Olympic boxing medalist Robert Carmody could have stayed in the ring, but he would not allow another man to go to Vietnam in his place.
During the Cold War, the geo- political struggle between super- powers was present in virtually every sphere of life—from the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam, to the space race, to competition in the arenas of economics and sports.
An often-overlooked group of Cold War era heroes were the athletes and coaches who took part in the U.S. Army’s stellar boxing program. Many in this group would leave the military to become successful professional boxers, such as Olympic silver medalist Jose Torres who went on to win the light heavyweight title in 1965. Others became outstanding coaches in both amateur and professional arenas, such as Pat Nappi, who helmed U.S. Olympic boxing teams in 1976 and 1984. Between 1952 and 1968, the U.S. Army sent 12 boxers to the Olympics, bringing home two gold, one silver and three bronze medals. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, two Army boxers scored gold under retired Army coach Kenny Adams.
The most significant sacrifices many of these athletes made took place on the battlefields of Vietnam. Olympic gold medalist Edward Crook earned the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts there. Coach Kenny Adams received the Bronze Star Medal. Others gave their lives. In July 1968, Army bantam-weight champion Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Lutge was killed while trying to pull his wounded platoon leader out of the line of fire while serving with the 101st Airborne Division. Nine months earlier, in October 1967, Olympic bronze medalist and flyweight champion Robert Carmody, my father, was killed southwest of Saigon.
Bob Carmody grew up in a tough neighborhood just blocks from New York’s Brooklyn Naval Yard, and left high school at 18 to earn a living. After working for IBM for 15 months, he was told that advanced training and promotion would not be coming his way because IBM would not invest in the youth who were certain to be drafted. Carmody decided to beat Uncle Sam to the punch, and enlisted in the U.S. Army on October 3, 1956. He had his basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and advanced infantry training at Fort Bragg, N.C. He earned his airborne wings at Fort Benning, Ga., prior to being sent to Augsburg, Germany, for two years as a member of the short-lived 11th Airborne Division.
While in Germany, Carmody began his boxing career. He volunteered to box in what were known as “smokers,” company-level tournaments that could best be described as street fighting with gloves on. At 5 feet 2 inches and more than 150 pounds, he looked heavy and was nicknamed “Butterball.” In short order, he trained down to be a 112- pound flyweight with the nickname of “Moose.” The rowdy smoker events served as scouting grounds for boxing coaches who oversaw division- and corps-level teams. Before long, Carmody found himself boxing on the United States Army, Europe, squad, as well as representing the United States on the Conseil International du Sport Militaire (CISM) tournaments, an international military athletic organization.
Carmody returned to the United States in 1960 as a member of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky. He made the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team as an alternate, along with another Army boxer, Edward Crook. They went with the team to Rome, where they helped prepare and train while praying for an outside chance to get into the actual competition. Fortune shone on Eddie Crook, who ended up taking the middleweight berth on the team and winning a gold medal.
During his career in the ring, Carmody captured three World Wide Inter-Service Championships in addition to winning a record four All-Army Championships. While he didn’t get a chance at Rome, he went on to win a CISM gold medal in 1962 and a bronze medal in the 1963 Pan Am Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He then began training for the 1964 Olympic trials. Army trainer Ken Miura had introduced him to isometrics, a form of physical training that Carmody credited as getting him into the best physical shape of his career. Although not favored to win at the trials, Carmody was very confident of earning the berth, noting his experience against foreign boxers as a strong qualifier for the spot. The Olympic trials were held at the New York World’s Fair’s outdoor Singer Stadium and, as a native New Yorker, Carmody enjoyed the spotlight of the local media.
One advantage of being on the Army Boxing Team was the experience of touring military posts throughout the world and facing opponents with varied experience in exhibitions and tournaments. Many of those opponents were street fighters. For example, Melvin Miller, the 1964 AAU Olympic Style Boxing Champion, seemed unbeatable and was favored to win in the flyweight division. Observing Miller in the ring, Miura and Carmody looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief. Miller’s civilian opponents, who trained in Olympic-style point boxing, lacked the experience and knowhow to apply and use their boxing skills against his brawling style. Carmody, brawling as well as boxing, kept the pressure on Miller during all three rounds of their bout. Miller was not prepared for such a challenge to his style, and the fight was too short for him to figure out how to recover from it.
