11/365 – Honoring – Robert Kolling
I was drafted into the United States Army in February, 1969. I had just turned 20 age two months prior. I couldn’t drink beer and I couldn’t vote. But, according to Uncle Sam, I was old enough to become a soldier, go off to war, and kill or be killed by other young men my age or younger.
One day shortly after receiving my draft notice, I was downstairs in the basement with dad while he was working on some project or another. He gave me some advice about what to expect in the service. Dad had served in the Marine Corps and fought in WWII, so I was all ears. I don’t recall most of what we talked about, but one bit of advice I know I heeded. He told me that once I left the service I would have the opportunity to attend college under the G.I. Bill. The government would pay for all of my tuition and books as long as I wanted to go to school. I went to the College of DuPage and earned by associate degree and then to Governors State University to complete my Bachelor’s Degree. I continued on to graduate school at Northern Illinois University. In addition to Uncle Sam paying for my tuition and books, I received a monthly subsistence allowance of around $400 a month. That sure came in handy while raising a family.
So, my dad drove me to the train station that cold winter’s morning and off I went to report to downtown Chicago at 6:00 a.m. I was soon amongst hundreds of other young, scared boys. We were lined up and told to count off – 1…2…3, 1…2…3…, etc., One’s were Marines, two’s were Navy, three’s were Army. Nobody wanted to be One’s – they were going to Vietnam for sure. I had a high school diploma and had some training with 3½ years experience at Western Electric as a draftsman. Surely there was a need for that in Germany.
We spent most of the morning standing in line waiting for orders to report for duty. I was hoping for somewhere close so that I could come home and visit my girlfriend on weekends. I finally got my orders – Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. Never heard of it; couldn’t be that close. Well, at least it had to be warmer than Chicago in February. Turns out it was HOT. Got even hotter in fatigues and combat boots. Couldn’t figure out why a draftsman going to Germany needed combat boots.
Basic Training was just that. All GI – from the incredibly detailed inspections – white gloves to check for dust in the barracks, spit-shined boots, and brass belt buckles so shiny you could use them for shaving. We did calisthenics until it hurt, we ran until we dropped, and performed hundreds of menial tasks. I learned quickly that the best way for it to work was to keep your mouth shut, do as you’re told, mind your own business, and do the best you can. Talk about a change in life-style! But as I look back on those days, and I think most veterans feel the same way, they had a way of shaping you for the rest of your life. You learned discipline and how to get along with others. Back then it was hard to imagine how some of these waste-of-time-and-energy trivial tasks could ever have a bearing on anything you would ever be doing later in life.
My Drill Instructor (DI) introduced himself as Sgt. Sweat. My platoon all thought it was a joke – real funny! Funny it was not. That was his real name as well as his demeanor. There wasn’t much to joke about. That guy did not miss a trick – he was strictly by the book. Every morning prior to mess, he would perform an inspection of the troops. He would walk up and down and harass each and every one of us in one way or another. For some unknown reason, I decided that it would make sense for me to grow my sideburns just a little longer than what the military would have liked. To this day I cannot tell you why I did that. I got away with it for a little while, since I was blond and they weren’t readily apparent. But one day during inspection, Sgt. Sweat decided to single me out and asked me what the heck I was doing. Without going into great detail about my lecture, I was told to get my razor from the barracks and dry shave them off front and center of the entire platoon. Not only was it embarrassing and somewhat painful, I was the one holding up the troops from the chow line. My shaving minutes did not get tacked on to breakfast, they were included in the short amount of time we had to eat. I was not very popular the rest of the day. The next day, right on queue, it was someone else who got the special attention of Sgt. Sweat.
Basic Training lasted for eight weeks and then it was off to Advanced Infantry Training (AIT). It was a short time later that I began to realize that my specialty in the Army was not going to be that as a draftsman – I was destined for the Infantry.
AIT was eight more weeks of the same but with classroom lectures, studying military warfare procedures, more rifle and other weapons training – stuff that a draftsman in Germany could not possibly ever need. I had never fired a weapon prior my induction into the Army and found out that I was a decent shot. I did real well. If only I could have seen the future….
