Robert Minter pulled out a magnifying glass and leaned over the computer screen for a closer look at the face before him. Then he broke into a broad smile.
“That’s him. That’s Robert. I can’t see his freckles, though.”
Minter blamed his failing eyesight, but the picture he was scrutinizing was a faded, blurry 50-year-old image probably scanned from the Knoxville Journal article announcing Robert McCarter’s death. He was 20 years old and had been in Vietnam three months when the halftrack he was driving took a direct hit from a land mine. Four of the five soldiers on board died.
McCarter was Robert Minter’s best friend, a relationship that was built on the discovery that they shared the same hometown, even though they had to go halfway around the world to meet.
Minter, who is black, was an Austin High School graduate and lived in East Knoxville. McCarter was white, went to Young High School and worked at Cas Walker’s on Chapman Highway. Minter, who worked for Dempster Brothers, was drafted just days short of his 25th birthday, the cut-off age for compulsory military service in those days.
The two hit it off immediately.
“We were standing outside the mess hall getting ready to eat and he said he was from Knoxville. I said, ‘What? I got me a home boy!’ He was pretty tall and very muscular. He lifted weights, played football. He was very reserved, not very talkative at first, but we became friends. We went to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade and got put in the same barracks – Unit D, Troop 17. We became tight.”
So tight, Minter said, that in the weeks that followed, they started talking about going into business together when they got back to “The World.” They batted ideas back and forth and thought they might open some kind of eatery near the UT campus that would draw business from hungry college students and patrons all races. The outgoing, joke cracking Minter and the shy, quiet McCarter saw themselves as lifetime friends.
“I’d mess with him,” Minter said. “Robert had a girlfriend and he had a tape recorder that he used to send messages to her. He’d have the (tent) flaps down and be on there recording and I’d holler, “Yeah, he got two women over here!” He’d have to erase it and start all over and he’d say, ‘Man, what are you trying to do to me?’”
Every so often their grinding routine would be brightened by a visit from a celebrity, usually a TV star or some other entertainer. Minter remembers seeing Bob Denver, who played the famously allergic-to-work sidekick Maynard G. Krebs on the popular “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.”
“We got to see a lot of actors, and we were getting ready for a big Thanksgiving bash. They were going to bring some lady, a pin-up girl in for that,” Minter said.
“We were a mechanized unit and rode on anti-personnel carriers, half-tracks that could go through water. We carried ammo, slept in them – that was your home away from home. We called them coffins.”
The unit was near Ho Nai village in Long Binh on Nov. 22 when some cast members from “Rat Patrol” (a weekly series celebrating the exploits of the famous World War II North African “Desert Rat” unit) came through wanting an up-close look at jungle warfare. Minter and McCarter were among those assigned to oblige them.
“Robert wasn’t that far from me. We had radios and I could hear the gunfire. Robert’s track had turned to face the river, and they received a direct hit – killed everybody on the track except one. When they pulled the track out of the river the driver still had his hands on the lever.
“I heard Robert say he was all right, but the current carried him down the river. … After that happened, they sent some more tracks out – we went back out there to make sure the enemy was no longer in the area.”
After McCarter’s body was recovered, Minter saw the Jeep that was carrying it back to camp.
“It was a Red Cross Jeep with those little slots for bodies. I just stood there and watched it as it went by. It’s the only time I broke down and cried. The survivor received a Bronze Star and they had the ceremony for us to see.”
While Minter is not one of the veterans who idealizes Vietnam, he doesn’t have pleasant memories of the protests back home, which he believes prolonged the war rather than shortened it.
“We had to deal with the Viet Cong all the time, but they weren’t anywhere near as tough as the North Vietnamese, who were trained soldiers just like we were. Every time the bombing stopped, the North Vietnamese came pouring down that Ho Chi Minh Trail, and it was hard,” he said.
Minter made it home and built a successful life. He retired in 2013 as the supplier diversity coordinator for Knox County, and he and his wife, Regena, have a son, Robert Minter III, who is a graduate of UT’s Culinary Institute and an aspiring chef. He wrote a business column for several publications, had a long running radio talk show and hosts a show on public access TV with jazz singer Kelle Jolly.
But for the longest time, he was troubled because he didn’t know where his friend had been buried and didn’t know whom to ask.
“I would always ask anybody I met from South Knoxville, did they know Robert McCarter. But nobody did.”
That changed when reporter Fred Brown, who specialized in telling veterans’ stories, came to see him. Minter showed him his credentials and his Combat Infantry Badge. Brown mentioned Robert McCarter. Soon, Minter heard from McCarter’s aunt and was able to contact McCarter’s sister.
“I told her I never have found his grave. I went by the Vietnam memorial on the City County lawn and his name was on there. So every year I would place a rose where his name was. She said he’s not buried in National Cemetery; he’s buried in the old Mt. Olive Cemetery. So now I know.”
But don’t talk to him about closure.
“I don’t agree with the word closure. There’s no closure about seeing a life taken and I just don’t believe in that word because he’s not here. I’ll never forget him and I still wake up in the morning soaking wet and sweating, have nightmares. You think about what would we have been doing at this time? I wonder what kind of business we’d get into. Him being white and me being black, we could have had the best of both worlds.”
To see Robert McCarter’s memorial page, go to https://etvma.org/veterans/robert-l-mccarter-11921/. These pages can be sponsored for a $100 fee, which goes to help with the upkeep of the memorial. McCarter’s is sponsored by former city council member George Wallace.
For more information about Robert Minter’s TV show (CTV, Sunday at 3:30 p.m.) go to https://www.facebook.com/whatsgoingonwithrobertminter/
Robert Minter is one of the local Vietnam veterans who will appear on East Tennessee PBS in a documentary produced by Nolpix Media as a companion piece to Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” which will be aired nationally in September. Info: https://www.facebook.com/nolpix/