OKEECHOBEE — Born and raised in Okeechobee, veteran Bobby White joined the service in order to keep from being drafted. He graduated from Okeechobee High School in 1965 and joined the military in 1967. After high school he worked here in town for a while, but when he got a notice telling him he was being drafted, he decided to join the Army with his friend Larry Mobley instead. They had heard if you were drafted, it was almost a sure thing you would go to Vietnam, and they did not want to go, so they thought joining would be a good plan. They were told if they went in on the buddy system, they could stay together through basic training and AIT (advanced individual training.) They went through basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. The recruiter told them it would be six to nine months before they were actually called to duty because they did not need any people at that time. “I went back to work on Monday morning, and told them I was there for another eight or nine months. I got home Monday afternoon, and the recruiter was waiting at my house with papers. He was waiting at Larry’s house with papers. We were on a bus for South Carolina the next morning.”
They got off the bus at Fort Jackson and found “a mad white man out there, an E-6 sergeant. He’s calling us everything we never heard being called before!” One of the first things they were told was they were going on a police call. “The Army has words for things, and we think they know what they mean,” he laughed. “We thought we were going to go hunt a criminal. We found out police call meant we were going to pick up paper and cigarette butts.”
The two of them were in the top 10% of their class and were sent on to advanced AIT. They signed up for pole lineman, because when they went in, White was working for an electrical company. They found out after they signed up that pole lineman was not electrical but was communications. After advanced AIT, they were both sent to Vietnam.
They flew into Bien Hoa Air Base on March 10, 1968. “We flew in on a regular airplane, TWA maybe. Before we got there, the air base was under rocket mortar attack, so they wouldn’t allow them to land the plane.” Instead, they took them to the Philippines, the closest place they could get them, and they were put on an Air Force plane to get into Bien Hoa. “When we got there, it was still dark, and the whole plane was turned around backwards. You’re facing the back, where all our gear was. When the plane landed, it slowed down, and they dropped the tail of it. A forklift came and picked up all our gear, and we ran off the plane. A guy with a flashlight was saying, ‘Follow me. Follow me.’ We could hear rockets and mortars going off in the area.” They followed him into an underground bunker, and White remembers saying, “Oh, Lord, Mama. This ain’t where I’m supposed to be!”
Moved into carpentry
They were stationed at a place called II Field Forces, the 53rd Signal Battalion. After about four months, White talked to the guy who did the carpentry work. That guy was about to go home, and White told him he knew how to do carpentry work. The guy told the captain, and they tried White out on the job. When the other guy went home, White was taken out of Signal and put in carpentry with two other men — Jessie Thompson and Jim Flynn — both from Tennessee. White asked if his friend Larry could join them, and they allowed it. Another man worked with them as well. His name was Vito Valenzino, and he was an electrician from Pennsylvania. They all became great friends, and Valenzino visits Okeechobee every year and spends a month here.
While they were in Vietnam, White went to Australia on R&R. When he returned to Vietnam, he told his friends they should go to Australia, because the people there love Americans. Valenzino went on his next leave and met a girl there. When he got out of the service, he went straight back to Australia and married that girl. They are still married today and have three children.
On Christmas while they were in Vietnam, there was supposed to be a cease-fire. Mobley and White went to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon. Mobley’s brother was there, and White’s cousin, Larry Davis, was, too. White and Mobley brought them back to their base, and the four of them went into the mess hall and stole some chickens. “We barbecued them up like we do down here, and we had probably the best Christmas you could have in Vietnam.”
“We had some hairy times in Vietnam, but it wasn’t as bad for us as for some that have been interviewed.”
After a year in Vietnam, White and Mobley were sent to Fort Hood, Texas. They were in different units, though. When they got out of the service, they drove home to Okeechobee together.
White and his high school sweetheart, Jo Ann, were married ten days after his return to the U.S. and they have been married 51 years now. When he first got home, he went back to doing carpentry work, but had a lot of trouble with hand cramps and decided to change career paths. He went to work for the dairy industry and later went into air conditioning and refrigeration. He went to work for M&M Supply and has been there for 48 years. He loves his job and the family he works for. He and his wife are members of First Baptist Church. They have one son, Brian, and a daughter Shawna. They both live here in Okeechobee. Brian has two children and Shawna has three. White was the oldest of six children, five boys and one girl. He said they are a close family and spend a lot of time together.
Sad about today’s political wars
White said it saddens him to see Americans at war with each other over politics. “After being over there and seeing what war was like, I don’t like seeing our country act this way. The main problem I see with America is that we have taken God out of everything, our schools, the 10 commandments out of government places. I truly believe the main thing wrong with us is we are taking God out of everything. People want to do what they want to do when they want to do it and don’t want nobody to say nothing about it. Everybody wants to do their own thing. When it’s all said and done, we are supposed to answer to God for what we do.”
White went on to say he would not trade his time in Vietnam or in the service for anything. He believes it would be good for all young people to spend some time serving their country. “I wouldn’t be the man I am today without it,” he said.