His gap-toothed grin looks at the viewer from his Army photo, a young southern Bedford County man who would become a hero of the most extraordinary kind.
Behind the friendly face was a generous man who, by accounts from his family and the producer of a film on his life, was down-to-earth, friendly and outgoing. If you needed something, filmmaker Jim Huggins learned from his many interviews for his film, “Forgotten Heroes — The Robert Hartsock Story,” all you had to do was ask Hartsock.
Huggins’ company, New Shepherd Films, founded in 2009, will premiere the film Saturday at the Allegany College of Maryland’s theater.
Huggins said in a recent phone interview that Hartsock’s commander, Lt. Larry Hughes, said Hartsock was a “quiet, unassuming young man who was proud and confident in himself and proud of where he came from.”
The boy who grew up in Hewitt in Southampton Township, and graduated in 1962 from what was then Everett Southern Joint High School, became a good uncle who was “very family-oriented,” his niece, Sherry Trail of Chaneysville, said.
“He was a hard worker and always had very good values. He always had very good morals,” Trail said. “My grandparents did a very good job of raising him.”
He also became a hero of the most extraordinary kind, giving his life to save his commander, and, according to research by Huggins for his film, his base when it was under attack from the North Vietnamese on a chaotic evening in 1969.
Huggins said the premiere will give those in attendance a chance to meet members of the 44th Infantry Platoon Scout Dog unit, who were engaged in a fierce battle and honor Hartsock, who received the Medal of Honor for his valor.
SSgt. Hartsock came to be part of the Scout Dog unit not by any passion of his for dogs or German shepherds before he was drafted in 1967, but by a twist of fate.
After Hartsock completed basic training, he moved on to advanced infantry training.
When that phase of their training was completed, others in his outfit were sent on to Germany, Huggins said. But Hartsock, Rodger Forbes, who would become his best friend, and a couple others were left without any orders.
But while they were in what Huggins described as a “holding pattern,” the Army asked them if they’d like to be dog handlers.
Huggins said they had no idea what a scout dog handler or sentry dog handler did, but it turned out, it was an extremely important job and extremely dangerous.
They didn’t have to sign up for the unit. “All scout dog handlers were volunteer,” Huggins said.
The dog and handler were tasked with going ahead of the unit, and not by a matter of feet, Huggins said, but by perhaps 100 yards or more to detect where the enemy was and sniff out ambushes or other traps, and find tripwires and other hazards that could maim or kill the advancing unit.
“It took a very, very special mindset,” Huggins said. And because the dog and handler were so effective, they were also chief targets for the enemy.
“Both the dogs and the handlers had a bounty on their heads,” Huggins said.
Trail said these servicemen and their dogs weren’t recognized for their skills.
“They were not recognized as an elite group at that point,” Trail said, “but when it comes down to it, they were an elite group because of their job.”
In February 1969, Hartsock and others of his unit, the 44th Infantry Platoon Scout Dog, were at Dau Tieng, a critical base 50 miles from the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, holding 2,000 American troops and hundreds of prisoners.
With a force of two battalions, 10 times the number of U.S. troops at the encampment, the North Vietnamese attacked the base, a crucial center for the Americans.
The hellish night began about 11:30 p.m. when the base came under heavy attack from mortars and rockets. The night of Feb. 22 into the 23rd, the Viet Cong launched the attack in the southwest corner of the base, according to Huggins’ research.
Hartsock and Forbes were tasked with checking the perimeter when “as Rodger put it, ‘All hell broke loose,’” Huggins said.
A group of men in the unit were engaged in a “very serious firefight,” the two soldiers found, Huggins said.
The two headed back to their platoon area to get reinforcements for the front lines.
Hartsock picked up Hughes and the two went down the main road to the base headquarters to let the officers there know what was happening.
“What (Hartsock and Hughes) didn’t know was the entire base all around the perimeter was being attacked,” Huggins said. “They didn’t know headquarters was under attack.”
The North Vietamese had been tunneling for years, the filmmaker said, though the Americans didn’t know it. When Hartsock and Hughes were traveling down the main road, they saw Viet Cong soldiers emerging from the tunnel.
The two got out of their Jeep, dove into a ditch and as the “sapper squad,” elite Viet Cong soldiers, well-trained and well-armed, emerged from the tunnel.
The two finally opened fire on the enemy, Huggins said.
As one of the North Vietnamese squad was going down after being shot, he lit the fuse of a satchel charge and threw it toward the two men.
“Bob Hartsock didn’t hesitate,” Huggins said. “He left his cover to throw himself on the satchel charge to protect Lt. Hughes from the blast.”
Hartsock, having taken the blast of about 30 pounds of explosives, was able to crawl about 15 feet to a bunker at the side of the road and lay down heavy fire until he succumbed to his wounds.
