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Sam Pfeffer, Vietnam Combat Infantryman

November 27, 2019 - 00:00
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  • Sam Pfeffer, Vietnam Combat Infantryman
    One of Sam’s living quarters while in Vietnam
  • Sam Pfeffer, Vietnam Combat Infantryman
    Sergeant Sam Pfeffer, 1967

Sam Pfeffer was born in Bell-ville on March 4, 1943. He attended public schools there but decided to drop out of school in 1959, before graduating from high school. Instead, he took a good paying job, working in the oil patches around Bellville.

He earned enough money to marry Emily, his wife now of 56 years, buy a piece of property that was owned by her family, and build the house that they reside in today. Before the Vietnam War had actually begun, Sam volunteered for the military, thinking that he could get his service behind him and return to start his family after being discharged. He was turned down after his induction physical because of a damaged heart resulting from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. Sam volunteered a second time and was again turned down. So, he resumed his life, believing he was unfit for duty.

In 1965, as the Vietnam War began, and young men were called to service, Sam received a draft notice after just 5 weeks of living in the new house he had built. He reported to the induction office in Houston. Three doctors examined Sam and two agreed that he was fit for duty in the US Army. Leaving his wife in Texas, he reported to Fort Polk, LA. This training post was overflowing with recruits, so Sam was transferred to Fort Lewis, WA for his basic training. For the next 10 weeks he was trained as a tank killer, learning to use 90mm shoulder launchers and 106mm cannons mounted on a half-ton jeep. As his deployment to Vietnam approached, the Army changed Sam’s MOS, because the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong had no tanks. He became an infantry radio transmitter operator (RTO).

With 10,000 American troops, Sam boarded a ship for a 21-day voyage that was escorted by 3 submarines. They arrived “in country” in September of 1966, and for the first 5 ½ months he operated out of Cu Chi, located northwest of Saigon, just a few miles from the Cambodian border. From there, his squad would fly, in Hueys, on hit and run missions in the area called the Iron Triangle. Spotter planes would locate the enemy and Hueys would transport the squad and drop them off to engage the enemy in firefights. Every 5 days the squad would receive fresh clothes and the old ones would be burned. Sam laughed that the men did not wear underwear because of the heat. However, the underwear made great cleaning rags for their weapons. They often crossed rivers where leeches abound. It did not take long to learn that pulling them off would result in lots of bleeding, but if touched by a lit cigarette, the leeches would let go.

On March 18, 1967, Sam was promoted to the rank of Sergeant, E-5, and was made a Squad Leader. On the next day, March 19, his squad was engaged in Operation Junction City II in the War Zone C area of III Corps, which was located in South Vietnam, near the Cambodian border. It involved a large search and destroy sweep of the area and establishment of Firebase Gold, a protected artillery base in a dry rice patty near the abandoned village of Suoi Tre. US Army infantry and artillery troops, numbering about 450, arrived at the site where the Firebase was to be constructed. Sam’s squad was among the infantry sent in by about 50 helicopters to protect the artillery that would be brought in. Unaware that the Viet Cong had mined much of the area, several helicopters were lost and a number of troops killed or wounded as they landed. The artillery, consisting of105 mm howitzer cannons, was carefully brought in. The following day was quiet, as placement of the artillery began. The third day, March 21, at 6:30 a.m., the Americans were attacked by a force of 2,500 communists forces charging from every direction except the northwest. One of the bloodiest battles of the entire Vietnam War ensued, lasting over four hours. The outnumbered Americans were using artillery cannons at close range as well a their infantry rifles to prevent the onslaught of enemy from overpowering them.

By 9 a.m., the US Army Calvary arrived with Armor Personnel Carriers and tanks bringing more infantry support and the US Air Force provided air cover to rescue the men who were surrounded. When the battle was over and Firebase Gold secured, 52 brave Americans were killed and 187 were wounded. When the smoke cleared the enemy fared far worse; 647 were killed, the largest number in any battle of the entire war!

Sam’s squad suffered no casualties. The following day, the American soldiers were tasked with the terrible job of collecting the 647 bodies of enemy soldiers and burying them in a mass grave dug by a tank with a dozer blade. The next day a group of 185 Army infantry, including Sam’s squad, were ordered to pursue the enemy. They walked into an ambush of the remaining enemy, who numbered almost 2,000. The Americans suffered an 85 percent causality rate and retreated. Sam escaped injury. Three days later he was transferred to a light infantry brigade at Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border and placed in charge of another infantry squad.

Just five days later, Sam was flown to Pleiku, much further north, not far from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), to relieve US Marines who had had been fighting there. By now, Sam had just 5 months left of his tour in Vietnam. During his entire tour, he never was given R&R, as most troops experienced. At Pleiku, he took a squad of 5 men out at night on ambush missions to encounter enemy forces and during the day conducted road sweeps to clear roads of mines and enemy ambushes. During one of the night raids, Sam was hit by shrapnel in a firefight and was awarded a purple heart. While in that firefight, using flares, he called in artillery and mortar fire, to overpower the enemy.

Most combat soldiers were given 5 days notice that their tour was up and flown to safe areas while they awaited “the Freedom Bird back to the World”. Sam was pulled off combat 3 hours before catching a chopper that delivered him to a waiting “Freedom Bird” and a 23-hour flight to San Francisco. In September of 1967, he was discharged with 100,000 other US soldiers. Sam returned to Bellville and his waiting wife, Emily.

Cameron Iron Works, just west of Houston, immediately rehired Sam at his old job. Sam and Emily began their family. After 16 years, he moved to a job with Exxon, all the while living in Bell-ville. At age 55, Sam was given the opportunity to move to Oklahoma, or retire. Sam chose retirement and has now enjoyed 22 years of raising cattle, growing a vineyard and making wine, as well as tending a vegetable garden. He and Emily cherish their close relationship with their 51-year-old son who lives in New Braunfels, and their 49-year-old daughter who lives next door to them, and enjoy their four grandkids. Sam has been active in several veterans groups in the past, but has recently joined the Columbus Chapter 1127 Vietnam Veterans of America and especially enjoys the brotherhood of this group of men.

Over the years you have probably encountered Sam and his wife, on their frequent trips to Columbus to visit Emily’s brother, our own favorite Coach Billy Hagen.