Bob Andrews, Vietnam Vet
"Not everyone who lost his life in Vietnam died there. Not everyone who came home from Vietnam ever left there." quote on a tombstone
We were seated at the front desk of the Veteran’s Museum where Robert Andrews had been a docent for 9 years, and I was a sub docent. They called him Andy at the museum, but I had known him since school days, graduating with him in 1967 and I knew that everyone else called him Bob. He was a big guy but calm, quiet and soft-spoken. Whenever I worked with him, we reminisced about high school days, growing up in the fifties, and having both been born at the same small hospital. Occasionally he talked about his health issues due to agent orange exposure and of his military service. He was fiercely proud of his time in the U.S. Air Force where he flew as a gunner on AC-119 “Stinger” gunships, logging nearly 100 missions. I always enjoyed those days talking with him, but on this day, not long before Covid 19 shut the museum down, he told me he didn’t think he had long to live. I won’t ever forget that moment, that last time I saw him.
Sadly, Robert Daniel Andrews passed away about a year later, at age 71, on Jan. 18, 2021.
Bob was born on June 29,1949 to Don and Erna Andrews, who owned a jewelry shop from the early 50s to the 70s. His brother, Bill, was born five years before. Both of his parents were from Solvang where his grandparents had settled. His mother was one of eight children, of whom most remained in that area.
In junior high, Bob played freshman football as an offensive lineman. During high school, his interests were cars and motorcycles, yet he was active in school on the yearbook committee as head photographer. He was known as a soft-spoken, quiet guy but always friendly. One cousin says he was a great guy and “a big softie.” Another says he valued family and came to Solvang every 4th of July for their family celebration. She remembers his quiet manner, sweet nature and shy smile. He is missed by his many cousins and one nephew. His brother had passed away in 2005.
After high school Bob worked as a tow truck driver and attended the junior college, until, in his words, “the draft was nipping at my heels.” His brother, Bill, had just completed service in the Navy when Bob graduated from high school. Bob decided to enlist like his brother but chose the Air Force due to an interest in flight. He entered basic training February 11, 1969; he served four years, first as a weapons mechanic and then as a gunner in Vietnam, which he volunteered for.
He trained at Lackland AFB and Lowry AFB for intensive training as a weapons mechanic. For 18 months he worked on F-4 fighter jets with the 475th Munitions Maintenance Squadron, 475th Tactical Fighter Wing in Misawa, Japan. In March 1971, he volunteered for Vietnam, but was sent to Thailand instead and assigned to the Weapons Release Shop of the 307th Munitions Maintenance Squadron, 307th Strategic Wing. A year later he volunteered to become an aerial gunner, so he was sent to Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Washington for survival training and then to Hurlburt Field, Florida for air crew training.
In May 1972, Bob was assigned to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Air Base (NKP), Thailand, but was soon ordered to Vietnam as a gunner on “Stinger” gunships out of Bien Hoa Air Base and Da Nang. His crew flew bombing missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but they also flew “anywhere and everywhere over Vietnam,” he said.
He left Vietnam in January 1973 and was honorably discharged at Travis AFB a month later. They dropped him off at the bus depot for his ride home.
Within three days, he had returned to driving tow trucks. One acquaintance said he was the best towman around and held a “semi divine status.” Eventually, he worked for the garbage company until he retired. During trips to the landfill, Bob met Kellie, who worked at the front booth. She became his girlfriend of 25 years, until she passed away in 2008. Not only did he find Kellie at the landfill, but he also found abandoned kittens. Bob gathered them and delivered them to a cat rescue organization. Once retired, Bob continued to trap feral cats, volunteering for about 10 years, until declining health prevented it.
After Kellie passed away, a new neighbor moved next door. Jim had been a career Marine. One day, when chatting about their experiences, they realized they had been at the same place at the same time in Bien Hoa when they were attacked by 120-130 enemy rockets in less than 2 hours. The Marine Corps gun shop, including much of their weapons and ammo, caused an explosion that leveled the building. The water heater was blown ten feet away. The base exchange was blown up, which included 18 pallets of beer. Since nobody was killed in this attack, he often jokingly lamented that the worst of it was that their beer was gone. Bob and Jim discovered they were just yards apart during the attack. There were two other times when Bob survived under extreme enemy fire, and he survived the dangerous job of flying over a war zone for half a year. Yet not without a price. Planes were loaded with agent orange (a spray to kill jungle foliage) at the Bien Hua airport, where Bob often flew out of.
Once Bob was home, he developed diabetes due to exposure to agent orange. He was diagnosed as 60 percent disabled by the Veteran’s Administration. When he began insulin, he gained 60 lbs. in five months. Health issues progressively worsened. Despite failing health, Bob continued his involvement in community. He regularly attended the AC119 Gunship Association reunions and volunteered for the Feline Network until his health prevented it. He volunteered for the Veteran’s Museum until Covid-19 shut it down. He was a member of the American Legion, the VFW and participated in the Welcome Home Military program at the airport.
Bob’s nephew tells that Bob was a handy guy; he gutted his kitchen and rebuilt it from the floor up, and he was restoring a model T which he was close to finishing. He said that Bob and Kellie had plans to build their dream home on ten acres in North Carolina after retirement. But fate had other plans. Kellie passed away too early, and Bob’s disability worsened.
His Marine neighbor said that Bob never missed a Nascar show, he loved to BBQ steaks but wouldn’t use anything but oak, and that he had four feral cats in his back yard, two cats living in his garage, and a special cat, Tubby, who lived in the house. On that last day of his life, Meals on Wheels delivered food to Bob but found him on the floor inside his door. Jim rushed from next door to stay with him until the ambulance arrived. He died at the hospital of heart failure, one more fatality of the Vietnam War, forty five years later.
Bob had been a young man who volunteered to go to Vietnam as a gunner during wartime, knowing he could be shot down. He earned many awards for his selfless service: the Presidential Unit Citation, The Good Conduct Medal, the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross and 4 air medals, among others.
He was, unknowingly, exposed to the dangers of agent orange for which he paid the price of lifelong health issues, but despite this, in the words of a true hero, Bob (Andy) Andrews said, “It’s a privilege to have served and I’d do it all again.”
With his mother.