Since Veterans Day falls in November the editor thought it would be appropriate to devote a portion of the magazine to honor them. So I immediately thought of a local Veteran from Landrum who served in Viet Nam. I myself am a veteran having served during Nam but my experience was totally different since I never went to Nam staying here in the U.S. I have found that the majority of these veterans don’t want to, or won’t talk about it. It was with this in mind that I approached Spencer Baumgardner
fully expecting hesitation if not refusal on his part. But Spencer opened up and told me his story.
I hope I can justify his faith in me to tell it.
Although Spencer is a life long resident of Landrum, South Carolina he was born in Charlotte February 3, 1948 and graduated from Landrum High School in 1966. The mid to late 60’s was a hot time in the Vietnam war and Spencer enlisted on July 12, 1966 at age 18 and just after graduation. He went through basic training at Fort Gordon and Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Jackson. His MOS or specialty designation was “Infantry”. In Vietnam he was in Company B, 6th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry.
Now comes the hard part for me to tell the story, but even harder for him to tell it to me. Sitting on a couch in his Landrum home I could see him looking off into the distance, visualizing the events that would forever change his life. I could see him fighting back the emotion as he told me about actual confrontations with the Viet Cong, losing his best friend and others in his Company. He said at one point he didn’t want to get to know anyone or even their name.
I asked him what his usual duties were. As part of a company of around 120 men, he and his squad would go out into the country for around 14 days to search villages for weapons. They lived out of their knapsacks and dug holes to sleep in . They would enter these primitive villages with thatched huts always on the look out for the enemy. It was on one of these missions that he and 7 men went out on patrol one night. Spencer was the Squad Leader,the old man at 19 with experience and was leading the patrol when they suddenly ran into a VC patrol of an unknown number. Two of the leading VC dived for cover and the 3rd dropped to his knees. Spencer immediately opened up dropping the crouching enemy. Spencer then yelled for everyone to “open up” and spread out with a partner. Moose was Spencer’s partner and
he and the rest of the patrol dived behind the dike of a water filled rice paddy. It was dark and they could not judge the strength of the enemy. During the initial moments of the engagement Spencer thought he
dropped two or three , but as he and his men were hiding behind the dike using it for cover fighting off the larger force, one of the Cong tossed a grenade which rolled to the edge of the dike and exploded.
If it had rolled over the dike Spencer and some of his men would not be here to tell this story. McDaniels, another member of the squad , dropped the one who tossed the grenade. Spencer could see the tall stalks of rice laying down as the enemy advanced in strength approaching their position. He called for “illumination” and mortar rounds from his company lit up the sky letting them see the enemy. Finally seeing the situation was very bad he and his patrol withdrew to safety with one member wounded by shrapnel from a grenade. Amazingly the entire engagement only lasted 10 minutes but probably seemed an eternity.
Being a small man only 115 lbs Spencer was also a tunnel rat. Armed only with a pistol he would enter the under ground tunnels the VC used to store weapons and ammo. One can only imagine the dark narrow passages and what he would run into. In 1968 the Vietnamese launched the TET offensive which was the largest battle of the war and Spencer and his men found themselves in an engagement in which there were two separate lines like world war two. Enemy mortar positions were around 500 yards away and small arms positions were much closer. Each side was heavily firing at the other. An Enemy machine gun was laying down heavy fire at Spencer’s position and he returned fire with his machine gun eventually melting the barrel . The enemy was constantly firing mortar rounds at them keeping them down low in the trench . One of our mortar teams finally took out the enemy mortar and Spencer and one of his team members leaned back and drank a coke. It’s hard to imagine with thousand of bullets flying taking a break . Spencer said he believed they counted 360 enemy dead that day.
I won’t relate all of the stories Spencer told me and there are many more. I just can’t do it well enough to really convey to you. They are graphic and helps me understand the man and what he experienced and still lives with every day. However one last story is about a custom Spencer has practiced for nearly 50 years. Somewhere between May 8th and May 10th he gets a haircut. The reason is to honor his Lieutenant who for three days as they were out in the field asked for a barber and needed a hair cut. He didn’t want to meet his “maker” without a hair cut. The Lieutenant whose call sign was “Preacher”, was mortally wounded by a direct hit from a mortar round on May 10th. Spencer recalls how well this officer was liked and remembers his body being placed next to Spencer’s foxhole while waiting for a helicopter to come and take it away. There were no body bags available to cover his body so two bright silver bags that claymore mines come in were used to cover his remains. Spencer recalled how the arrival of the helicopter caused the bags to blow away and he looked down at his fallen comrade . He also remembers a Staff Sgt from Spartanburg being killed in action on May 9th.
Spencer was honorably discharged in July of 1968 having completed his two years of enlistment. He had risen to the rank of E-5 in just two years. It took me nearly 4 years to achieve that. The walls of his home are covered with pictures of comrades many of whom did not survive. He is a member of The Combat Infantrymens Association and was awarded numerous medals and ribbons. Out of the 120 men in his Company he was one of three men who were never wounded , killed or discharged for sickness. All of this at 115 lbs and barely 20 years old.
After his discharge Spencer came home to Landrum and worked in a mill for a short time. It didn’t take long for him to realize this wasn’t for him . Then he worked in a bar in Aiken for a short time. After the bar he soon discovered his calling, his profession, the job he was destined to do until his retirement a few years ago. A friend, Vic Russell , was involved in the Horse business and got Spencer in the Horse business through friends. His first job was as the 1st Whipper . Now here is where I got an education. A Whipper controls the Hounds in a Fox Hunt, making sure they don’t stray out into traffic and also takes daily care of the dogs. Then he became a Huntsman for 7 years and for three years a trainer of Thoroughbred horses which meant a lot of bucking wild horses and falls. He also was a Jockey in the Tryon “Block House” race. He finally became a Public Trainer and raced horses all over the country.
Pimlico Race Track in Maryland, Delaware, Philadelphia, Charleston, West Virginia, Meadowland in Atlantic City , New Jersey, and Hialeah Race Track in Florida are some of these. The walls of his home are also covered with pictures of famous horses like Secretariat, autographed by owners and Jockeys. Although he is retired he is still around horses. He visits the new Equestrian Center in Tryon frequently as well as local breeders.
Finally, I asked him what he thought we achieved in Viet Nam. Was it worth it ? Did we gain anything ? He looked down at the floor and after a brief pause said he had thought about that for nearly 50 years and he had no answer. The only thing he thought may have been accomplished was he and his men may have saved the lives of civilians in the South allowing some to escape to other countries. 58,000 American’s were killed in Viet Nam. That is a staggering figure. In spite of all Spencer endured, he is a quiet man and always has a smile on his face. He has been blessed with two daughters. Oakley is 38 and Heather is 26.
Randy Simpson, Contributor
Randy is a graduate of Clemson University and veteran of the U.S. Airforce. He is a 10th generation South Carolinian and history buff. He also plays bass for Loaded Toad. Randy will be covering Upstate history for Upstate Exposures. You may contact him directly at AnOldReb@AOL.com