At the end of AIT in June of ‘69, I received my orders to report to Ft. Lewis, Washington on the Fourth of July and prepare to ship off to the Republic of South Vietnam. A bunch of us from Chicago hung out together on the plane and we were served copious amounts of beer. OK – it might have been 3 beers, but we were all like 20 years old. We had a stopover in Honolulu and got to walk around the airport for an hour in our uniforms. I should point out that military personnel at that time were not shown the respect that is now so widely prevalent. Suffice it to say we weren’t babe magnets. We were so young; we couldn’t even stop at the airport bar for a beer. That was my one and only visit to Hawaii. It wasn’t quite as memorable as most people might remember.
What seemed like days later, we arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam and we were herded like cattle to the reception station and barracks. My first night there we were heavily mortared. It was a scary welcoming party. Being so far away from home combined with the incoming rounds, made my first night a very difficult one to sleep through. We were to stay at Cam Ranh Bay until our orders came through. This is where I learned about the smell of diesel fuel, outhouses, and the “sh*t burning detail.” Anyone who has ever worked at cleaning a grease trap during KP will remember that as being a good smell compared to the “sh*t burning detail”.
From Cam Ranh Bay, I was flown south to Bien Hoa, the home of the First Cavalry Division. The First Cavalry Division (1st Cav) was composed of eight ground infantry maneuver battalions of infantry, five artillery battalions, three assault helicopter battalions, four support-type battalions, one aerial reconnaissance squadron, one engineer battalion, one signal battalion, and a host of independent specialized companies and detachments. The 1st Cav was the new Air-Mobile unit. They went wherever the action was – and fast. All soldiers assigned to the 1st Cav had to be ready to pick up and go at all times. That is what made the 1st Cav so effective. At its peak, the First Cavalry Division was 20,000+ strong during the Vietnam War.
I was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Division at the Cav’s reception station in Ben Hoa. There was a sense of pride and tradition that came from serving in the 7th Cav because it was the same 7th Cavalry as that of General George Armstrong Custer, only helicopters replaced the horses – Bell UH-1D helicopters, Hueys or Slicks, as they were known to the soldiers.
The 1st Cavalry Division’s mission in 1969 was to interdict enemy supplies and soldiers as they crossed into South Vietnam from Cambodia using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Reconnaissance missions were set up to explore and survey enemy territories. What made these missions so dangerous was that no one knew what to expect. Squads would set up ambushes and wait for the enemy to approach. Claymore mines were set up around perimeters waiting to be set off waiting for enemy patrols and 1st Cav Troopers would set them off when North Vietnam Army (NVA) troops entered the kill zone. Search and destroy missions were employed to search for and destroy weapons and NVA troops in South Vietnamese villages.
At the 1st Cav’s Bien Hoa reception camp, the Quartermaster issued me an M-16 rifle along with jungle fatigues, green socks, jungle boots, etc., and I was assigned a bunk in a wooden barracks with screens for windows and surrounded chest high with sandbags. I’d become more familiar with sandbags later in my tour. I was comfortably ensconced in these beautiful quarters for a couple of days, reading, writing letters home, dodging mortar attacks at night, enjoying warm meals and showers (not fully realizing at the time that these things would not be commonplace during the rest of my tour).
I was told not to get used to these luxuries, since my company was due to head out into the depths of the jungle for the next 3 weeks or so. This is where one might ask questions like how many pairs of socks to take, or changes of underwear, or what happens if we get wet, etc.
I was assigned as part of a group, referred to as line replacements. At the time I arrived in-country, the 1st Cav was deep into battle with the enemy. We had suffered many KIAs and that weakened our strategy. The prospect of heading out into the jungle didn’t sound very encouraging to us. Most of us had no idea why we were there in the first place. As a grunt, our view of the war was limited to what was going on directly in front of us. We weren’t being paid to think, we were paid to follow order and fight the enemy.
I eventually got my orders and was choppered out to a Landing Zone (LZ Jamie) in Tay Ninh Provence. I was now a member of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Division (B/2/7 as it was known). An LZ was simply a clearing cut out in the middle of the jungle to provide a base of operations. The clearing was either created with a bomb known as a “Daisy Cutter” dropped from a helicopter or more often was literally cut out and cleared by Army Engineers with bulldozers. The LZ was used as a support base camp that contained artillery batteries, a mortar platoon, a radar section, a mess tent, a first aid station, a command bunker, showers, and line bunkers covered with sandbags. The purpose of the LZ was to provide a base for the artillery to fire support for the U.S. ground forces in the area. While a Cav Battalion (four line companies and E Company secured the LZ for the artillery, it also provided a base from which infantry troops could patrol. LZ Jamie had two artillery batteries, 105’s and 155’s that fired almost continually 24/7. LZ’s such as Jamie were later renamed. The new terminology was Fire Support Base (FSB), since the term LZ more accurately described a temporary landing zone for the insertion of infantry troops into a specific area via helicopters. Hence, we were now known as FSB Jamie. When troops were inserted into an LZ, the landing or LZ was described as either “hot or red” or “cold or blue”. A hot LZ meant that enemy fire was being taken during the insertion, while a cold or blue LZ meant the absence of resistance (at least for the moment).
