By Teri L. Hansen
Since its inception in February, Veteran’s Story Night at the McPherson American Legion Post 24, has packed the house. Area residents come to 401 N. Main St. once a month to hear veterans tell their stories of hardship, battle, love and camaraderie and last night was no different. Three Vietnam combat veterans shared their memories of a brutal time in our history.
With the war looming all around, Don Unruh decided to get ahead of the draft and join the United States Army National Guard.
“Rumors about Vietnam were heavy in the background,” he said.
With very little knowledge of Military Occupational Specialties, Unruh chose an MOS. He chose to be a personnel carrier driver, without the knowledge that this falls into an 11B category. An 11B is an infantryman. For most in the military this is a common term, synonymous with hard core, on the front lines, or grunt. This being said, Unruh would find himself in the thick of it sooner rather than later.
“The writing was on the wall,” he said. “Though you try to ignore it sometimes.”
Unruh had a little time at home. He went to work for the John Deere dealership that he would later work at for decades. Word travels fast. A little too fast sometimes. An announcement over the radio was how Unruh found out he had been called up to deploy.
“I won a trip to Southeast Asia,” he said with a chuckle. “All expenses paid.”
Within weeks of the birth of his daughter, Unruh was in Northern Vietnam.
“From there it got a little worse and not any better,” he said.
With four companies at a fire base, they spent three weeks in the field at a time, then one week back at base for what they called “stand down.” Each day they walked 15 “klicks” or kilometers in their patrols, which were generally search and destroy missions.
“I don’t know who made the rules, someone who didn’t have to walk a lot,” Unruh said.
True to Army form, they dug foxholes, slept in trenches and engaged in firefights. Some skirmishes were brief, while others lasted through the night. We were up against North Vietnamese regulars, they were well trained and knew what they were doing, Unruh said.
At one point, he and his soldiers set up a perimeter at an intersection. They used trip flares and claymores to fortify the position. In the morning, they went to tear everything down and found that the enemy had snuck in during the night and stole all their claymores.
“I assume that was just to intimidate us,” Unruh said.
The stories could flow all night, but he did end with one final memory. Unruh and his men were being picked up by six helicopters. When it came time for him to board, the chopper he originally was supposed to go on was full. So he waited for the next one. When they took flight, they received enemy fire. He watched as the bird he was originally supposed to be on, got hit and went down.
“Combat is such a game of luck,” he recalled.
Unruh did get paid extra for his efforts, a whole $50 extra per month.
“I think I’d have given it up for something a little less strenuous,” Unruh said.
When Mike Olson was growing up, he knew one thing, that he wanted to make his parents proud.
“My main inspiration in life was my dad and mom,” Olson said. “They had such a good outlook on life.”
His father was a first sergeant in the Army and Olson wanted to as much if not a little bit more than his dad. He graduated high school in 1964 in the middle of his class, which wasn’t surpassing his father, so he decided to join the Army Reserve Officer Training Course. This allowed him to train to be a commissioned officer in the military while also pursuing an education. He received his degree in business administration and entered the Army as a second lieutenant.
When it came time to pick a specialty for command, he was told he needed to pick one combat specialty to be put at the bottom of his list as a last resort. Initially, Olson said artillery, but second guessed himself and changed to the signal corps, thinking there was probably a far less chance they would be called up to duty. He was wrong.
“I knew nothing about it,” he said. “But I thought ‘here we go.’”
Right before he left for war, Olson and his father went to see a movie together. The movie they attended was “Green Berets” with John Wayne. The film from 1968, portrays Wayne as the no-nonsense Col. Mike Kirby leading his team behind enemy lines, in a top-secret mission to abduct a Viet Cong commander. Full of action and danger, it was a foreshadowing of what lay ahead for Olson.
“We supported the Green Berets,” he said. “It was quite a ride, just like John Wayne and the Green Berets.”
Olson was promoted to first lieutenant. He took charge of three battalions.
“I was paid as a first lieutenant with the responsibility of a major,” he said. “They were fantastic people to work with though, I feel very fortunate.”
Olson too, had war stories to tell. He knew an Army captain who disregarded orders and returned fire after the enemy had headed into Cambodia. This was a big issue as Cambodia was consider neutral and not to be engaged.
“My commander said ‘he’s either going to get a silver star or be court marshaled,’” he reminisced.
That captain was relieved of duty, though you can’t say he was too bad off. His new assignment was to escort the performers on USO tours.
“I saw several people relieved of duty and a lot of people were heroes,” Olson said.
According to the Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File of the Defense Casualty Analysis System Extract Files the U.S. sustained 58,220 casualties during the Vietnam War. In Olson’s battalion of 400, he knew of 49 killed. Some were acquaintances, some we friends, but all were brother in arms. He made it out and was awarded a bronze star for meritorious achievement in ground operations against hostile forces.
Olson also took with him the after effects of Agent Orange. He is one of thousands impacted by the legacy of the chemical. He has service connected Type II Diabetes and has been given an 80% disability by the Department of Veteran Affairs. His outlook though, like his parents is a positive one.
“A lot of us have mental scars and physical scars,” he said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world. If I had to go back, I would do it again.”
For John Harper, this was his second time speaking at story night, the first being months ago. He was asked to speak again and elaborate a little on his experiences. He had more than 27 years in service with 10 of them being active duty.
His years were not always pretty. He suffered a bout of dysentery that caused him to lose 40 pounds of muscle mass. As a tank mechanic, he worked and went on missions in track vehicles. Many of those missions were rescue and recovery. Recovery of casualties.
“Blood in a track vehicle,” he recalled. “You could smell it for months after.”
At one point a platoon was attacked which resulted in five wounded and six killed. What made the attack especially brutal, was that the enemy used the U.S. troops’ own claymore mines against them in the attack. Harper recalled that they later went after those responsible for the death and injury of their comrades.
“We killed seven later of the ones who did it,” Harper said.
He too has Type II Diabetes for which it has been deemed service connected. Harper remembered the planes flying overhead misting the areas with the noxious chemical. The droplets that would stick to their uniforms may not haves seemed like a big deal, but the men were unable to change uniforms for six days at a time, let alone bathe.
Harper is now the commander of the McPherson Veterans of Foreign Wars Chapter advocating for service men and women years after his own service. His life has been one for the history books.
“It’s been quite a career,” he said.