to go out and reinforce the berm tonight because they are expecting the V.C. to try an over-run Don Tam tonight or within the next two months. I had to get all my equipment ready just in case. I got some (news) papers from you today. They sure do help out a lot. It seems that everyone back home is getting married. I hope all the young marriages last.

July 18, 1968: We had the day off because it is the 50th anniversary of the 9th Division. I went to a U.S.O show today. They had a band there from Australia that was pretty good. I just love to hear the Australians talk.

July 20, 1968: We had to take a whole battalion of Infantry out to a fire support base about 20 miles from Dong Tam. As soon as we left, the Infantry made contact with the Viet Cong. We heard them calling in artillery over our radios. When I get paid this month, I will send all my money home but $5. The guys over here don¹t see how I can live on $5, but it's easy when you don't smoke or drink.

July 23, 1968: I am going to work at Itmann ( Pocahontas Fuel Coal Co.) when I get out, until I start to school at Marshall. For the three months I work at Itmann, I figure I can buy "Z" an engagement ring for about $400. Plus, I can get $125 a month from the G.I. Bill. I will get me a part-time job when I am in college. Somehow, I will make it through.

August 29, 1968: It won't be long before I am home. I haven¹t got but 29 more days left in Vietnam and 36 left in the Army. What do you think of Humphrey getting the Democratic presidential nomination? I'm glad he got it instead of McCarthy or McGovern. I just wish that I could have been in Chicago when all the hippies and yippies were protesting. I would try my best to get them. People in the U.S. just don't know how good they've got it. They live better than anyone in the world and they don't have to worry about some other country coming in to take the U.S. over the way the Russians took of Czechoslovakia. People in the U.S. had better wise up. These people over here live like dogs and are fighting for their freedom. They would jump at the opportunity to live and have it half as good as the people in the U.S. There has been a pretty good lot of fighting around here last week. I heard on the radio where the U.S. and ARUNS (Vietnamese soldiers) killed over 600 Viet Cong up next to the Cambodian border, and only eight American and 50 Vietnamese soldiers got killed. We got mortared three times last week.

September 8, 1968: Mom, you said you didn't want me to start back to work at Itmann. If Daddy can get me a job at the tipple at Capels, I will take it. If he can't, I will work at Itmann. I sure don't want Nixon to get president. I'd rather see Humphrey get it.

As fate would have it, Nixon won the presidency and Leonard lost "Z" when she wrote him a "Dear John" letter. The deal for the Cougar never came to fruition, nor did the G.I. Bill come through for him. He attended Beckley College for a time, but dropped out when the school insisted that he pay his own tuition until the G.I Bill was awarded.

After returning from Vietnam, Leonard grew his hair long and shed his shoes for a season. "I'm tired of being hassled and bossed around," he said. "For the rest of my life, I'm going to be my own boss."

Leonard detested unfairness of any kind. When racial tensions surfaced at a post-ball game dance, he bounded over to the other side of the local armory and began dancing in the middle of a circle of black teenagers. The mostly white audience was appalled, but the tension evaporated instantly. "Who is that crazy white boy?" one woman asked. "That's my brother," I proudly replied. "Isn't he great?"

After suffering a heart attack at age 52, Leonard departed this life in April, 2000. Mourners jammed the Beckley funeral home and spilled out onto the street during his wake. Even now, I can feel his spirit cheering on American soldiers around the world. "We've made it through tough times before and, with God's help, we'll do it again," I hear him say.


McDowell County