Most infantry line companies in Vietnam ran on a basic rotation of 21-24 days out in the field and 3 days back at the LZ. A part of my tour in Vietnam was spent during the monsoon season. It rained constantly for days at a time and yet still reached over 100° every day.
Back then I was as skinny as a rail. I think I weighed around 160 lbs. and I was around 6’ tall. I wasn’t built for grunt work, but most of the guys I served with weren’t either, I guess. When I was in high school I used to caddy at a golf course to earn money during the summer. I would carry two sets of bags, one on each shoulder, for 4 hours or so and come back in for something to eat and head back out for another round. I was beat by the end of the day. Looking back on that experience seemed like a walk in the park compared to what we had to lug around with us all day in the jungle.
Every soldier carried 60-70 pounds of gear. Typically each soldier carried his rifle with 300-400 rounds of ammunition as well as 200 rounds for the squad’s M60 machine gun. We all wore a steel-pot helmet on our head at all times. We wore jungle fatigues with deep pockets for carrying supplies and a flak jacket. In our rucksacks we carried such things as claymore mines, flares, a bayonet, three or four days worth of c-rations (or c-rats, as they were known), a poncho liner (not that I had a poncho), smoke grenades, first aid kit, and any personal items like pen and paper and mail from home. On our web belts we carried 6-8 grenades and two canteens for water. Occasionally I would go out with a .45 automatic pistol, as well.
While out in the jungle we did not wear underwear because of the jungle rot (or crotch rot). This was as prevalent as athlete’s foot in a high school gym. It is caused by a combination of heat and moisture from the tropical climate and made corn starch a valuable commodity. The ever-present smells of cordite, rotting vegetation, blood, and body odor made for a very unpleasant span between showers.
Our typical day in the field began at first light. At that time you could light up a smoke, maybe shave, or grab one of those tiny rolls of TP they pack in your c-ration kit and head for a tree. A light breakfast of c-ration fruit cocktail, pound cake in a can, or maybe some canned scrambled eggs would be breakfast. Sometimes we would take a kool-aid packet (if we were lucky enough to get some in a care package from home), scoop some water from a bomb crater, boil it up, add the kool-aid, and let it cool
So, once the breakfast table has been cleared and the dishes put safely into the dishwasher, the assignment for the day was given. We almost always ended up humping the jungle searching for ‘Charlie’ – Charlie being the ‘VC’ – Viet Cong (or Victor Charlie). The point man would led us out first to reconning the area, checking for snipers, booby traps, trip wire, or any strange motion or sounds, etc. The progress was slow, hot, and dangerous. As one might imagine, patrolling is one of the more treacherous assignments for an infantryman.
In the afternoon we would settle down and hit the c-rats again. Maybe some ham and lima beans (“ham and mothers”), some kind of “spam stuff’ called ham, fruit cocktail (by far the most popular), maybe more kool-aid. Every three or four days we would be resupplied by helicopter. This usually meant clean socks, mail, coke and 3.2 beer, oh and ammo. Yum – hot beer and coke. The hot coke was more tolerable than the hot beer, so the trade was usually two beers for one coke. Schlitz was the usual brand with an occasional PBR or Carling Black Label. Back then the cans did not have pop tops, so we had to use church keys (can openers). These were scarce. One day I decided to write a letter to Schlitz and explain our emergency situation to them. Before I knew it I had a package with a gross of church keys. I was very popular for a minute or two while they lasted.
Some guys received care packages from home. Those of us that were lucky enough to get them always shared with others. I never saw any unselfishness. I always had packages coming from mom and dad. They would send film, stationary and envelopes, kool aid, cookies, etc. I also received quite a bit of mail. I felt sorry for those who did not receive any mail. It was tough enough to be where we were and away from our loved ones and not receive correspondence. The supply choppers would arrive and we would all race over to await mail call. It was a huge morale booster to hear your name called. It served as a reminder that you were not forgotten.
