Sunday, August 30, 2015

Don Hawkins' letter home from Vietnam

Were life fair, Don Hawkins would have been with us earlier this summer when the Russell High School classes of 1964, 1965 and 1966 got together for a reunion. He was, after all, president of the class of '65, intelligent, articulate, athletic, ambitious --- quite a guy.

Don was a year younger, so the only photo of him that I could find is the one at left, taken when he was a high school junior and lifted from my senior yearbook. But that's the way I remember him anyway.

He also was a veteran of the war in Vietnam, drafted during December of 1967 after completing (with honors) the two-year program at Indian Hills Community College.

I was reminded of that after plugging "Vietnam" into the search engine of the Chariton newspapers database that I use most often --- just to see what turned up; still fussing about a well-intentioned homemade memorial to veterans in Knoxville that has become the focus of a squabble about signs and symbols and religion that has drawn both statewide and a degree of national attention.

Don's letter home from Vietnam to his folks, Dorothy and Harold Hawkins, of Russell, published In The Herald-Patriot of June 19, 1969,  was among the items that turned up. I believe Dorothy was, at the time, Russell correspondent for the Chariton newspapers.

During the course of the months that followed Donnie's induction into the U.S. Army, he married Elizabeth Horstman, of Rathbun, during May of 1968 and advanced in rank to staff sergeant. During February of 1969, he was assigned to Vietnam as a rifleman with the 101st Airborne Division.

One way to honor veterans is to listen to their stories. Although Don died at age 51 during November of 1997, he left this part of his behind in public view. He was 23 at the time it was written.

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Dear Folks,

Well, here it is another Sunday. I just woke up after a three hour nap. I don't sleep much during the night any more --- too much could happen. I'm well and fine and I have a real wild war story to tell you. It's a little bit weird so I'm going to try and write it up as good as I can so if you want you can send it in to the newspaper. I think it might give an idea to people back home just what we're going through here.

The early shadows of dusk cast a gloom over the room as I rolled my bedroll, tightened the straps on my rucksack and prepared my equipment for the patrol ahead. The platoon was using an abandoned Vietnamese schoolhouse here in Phu Loi for our day location.

The walls are of concrete, a veneer of blue paint has faded and worn away. Bullet holes pockmark the walls on which GI's have scrawled their names, their DEROS dates and the inevitable epitaphs of their thoughts of home, war and women. "Say it loud, I'm black and proud." "As the sun and the moon rotate, so shall I." Or, "Clem, Kentucky, 97 ETS."

The slabs of slate used for shingles are dilapidated and light filters through holes and cracks. I finish with my gear and walk down the porch to the room where the First Squad is located.

Glancing at my watch, I say, "Sgt. Kloeckner it's time to brief your men." Sgt. Kloeckner straightens up from his equipment and says with a low voice, "Hey, fellas, you want to come over here for a minute."

He stands beside the wall. a piece of chalk in his hand, and points to the diagram he has sketched on the wall. His diagram is right beneath a message scrawled by some forgotten yet throughtful soldier, "For those who fight for it, freedom is the taste the protected will never know."

I turn my attention to Sgt. Kloeckner as he explains the situation to his men. "First of all we've really got to be alert tonight. Intelligence reports 40-50 VC with B-40 rockets and RPG's will be coming toward the village tonight." 

I let my glance wander around the other eight men standing there.

Joe, the blond-headed youth from Mississippi. He's a platoon favorite with his rebel flag and solemn promise that the South shall rise again. Next to Joe is Sherrill, the tall lanky kid with a big nose. Kurt is standing beside his ruck absently fiddling with his M-70 grenade launcher as he gazes intently at the plan for tonight. Frank --- we call him pathfinder because he went to pathfinder school --- tightens the strap on his M-60 machine gun. Rich, the assistant gunner, lights a cigarette as he listens to the Sarge. Tony, the other M-70 man, makes a wry comment to Roy, a three-tour man, something about all those gooks. Honaker, who just returned to the squad today, stands and listens.

Men, young men true, but men all the same.

With these squad members will go three of the CP (Command Post), SCF Dillon, platoon sergeant, me, his replacement when he leaves country, and McGrath, the Canadian who is RTO. "OK, let's get it on." Without word the men lift their heavy rucksacks to their shoulders.

Ammo, trip flare, hand grenades, claymore mine, insect repellent, I check off my mental checklist as I pick up my steel pot and weapon. We move out in a spread file, 7 to 10 meters between men. Down a small slope, turn right along the hedgerow, alert for the slightest sound or movement that would betray enemy presence. We quietly step across the small footbridge and slowly work our way down the trail.

I take a moment to go over the situation, We'll be in three positions. We'll be ambushing at a trail junction where a series of small trails merge into a main trail leading into the village. The terrain is real thick, our positions are a bit too far apart and the main trail runs right through the middle of our squad location and on top of this, it's dark --- so dark I am just barely able to make out the outline of the man to my front.

Not much sleep tonight. In a few minutes we're there. SFC Dillon, McGrath, Honaker and McClenden move off to the right. I slip off the trail to the left, Roy, Kurt and Sherrill following. Sgt. Kloeckner, Joe, Frank and Rich will set up in a machine gun position in the middle of the trail junction.

