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The North Bend Eagle


Closet find sparks memories for Vietnam vet

by Nathan Arneal
Published 11/10/10

On the surface, The Observer looks like a typical weekly newspaper. It’s 12 pages long, featuring Peanuts and Beetle Bailey comic strips and a crossword puzzle near the back. There are sections of local and national news and lots of pictures of local events.

Ralph Limbach reads the Observer
Ralph Limbach looks through The Observer, which he sent back to his family from Vietnam in 1966.

Ralph Limbach recently came across this edition of The Observer stowed away in a box in a closet. It wasn’t what he was looking for, but it did bring back some memories.

The Observer was published Oct. 10, 1966, in Saigon, Vietnam.

Along with the newspaper, Limbach found war-time letters written by himself and his brothers. There were pictures too, and a scrapbook put together by his mother, Angela Limbach, who had three sons serve in Vietnam: Ralph and his younger brothers Joseph and Henry.

Henry would not make it home from Vietnam.

On the back page of The Observer is a short article about the 4th Infantry Division running a health clinic for some local Vietnamese Montagnards villagers. Ralph Limbach sent the newspaper home to his parents so they could know what his division was up to. The newspaper article related one of the good stories. But there are many more stories that didn’t make the newspaper, some of which will never be told, many of which the participants have tried to forget.


Ralph Limbach was drafted into the United States Army in 1965, and began his service on Nov. 29 of that year, exactly one month before his 21st birthday.
He was assigned to a supply unit of the 4th Infantry Division. After a year of preparation, he was sent to Vietnam in November 1966.

The 4th was stationed at Camp Enari, near the base of Dragon Mountain, just south of Pleiku in central Vietnam.

Life on base was full of monotonous guard duty and kitchen patrol. So when officers came around seeking two volunteers from the supply company to relocate to a forward base, Limbach thought he would try it. After all, they promised no guard duty or KP at the forward base.

“I was one of them that volunteered,” Limbach said, “but after I volunteered, I wished I didn’t volunteer.”

At least the promise of no KP and guard duty held true.

“After I got out there I could see why, because you didn’t have time for guard duty or KP, because there’s action going on out there,” Limbach said. “After I was out there for a while I wanted to go back, but they said, ‘No, you volunteered. You’re out here.’”

Working in supply, his main job was to make sure the troops had enough clothes and boots. Sometimes he or the other supply soldier would volunteer to go out on chopper missions to supply other forward camps with food or other supplies. Limbach noticed that the choppers always flew very low, almost skimming the treetops.

After a few inquiries, he found out that the choppers stayed low so that it would be over any Viet Cong before it could be heard. The supply choppers were frequent targets of enemy fire, and flying higher only spread the sound more and gave the enemy more warning time.

“A lot of them got shot down because they knew you were carrying supplies and chow out to the forward areas,” Limbach said. “After about three or four flights, that was enough. I wanted to come home. I didn’t want to get shot down and be missing over there.”

Limbach spent about three-quarters of his time in Vietnam at the forward base. It had a water purification station, mortar platoon, bath area, barracks, a helicopter pad, a small motor pool and mess hall.

The days were rough enough, but it was the nights that still cause nightmares nearly 45 years later.

Surrounding Limbach’s forward base were several villages and tribes of Montagnards, indigenous people friendly to the Americans for the most part. The Montagnards would warn the American troops when enemy Viet Cong approached, but the system wasn’t fool proof by any means.

The Viet Cong still found ways of getting through the surrounding territory and springing attacks on the U.S. troops.

“It happened a couple times out there on us,” Limbach said. “It ain’t fun. When stuff starts going off, you don’t know where it’s coming from. You got incoming and you got outgoing. You just don’t know. People start hearing things and start shooting. All they’re doing is just protecting themselves, and they don’t care what’s out in front of them or who’s out in front of them. They’re just shooting if they see a flash. It’s spooky. It’s scary.”

Even nights when attacks don’t come can be hard to get through.

“There are nights you can’t sleep over there,” Limbach said. “You never know when you’re going to get hit again. Will they come in from a different way? What are they going to do? You just don’t know. It’s spooky.”


Soldiers within 30 days of discharge are known as “short-timers” and are pulled back to the main base at Camp Enari to minimize the chances of becoming a casualty just before going home.

Shortly before his time in Vietnam was up, Limbach learned that his brother Joseph was about to begin his tour in Vietnam and was stationed at Cam Rahn Bay in southern Vietnam. Ralph took a three-day leave to visit his brother, figuring if he didn’t see him now, he would go three years without seeing Joseph.

When he returned to base after his leave, he found out he had missed his port call back to the States. That meant seven more days in Vietnam before finally boarding a flight home.

When the plane landed in California, it was late. The troops were given the option of staying the night and going through discharge processing in the morning, or begin processing immediately. Everyone voted to begin processing right away.

“The last meal they gave us was steak and eggs for breakfast,” Limbach said. “That was my last meal in the service.”

It was November of 1967, two years since he joined the Army, and one year since he set foot in Vietnam.

Limbach says his time in the service is probably fairly typical, with one exception.

“I went through two years of the service and I don’t have a tattoo on me,” Limbach said with a laugh.

He says he doesn’t regret being drafted into the Army. His service allowed him to see parts of the world he never would have otherwise, such as the Philippine Islands, Okinawa, Japan, and... Vietnam.

Some of the memories of his service are more welcome than others. Most of his time at the forward base would be better off forgotten, he said.

“You don’t like to talk about it,” Limbach said. “I still have memories come back, and that was nearly 45 years ago. I still have nightmares at night. A lot of people like to talk about it, but I don’t. It’s just kind of a funny feeling that goes through a person.”

Sometimes during his job as a custodian at North Bend Central high school, he has to step out into the hall while the national anthem is being played before a ballgame, especially when it gets to the line about the bombs bursting in air.

“That’s a bad thing when you’re talking about the national anthem, but it does bother me,” Limbach said. “It brings back memories. When you hear that you start wandering and your mind starts going back into the service.”

Ralph Limbach isn’t in touch with anyone he knew during his tour in Vietnam, but he wouldn’t mind reminiscing with a fellow vet of the 4th Infantry Division. Last year on Veteran’s Day he went to a free breakfast at Hy-Vee in Fremont, wearing his veteran’s cap with his division and company insignias, hoping someone will recognize it or him. This year he plans to do the same.

As for his copy of the Oct. 10, 1966, Observer, he is more than happy to share it with anyone who wants to see the snapshot of history it records. One day one of his three children, Dean, Brenda or Daryl, will probably get the newspaper along with the rest of his box of memories.

For now he hopes his artifacts can educate a new generation and remind them of the sacrifice made by some of their friends and neighbors.

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