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A Vietnam Conversation

Remembering Vietnam

June 21, 2018
Amy H. Peterson - Staff writer ( , Estherville News

Eight Vietnam veterans: Kenny Billings, Bob Fine, Gary Richard, Steve Erickson, Mike Dalen, Gene Haukoos, Everett Houge, and Gene Kaltvedt sat down recently to share stories from their service in the Vietnam War

"You get so you quit looking at the names," Everett Houge said. Houge was a clerk with the First Cavalry division in 1967, and part of his duty was to handle the morning report, which listed all of the casualties for the day.

"It listed the losses for the whole division. There comes a point you don't want to read that anymore," Houge said.

Article Photos

Kenny Billings, right

The sentiment was shared by most of the veterans in the group that met June 15 at the VFW to try to describe what it was like in Vietnam.

Mike Dalen said when he returned in 1967, they landed in Oakland, California, and were instructed to team up because of rioters. Dalen then went on to Ft. Carson Colorado to train in combating riots, and his troop was sent to Chicago and Memphis to assist in riot control.

The group agreed that eating "C-Rats" or C-Rations, was an adventure. For one thing they were heavy.

Kenny Billings said, "It tied in to what you could carry. We had packs that were 75-90 pounds with ammo, water, mortars, binoculars, and c-rats."

Billings was part of Kilo Company, Third Batallion, 9th Marines. On Feb. 16, 1969, he was medivacked out of the brush and taken to the 106 General Army Hospital in Japan.

According to the Department of Defense, c-rations in the 1960s and '70s consisted of a rectangular cardboard carton containing one small, flat can, one large can, and two small cans containing a meat-like item, a bread item, crackers and candy, spread, and a dessert item. Each carton contained a single complete meal providing approximately 1,200 calories, and weighing over two pounds. Hence, a few meals could make a big difference in the weight of a pack.

Billings said, "You took what water you could get. I'd be filling a canteen on one side of a pond or puddle while my buddy was washing his face on the other side."

Bob Fine went to Officer training and served as a Captain in the US Marine Corps.

Fine said, "A typhoon came in and we had to lay in one spot letting it pass over us."

Billings said, "When the ground was wet, we would put our waterproof ponchos together and try to stay put, back to back to keep warm."

"You've heard of dishpan hands. We had pruned bodies from being in the wet and rain," Fine remembered. "There was always something with the cold and the heat."

Steve Erickson said, "I couldn't believe how hot it was, and we had to have our field jackets, too."

Fine said, "Friendly pets would crawl over us and chew our hair at night." Those would be rats.

Fine said warfare was very different now.

"You have Skype, and cellphones. We listened to aircraft going by overhead and we didn't have to be afraid, because all the aircraft was American. We were the lucky ones. I think about what the people who didn't come back missed," Fine said.

Erickson said, "I think it's harder at our age. When we first came back, we were busy with our jobs, getting married, having families. Now we look back and we can see our lives. Lives they didn't get."

Erickson served with the 227th Aviation unit, working on helicopters. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. relied on helicopters as never before. Thousands of choppers flew under jungle cover transporting personnel throughout the war zone, Erickson said.

Each Loach (an OH-6A helicopter) was manned with a pilot, observer, and door gunner armed with an M60 machine gun. The other helicopter teammate of a Loach was usually a Cobra helicopter gunship, which formed a pink team.

Erickson has five service friends on the Vietnam memorial wall as many losses came from the Loach platoons.

"In 1971, North Vietnam was going to Laos via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Nixon said only U.S. helicopters go into Vietnam," Erickson said.

This meant there would be no plane rescues.

"There were a lot of losses with that, and finally pilots went in to do rescues and recoveries anyway," Erickson said.

Erickson said he did not experience the treatment other vets encountered when he returned from Vietnam.

"When I came back, we landed at Sea-Tac Airport in the evening, and nothing was going on; no protests and no one said anything to us. Ft. Lewis, Washington where I had gone to basic training. We were treated to a steak meal. Not very good steak, obviously, but still a steak dinner."

Fine said, "We all did what we had to do."

Fine said he was told to curl his officer bars under his shirt to avoid being a target.

Haukoos said, "Their tactic was taking out leadership, communications, and medical support. Without leadership there was no way forward; without communications we were really stuck, and without medical service, there was no hope."

Houge said, "When we came back there were demonstrations and 300 of us were told 'you can't get off the plane.' By the time we did come off there were still some protestors hanging around. They called us babykillers. I don't know one veteran who intentionally killed a child, or who set out in military service to kill innocent people."

