Ralph Baxter knows it was the prayers of his mother and church family that covered him during a bloody Vietnam battle that forced the United States Army veteran to look death in the face during the three times that a helicopter he was riding in was shot down.

The 75-year-old North resident recalls the dangers he faced during the war which pitted communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong against South Vietnam and the United States. The war ended when U.S. forces withdrew in 1973 and Vietnam unified under Communist control two years later.

By the time he left Vietnam in 1970, he said there were some memories that would always stay with him.

‘I’ve seen so much death’

“The smell of blood. I’ll never forget the smell of blood. Death is just a part of it. We had to do it. There was always thousands of people with my same dilemma,” Baxter said.

“I’ve seen so much death. I’ve seen so many situations where people were supposed to die even one of my situations. It just wasn’t my time,” he said.

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Baxter continued, “My thing was, ‘Well, I’m going to make it back.’ I came to the conclusion that when it’s time to die, you’ll die. You’re not going to die before then because I’d had close calls. I’ve seen mortar rounds come in and wipe out six people and two people just got a little ear damage.”

He graduated from Dover High School in 1965 before attending then South Carolina State College with a major in biology. He didn’t enroll for a second semester and was soon drafted in 1968.

“When you don’t enroll for second semester, your draft notice comes in about three weeks. That’s that. Any time after ’68, if you’re 19 years old and you don’t have a school deferment or some physical deferment, you’ll get a draft notice within 90 days. That’s how it was in the ’60s,” Baxter said.

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The son of the late James and Bertha Baxter wasn’t hesitant or afraid about military service when he received his draft notice and had even volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War. He said he came from a military family on his mother’s side.

“Most everybody got drafted even from World War I, World War II. We got drafted. My brother, Frankie, he went in 1960. I always had intentions of going into the military after college. … I actually volunteered for Vietnam. I wanted to see a war because I heard my uncles and different people talk about it. [I said], ‘If they made it, I think I could do it, too,’” Baxter said.

He received his basic training at Fort Jackson.

“I enjoyed basic training. That eight weeks was a lot of fun. I was in top shape, maxed out on the PT test and stuff,” Baxter said.

“I applied for the U.S. Army aviation technician program, which is down at Fort Rucker, but what had happened is they had a surplus of people. They said, ‘Well, we just can’t put you there.’… After basic training, they said, ‘You’re going to the Army maintenance school.’ I’m going, ‘It wasn’t aviation.’ Naturally I was all upset, but … I went on to the maintenance school after basic training,” he said.

Baxter would soon find himself in Germany after Czechoslovakia was jointly invaded by four Warsaw Pact countries: the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary.

“I made E-5 after AIT (advanced individual training). I got to Germany September 1. I stayed in Germany from September 1 to January 1, of 1969. I came home for a 30-day leave, and then I went to Vietnam,” said Baxter, who, by then, was a Specialist 4th Class in his transportation unit.

He had also undergone RVN training at Fort Lewis, Washington to prepare him for his new mission in Vietnam.

“When I got to Vietnam, I was in the transportation maintenance company, which was maintenance on trucks, not helicopters. I had a guarantee it was supposed to be an aviation technician,” Baxter said, noting that he was with his transportation unit for 91 days.

It wasn’t long before Baxter was given the option to join the maintenance unit of the 1st Aviation Brigade.

“That’s what I really wanted originally. Of course, I was so excited. I was around helicopters. That’s what I wanted to do… After I had been there 48 days, they said, ‘Well, your position requires being Spec/5.’ So I was made Spec/5. It was the same as an E-5 rank as far as promotion, but a specialist is a specialist. You don’t have no rank over a hard stripe,” he said.

While he enjoyed working on the hydraulic systems of UH-1 helicopters and Cobras, he would find there was more to his job than that. He would also have to go out on medevac operations which sometimes resulted in his helicopter being shot down.

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‘I had developed a courage’

“What I didn’t realize was helicopters was used for support, medevac, and, of course, we had our Cobras,” he said, referring to the world’s first attack helicopter.

