Across the Saigon River, Eugene Wentworth said he could see the rockets’ red glare as he watched the early days of the Vietnam War happen from a distance during his first tour in 1965.
Following his 1958 graduation from West Point, Wentworth’s first assignment was teaching survival skills at the jungle training school in Panama. At the time, the young soldier said he didn’t realize what he was really preparing for.
“They were training for jungle warfare. A smart guy would have figured it out, that we were going to go somewhere there’s a jungle, but I didn’t figure that out,” said Wentworth, 79.
As one of the first 5,000 American soldiers on the ground, he entered the first tour with little knowledge about the country or the conflict.
He knew the war was going on, but as an advisor to a Vietnamese quartermaster outfit stationed in the southern part of Vietnam, Wentworth saw very little combat up close.
“I didn’t hear my first shot in anger except when I was on my way from one place to another in the northern parts of Vietnam. I got caught in an ambush of a Vietnamese organization and that’s when I knew things were real,” he said.
Wentworth returned to the states to pursue a master’s degree, and said it felt as if nothing was happening overseas.
The war, however, continued in his absence, and he would return in 1970 to find an escalated conflict.
“I had lost 14 of my (West Point) classmates during that interim period of time, who were in positions where they were getting shot at every day. I didn’t run into that until my second tour. By that time, things were really hot and heavy,” he said.
Wentworth went back to Vietnam to build pipelines, again as part of a Military Advisory Committee, and like the landscape of the war, his thoughts about it had changed.
“I think when we first went over, at least I did, I knew this was something very important. I was so proud to go to Vietnam originally, to be one of the very first 5,000 people. My second tour, I was at a level where I could see the war was not going well,” he said.
“Vietnam deteriorated to where it was no longer a worthy cause,” Wentworth added.
The Harker Heights resident remained in the Army 30 years, mostly working in the petroleum engineering sector, and commanding the 3rd Cavalry Regiment in Europe, before retiring to the Fort Hood area as a colonel in 1988.
While he admits his years in Vietnam were difficult ones in his career, Wentworth said he’s thankful he did not have as many overseas combat tours as so many in the Army do today.
“Once you’ve been there, you get a certain feeling of your necessity as a soldier. Once you’ve been there twice, you wonder if the first time was really as valuable as you thought. If you had to do it three or four times, or five times as some have done, it no longer is anything except a burden.”