There was, unfortunately, another side to this story. Not everyone who received mail was overjoyed. Every once in a while a comrade would receive a “Dear John” letter – a girlfriend back home did not (apparently) love her soldier enough to be patient with his absence and decided to break it off. His girl had run off with “Jody”.
Then it was back out to humping the trail. Trail is a relative term here. Any kind of opening was welcome. Sometimes we were lucky enough to find an open path, but not always. When we were unlucky, which was most of the time, the point man had to use a machete to hack our way through the thick bamboo and elephant grass. Our jungle fatigue shirts were long sleeved and they were always rolled up during the day due to the heat. The combination of the sweat and the cuts from the elephant grass on the face and arms really burned.
While out on patrol we would often encounter movement of some kind. The difficulty was trying to determine whether or not it was just a monkey, a bird, the enemy, or friendlies. We always erred on the side of caution since random firing at any movement would give our position away.
After humping four or five klicks (kilometers, each about .6 miles), we would settle in for the night by setting up a Night Defensive Position (NDP). This meant digging three foot deep two man fighting holes. Once dug in for the night, we enjoyed more delicious culinary treats (c-rats) for the evening meal. We would then take the time before it got dark to write letters home, play some cards, or just kick back and rest. At dusk the sleeves came down to help cut down on the chances of getting a mosquito bite. Those mosquitoes tended to carry malaria. Besides the obvious duties of the squad’s medic, one of his functions was to dispense the malaria pills. We would get one orange pill every Monday morning. This was 500 mg of Chloroquine-Primaquine. We also took a daily white pill, which was 25 mg of Dapsone. These (anti-) malaria pills did not cure malaria, but served to suppress the symptoms. The pills had side effects which included diarrhea, itching, headaches, and vision problems. Some soldiers refused to take them as they figured malaria was preferable to death or injury. At one point, the Division CG put out an order that if any personnel of the First Cavalry Division were diagnosed with malaria, they would be subject to Court Martial.
As dark approached there was a moratorium on smoking – no lights of any kind to tip off the enemy. Off came the boots and the wet socks. Hopefully they would dry out some overnight – if they didn’t get rained on. I had spent plenty of nights sleeping on wet ground during the monsoon season.
Nighttime was when Charlie liked to attack. He knew the area well and had the obvious advantage. Charlie got around very well at night. Most of the mortar attacks and firefights I was involved with came in the wee hours of the night. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were smart little buggers. They knew we were out humping all day and would be dog-tired and off-guard at night. We took turns on guard duty – and this is an area that caused a lot of problems.
The tension was bad enough in Vietnam out in the jungle, but there was an added factor – race. In many cases the ratio was 2-1 blacks to whites. My experience had me believing that a lot of the black population felt that they were unfairly selected for combat more so than the white soldier. I will not debate that issue, as I don’t have any facts to substantiate either way. My only purpose in mentioning this it is to let it be known that the issue was in the air and felt by both black and white soldiers. Guard duty was such an incredible responsibility that lives depended on it. Staying awake for say two hours at a time in the pitch back after humping in 100° heat all day was not easily accomplished. If they were caught severe consequences were in order. But with the combination of nerves, heat, being wet all of the time, being away from home, and the (sometimes) racial tension, it was the cause of much internal fighting. I don’t want to imply that it was prevalent, but it certainly was there.
Night in the jungle was eerie. It was still and quiet, yet full of noise. It was so quiet that the smallest movement of any kind was amplified. You could hear the insects, the birds, the shrieking monkeys and yes, the F.U. lizards. The eeriness of the night with its sounds kept you alert. You squint around and look for your comrades. Muscles tighten. You check to see if your ammo is nearby and ready to re-load. It was a challenge to sort out all of the familiar sounds from one that didn’t belong – that of the enemy. It was probably this tension that tends to make the Vietnam veteran so jumpy sometimes. To this day I cannot be around fireworks. I bury my head in my pillow on the Fourth of July. It invariably brings back scary events.
So, the socks and boots came off and we would sleep. This was an opportunity for scorpions to creep into a soldier’s boot. The first task of the morning was to check the inside of boots for creepy crawlers. In my time out in the jungle, I only encountered one such creepy guy.
