St. Louis native Bob Hirschbuehler wanted to serve his country during the Vietnam War so he entered ROTC as a college freshman.
He knew becoming an Army officer wouldn’t be easy. But he didn’t expect what he encountered during his years at the University of Missouri St. Louis, in which the ROTC program was located at nearby Washington University. At that time Washington University was considered a hotbed of antiwar sentiment.
“I just realized the most hazardous part of my military service occurred on campus before I went on active duty,” Hirschbuehler said.
In 1967 while the U.S. troop buildup in Vietnam approached its height, he was a freshman who thought he could be drafted anytime – especially if he lost his student deferment. He figured the war would still be going on after he graduated so he’d rather enter the Army as a second lieutenant.
“I desired to do something good for my country because America had been very good to me and my family,” he said.
But he encountered antimilitary sentiment throughout his college years. Hirschbuehler didn’t have a car his freshman year so he had to ride the bus to Washington University for his ROTC classes. The bus dropped him off at the main entrance which was on Skinker Boulevard on the east end of the campus. But he had to walk in uniform each morning to the ROTC classrooms which were on the far west end of the campus. His trek was about a mile and a half.
“More than once I heard something whiz past my ear – a whoosh. I realized it was a rock when I saw one bounce off the sidewalk past me,” he recalled. “I’d have to wear this Class A uniform which highlighted me as a target. Being young and naïve, I didn’t realize that’s a rock whizzing past my head.”
Fortunately he wasn’t hit the three or four times this happened. But the rocks were just the start of the harassment he encountered from antiwar protesters.
In the fall of 1968, as a sophomore, he was in science class at the University of Missouri St. Louis when at least 50 protesters inundated the building. They disrupted the class with their peaceful demonstration. Hirschbuehler felt particularly uncomfortable in his ROTC uniform but the protesters didn’t single him out.
He and his fellow cadets would have a weekly outdoor drill session where the entire unit would gather on an athletic field to practice close order drill. The field was part of Fontbonne College, a women’s institution across the street from Washington University. Protesters would yell to try to drown out the platoon leaders. Some would wave antiwar signs. Some would pull out centerfolds from Playboy magazines to try to distract the cadets.
“They never directly assaulted us. At one time one of the coeds took off her blouse to distract us,” Hirschbuehler said. “That only happened one time. I personally did not see that. One of the cadet officers brought a Kodak and got a picture of her which was passed around later.”
The protests took a darker turn toward the end of that second year when the ROTC buildings were firebombed. The three Quonset hut structures, on Millbrook Boulevard on the western end of Washington University, were unoccupied when they sustained varying degrees of damage from the early-morning attack. The freshman-sophomore facility just had a broken window when its firebomb didn’t explode. The upperclassman building was damaged but the administrative building got gutted.
ROTC classes had to be canceled for about a week but the Army quickly established a separate building off campus on Forest Park Boulevard. That classroom building, about three miles east of Washington University, had fireproof construction. Its durability proved to be fortunate because the building was subsequently bombed in the weeks after the Kent State tragedy in 1970. Two bombs detonated 15 minutes apart. Fortunately the first responders had just arrived and had not yet entered the building when the second bomb exploded. No one was injured. The FBI got involved in the ensuing investigation.
For the next week an ROTC class was held on campus at Rebstock Hall, the biology department building. Protesters followed the cadets into the auditorium, sat in the back row and shouted down the instructor to disrupt the class. The classes returned to the repaired Forest Park Boulevard building the following week.
Hirschbuehler earned his bachelor’s in psychology in 1972 and received his commission in January 1973. He entered the quartermaster branch and served a year and a half in Okinawa before leaving the Army in February 1975. His Army civilian career began in August 1975 in St. Louis when he became a budget analyst intern. He retired in 2015 as a budget analyst at the Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command after more than 42 years of government service, including two years in the military.
His younger brother, Kevin, took two years of ROTC at Washington University before graduating in 1975 with a bachelor’s in engineering. Kevin told him an ROTC classmate on crutches had been beaten by antiwar protesters in a parking lot in 1973. Kevin also told him the Department of Army commended the Gateway Battalion as the most harassed ROTC unit in the Army.
Hirschbuehler, 69, of south Huntsville, and his wife, Linda, will celebrate their 43rd anniversary Feb. 7. They have two daughters, Andrea Glasgow and Roberta, both of Huntsville, and two grandchildren. Hirschbuehler enjoys working out in the gym six days a week and he belongs to the Knights of Columbus and the Optimist Club.
He shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I think it’s good that finally those that served in Vietnam have received the recognition that they deserve and earned,” he said, “which was not the case back in the day.”
Editor’s note: This is the 202nd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.