Jimmy Robbins was convinced he would die on that December day in a grassy clearing in Vietnam as the bullets whizzed and the mortar rounds showered the hot tropical air with a deadly hail of steel.
Yet half a century later, Robbins can tell his terrible tale.
And although he will never know for certain, it might be that Robbins, 71, owes all the years that came after at least in part to his buddy from Baker County, a man who didn’t survive that day.
A man who even today Robbins can’t talk about without an occasional hitch interrupting his syrupy smooth Southern accent.
His name is John Noble Holcomb.
He grew up in Richland.
Holcomb died on Dec. 3, 1968, in the same small jungle clearing near Quan Loi where Robbins, then 20, was all but certain he would draw his final breath.
Sgt. Holcomb’s exploits, which included manning a machine gun after the regular gunner was hurt, crawling through a fire ignited by artillery and moving several members of his squad even after he had been wounded, led to his posthumous awarding of the Medal of Honor.
Holcomb, who was 22 when he died, is one of 13 Oregonians to receive this highest U.S. military decoration — and the only one from Baker County.
That accolade, Robbins said, was “well-deserved.”
Indeed, when he recently read for the first time the citation that accompanied the Medal of Honor, describing Holcomb’s heroism during the firefight in which 23 American soldiers were killed and 53 wounded, Robbins said “it brought tears to my eyes again.”
Robbins was among those casualties, although he downplays both the shrapnel wound in his leg, and the Purple Heart and Bronze Star he was awarded.
Robbins, who grew up in Florida and was drafted into the Army in 1968, said he will never forget Dec. 3, 1968.
It was hot, but of course most days were hot in Vietnam.
“It was over 100 degrees,” Robbins said.
He and Holcomb were in the same company — D Company — of the 2nd battalion, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division.
Although they were in different platoons — a platoon usually consists of 16 to 44 soldiers, and a company comprises three to five platoons — Robbins said both his and Holcomb’s platoons were among the units delivered by helicopter to a clearing.
“The whole company was involved,” Robbins said.
The helicopters landed without incident, he said, but once the last chopper had flown away the soldiers realized they were almost surrounded by Viet Cong soldiers.
“They had us on three sides,” Robbins said. “They opened up on us. There was no cover, only knee-high grass. They had us pinned down all day.
The soldiers ran out of water and were low on ammunition.
Helicopters that tried to drop supplies were driven off by intense ground fire.
“They couldn’t get anything to us,” Robbins said. “I thought it was all over. I thought we would either be killed or captured. I made my peace with God and I was prepared.”
Because he suffered his shrapnel wound relatively early in the battle, Robbins didn’t see much of what took place where Holcomb was stationed.
“Some of us were waiting to be evacuated, and they took our weapons from us because they had to conserve ammunition,” Robbins said.
But the rescue helicopters were no more successful than the resupply aircraft.
Late in the day soldiers from Company B were able to reach the clearing and keep the enemy soldiers at bay long enough for helicopters to land, Robbins said.
Although he remembers learning that day that Holcomb had taken over a machine gun that was a key part of Company D’s defenses, Robbins said he didn’t find out until a few days later, when he was recuperating at a base camp, both the extent of Holcomb’s heroism and that his friend had been killed on what Robbins describes as the worst day of his year of service in Vietnam.
“It still bothers me,” he said. “We’d had some other firefighters before, but nothing like that. It was a bad day.”
Robbins said he’s convinced that Holcomb’s actions saved many lives, possibly including his own. Holcomb’s Medal of Honor citation states that by reporting the third enemy attack on the clearing, he “brought friendly supporting fires on the charging enemy and broke the enemy attack.”
“I’m sure he helped tremendously,” Robbins said.
Robbins, who lives in Guin, Alabama, population about 2,300, said he hadn’t realized that Holcomb’s hometown of Richland, population 175, was so small.
In Vietnam, where he met Holcomb, he only knew that his fellow soldier was from Oregon; he didn’t know what part of the state.
Robbins said he enjoyed Holcomb’s company.
“You could tell how he cared about people,” Robbins said.
He remembers in particular that Holcomb once shared with him and other soldiers the homemade jerky and elderberry wine that his grandfather had sent from Baker County.
Robbins served in Vietnam from July 1968 until July 1969. He returned to the U.S. and was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, until his service ended in December 1969.
He worked in retail management, first in Florida and, after 1994, in Alabama. He retired at 62.