After about 3 weeks of this fun, we would head back to the LZ. A shower and an almost real meal was the order of the day. This was the life of an infantryman in a line company for twelve months in Vietnam.
One day after returning from a patrol, my 3-5 (platoon leader) came up to me and told me to pack up everything and get on the chopper to Quan Loi as they were sending me to Sniper School in Bien Hoa. I would be at the First Team Academy for 2-3 weeks. I was selected from our company by my platoon leader, the Company Commander, and the Battalion Commander.
I was teamed up with a guy from Charlie Company – Mike M. from Ohio.
I was issued an M-14 Match Rifle (as opposed to the usual M-16) with a 2-power scope and a $9,000 starlight scope. The M-14 was made by Winchester. The M-14’s we were issued were specially built – only 600 were made. They used special Match ammunition, which was more powerful and accurate than standard issue.
The U.S. Army’s Rock Island Arsenal converted 1,435 M14NM rifles to XM21 standards (added scope and other accurized components, and later on swapped the wood stock for fiberglass) for fielding in Vietnam in 1969.
Target practice began with targets at 300 meters and progressed to 900 meters (about 1,000 yards – the length of 10 football fields). It turns out I was real good at hitting the target. I was a very good shot all through Basic and AIT. I finished 14th out of 250 at Sniper School, which I find very ironic since I had never fired a weapon prior to being in the army.
At the end of the training there was an event called “record fire”. Sort of like a contest. The top man gets a stripe (promotion). I fired 44 out of 50, firing from 300 and 600 meters without a scope. I came in second and Mike came in third. General E. B. Roberts, the Division Commander, officiated at our graduation. He told us that if we have any trouble just write directly to his chief of staff and he will take immediate action.
As it turns out, the Sniper School was a new program and basically an experiment. The 1st Cav had only 52 snipers and they were watching us very closely. Mike and I were the only two snipers in our battalion and the commanders were not even sure how we would be utilized. They asked us a lot of questions and it seemed that we impressed them with our answers. We were seemingly in control, as the big brass in the rear didn’t know much about the program. We began our assignment on LZ Jamie up in the Radar tower. LZ Jamie currently had one sniper (presently out on R&R) who they had used up in the tower. He was a Spec-4 (Corporal) four weeks earlier and was promoted to a Sergeant. He had yet to achieve a kill. I knew it would impress the brass a lot if we could start out with a couple of kills. I figured rank would be fairly easy to make if we did our job.
While I was assigned as a sniper on LZ Jamie, I became friends with two guys in particular, Ken Havens and Lee Dworshak. The concept of making friends in Vietnam is an interesting one. Almost everyone that we were assigned to work with in the field probably felt the same way. We were all young, away from home (many for the first time), scared, and not knowing if we would be coming back home alive. We all depended upon each other to protect our backs. One stupid mistake like coughing or sneezing at the wrong time, lighting a smoke after dark, falling asleep while on guard duty, or failing to notice a trip wire out on patrol, etc., could get one or more fellow soldiers hurt or killed. We all had a common bond in our desire to stay alive and get home in one piece. We ate, slept, fought, laughed, shared letters from home, and cried together 24 hours a day. We became comrades-in-arms. The downside of that was the fear of losing someone that you became close to. It is difficult to try and describe the closeness and the bonds that are formed in war. The fact that you could feel this way toward someone that you, in reality, didn’t know was amazing.
Anyway, I was fortunate to become friends with Lee. Lee was from Los Angeles and was assigned to Echo Company – Radar. Lee was previously with the Recon Platoon of E Company and had spent his first several months in country humping in the jungle just like I did. He, like me, was taken out of the jungle. Instead of sniper school, he went to radar school for three days in Long Binh. His assignment was now E Company Radar Section based on LZ Jamie. My sniper partner, Mike, and I were normally sent out with the regular patrols for the three week missions, and then spent 3-6 days back at the LZ with sniper duty up in the tower at night. The ANPPS5 radar on the tower was used to detect movement on the ground around the outside of the perimeter wire of the LZ. This radar was manned at night to watch the perimeter of the LZ for sappers. Sappers were North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or Viet Cong (VC) demolition experts that infiltrated the base with grenades and satchel charges in their attempt to blow up our artillery pieces. Once my unit began deploying snipers on the LZ, we would take our starlight scopes and take shifts watching the perimeter up on the tower while the radar folks watched their scope at the bottom of the tower.