Houge said, "You have to take the good with the bad. We didn't have a day off to process anything."

Gene Kaltvedt was in Vietnam from 1966-68 with the U.S. Navy, serving on two aircraft carriers.

"There were 5,600 personnel on the Ranger," Kaltvedt said.

Gene Haukoos, who served as a Navy hospital corpsman from '71-72 in Vietnam, was on the Enterprise, the largest aircraft carrier with 6,000 servicemembers, a medivac operation, a sick bay, its own hospital with 12 intensive care beds.

Haukoos, a 1968 graduate of Estherville High School, said after graduation there were two choices: the armed services or college. He enlisted in the Navy just after graduation at 17. Had he been called at age 17, he would have served for three years. The Navy appears to have waited until he turned 18 and called him up for four years.

After boot camp in San Diego, Haukoos had training at Balboa Hospital, the Naval Medical Center, also in San Diego, in November, 1968.

"The Pueblos crew came back, and many of them were very badly off," Haukoos said.

On Friday afternoons, a request for the number of corpsmen needed to go over to Vietnam was issued, and one particular Friday, Haukoos made the list and was sent to Danang.

Danang is located on the coast of the East Sea at the mouth of the Han River, and is one of Vietnam's most important port cities. It's the largest city in central Vietnam. The first U.S. combat troops in the Vietnam War arrived at Da Nang on March 5, 1965.

Haukoos said the Estherville News became popular among his cohorts.

"They gave me all kinds of grief about being from the middle of nowhere Estherville, Iowa, and about our tiny paper, but they passed it around until they'd read it because they were hungry for any news from home," Haukoos said.

Haukoos returned to Balboa in 1973 and in April of 1975 was stationed in Long Beach, California for Operation Babylift, in which orphans were brought overseas and dispatched to various places in the U.S.

Danang fell in March, 1975.

Over 10,300 infants and children were evacuated from South Vietnam to the U.S., as well as Australia, Canada, France and West Germany between April 3 and April 26, 1975 during Operation Babylift.

The number of U.S. servicemen who served overseas during the Vietnam War eventually would reach more than half a million. It ended officially ten years later with North Vietnamese ground strikes. The Vietnamese call the war the "American War."

More than 57,000 Americans died fighting the war; Vietnamese losses were even greater.

Haukoos said, "We didn't lose the war; we weren't allowed to win.

Gary Richard said Vietnam had been in his head since he was a kid, but he felt the war would be over before he was old enough. He started the draft with his number 362. The next round, it was number 26.

The army sent him to electrical school, then to instrument repair school, and he received orders to go to Korea with the 213th Aviation Assault support unit out of Fort Benning.

Soon, he was on a ship from Pensacola through the Panama Canal and on to Korea.

Richard said Camp Humphreys was a rustic, little village back then, but now when you get on Google Earth and other map capabilities to see it, it's a modern city, not at all the same.

Richard said from Busam to the demilitarized zone along the border between North Korea and South Korea, there were incidents most people don't hear about, including people killed in the DMZ. Richard continued his military service after the war with the Iowa Falls detachment of the 334th Brigade Support Battalion of the 133rd Infantry Regiment.

"In war, you do things you would not otherwise do," Richard said.

Mike Dalen was drafted and went to Ft. Leonard Wood and Ft. Campbell before going to Vietnam as part of the 27th Combat Engineers.

The military performed humanitarian operations in Vietnam while they endeavored to protect South Vietnam from the communist encroachment of North Vietnam.

Dalen was part of Operation Rice Bowl.

"We were saving the rice for the civilians in the area because the Viet Cong were taking it from them," Dalen said.

While Dalen's team built roads and infrastructure for the war effort in 1966-67, he said sometimes the roads were being blown up almost as fast as they could be built.

"Every day a convoy hit a land mine along the road. So many were killed. It was horrible," Dalen said.

Dalen's platoon sergeant is one of the names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

The veterans addressed the lessons they carried with them from the war.

Dalen said, "I don't know if wars resolve anything. They should talk peace. That's the way that benefits everyone."

Erickson said, "It's a poor way to resolve political issues and should be the very last resort. Through my life, I find I don't let things get me worked up or excited. I have a bigger perspective."

Houge said, "We did our jobs. Most people now in Washington, DC don't know what war is because they've never served. We were fighting for the freedom of all people. Hindsight is 20/20, but I believe our leadership believed this was necessary to stop the spread of communism."

Fine said, "I am very proud to have served, but have nothing at all against those who did not serve."

Dalen said, "It's so hard on families."

The local Vietnam veterans will receive Quilts of Valor this weekend.



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