Robert Pempsell is proud of what he denied the North Vietnamese army -- weapons and other supplies -- when he and other American soldiers invaded Cambodia in the spring of 1970.
President Nixon's order to enter Cambodia surprised Americans and made the war, already unpopular back home, even more controversial.
For Pempsell and his comrades, domestic politics took a back seat to the task at hand -- staying alive and hindering the enemy.
“They would helicopter us to where they thought they saw enemy bunkers and supply depots. I would radio in artillery support, gunships and, if necessary, airstrikes when we came in contact with the enemy,” Pempsell said.
Cambodia was supposed to be a neutral country in the war, but the North Vietnamese took advantage of the neutrality and built up vast supplies on the Cambodian side of the border with Vietnam.
“It was at the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail and they’d bring supplies down by trucks, bikes and on their backs from North Vietnam,” the 67-year-old veteran recalled.
Even with the artillery and air support, Pempsell said the work was extraordinarily dangerous.
“We had to walk through the jungle single file. The vegetation was so thick you couldn’t see 10 meters ahead of you. We wound up in three major ambushes during the 30 days I spent in Cambodia.”
The ambushes occurred when Pempsell’s unit, Delta Company, 5th/12th Battalion, stumbled upon enemy bunkers.
“We called them 'horseshoe' ambushes. The enemy would surround you on three sides, from the front and on the left and right.”
In the worst of the three ambushes, Pempsell said “hard core” North Vietnamese troops attempted to completely surround his platoon by throwing hand grenades behind them to cut off support from other units.
“The guys who were on point stumbled into the front of the ambush and then the enemy opened up from the left and the right. As soon as the shots went off, my instincts automatically put me on the ground.
“Someone opened up on me and missed my head by 10 or 12 inches. I could see sparks from the rounds hitting the ground in front of me. I started praying. I looked around and saw a silhouette to the right of me behind a bush and opened fire and the firing stopped from that area.”
The threat neutralized, Pempsell said he radioed in for artillery support. But the enemy had carried out a maneuver known as “hugging the belt,” he said, and was close enough to the patrol to avoid being struck by the exploding artillery shells.
“They knew to get close on account of us avoiding friendly fire. A round going off at 30 or 40 meters away could end up injuring us instead of the enemy,” Pempsell said. “So I had to call in the Cobra gunships. They shot their rockets at close range.”
While this was happening, Pempsell and the others managed to “crawl back out of the kill zone.”
Robert Pempsell, 67
Residence: Lancaster for many years; currently, Bennington
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: 1968-71
Most prominent honors: Bronze Star with valor, Army Commendation Medal.
Incidents of this sort earned Delta Company an unenviable title, “Dying Delta.” Its members entered Cambodia some 80 strong around May 25. When they crossed back into Vietnam on June 24, their ranks had been thinned to 50. Some 30 were killed, wounded or incapacitated by malaria and other jungle maladies.
Delta and other units in the 5th/12th Battalion nevertheless punished the enemy, inflicting many casualties and capturing food, weapons and ammunition. Consider these statistics on what was captured by the 5th/12th:
- 320 tons of rice, enough to feed 20 enemy companies an entire year;
- 449 small arms weapons;
- 437,000 rounds of ammunition;
- 676 rifle grenades; and
- 4 K-62 radios.
But Pempsell's feeling of success in battling the enemy and surviving the war was tempered when he returned home to the United States in March 1971.
He had a new challenge: avoiding anti-war sentiments on the homefront.
“Me and a bunch of guys hopped in a taxi and rode to the airport in San Francisco. I went up to the counter and said I wanted a flight to Buffalo. They told me to run down the corridor. They had an extra seat.”
During the flight, he sank low in his seat, not wanting to get into an argument about the war.
“I had lost 10 buddies. and if anybody said anything to me, I was going to pop them in the face,” Pempsell said.
He says he made it unscathed back to Lancaster, where friends treated him well.
In time, Pempsell started a job at an East Side meat processing plant and worked there 37 years before retiring.
The father of a daughter and a grandfather four times over, he moved from Lancaster in 2008 to rural Wyoming County’s Town of Bennington, where he lives in a home perched on a hillside.
“I have a spectacular view of Tonawanda Valley,” Pempsell said.
He says he thinks about the horror of the war every single day.
“It just never goes away. It just gets easier with old age.”