When he was a senior in high school in 1966, Robert Patterson had an argument with his girlfriend and decided to get even by joining the Army. After basic training, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. However, in December 1967 he got orders to go to Vietnam and was transferred to the 17th Cavalry. After being stationed at a former rubber plantation in Song Bay for several months, Patterson's unit moved to Hue.
Early on the morning of May 6, 1968, Patterson and his fellow soldiers were moved to La Chu, a farming area of rice paddies and hedgerows, where they were sent on a mission to sweep out what they were told was a small force of Vietcong. The men had just finished eating lunch and were starting to move out when they came under fire—not by a few Vietcong, but by a battalion-size force of North Vietnamese Army regulars that outnumbered them three to one.
Specialist Fourth Class Patterson, a fire-team leader, saw that another squad of his platoon was pinned down by heavy small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. With two of his men, he moved toward the enemy's left flank, but they couldn't make any headway. As bullets churned the ground around him, Patterson climbed up to the second floor of a pagoda and used that vantage point to take out two North Vietnamese bunkers with grenades and his machine gun.
The Americans were taking fire from another bunker and a web of one-man "spider holes" dug into the hedgerows when Patterson saw his platoon sergeant go down. Although he would not himself remember the action clearly, he charged through heavy enemy fire and single-handedly destroyed five North Vietnamese positions while killing eight of the enemy. The isolated squad was then reunited with the rest of the platoon, which pushed forward to continue the attack. Late in the afternoon, Patterson came to in a huge bomb crater, his unit still involved in a firefight that would continue until they were relieved the next morning.
Robert Patterson remained in the Hue area for the rest of his time in Vietnam, taking part in the fighting, some of the heaviest of the war, that broke out in the "second Tet Offensive" later that summer. He rotated back home to Fort Bragg in December 1968. In September of the following year, his sergeant took him aside one day and told him that he was going to Washington, D.C., to receive the Medal of Honor. "You're pulling my leg" was Patterson's response.