Robert W. Black was born in June 1929 in Carlisle, and he grew up on a farm outside of the town.
His father worked as the chief engineer for the C.H. Masland plant in Carlisle. Growing up in the country, Black learned to love the outdoors; but claims that in his one room schoolhouse, his family’s background and his father’s employment made him a “city slicker.” He often suffered name calling from his peers and learned to fight to prove his toughness. He also learned how to take a blow and that sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
These lessons would serve him well in his Army career.
Black enlisted in the Army in 1949 and volunteered for the infantry and for Airborne School. When the Korean War broke out, he was serving with the 82nd Airborne Division. Black did not want to sit out the war. “I knew the Korean War and I were made for each other” he wrote, so he volunteered for one of the Army’s newly formed Ranger companies.
The Korean War shaped his attitudes about Soldiers and combat. The 100-man Ranger Company in which he served provided the U.S. Army division it supported with important capabilities. Rangers specialize in patrolling, the art, as Black puts it of “small groups of men moving by stealth on a reconnaissance or combat mission.”
That meant Black would see plenty of action in Korea. In his unit, the 8th Ranger Company, Black carried a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) for his squad.
In 1954, Black received a direct commission as a 2nd Lieutenant of Infantry, and he served in various stateside and overseas assignments. These assignments prepared him for conventional war against the Soviets.
When he arrived in Vietnam in November 1967, he found he was unprepared for many of the tasks he faced in a counterinsurgency. He would need to learn a new form of warfare.
Maj. Black was assigned to the Military Assistance Command (MACV) when he arrived and served as a district adviser based in the town of Rack Kein. His job was to facilitate support to the Vietnamese district administrator who controlled an area similar in size to Cumberland County.
Black was required to help coordinate economic development assistance and assist his Vietnamese counterpart prepare the local militia units that would secure the local villages. He had no direct control of American or Republic of Vietnam combat units and had to plead for their support and assistance. He also could not direct his Vietnamese district counterpart to take any action.
His initial assessment was the district adviser faced challenges supporting the American or the South Vietnamese governments’ efforts to build loyalty within the villages and their inhabitants. The Viet Cong owned the region at night, and the American and South Vietnamese regular army units seldom stayed long enough to gain the trust of the local inhabitants.
Coordination among these regular army units and the local popular force militia and regional force companies often did not occur. Inefficiencies and corruption harm the civic and economic development programs. Complicating his situation, the U.S. Army had not placed any emphasis on soldiers learning to speak Vietnamese, so Black had little ability to communicate with his Vietnamese counterpart.
Black’s Ranger mentality took over. His first priority was to secure and protect his own military staff and then build the capabilities of his Vietnamese counterpart. Before he arrived, his town had never been attacked. Yet, he demanded his soldiers build bunkers and coordinate their defense with the nearby American infantry battalion and artillery company.
Some of his soldiers questioned the need. However, when the first accurate mortar attack hit his headquarters weeks later; his troops thanked him for pushing their efforts beyond what they thought was necessary.
Black’s ability to support his Vietnamese counterpart was more difficult to correct. Some issues were the result of cultural differences. Some were based on time – Black was there for a year, the counterpart was there forever.
Additionally, inefficiencies and lack of coordination in the American and Vietnamese supply system made obtaining support and supplies harder. Black admitted that he and his fellow advisers lived in a “middle world.” They “were not privileged to enjoy the many benefits of the American supply system” and had difficulty understanding the Vietnamese culture. They often referred to U.S. officials as “the Americans” as if they had lost all ties with their own country.
To get his job done, Black and his staff reverted to an old-time soldier practice of scrounging and bartering. This process became the source of the supplies and materials that supported his efforts. He bartered “war trophies” such as Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regular Forces’ helmets, weapons and flags to soldiers and defense contractors that lived in the secure areas near Saigon. They traded these items for fuel, generators, lumber, radios, ammunition and weapons.
Through this process, he developed a civics works program. He improved medical support in the district and helped build a larger market in the central town of Rack Kein. At the same time, the better weapons and training of his local militia forces served his district well during TET Offense during the Vietnamese New Year in late January 1968 and throughout his tenure in the district.
Black departed Vietnam in fall 1968. He was initially assigned to an ROTC program at the University of Miami and subsequently served on the United States Pacific Command Staff in Hawaii. His final assignment returned him home to Carlisle, and he retired from the service in 1978.
Today Col. Black continues to distinguish himself as the foremost historian of the American Ranger. He is the author of “Rangers in Korea” and “Rangers in World War II.” He founded the Ranger Research Collection at the U.S. Military History Institute, which includes the largest collection of Ranger photographs in existence. Col. Black was the founding president of the Association of the Ranger Infantry Companies (Airborne) of the Korean War.
As he looks back on his life, he comments that “Growing up during the Great Depression and World War II had a profound impact on me. It was my privilege to fight two hot wars and one cold war for my country.”