Editor’s Note: The following is a revised version of a story that appeared in May 2011.
One day in August 1969, Spc. Dennis Hawkins, a young man who was fighting with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, found out he was finally going home to McDowell County. But it was not the way he wanted or expected.
By that time, Hawkins had spent almost a year fighting in the Vietnam War and his time there was getting short. A fellow Marion native Paul Barnes served alongside him in Company A of the 196th Light Infantry and had spent the same amount of time in Vietnam. Together, they had survived one firefight after another in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separated South Vietnam from the enemy to the north.
And like all other men left in the company, the two were looking forward to going home. But Hawkins received orders that he could not believe.
On Aug. 23, 1969, he was notified by a lieutenant that his next duty was to accompany an old friend home to McDowell County. He was ordered to escort the remains of Spc. Ronnie Lee Robertson so he could be laid to rest in his hometown of Old Fort.
Robertson had been killed just several days before on Aug. 15, 1969. He was just one day short of his 21st birthday, according to Hawkins.
“Me and Ronnie used to run around together and chase girls,” said Hawkins almost 50 years later. “I knew his family.”
When he got the notification, Hawkins read over the typewritten orders which spelled out in detail when and where he had to report for this solemn duty. “Failure to observe these requirements will result in disciplinary action,” the paper read. “Priority urgent.”
He questioned his superiors to make sure this was correct.
“I wasn’t expecting to get what I got there,” said Hawkins. “It wasn’t a good feeling. I got to reading the orders and I didn’t want to do this.”
But Robertson’s family asked him to escort the remains home and orders had to be followed.
“It was my birthday to make it even worse,” said Hawkins.
Unlike his old friend, Hawkins managed to reach his 21st birthday.
Both Hawkins and Barnes had lived in Marion and attended Marion High School before they found themselves fighting in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. In the spring of 1968, the 19-year-olds, along with others from McDowell, got their draft notices for military service.
“I don’t know how many was drafted that month,” said Barnes. “It was quite a few.”
Barnes had to leave his wife Penny behind while Hawkins was unmarried. Both went through basic training together at Fort Bragg and they later received training in jungle warfare.
“We really didn’t know what we were facing,” said Barnes. “We were prepared physically for Vietnam. Mentally, we were not prepared. There was no way we could be prepared mentally. You have got to live it to know what it was like.”
The two young men were assigned to A Company, 196th Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion, 2nd of the 1st Infantry. They both arrived “in country” in Vietnam on Sept. 20, 1968. Barnes was a machine gunner. Hawkins walked point, which meant he had to make his way through hostile or dangerous territory and could be the first to face hostile fire. He later became squad leader.
“We tried to look out for each other,” said Hawkins. “We became family.”
By that time, the fighting in Vietnam was at its most intense. The Vietcong and the regular North Vietnamese Army had launched the Tet offensive earlier that year in a surprise attempt to end the war with a single strike.
“I think the time we were there was when the war was the hottest,” said Hawkins.
Around 2,000 Americans fighting in Vietnam were getting killed each month while another 8,000 to 10,000 were getting wounded, he added.
One of those men who lost his life was Thomas McMahon of Lewiston, Maine. He was a combat medic in the same platoon with Hawkins and Barnes. On March 19, 1969, McMahon was mortally wounded as he tried to save his wounded buddies when they came under heavy fire. For his bravery, McMahon was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration.
In a previous interview, Hawkins told The McDowell News, he knew McMahon well even though he didn’t talk much.
“You almost had to start a conversation,” said Hawkins earlier. “During that one battle, we lost eight killed and 38 wounded. That evening, there were 56 who went back on that same hill. We had lost half of the company.”
The other men from A Company killed that day came from such places as Plano, Texas; Hazardville, Conn.; Muskegon, Mich.; Kountze, Texas; Norwalk, Calif.; Pompano Beach, Fla. and Memphis, Tenn., according to the casualty list.
Barnes recalls another intense fight that happened later. In that instance, a sergeant threw a hand grenade into an enemy bunker. The North Vietnamese threw it back and it exploded. “It got five of us,” said Barnes. “I was hurt too.”
Barnes managed to get back so he could be transported out of there. “I found a guy who was shot eight times and I couldn’t do nothing for him,” he said. “I stayed with him until he died.”
In August 1969, Hawkins had to get his Class A service uniform ready for his sad assignment of bringing Spc. Ronnie Lee Robertson home.
Hawkins left Long Binh Base and made the long journey across the Pacific Ocean back to the country he had served. But when he arrived at the airport in San Francisco, the protesters were waiting.
“They threw a bottle at me,” he said. “They stoned me to death and called us baby killers.”
Like other returning servicemen, Hawkins was shunned by his fellow Americans.
“You come home and go into seclusion,” he said. “You didn’t want people to know you had been over there.”
Hawkins next flew to Dover Air Force Base where he was again reunited with his old friend Ronnie. Together, they made the journey back to the foothills of McDowell County.
Ronnie Robertson was laid to rest with military honors in the cemetery of Cherry Springs Baptist Church in Old Fort. Hawkins had to stay with the family for a week after the funeral.
“That was tough,” he said.
Even though it has been more than 40 years, Hawkins still quietly remembers his old friend who died in that war.
“I have at times gone up there and put flowers on his grave at night,” he said.
After completing this duty, Hawkins did not have to go back to Vietnam. But he was now stricken with malaria and went to Fort Carson in Colorado to get medical treatment. He lost a lot of weight because of his illness and got down to 93 pounds, he said.
Meanwhile, Barnes was still fighting with A Company in Vietnam. He was close to finishing his tour of duty and wanted to go home alive and well.
“I was getting scared because I didn’t have much time left,” he said.
In late August 1969, Barnes and the other men with his company found themselves in a firefight at a place called Hawk Hill. “We fought all night long and that was the last battle I was in,” he said.
After his time in Vietnam was over, Barnes went to Fort Jackson in South Carolina for six months where he was a platoon sergeant. He was discharged on April 17, 1970. Hawkins would get his discharge at Fort Carson’s hospital around the end of May 1970.
During their time over there, both Barnes and Hawkins received the Purple Heart twice. All of the members of their company were awarded the Valorous Unit Award twice, which is the second highest unit decoration that can be given to a U.S. Army unit. Barnes also got the Bronze Star and Hawkins received the Good Conduct Medal.
Both men came back to their homes and lives in Marion. Barnes returned to his wife Penny and went to work in textiles. Hawkins worked for the family business, Hawkins Lumber, and at Cross Cotton Mill and Etta Packaging. He married Joyce Faye Simpson Hawkins and they raised a family.
Five decades later, these two men share a common bond that was forged in service to their country.
“We can talk about it among ourselves,” said Hawkins.
In 2011, the two decided together that they would not visit the McDowell County Salute to Veterans, which included a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They talked about going to see it but decided that it would bring up too many painful memories.
“Those are the heroes right there, the ones who didn’t come back,” said Barnes.