In August 1965, Robert Ray Ellis was fresh out of high school when he and about 20 of his classmates were drafted into the United States Army. Ellis left his quiet home in Hurricane, W. Va. for the chaos of Vietnam.
“A bunch of us got drafted to go to Vietnam and, we didn’t even know where it was” said Ellis. “We couldn’t even point it out on a map.”
Ellis was assigned to the 661st Ordinance in Fort Knox, then later received military police training in Huntsville, Ala. Ellis would serve as an MP while in Vietnam.
“There was a little shoeshine boy who came around the camp every day,” Ellis recalled. “He was only about 12 years old, but he would do anything for you for a nickel. We were becoming good friends, he was even learning a little English from us. Anyway, one night we got hit. After that, we didn’t see the little shoeshine boy. A few days went by, then during a patrol we found him. His body was in the jungle, gun in hand. He was our friend by day and our enemy by night.”
Ellis explained that there were few silver linings during his time overseas, but he always looked forward to letters from home. He wrote his parents and his girlfriend often, a habit that proved to be life altering.
“One day, I was sitting in a fox hole” said Ellis. “There was nothing around but a minefield, and there wasn’t much to do then, so I thought I would write a letter to my girlfriend. When I got my paper and pencil out, as soon as my pencil hit that paper, it fell out of my hand. I bent over to pick it up and as I leaned down, I heard a gunshot. A sniper round passed right where my chest would have been. When I came back, I didn’t tell anyone for years and years. I kept the story a secret until my 50th high school reunion. Then, I finally told her what happened.”
Ellis spent 13 months in Vietnam. He should have only been there 12 months, but the Army lost his paperwork and kept him another three weeks to get the paperwork squared away.
Ellis explained, “They figured we were dead.”
After two years of active duty, Ellis remained stationed at Fort Campbell for the Army Reserves for another four years. He retired from the U.S. Army as an E5.
“A lot of my stories are sad, but it was a sad place over there,” said Ellis. “We were just doing what we were told to do.”