Robert Anderson was not afraid of combat. In fact, he welcomed it. It was this trait that led to him voluntarily join the Marines during the Vietnam War in 1965.
Anderson, a Chicago native and current Boiling Springs resident, had just arrived at a base in El Toro after finishing Marine boot camp and ordinance school.
“I got to the base and signed in and, interestingly enough, the guy at desk asked if there was any particular outfit I wanted to go into,” Anderson said. “I said, ‘What’s the next outfit going over to Vietnam?’ He told me that they deployed in about two months. I said, ‘Put me in that outfit.’ There was a war going on and Marines fight wars. It seemed logical to me.”
It was the glory of being a Marine that had initially sparked Anderson’s interest when he was in high school.
“When I was young, my mom and dad divorced,” Anderson said. “It is hard to figure out what a guy is supposed to act like when you don’t have a male role model to guide you. In high school, I would go over and talk to the Marine (recruiter) and he’d show me info about the Marines. I thought it looked manly and cool – the typical stuff for a young high school guy who doesn’t really think of all the patriotism and hardship and just thinks ‘Wow that looks like cool stuff and I could get a lot of girls.’”
Anderson joined the Marines through a delayed enlistment after he graduated, traveling to San Diego for training.
“As soon as you get off the bus in the middle of the night, you realize that life as you know it is over in a big way,” Anderson said. “They spent the next three or four months hammering me around and turning a piece of iron into piece of steel, with much the impurity beaten out of it.”
Prior to entering Vietnam, Anderson spent six months at an ordinance school in Jacksonville, Florida, where he learned to build bombs and rockets and take care of electrical systems.
His deployment came in mid-September 1965.
“We took off from San Francisco and went to Okinawa for prep to go in country,” Anderson said. “Then we flew to Da Nang, and the one thing I remember more than anything is when I stepped off ramp, it was like being hit in the face with a wet blow torch. There was 99 percent humidity. The air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. They made us drink a pint of water just off of the plane.”
Anderson’s first tour mainly entailed the maintenance and re-arming of weapons coming in and out of combat.
“We were working seven days a week (and) 18 hours a day, and you sometimes had to go by the light of flares being dropped from the sky,” Anderson said. “It was really tough.”
But by the end of this tour, Anderson was generally disappointed by his lack of combat involvement.
“I didn’t really get into any heavy combat – a few mortars but nothing really serious,” Anderson said. “There was all the back breaking and the lack of sleep, but that is not that terrible in the scheme of things. At end of the first tour I said, ‘Look, I went through all this training to be a Marine and get into combat, and I haven’t seen any combat and, as stupid as it sounds, that’s why I volunteered for Vietnam.
“They said they needed a door gunner and I said, ‘I’m down,’” he added. “I talked to the first sergeant and he got me in to see the commanding officer. I said I would be up for a second tour if I could come over into (their) area and be a door gunner. He said OK and said their guy was due to rotate out in a few months.”
Anderson worked at an interim position hauling bombs before finally taking to the skies as a gunner. This position quickly proved to be much more harrowing.
“Once when I was flying, we were doing infantry support and strafing a village,” Anderson said. “We realized one of the exterior guns was jammed on my side. The pilot asked me to fix it so we could get back in the fight, so I said ‘give me a shot.’ I crawled outside the helicopter on the skid at 2,500 feet.
“After two tries I finally (fixed) it and suddenly I heard this bang-bang-bang,” he added. “I thought we were taking fire and I’m here outside the helicopter. Low and behold the banging sound was my gunner’s belt. When I was getting out, my latch tripped on the belt and I didn’t put the locking pin in, so I was hanging out there on the breeze with nothing to keep me on but my hands. I never forgot that again. It was the little things like that. Things you didn’t expect.”
Anderson said he had several near-death experiences during this tour.
“We got hit once and I remember looking between the helicopter commander and co-pilot and seeing all kinds of red and orange lights when they were supposed to be green,” Anderson said. “We were in the middle of a heavy jungle canopy at night, in enemy territory, if we went down. Thank God we didn’t.”
But Anderson made it through the tour, returning to the United States in June 1967. He finished his military career working as a lifeguard at a pool in Arizona.
“I think they took pity on me for doing two tours back-to-back in Vietnam,” Anderson said.
He said he turned to meditation to cope with lingering effects of the war.
“(The war) really did change the direction of my life,” Anderson said. “When I got out, I was working a full-time job plus going to school and I was really ragged. A dear friend of mine’s mom was a teacher of transcendental meditation. She saw how much of a mess I was and she said ‘Come here, sit down, shut up and don’t say anything until we are finished.’ She taught me how to meditate.”
Since then, Anderson has continued to use meditation techniques and philosophies to approach life. He eventually authored the book, “Warrior’s Song: The Journey Home,” which explores the psychological and philosophical aspects of military involvement.
“I work as an engineer and a consultant now, and when I need to (get) an answer to a question or I’m facing problem, I simply stop worrying about it,” Anderson said. “I know what the question is and then I let go of it (and) 100 percent of time, in a very short period of time, the answer materializes. Then you apply it to the outside world.”
Anderson has lived in Boiling Springs for around 25 years. He said he is preparing to retire.
“Tough situations can either crush you or strengthen you – it’s your attitude,” Anderson said. The takeaway is to never ever be a victim. Victims always fail. Know that if you want solutions and are passionate about that solution, it will happen through aligning yourself with your potential. When we do that, the universe comes knocking to help us.”