The baseball career of right-handed pitcher Bobby Mathews (Johnson, Sacramento City, Sacramento State) was just beginning to blossom when it was interrupted by the military draft and Vietnam War in 1966.
The Vietnam War (1959-1975) was a long, costly armed conflict that pitted the communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies, known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. Regular United States combat units were deployed in 1965 and by 1968 American involvement in the war was at its peak.
In May of 1966, Mathews’ baseball career was put on hold when the 18-year-old was drafted into the Army and sent to basic training at Fort Ord in California. Three months later, he was shipped to Camp Leonard Wood in Central Missouri for combat engineer training.
On October 6, he received orders that sent him to Vietnam.
“When we landed in Saigon, the plane door opened and it hits you. It was so hot and so sticky,” Mathews said in an interview in January of 2016.
In Saigon, Mathews was assigned to the 557th Light Equipment Company. In February of 1967 part of his company joined the 1st Infantry Division in Operation Junction City in an area known as Prek Klok in the Tay Ninh Province.
Operation Junction City was an 82-day military operation conducted by the United States and Republic of Vietnam and was the only major airborne operation of the Vietnam War.
The 557th was given the task of bulldozing every inch of jungle it could to give the infantry and supporting armor a better chance of destroying enemy strongholds and supply lines and locating the Viet Cong headquarters.
“Basically, Prek Klok was a place you’d never find on any map,” Mathews said. “We were there to push the jungle back and construct air strips, runways and Special Forces camps. Our unit was always the first ones in because the tanks couldn’t get in there. We went where the Special Forces units went and into areas where no one else wanted to go.”
The more jungle the 557th moved, the more the fighting intensified in the area.
“Every day and every night fighting was going on in some way or another,” Mathews said. “As a result, the infantry established a perimeter around us. That’s when you knew something was about to happen.” And it did.
“I remember that day very well,” Mathews said. “It was March 10, 1967. I was a 20-year-old who had never been anywhere in my whole life. And, here I was in Vietnam. Things got real, real fast.”
Night had fallen and Mathews was sitting on his cot when he was startled by an explosion at the outer perimeter behind him.
“I jumped up and said, ‘That’s incoming fire.’ But the rest of the guys said I was just over-reacting,” Mathews said. “Then a mortar hit on the other side of a containership that was right next to our make-shift living area. All of us rushed to our sandbag-covered trenches and assumed a firing position.
“I began thinking, ‘This isn’t where I want to be.’ So, I climbed out and got on the backside of the trench behind a barricade of sandbags.
“Then all hell broke loose. The jungle came alive. The infantry was to my left with a man on the 113 Armored Personnel Carrier, manning the .50-caliber machine gun. He started shooting. Then a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) hit the APC and the guy got blown off of it. I remember leaving my position and ran over and picked him up and pulled him away. It was awful. He was dead.
“Then a second man climbed up and takes a position on the gun and a RPG hit the APC again. He went flying and began screaming that he can’t see and can’t hear. I grabbed him and led him to safety about 70 yards away.”
While Mathews led the soldier away, the soldier kept yelling, “Get the .50 caliber.”
Mathews ran back to the APC, hoping that the infantry had already secured the gun.
No one had.
“The APC and its .50 caliber had been abandoned,” Mathews said.
Knowing that the .50 caliber could inflict damage in the possession of the Viet Cong, he acted quickly.
“We needed that gun so we could hold the line,” Mathews said. “I ran back to my firing position. From there, I moved to the rear of the APC. The back hatch was open. So, I climbed in with the intent of getting the .50 out of there. But, I struggled with the gun and couldn’t get it off its mount.
“Then, I looked up. The Viet Cong came out of the jungle and headed right at me. I fired that gun until there wasn’t any ammo left. When I climbed down inside to look for more ammo, the APC got hit by another RPG. The concussion threw me out of the back hatch. I immediately climbed back in. I had to get the gun off that mount. It was now or never. Finally, I got it and got the hell out of there.”
After hours of intense fighting, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” a C47 gunship with mini-machine guns that fire 6,000 rounds a minute, arrived and lit up the area with flares.
“I remember how dark it was. You couldn’t see a thing. Then Puff lit everything up. The Viet Cong were right on top of us. Puff started firing and leveled the area, sending the Viet Cong fleeing back into the jungle.
“After Puff pulled out, we were ordered not to fire any automatic weapons. Everyone wondered why. It didn’t take long to find out why. About 100 yards off in the jungle there’s an airstrike. Napalm, the whole works. The fighting ended after that.”
When daylight broke, an enemy body count was taken.
“There were bodies everywhere,” Mathews said. “Seemed like hundreds. We were fortunate. We lost four or five guys. There was lots of wounded. It was horrible. It easily could have been much worse.”
The next day, Mathews was approached by an infantry officer who asked if he was the one responsible for securing the .50 caliber. Mathews said he was. The officer asked for his service number.
The word soon circulated around camp that General William Westmoreland and other dignitaries were flying in for reasons unknown. Before the helicopter arrived, Mathews and a few other soldiers were summoned to the general-meeting area.
Mathews figured a group of GIs were being assembled for standing in formation, looking military and saluting. But, when the men came together, he noticed there was something odd. There was a captain on his “left and a lieutenant colonel on his right.
“Excuse me sir,” Mathews said to the officer in charge. “There are quite a few high-ranking officers here. I’m not sure I belong here.”
“You Mathews?” the officer said. Mathews acknowledged he was PFC Mathews. The officer responded, “That’s Specialist 4 Mathews now.”
After touching ground, General Westmoreland pinned medals on each man in the group. Mathews received the Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration awarded to the Armed Forces solely for heroism in combat against an enemy of the United States.
Mathews’ commanding officer, who didn’t like him one bit, had this to say about the commendation.
“He tells me, ‘Maybe if you would have been injured worse or even killed, they would have given you the Medal of Honor,’” Mathews said.
Mathews’ tour in Vietnam was up in October of 1967. The day he was scheduled to be rotated out, he waited near the helicopter pad for his ride. Not long after the helicopter landed, it was hit in the tail and disabled by a RPG.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘After everything I’ve been through here, I’m going to die getting on the flight out of here,’” Mathews said. “When I got on the next copter and it took off, I held my breath until we were out of the range of the enemy.
“That was my Vietnam experience “Platoon” minus the dope.”
Mathews spent the last four months of duty at Fort Knox in Kentucky before going home and back to the baseball diamond, pitching Sacramento State to a Far Western Conference title and starring in the Night League, Mexican-American League, County League, Rural League and Winter League.