The opening round of Carmody’s first fight at the Olympics was the last round for Thapa Namsing of Nepal, once Carmody’s hard rights and lefts drove him to the canvas. In Carmody’s second fight, he won a 4-1 split decision against Otto Babiasch of Germany. The holdout judge scored the bout a draw, awarding the German the winning point; one critic sarcastically commented that it must have been for aggressiveness.
The win against Babiasch was bittersweet. During the Olympic trials, the boxing gloves were 10 ounces, while during the Olympics the gloves were 8 ounces. In the first seven days of boxing, 25 cut and bruised hands were recorded, and the alarmed medical jury requested a change in the type of gloves. Carmody, one of the victims, badly bruised his right hand in the fight against Babiasch.
Meanwhile, the 1964 Olympic boxing tournament was going down as one of the most outrageous exhibitions of judging ever witnessed. In one instance, Russian light heavyweight Evgeny Frolov won a split decision against U.S. Army boxer Charles Ellis, in what was clearly a fight that had gone Ellis’way. The crowd, which had witnessed Ellis deliver a vicious body assault to the Russian in the third round, was outraged. In a similar manner, Carmody lost a close split decision against an Italian housepainter named Fernando Atzori. He never publicly complained about the outcome, even though most believed he carried the fight, and the crowd booed the decision.
As he headed for the locker room after the loss, Carmody was approached by ringside spectator General William Westmoreland, who hollered out, “Good job, soldier!” In no mood for the exchange, Sergeant Carmody turned and shot back at the general, “You dumb son of a bitch!” Although Carmody had lost a shot at the gold, his previous wins earned him the bronze medal. Fernando Atzori went on to win the gold.
After the Olympics, Carmody retired from the ring with a career record of 128-12. He was married in November 1964 and then began coaching and training boxers. During the next several years, he coached the 101st team, served as an assistant coach for the U.S. Army team and coached under Pat Nappi in the AAU. During the summers of 1965 and 1966, at the request of the State Department, Carmody coached the Iraqi Olympic boxing team in Baghdad.
In late 1965, he returned to Germany to serve with the Berlin Brigade as the noncommissioned officer in charge of special services. In that position, Carmody oversaw the Army’s athletic programs in Berlin.
In 1966 Gene Kilroy, Muhammad Ali’s business manager, phoned Carmody because Ali was considering a match against Joe Frazier. Carmody and Kilroy had become friends in the late 1950s when Kilroy was in the Army in Germany. Carmody, who had been an Olympic teammate of Ali in 1960 and then of Frazier in 1964, told Kilroy that Frazier would be “too busy” for Ali, and would go under Ali’s jab. Because of Ali’s ban from boxing while he contested the draft all the way to the Supreme Court, the fight between Ali and Frazier—the “Battle of the Century”—did not happen until 1971. Frazier did in fact go under Ali’s jab and punch away at Ali’s body and head to win the fight by a decision.
Kilroy later recalled how, after Carmody had won against Melvin Miller at the 1964 Olympic trials, he followed Carmody into the locker room where they both came upon a distraught Joe Frazier, who had just lost the heavyweight berth to Buster Mathis. Frazier was angry because he knew he had won against the blubbery 298-pound Mathis, who had worn his trunks high up on his chest so that Frazier was twice warned about illegal punches. Buster Mathis was obese but had speed, craftiness and skill in the ring, which mattered in Olympic-style point boxing where a jab counted as much as a haymaker. Adding to Frazier’s insult, this was only the second time in his amateur career that he had ever lost, and both times it was to Mathis. Frazier said he was going to quit the ring for good.