As quietly as possible we ease our rucksacks to the ground. Our standard procedure is to move into a position and listen intently for a few minutes before we pull out our trip flares and our claymores. Satisfied there is no movement around us, I send Kurt and Sherrill back down the trail we just came in on to set up a trip flare and a claymore as rear security. Roy and I move a few meters outside our position to set up another trip and claymore. 

Our security established we move back into position to sit out the night. We stand watch 100 percent til 10 o'clock and then each of us takes it an hour apiece twice til 6 in the morning when we pack up and move back to day location.

It was on the second guard about 11:30 when things began to happen. Without warning the trip flare on the trail to the village popped and for an instant the area was bathed in bright illumination. Sherrill automatically pushed the handle in the detonator device and the explosion from the claymore echoed through the night.

The blast from the exploding mine knocked the trip flare out and everything went black. The instant the flare had gone off I had been awake and reaching for my M-16. We all listened intently for the slightest sound. Nothing! Automatically, when a trip pops or when we blow a claymore we have to go out and check the area, but before you move into the trail, which is a killing zone for the ambush, you have to establish communication with the other positions.

Our platoon uses a pre-arranged whistle system for this and I immediately heard a reply to my first whistle. Slowly, nerves stretched taut, Roy and I moved across the trail to where Sgt. Kleockner was kneeling waiting for us. I quickly assessed the situation for him and we decided we must inform SFC Dillon because his position had the radio and he would have to radio the information to the company commander.

I moved down the trail a few feet and whistled softly; my whistle was immediately returned. I moved back to Roy and Kloeckner and whistled once more. The answer came back low and clear. A moment later Sgt. Kloeckner whispered, "Here comes Sgt. Dillon." It was still pitch black and I didn't see the shadow until he was almost to me.

The shadow glided up to me and a face was thrust inches away from mine and it began jabbering excitedly in Vietnamese. Shock blasted through my brain --- this was not Sgt. Dillon but a fully uniformed NVA soldier with an AK-47 rifle in his arms.

My reaction had to have been instantaneous, but in that fraction of a second a thousand thoughts raced through my mind. The enemy --- I couldn't fire in time --- all he had to do was swing his barrel and pull the trigger. I lunged at him and grabbed his weapon in my hands. We struggled violently, he lurched backward freeing himself from my grasp, stumbled, dropped his weapon, turned and ran. "Fire him up," I shouted. Roy reacted fast and fired six rounds point blank at the fleeing enemy.

Confusion and panic reigned. "Watch our rear." Words can't describe my feeling those next few minutes. Our situation might be desperate. The enemy might be within our positions. They don't travel by themselves after dark. Perhaps Sgt. Dillon had been overpowered.

I steeled myself, waiting for the crash of rockets and the sharp cracks of AK's. Nothing. The seconds stretched into eternity. Finally we heard another whistle and Sgt. Dillon calling softly. At last we knew our positions were intact. We moved fast --- consolidated into two six-man positions and dug in to await either dawn or the coming attack. A lifetime later, the skies began to turn from blackness to gray. Grotesque dancing images turned slowly back into bushes and a squad of nerve wracked exhausted men very thankfully watched the dawning of another day.

It's kinda hard to believe it really happened just like that, but it did.

the next day the CO informed me, I had become a legend in the I Corps area. "The brave NCO who walked up to a NVA soldier, practiced hand to hand combat and took away his AK-47 assault rifle." Roy and I were put in for some kind of medal. We're not sure just what. I'm very lucky and very thankful. It hasn't bothered me as much as it might have. I just flinch a whole lot more now when I hear a sudden or strange sound and I don't sleep at night.

There are a lot of enemy in this area. The other night the gooks hit the ARVNS and killed two, wounded three and captured three plus some weapons. Intelligence reported that 100 enemy soldiers with B-40 rockets, RPG's and mortars were moving toward Phu Loi. We still set up in 12-man ambush patrols and tonight we're going out farther than ever before. Anything could happen.

Mom, I'd really appreciate if you'd send me a stationery tablet and some air mail self-sealing envelopes. Don't send too many. I don't have room to carry them.

Well, I'm still tired so I'll sleep some more. It's raining again. I've never been more homesick for Liz than I am right now. I break 279 days today. Take care.

Your son, Don

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Don came home as 1969 ended and picked up the threads of his life. He graduated from Simpson College, again with honors, and began a career in banking at Indianola. He and his wife had two daughters before their marriage ended.

As his faith became increasingly important to Don, he enrolled in the Illif School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Denver. After graduation, he was assigned to a two-point parish in Oregon --- at Joseph and Wallowa.

During January of 1982, however, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Radiation treatments followed surgery, then during October, additional surgery. After that, while undergoing chemotherapy, he suffered a stroke that left his left side paralyzed. An additional tumor left him unable to speak.

During 1983, he returned to live for a few months with his parents at Russell, then entered a Chariton nursing home, then the veterans healthcare system --- Iowa Soldiers Home at Marshalltown and the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Knoxville. He died in Knoxville on Nov. 18, 1997, at the age of 51.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I only knew Don in passing as we were teenagers, through the Russell kids I knew. However I got to know Harold and Dorothy well, during the years I lived in Russell.
A wonderful family who cared about their children.

It is sad that a life was shortened for the courage Don fought with while back in Russell. I remember visiting with Dorothy as she talked about all eight of her sons. It was heart warming to hear the love and stories of some of the ornery things those boys could do as kids, ending with "But you know boys will be boys." I think she shared this knowing I had three daughters, and that one son. It was like a warning, be ready, your turns coming.