A little distance from the tower is where the Radar Section lived, ate, and slept. They were a group of five guys and had some extra room for Mike and I to stay. We had a little table and chairs to play cards, read, and write letters. We had a light that was hooked up to a generator that was used to charge the batteries for the radar. Mike, myself, and Ken, also hung out there. We would drink beer and play cards and Monopoly together and occasionally listen to a baseball game by way of Armed Forces Radio if someone had a radio.
The food was so much better on the LZ. I had put on 20 lbs. – I got up to 185. The only bad thing was the rats – they climbed all over us at night when we slept.
One night when I wasn’t assigned to man the tower, I was placed on guard duty on the LZ to watch over about 20 or so body bags that had been brought in that day from the field. They were awaiting transport out the next day. Never could figure out why dead bodies needed guarding.
One day, Mike and I were pulled off to the side and were teamed together with a squad put together for a special mission. We were told to speak to no one and to follow the recon team and to follow their team leader’s instructions. We were headed into Cambodia. I knew at the time that this was not going to be a good thing. As I mentioned earlier, we really didn’t know why were even in South Vietnam, let alone why we couldn’t be in such-and-such place like Cambodia. We just followed orders and kept our mouths shut.
According to the official reports, the US did not enter Cambodia until April 30, 1970 – the year after my tour of duty. The United States and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and attacked the NVA and VC bases and supply lines on that date and stayed for several weeks. This fact, however, has been found to not be entirely true. In fact, it is completely inaccurate. On March 18, 1969 Secretary of Defense Henry Kissinger ordered troops into Cambodia under the name “Operation Breakfast”.
Without being able to go into much detail, the 1st Cav infiltrated Cambodia. From where we were based at LZ Jamie, the Cambodian border wasn’t that far, about 5 klicks. I was a part of a recon team that went in, even though it was against foreign policy or some such “war rule” (another military oxymoron). We were instructed to remove our dog tags and any other form of identification, since we were not supposed to be there. Like, we didn’t look American? Never understood that one.
As a side note regarding dog tags, most soldiers only wore one dog tag around their neck and the other one laced in their boots. You didn’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket in the event of a land mine or some other explosion. You still wanted your body to be identified.
A Sad Day
One of the guys I was hanging around with on the LZ was Ken Havens. He lived on a farm in upstate New York before being drafted. We would play cards and tell stories. Even though I was never out on patrol with him, we became friends. Ken was promised a position in the Radar Section and was waiting for an opening in radar school in Long Binh. In his last letter home, he wrote that he was very excited about that because it meant an end to the daily patrols in the jungle. He would be safer.
At dusk on October 21, 1969, Ken led his squad out on a routine last-light patrol around a quarter-section of the LZ. The squad leader (Sgt. Loren Housh) stayed behind on the LZ to monitor the patrol over the radio. Sgt. Housh only had a few days left in-country and was grooming Ken to take over the squad. Ken was walking point with his radio man (RTO) (Nevin Farnsworth) trailing and four other troops behind that. Several weeks previous Lee Dworshak was the squad RTO and would have been in the second spot carrying the radio but was now assigned to the Radar section. Midway through their patrol Ken detected movement in the nearby jungle. They called in and reported the movement over the radio and were told to terminate the patrol, skirt around the movement so as not to make contact and make their way back in to the LZ as quickly as possible. Ken took a route back in to the LZ that not have been previously planned for them to take. Ken had taken the new re-entry route to avoid any possible contact with the NVA. The fear was that they would run into a much larger force than they could handle with six men. There had been quite a bit of activity around the LZ the last couple of nights and things were pretty hot. On their way in, with Ken walking point, the squad set off a booby trap. It was a claymore mine tied to a trip flare. The US-placed booby trap was designed to detonate one or two claymore mines once the trip flare was set off – instantly. The booby trap had been set up by the line company on the LZ and its location was no doubt unknown to Ken and his squad. The intention of the booby trap was to provide early warning for the LZ during the night in lieu of three man Listening Posts (LPs) which were normally used to detect enemy sappers attempting to crawl into our perimeter.
I was inside the radar hooch playing cards when I heard someone call for a medic. I ran over and grabbed a stretcher (the one I used for a bed) and headed out through the wire with a number of other guys to the woodline. They yelled for more stretchers. I helped carry four troops in. They were just lying in a pile of arms and legs and blood. I helped carry Ken’s body in. I don’t know if he was still alive when we brought him in or not. He had some blood on his face and all over his waist, and I could tell that both of his legs were broken. We set him down in the aid station and they covered him up with a poncho liner. I was later asked to identify the body. Turns out that both Ken and Nevin were killed instantly by the blast while the remainder of the squad survived.
