By Paul Wood
URBANA — When his truck backed over a mine and injured him and a friend two days before he was scheduled to leave Vietnam, Spc. Bob Sylvester said he’d skip the wait for the Purple Heart and head home.
“I told them they could mail it to me,” said Sylvester, 71, who now lives in Urbana.
He was stationed from May 1969 to May 1970 in an ammunition and fuel base in “Rocket Alley” in South Vietnam, near Cambodia.
“You crossed the road and you were in Cambodia,” he says. “You stayed alert at night. There could always be an attack.”
Sylvester grew up near Pesotum, played sports at Unity High School and thought he’d escaped the draft when he got called up at age 25. He was working as an assistant greenskeeper of a golf course.
It looked like safe duty for him when he was assigned to golf courses and other recreation duties — he learned to ride a horse for one riding academy — in his first months in the Army at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
But the war in Vietnam ramped up in 1968 after the Tet offensive, and soldiers were being pressed into different jobs.
“They said I was going to Vietnam, and there weren’t golf courses there,” Sylvester recalls.
Instead, he was assigned to the ammo dump, and that’s where he stayed.
“The first night I was there, the enemy blew up the fuel/oil dump,” he remembers.
As in other places in Vietnam, the locals often worked on the bases during the day.
“They’d come back at night in their black pajamas” as Viet Cong revolutionaries, he says.
“So you’d have to sleep pretty light, and it wasn’t unusual to get shot at,” he adds. “We were under rocket and mortar fire.”
His base would call in Cobra helicopters. The AH-1 was an icon of the war; Sylvester remembers being happy “they could fire on their way in and on their way out.”
“I was pretty grateful for those guys,” he says. “I had a lot of respect for them.”
Besides supplying ammunition and fuel for several branches of the military, the camp where Sylvester worked also had the dangerous duty of destroying captured enemy weapons and ammo.
As for Sylvester, he carried an M14, a rifle he loved. Others carried the new M16, which he considered too light, too easy to heat up and too easy to jam.
The highlight of his stay in Vietnam was the seven days he got to leave — for rest and recreation in Australia.
“Those Australian women were crazy for American men,” he recalls.
After leaving Vietnam and the service, with a cut healed on his neck from the mine explosion, Sylvester found himself in an America that didn’t seem to welcome Vietnam vets.
“There were angry people that never got to see (Vietnam) firsthand,” he says. “I was upset, but I got over it.”
He drove trucks for a few years, then spent years as a carpenter.
Along the way, he got married, took care of three kids, got divorced, traveled a lot and retired.
He likes to go to the Urbana VFW. This year’s Fourth of July parade was a pleasant surprise for him, with lots of support for the veterans.
“The World War II guys are the real heroes,” he says.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.