“They said, ‘Well, OK, you seem to be intelligent, we’re going to bring you on an OJT (On-The-Job Training) program.’ So I got in and got to know the people and what not… After a while, I really enjoyed it,” Baxter said.

It was during one mid-morning medevac operation, however, that the helicopter he was riding in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

“We were descending into the area. This was about 20 minutes after 9, and we got shot down. We crashed into a rice paddy. I got a few little shrapnel wounds and what not. The pilot, he got his neck snapped,” Baxter said, but survived. 

“I was holding the strap. It almost pulled my arm off. I had a few little shrapnel. I didn’t realize shrapnel came up through that floor and kind of penetrated some part of my skin, which was no big deal…. They came in with a Cobra to escort us … and brought another medevac and got me and him out. They took me back to USARV (United States Army Republic of Vietnam). I got me about two weeks off of duty,” he said.

Baxter did not let his brush with death deter him from his duties and stayed clear of the alcohol and drugs which he said were prevalent.

“I was always clean. I knew what my duties were,” he said, noting that he would soon learn how to run the gun turret of the Cobra helicopter.

“[They were like], ‘Baxter, you want to learn the gun turret?’ The Cobra is a narrow machine. It’s only 34 inches wide. The pilot sits up above you, and there’s a gun turret. They gave you about four days’ training on firing the mini-guns and all that stuff. I was excited,” he said.

His excitement would soon turn to another brush with death.

He continued, “We did about 19 operations with the Cobras…. On my 19th operation with the Cobras, we took another rocket. It tore the tail end off the Cobra. It went down. I was just lucky. I got a concussion and what not. It was enough people around that got us out,” Baxter said, but this time the pilot was killed.

“I didn’t know what this white matter was. I didn’t know the brain had white matter. That stuff that was down on me, that was his brain matter down my neck…. That rocket took his skull cap off.

“I was in the gun turret. When we went down, we just kind of crash landed, but it took his skull cap and his skull material fell back. It blew off the top of his helmet, but his skull material came down on my neck. I was down below him,” he said.

Baxter said his harrowing war-time experiences forced him to ask his mother and others to pray for him. He knew he could not make it without prayer.

“I had a bunch of people praying for me… I had developed a courage through prayer. You took it day by day you went into an operation. Then they transferred me and two pilots up to a place called Quan Loi, which was bad,’’ he said.

Quan Loi was the rugged area northeast of Saigon which saw intense fighting during the war.

Baxter said, “They just stuck me to a Cobra unit. The Cobra was used for one thing: combat. You don’t fire a Cobra unless you’re going to engage something. It was a high-tech piece of equipment.

“I really learned a lot. We lost Cobras, we lost people and stuff, but I was pretty fortunate. We got shot down three times, but the last one was a mechanical failure. A rocket hit part of our hydraulic system. We was able to bring it down kind of out of the way, though.”

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He continued, “We always stayed in communication. When you went down, other Cobras and everybody was right there around you because they had to surround you, or you could get captured.”

‘It was a learning experience’

Baxter did not have the comforts of home while in the military and endured everything from mosquitoes and monsoons to open toilets and jungle rot, which he described as an extreme case of athlete’s foot, during his service.

“You learned how to live with the diversities of being in the war. Some guys are strong, some guys are weak… You did your job to the best of your ability. I got promoted real fast. I made Spec/5 in about the 21st month of being in the military,” he said.

“I met four or five guys from Orangeburg…. You met some crazy people. We met the Chicago crowd, the New York crowd, the Italians and this and that. We had some racial problems, but my thing was people are different, and you just deal with whatever it was you had. You dealt with it. You didn’t get embellished in it, you just kind of dealt with it,” Baxter said.

“I will admit, if I had to do it again, I’d do the same thing. Of course, I probably would have been a helicopter pilot,” he said, noting that as a technician, he occasionally got a chance to fly them, too.