That cover allowed Hughes to make his way back to the tactical operations center to raise the alarm and provide more critical information about the extent of the fighting.
It was vital that the Americans hold the base, because right next to the operations center was the compound with hundreds of prisoners and the armory, Huggins said.
The battle lasted more than eight hours and at the end, according to one report, 21 Americans were killed. But the base was able to hold off the enemy.
Huggins said if Hughes had not made it to the operations center to warn them, the base would have fallen.
Had the North Vietnamese taken the base, he said, “they had a straight shot into Saigon unabated.” And that’s what made what Hartsock did so much more remarkable.
Huggins said his research shows the enemy would have taken Saigon much sooner (the city fell to the North Vietnamese in April of 1975) with many more American dead and captured had the base fallen.
FILMMAKER’S QUEST TO HIGHLIGHT MILITARY DOGS,
Huggins has written one book based on the screenplay of the film and another book that is more a documentary surrounding Hartsock and military dogs and handlers is in the works.
Huggins said it was his love of German shepherds and his interest in military dogs that goes back to the late 1980s, that drew him to the project based on Hartsock, the only military dog handler to receive a Medal of Honor.
“It’s been a part of me for 30 years,” said Huggins, himself an Air Force veteran. He started researching military dogs and their handlers about 10 years ago.
On the Hartsock film, he had help from Allegany College of Maryland, particularly instructors John Bone and Jared Richey and then-students Frank Amato and Emma Goldhaber.
“Personally, I am thrilled to be able to premiere this film at ACM — in fact this was my first choice since our first day of filming in Cumberland.”
The Hartsock family also was key in retelling the story, which will give a retrospective that starts with his early days.
SSgt. Hartsock was due to return home in just three weeks from the attack on his base.
But, in a letter home, he wrote, “Don’t tell Mom, I’m going to re-up (re-enlist).”
“He loved his dog and he loved what he was doing,” Huggins said.
When he returned from the scheduled leave, he would receive a promotion and a larger paycheck so he could secure himself more financially.
He wrote home often — to grandparents, his mother, to his neice and others.
He never let his mother, Dorothy, know much, his niece, Sherry Trail said.
She believes Hartsock’s mother, who died in 1993, never got over the loss of her son who was 24 at the time of his death.
“It took a toll on everybody, but her health never recovered.”
His father, Kenneth, a farmer, died in 2008.
“I know he was heartbroken,” when his son was killed, Trail said of Kenneth.
His sister, Rita, who lives in Maryland, is the surviving sibling. She will be attending the premiere.
An older brother, Fred, passed away in 2017.
Hartsock’s only son, Dion, died of a brain tumor in 1980.
Although Duke was not by his side when he was killed, the shepherd also became a casualty of war.
After Hartsock was killed, platoon mate Lamar Smith was tasked with keeping Duke until another handler could be assigned.
But Huggins believes the bond was so tight between the two that Hartosck’s constant companion since they became a team knew his master was gone.
“Duke refused to eat or drink and died of a self-imposed starvation,” Huggins said. “There was nothing Lamar Smith could do to get the dog to eat or drink again. “
None of the dogs, which were all in kennels at the base, was injured during the attack.
SECOND SHOWING POSSIBLE
The theater seats 399, Trail said. Anyone who would like to attend should visit eventbrite.com and type in “The Robert Hartsock Story” to ensure themselves of a ticket, which are $5 each. Huggins said if the first show, set to begin at 5:45 p.m., is sold out, another is set for 8:30 p.m.
Saturday’s events start with the arrival of VIPs, which will include members of Hartsock’s Scout Dog Platoon, including Forbes and Larry Hughes, and elected officials or their representatives. Other military officials also are scheduled to attend.
HONORING A HERO
Ssgt. Hartsock is honored not only with one of two bridges in Everett that bears his name, but also will be memorialized in a Vietnam statue now in process.
Dennis Tice, member of the “League of Good Guys” that has spearheaded county veterans monuments in Bedford, said fundraising is about halfway toward a $135,000 goal. The likeness of Hartsock and his dog will be featured on the statue. Tice said it’s hoped the monument will be completed by September 2020.
MEDAL OF HONOR
Hartsock is the lone military dog handler to receive the Medal of Honor, awarded on Aug. 6, 1969, when Hartsock’s young son, Dion, accepted the medal at the White House.
Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. forces from 1964 to 1969 in Vietnam, was in attendance, a rare occasion, Huggins said.
“I never heard of a frontline commander coming back to a Medal of Honor ceremony, much less being part of the pictures with the family.”
Huggins said the project was ultimately faith-based. “I think God was at work,” he said.
In the Bible’s book of John, he said, is where you will find the essence of the man Robert Hartsock was.
“No greater love has man than this, that he lays down his life for another,” Huggins said. “In my mind, that is exactly what Bob did.”
For more information, visit newshepherdfilms.com.