It was just two nights before that I had taught him how to play a new version of double solitaire that I had just learned. We stayed up almost all night playing. We were planning on playing Monopoly when he returned from last-light patrol. I never thought he wouldn’t make it back alive. He was a real good guy and got along with everybody. Ken had just turned 23 years old the day before. It’s usually the real nice guys that got the worst end of the deal. The whole squad got hurt bad. Two guys died and 6 others were seriously wounded.
The next day, my platoon leader asked me if I wanted to escort Ken’s body home if he could get the Colonel’s approval. I told him I didn’t think so – I’d rather not. I was so angry, I felt that if I got all the way back to the states, they would have a hard time trying to get me back. We held a memorial service for him on the LZ, though.
October 21, 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of Ken’s death. As a tribute and a way of remembering, Ken’s brother, Russ, edited old 8mm movies that Ken had sent home during his tour in Vietnam. The video presentation is posted on YouTube, but can also be viewed on the Havens Family site.
Two weeks later, on November 4, 1969, Mike and I were sent just outside of the LZ to set up an Observation Post (OP) for the day. We were hidden under a clump of brush. I remember I was reading a letter that I had received from my buddy, Gary’s sister, Diane. We had been corresponding as pen pals while I was in Vietnam. The next thing I knew, I heard automatic gunfire and we were the targets. I don’t remember much after realizing that my right leg had been shot and it was all warm and bloody. I had passed out, but I remember riding on a mule (kind of a flat motorized cart for hauling supplies) back to the aid station on the LZ. I vaguely remember lying on a table, no doubt under the influence of morphine.
I had suffered severe damage to an artery in my right leg and some nerve damage in my right thigh. While in surgery, they took a vein from my left thigh and grafted it to my right thigh to keep circulation going. I had received 18 pints of blood through transfusions that night. They then put me in a cast from my right ankle up to, and around, my waist in order to keep my right leg stabilized. I began running a high fever which eventually got up to 106° and they packed me in ice. They brought in a priest and he administered Holy Communion. I didn’t know what to think.
The next day I had dictated a letter back home to a Red Cross volunteer. I, as well as the Army, wanted my parents to know that I was all right. Later that day I had developed a severe case of gangrene and they had to take my right leg in order to save my life.
Over the next few days I had undergone more surgery and had needed more blood transfusions. Years later I found out by way of researching my military medical records that I had required a total of 35 units of blood during these surgeries. More on this in the “The Illness” chapter.
I spent the next few weeks at a hospital in Cu Chi. Someone brought in my stuff from the radar hooch on LZ Jamie and told me that the night that I was shot, the LZ got hit pretty bad and again three nights later as well. Sappers had attempted to infiltrate the compound and the LZ took a lot of mortar fire. When I spent time on the tower at night, part of my job was to watch out for sappers that tried to infiltrate the LZ. Maybe I would have spotted them and picked them off. Maybe I would have taken a mortar round, instead.
On December 15th, I was transported to Camp Zama, an Army hospital in Japan. I had gotten Falciparum Malaria and was running a 103° fever. They began giving me quinine pills. One of the nurses found out I had just turned 21 the day before and brought in a cake. They were also handing out beer. I had a half of a can and lost it, cake and all. The nurse came by later and told me that quinine pills and beer don’t mix. Thanks for the heads up.
On December 21st, I left Japan. It was a 26 hour flight via a C-130 that was lined with wounded soldiers on stretchers. We made a brief stop in Alaska on our way and then on to Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. I stayed there for two days to get checked out and was then able to fly home for Christmas. I flew military stand-by but ended up in 1st Class.
I returned to Valley Forge in early January and spent the next ten months in rehab. While I was there I received a large envelope that contained 31 letters from a 4th and 5th grade class in Pontiac, Michigan. They also took up a collection and included a check for $13.00. I can’t begin to tell you how I felt when I read those letters. I still have them to this day.
I was honorably discharged from the Army with a medical retirement in October, 1970.
While I was both at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and Vietnam, I wrote letters home. I wrote a lot of letters to my mom and dad. I have posted some of them and they can be viewed by clicking on the envelope below.