“It was a learning experience. I always wanted to be a pilot. I found a helicopter fascinating…. I enjoyed a challenge. I always enjoyed challenges. I never did like just like the mediocre type thing. I always liked challenges. I’ve learned when your time comes to die, you’ll die, but you’re not going to die before then. That helps a lot, and I still believe that,” Baxter said.

He said he kept a level head while in the military, something which served him well.

“Number one, Bertha Baxter and everybody was praying for me. St. Dorcas (Baptist Church) people always recognized Vietnam veterans back then. They were praying for me. I didn’t do nothing foolish. I stayed straight…. I didn’t mess with drugs or nothing like that. I had my first drink of whiskey after I got back from Vietnam,” Baxter said

He continued, “My thing was some people are strong, some are weak. I was a strong person. When I realized what we had gone through with, I said, ‘Wow,’ but you were young then and you had a life ahead of you. I was never a scary person anyway. So my thing was death was just a normal thing. Some died, some didn’t. Your number may come up, it may not, but you didn’t do nothing foolish.”

During his last two weeks of Vietnam, he was preparing to return to America.

“Your last two weeks of Vietnam, you don’t go any kind of dangerous operation. You kind of stay around the post…. I just didn’t worry. You fear, but some things you just couldn’t afford to (fear) because we were a shortage of people. I always had to sit in for people who didn’t do or couldn’t do because of intoxicants,” Baxter said.

He arrived in Oakland, California from Vietnam in 1970, but was not warmly received. Baxter said he and other service members were called pigs.

“It was terrible…. The thing is, [I said], ‘I’m going back to the world. I’ll deal with it. Just let me get out of this place.’ One thing I told myself was that for the rest of my life I’m going to have cold water, I’m not going to sleep among the mosquitos, and I’m not going to use a (open) toilet where 10 men sit side each other,” Baxter said.

‘You’re different when you come back’

“I never thought I’d die over there, but I just saw so much death…. I kind of enjoyed certain aspects of it. I would love to go back to Vietnam. Some guys still talk about it, but most of us are dead now. I’d like to see it from a peaceful aspect,” Baxter said.

He said he never understood why so many lives had to be lost in a war which he felt was largely about “making money.”

“After the French left, Firestone owned those rubber plantations, miles and miles. Firestone, Goodyear, they owned those plantations. Synthetic rubber really hadn’t gotten that big yet. So that latex from those trees, that was part of the Vietnam thing.

“You had all these people building aircraft. That was a political war. There was money to be made. If you were to cure cancer, what would happen to all these people who are into cancer research?” he said. “It was so much money being made, and a lot of people didn’t want it stopped.”

He continued, “We did a lot of things in Vietnam. So many lives could have been saved had they done it just the practical way. But we have military protocol, we do it like this. That’s why after my time was up, I had no intentions of being in the military, reserve or nothing.

“I had had enough. I had too many people who weren’t as smart as me, too many people smarter than me, but with bad attitudes. There were a lot of people making decisions that didn’t make sense. Human lives mean a lot to me.”

He said there are residual effects of war which will linger for a lifetime.

“You’re different when you come back from Vietnam. Everybody knows it except you. You’re different. Psychologically, you’re different. It’s an adjustment period… I always wanted to be that straight guy, but I had certain little minor issues,” Baxter said.

“Thank God I was physically and mentally strong. I didn’t get involved in all the drugs and drinking. I was just blessed to that point. I was just blessed because most people drank, they smoked a lot of marijuana. That’s where the drug thing started,” he said.

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Baxter, who still works part-time as a diesel mechanic, now enjoys the simple things in life, including playing music – he’s a musician a St. Dorcas Baptist Church in North — and making honey.

“My greatest joy now is playing and my bees. I’ve got about 35 strong hives, and most of my honey is already promised out,” he said.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow “Good News with Gleaton” on Twitter at @DionneTandD

“You’re different when you come back from Vietnam. Everybody knows it except you. You’re different. Psychologically, you’re different. It’s an adjustment period.”

— Ralph Baxter


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