Carmody consoled him. Perhaps remembering the Rome Olympics, where he had been an alternate with Eddie Crook who had gone on to win a gold medal, he told Frazier it would be crazy to quit, that he was the better boxer and should go with the team as an alternate to Mathis. Frazier later recalled the encounter in a 2006 interview for an ESPN.com article: “Bob said to me, ‘Don’t worry about it. One of these days, you’ll be able to spell it out loud and clear who should be representing the U.S.”
Frazier was still doubtful about continuing when he returned to his home in Philadelphia, but, with encouragement from friends, he went to Hamilton Air Force Base, along with Carmody and the rest of the Olympic team, to train for Tokyo. Several days before the team closed camp at Hamilton, Frazier was given his berth on the team when Mathis broke his hand delivering a punch to Frazier’s head during an exhibition fight. Frazier went on to win the gold medal in the Olympics, sporting his own broken hand caused by the weakness of the 8-ounce gloves. He later defeated Mathis in 1968 in a 12-round decision fight for Ali’s stripped heavyweight title.
Carmody ignored the directions of the armed forces’ first sports chief, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ralph Mendenhall, to forward orders for duty in Vietnam to his office so they could be canceled. Mendenhall had chosen Carmody to return to Fort Meade, Md., for another year as the assistant boxing coach of the Army team. But when Carmody received his orders for Vietnam, he moved his family from Europe to Burbank, Calif., near relatives. He arrived in Vietnam on October 4, 1967. The decision was a painful one for Carmody, but the correct one in the mind of a soldier who had already lost friends in the growing conflict. He would not allow another man to go to Vietnam in his place.
Carmody volunteered for the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) detachment of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB) stationed at Cat Lai near Saigon. The 199th LIB had arrived in Vietnam late in 1966 and was spread around the Saigon region, seeking out enemy infiltration routes and defending the South Vietnamese capital. D Troop of the 17th Cavalry was assigned to the brigade as its armored reconnaissance unit. Attached to D Troop was the brigade’s long-range reconnaissance patrol detachment. While LRRP detachments were still not authorized in Vietnam, most, if not all, of the Army infantry divisions and separate brigades in Vietnam had formed them. Such detachments became official in December 1967, and that of the 199th officially became the 71st LRRP Detachment.
In letters home from Vietnam in October 1967, Carmody wrote that he was mainly training to take over a team of his own and that on October 14 he had accepted his commander’s offer to become a platoon sergeant. In one letter he described the LRRP unit’s structure and mission: “My base camp is set up in a rice paddy and we live in tents. This Recondo work is not too bad. We have six teams in the platoon. When we get a mission we go out for three to six days looking for Charlie or VC camps. Most missions call for one team, six men to a team, so the rest wait for the next mission to come down. Most of the time we don’t want to fight Charlie, just find him and get the information back and let the infantry take care of the rest.”
On October 26, Carmody accompanied LRRP Team 17 into rice paddies southwest of Saigon near the village of Vin Loc. This team was one of three inserted by D Troop’s M-113 armored personnel carriers between 0930 and 1100 hours. LRRP Team 17 was led by Staff Sgt. Robert Williams, an experienced team leader who, although his own tour of duty was ending soon, had agreed to take the team out so that another team leader could pack to go home. Williams previously had been in the Navy, where he was trained in communications. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1965. Volunteering for the LRRP detachment when it was first organized, he helped set up the unit’s communications prior to attending the Special Forces Recondo School at Nha Trang.
The assistant team leader was Sergeant Stephen Jones, who was serving his second tour in Vietnam. The remaining three team members were privates Linden Dixon and Jon Peter Turk, along with a Private LaFon. Of those three, Dixon was the most experienced, a veteran patroller who had graduated first in his class at the Recondo School.
The detachment’s area of operations was not the best suited for LRRP patrols. Covered mainly with light vegetation only about chest-high, the area was sprinkled with rice paddies and canals—and also with too many nosy civilians. Although the ground was rarely elevated and an approaching enemy could be seen from a good distance, the civilian population in the area was generally sympathetic to the Viet Cong. A week prior to the team’s mission there, another team had ambushed and killed two Viet Cong coming out of the village of Vin Loc.
