MARINE CORPS TANKERS VIETNAM HISTORICAL Foundation's
Vietnam Personal Accounts
On May 9, 1968 Robert Neil Minetto gallantly gave his life in the service of our Country. While participating in operations with Third Tank Battalion, Third Marine Division in support of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, south of Gia Lihn in the notorious area known as "Leatherneck Square" in the Republic of Vietnam.
These are the details of the incident that took Robert Minetto's life as related by his good friend John Wear:
It was early May in what was to become the bloodiest year of the Viet Nam War, 1968. A Marine Corps operation was underway around the thick vegetation covered sand dunes south of the Gia Lihn firebase in the notorious and deadly area that the Marines called "Leatherneck Square." This particular operation had three 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division tanks supporting Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 9th Marine Infantry Regiment (grunts), 3rd Marine Division plus two platoons of South Vietnamese (ARVN) soldiers from the ARVN District Headquarters at Gia Linh.
The operation was to be a fairly routine one in that there had not been much enemy activity reported over the past few weeks in this area, therefore no major contact was expected. This sweep was also a little different in that there were two gun tanks plus a flame-thrower tank accompanying the Marine grunts and the ARVN. Gun tanks with their 90-mm cannons were almost always involved with supporting Marine infantry, however flame-thrower tanks usually were only deployed during major operations when well-entrenched enemy troops were hold up in reinforced bunkers and where they had to be burned out. The plans for this particular operation did not include any enemy bunker complexes therefore the flame tank's worth could be questioned.
The two gun tanks were from Alfa Company and the flame tank was from H&S Company. These tankers had worked with one another before and knew the ropes. The three tanks were abreast of each other (on line) and spaced about fifty yards apart as they approached the crest of a wide horseshoe shaped hill. Corporal Bob Minetto (Reno, NV) was the tank commander of the gun tank on the right side of the sweeping force. The middle tank, also a gun tank, was commanded by Corporal John Perry (Florescent, MO). The tank on the left flank was the flame-thrower tank, commanded by Corporal Frank Eaton (Flint, MI). They were on line (with the grunts between and behind them) as they slowly approached the top of the crescent-shaped hill when all hell broke loose. Three North Vietnamese Army (NVA) .51-caliber heavy machine guns and an estimated thirty to forty Chicom (Chinese Communist-built) AK-47 automatic rifles opened up on the exposed Marines.
The gun tanks immediately took the enemy machine guns under fire with cannister and HE (high explosive) rounds from their main guns. It seemed that they were having little effect on the well dug-in enemy who as it turns out were in reinforced bunkers. The withering heavy machine gun fire kept up its murderous pace. A call came over the radios for Cpl. Eaton to pull his flame-thrower tank forward and to burn the enemy off the hill. Cpl. Eaton pulled his tank forward fairly quickly but then the tank did a quick reverse, backing behind the grunt lines. As it turned out later, when Cpl. Eaton's gunner went to charge the main bottle with compressed air (to enable the tank to shoot its napalm load) the poorly designed safety system blew the safety valve. When the safety valve blew, the tank lost 100% of the compressed air thus making the flame-thrower 100% useless. If this accident had not happened, the enemy soldiers would have been "crispy critters" in short work.
Meanwhile, the two gun tank commanders realized that they were so close to the enemy positions that they could not get a clear shot and had no clear field of fire for their main weapons. The Marine grunts were helplessly pinned down and completely reliant on the tanks to suppress the enemy fire. The tanks were slowly approaching the enemy line but the enemy fire was increasing.
I will use Cpl. Perry's own assessment of the situation. "The gooks waited until we were practically on top of them before they opened up on us. Our tanks were too close to their position to have effective main gun or machine gun fire. I looked over towards Minetto's tank. I saw that there were NVA troops running toward the rear of the tank and it appeared as if they were trying to throw grenades or satchel charges inside. I saw Bob stick his head out of the cupola, toss out two or three hand grenades and then shoot at least three gooks with his .45 (pistol). He then ducked down inside the tank. I called over to him on the radio and told him that I would 'scratch his back' with my machine gun (shoot the enemy soldiers off of the tank) but that he'd better 'button up' (close the access hatches of the tank). I got no response from Bob's tank."
Evidently what had taken place was that as Cpl. Minetto realized that there was no clear or effective way to shoot the main 90-mm cannon to stop the enemy's ambush. The tank's gunner was busy shooting the tank's coaxial .30-caliber machine gun so Cpl. Minetto must have decided to use his .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol to shoot the attacking enemy soldiers. As Cpl. Perry described, there were NVA soldiers who had actually tried to climb on to the tank and throw satchel charges or hand grenades inside the tank (through the TC's and loader's hatch) to kill the Marine tankers inside. Cpl. Minetto exposed himself to the intense enemy fire, threw two of his own fragmentation grenades and then emptied his side arm at the enemy soldiers killing at least the three that Cpl. Perry saw him hit. According to the tank's loader, Cpl. Minetto then reached inside and called for the loader to give him his loaded pistol. At that exact same moment, as Cpl. Minetto was bravely saving his tank and crew from being overrun, he was mortally shot through the neck and was instantly killed. As he fell back inside the tank the loader and the gunner panicked. A distress call to Cpl. Perry came over the tank radio from Minetto's driver that said that Cpl. Minetto was shot and that the gunner was unable not take command of the tank. He said that all hell was breaking loose! Cpl. Perry acknowledged the situation and called over for the loader to button up the turret, which he complied to quickly. Cpl. Perry had his own tank's gunner "scratch the back" of Minetto's tank by turning his own .30-caliber machine gun on to Minetto's tank thus shooting the attacking NVA soldiers off of the other tank. Since Cpl. Minetto's tank was virtually on top of the NVA machine gun bunkers, Cpl. Perry had Minetto's tank driver pull the tank forward. As the 52-ton tank moved up, Perry had the tank do a "neutral steer" on top of the bunker thus crushing the heavy-machine gun bunker and the enemy soldiers inside. As Perry was having Minetto's tank perform this maneuver, he had his own driver do the same to the bunker in front of his tank. The trick worked! Two of the enemy's heavy machine guns were silenced. The enemy's automatic weapons fire was suppressed enough to allow the Marine grunts to get up and attack the remaining enemy. In just a few minutes the enemy soldiers had all been either killed or taken prisoner. The result of this brutal ambush was that there were far too many Marine and ARVN casualties. The withering machine gun fire of this ambush had decimated the entire Marine Company, both ARVN platoons and one Marine tank commander. It was so intense that there were not enough unwounded Marines to make a complete infantry platoon (which would normally be 44 men).
Upon inspecting the enemy positions after the firefight, the grunts found many small bags containing a white powder in the backpacks of the NVA soldiers. Was this opium? The enemy soldiers had US military communications wire tied around the joints of their legs and their arms apparently to act as tourniquets (to stanch bleeding) if they were to get hit during the ambush. It was also discovered that the NVA machine gunners were tied to the machineguns so that they could not run away if they were over ran by the Marines.
The United States Marine Corps lost a brave Marine and I lost a close friend with the death of Robert Neil Minetto. I miss him to this very day. I am often in Washington, D.C. on business or for personal reasons. When I am there, I always visit Bob's name on The Wall (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial). I always touch the etching in the black polished marble and I say a prayer for Bob. I always tell him that he did not die in vain. And I tell him that there are many people out here that remember him, who miss him and who wish he was here with us. Semper Fidelis, Marine!