Bob Dingeman commanded large artillery units in the Vietnam War. (U.S. Army photo)
Bob Dingeman: Vietnam and beyond
This is the last part of a three-part series about Bob Dingeman’s military career.
Between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Bob Dingeman attended the University of Southern California where he earned several advanced degrees revolving around missiles and nuclear physics. You could say he became what is commonly referred to as a rocket scientist. He became an expert in nuclear weapons, and the U.S. Army made good use of his knowledge during the Cold War.
“As a lieutenant colonel, I commanded the Honest John nuclear delivery unit of the 4th Armored Division on the Czechoslovakian border. I personally commanded it,” Dingeman explained. “I had the golden key to control the nuclear weapons. The other person with the golden key was the president of the United States. We had ultra-secret double checking and so forth. My unit was to provide the nuclear weapons that if the Soviets came through the Fulda Gap, my unit would stop the Soviet armor as they came through.”
Obviously, Dingeman had a huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders during this assignment. What was it like to be in charge of weapons that could destroy entire armies, cities and essentially lead to the destruction of the world? “Terrible,” he said slowly.
As the Vietnam War was underway, Dingeman found himself as an assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He was assigned to a unit that made investigations and inquiries. One of their projects was to find out what was causing the new rifle to break down in the field and make recommendations about how to fix the problem. That rifle, originally named the Armalite AR-15, was the now-famous M16. Dingeman came up with a list of 26 items to be corrected, and it wouldn’t be cheap. McNamara accepted all these suggestions and ordered a four-star general to make the changes. When the general wavered, McNamara ordered him to “implement it now,” according to Dingeman.
While the resulting changes may have saved the rifle and numerous lives in battle, the general never forgot the incident. When Dingeman was up for promotion to become a general, that same four-star general who was forced to implement Dingeman’s list was also on the general officer board, and he was the only one to vote against Dingeman’s promotion.
Therefore, when Dingeman was sent to Vietnam to take command of the 52nd Artillery Group, he did so as a colonel even though the position was normally held for a brigadier general.
Dingeman was responsible for artillerymen and artillery guns of all sizes. He had constructed revetments for his 175 mm self-propelled guns that could fire on the Ho Chi Minh Trail 35 miles away. One day he flew into a camp on his helicopter to inspect the revetments.
“I had come in with my helicopter and apparently they saw me land. … They fired a small weapon,” Dingeman said. “The weapon hit and it shredded my arm right here. Once we got it bandaged I went into a bunker and I told one of the soldiers I needed to replace my jacket. Of course, the rumor that went out through the fire base was, ‘the old man has been killed,’ which is not good for soldiers. It was important that I go out and show myself — that I’m not dead.”
A soldier let Dingeman have his jacket, but asked if he could have Dingeman’s shredded and bloody jacket to keep.
“He took my full colonel’s jacket which was covered in blood,” Dingeman stated. “That was his souvenir of the Vietnam War. I don’t know what kind of stories he told about it.”
That particular wound earned Dingeman a Purple Heart medal, but he was not happy about it because in the Korean War, too often men who were awarded the Purple Heart for a wound were killed by their next wound, he said. Soldiers are very superstitious about such things, Dingeman added.
“I was very concerned about that,” he said.
In another instance, Dingeman was using his helicopter to evacuate a sergeant who had been wounded in the throat. Enemy fire hit Dingeman’s chopper as it lifted from the fire base. His helicopter crashed through eucalyptus trees, smashing into the jungle floor. The rotor was knocked off the helicopter and so were the skids.
“The sergeant wrote a note on a piece of paper: ‘This is my first helicopter ride and I hope it is not my last.’” Dingeman said. “I told him we’d be out of it. … Well, some NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers came and I was able to drive them off. … There were only six of them so it was no problem.”
Dingeman, the wounded sergeant and the chopper crew were eventually hoisted onto a large U.S. Air Force rescue helicopter and taken to safety.
It turns out that Dingeman survived several helicopter crashes while serving in Vietnam. One of those crashes brought his chopper smashing down over the border and into Cambodia. Dingeman had been in and out of intelligence units throughout his career, and had received top security clearance, especially when serving with Secretary McNamara. Therefore, Dingeman was required to always fly with a trail helicopter to retrieve him in case he crashed. The Army didn’t want Dingeman to be captured by the enemy.
“Well, as a commander, I couldn’t live with that,” he said.
“When I was shot down in Cambodia, there was great consternation about, first of all, why was I in Cambodia? The answer is ‘inadvertently.’”
Dingeman has one vice. He sips a Coke once each day, and this brings up a fond memory from Vietnam.
“One of the joys of my soldiers in Vietnam is we had lots of soft drinks,” he said.
Dingeman would have his cargo helicopters lift Conex containers filled with sodas into his fire bases for the men.
He had two chaplains in his command, and he assigned each a helicopter and a pilot. Dingeman would have the chaplains visit the fire bases, bringing soft drinks, ice and spiritual guidance. But, the most important thing the chaplains did was to listen to the soldiers, Dingeman said.
He said that he doesn’t like to dwell on the horrible things about his experiences in war. Instead, he chooses to think of the good things. “I think of the American soldiers,” he said. “They’re wonderful.”
Dingeman was assigned as the deputy G3, deputy chief of staff on General William Westmoreland’s staff. He said he and one other officer had the duty of working out details of a peace plan to end the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
“The only difficulty is — that ain’t the way you fight wars. If you’re a graduate of West Point, you fight a war and you win a war,” he said. “The peace plan was adopted and we pulled out of Vietnam.”
Dingeman’s last assignment was at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland where he was chief of staff of the Army’s Test and Evaluation Command. There, he helped develop and improve weapons and clandestine devices.
Upon retirement, Dingeman was offered a job as vice president with a large defense contractor. He turned it down because he didn’t agree with the company’s ethics when dealing with U.S. defense contracts, he said.
He and his wife, Gaye, began to travel. They toured throughout the United States and Canada in a motor home. They visited San Diego and eventually decided to settle down in Scripps Ranch. Dingeman soon put his energy into serving on local committees in San Diego and became involved in what was a fledgling Scripps Ranch Civic Association at the time. All his leadership skills, organizational skills and his determination are evident. Today, there is little in Scripps Ranch that he hasn’t been involved with, and he will always be known as “Mr. Scripps Ranch.”
While he is known as a civic leader in San Diego, it’s important to note his amazing life as a soldier in the U.S. Army. As for his civilian life as a community leader: “It’s been a blast,” he said.