The weather was clear during Team 17’s mission. On the evening of October 26, at about 1915 hours, LRRP Team 17’s point man spotted a sampan drifting in the canal under observation. The sampan carried one VC passenger, and another VC was walking alongside it. Curfew for civilians in the area was 1900 hours. Carmody maneuvered the team to a new location, where the team waited and then startled the enemy with a sudden volley of rifle fire at less than 50 meters. Calling in reinforcements, within 10 minutes nine APCs from Troop D linked up with the LRRP team. The team reported back to the 199th’s tactical operations center that the VC in the sampan had been killed and the body was lost in the canal. The other VC had managed to escape into the night. Because of the darkness and the depth of the canal, D Troop was unable to confirm the body count. They were directed to resume the search for the body the following day.
The next morning, D Troop’s APCs returned to the scene. Maneuvering into line formation, the platoon leader had them cross the canal. As the APCs pushed a wave of water before them, the missing VC surfaced. The body wore a green shirt with a camouflaged scarf and belted, well-tailored black pajama bottoms, with a Soviet holster that held an American-made .45-caliber pistol. The dead VC had also been carrying an American M-29 hand grenade, a VC poncho, flashlight, maps of Saigon, a diary and VC intelligence reports in waterproof material.
Normally, when a team had conducted an ambush in a patrol area, the mission was terminated due to risk of the enemy knowing the team’s location. But with D Troop operating a forward command post nearby, and other U.S. units in the area, the team was confident and agreed to remain in the area another night.
At 2115 hours on October 27, Team 17 was settled into a new night position, watching the canal well to the east of the previous night’s ambush site, when it reported enemy activity to the tactical operations center. At 2135, the team reported being in contact. The radio then went dead as Williams was attempting to call in artillery fire.
The next morning at 0650, the duty officer at the 199th’s tactical operations center received a report from a helicopter gunship of the 120th Aviation Company. While on a routine patrol, the ship had spotted a flare and, upon investigating, discovered what was left of LRRP Team 17. Four team members, including Carmody, had been killed during the firefight or had died afterward from wounds. A medevac helicopter raced the seriously wounded Sergeant Jones to the 3rd Evacuation Hospital in Saigon, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Of the entire team, Private LaFon was the sole survivor. He was later decorated for keeping Sergeant Jones alive during the night as well as securing the team’s radios, night vision equipment and weapons while waiting for help for nearly 10 hours, and then refusing to leave the scene until the bodies were evacuated to the 93rd Field Hospital at Long Binh.
The duty officer at the tactical operations center took a statement from D Troop’s commanding officer, who reported that he had last had contact with LRRP Team 17 at 2300 hours, when they reported five people with lights 100 meters west of their location. D Troop’s commander stated that he had ordered the team to observe the activity when the radio went out, but he was not concerned because within 500 meters of the team, he had another unit that never reported hearing anything.
There are no explanations in the duty log for the time discrepancies, the omission of the fact that the team leader was requesting artillery fire when radio contact was lost, or why a search was never mounted in the more than nine hours the team was out of radio contact. The last entry in the staff journal related to the incident stated that an element of D Troop was sweeping the area for the enemy and that the D Troop commander and the LRRP detachment commander were scheduled for an interrogation on the incident at 1015 hours by the 199th’s commander, Brig. Gen. Robert Forbes.
At 0730 on October 30, 1967, a C-141 Starlifter with the tail number 50253 departed Saigon for Travis Air Force Base, Calif. Inside its cargo bay was the body of Staff Sergeant Robert Carmody, a soldier and Olympic medal winner who had given his all—and then some—for his country.
Robert J. Carmody Jr. writes from Reno, Nev. He is the son of Staff Sergeant Robert Carmody Sr. For additional reading, see: Inside the LRRPs, by Michael Lee Lanning; and Phantom Warriors, by Gary A. Linderer.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.