Legionnaire of the Month
James Clark is another long time American Legion member of Post 23 that we’d like to recognize. Whether it is by ‘luck of the draw’ or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Jim has a story that should be heard. When we hear his story many of us can say-“There but for the grace of God, go I.”
Jim was born on 4/4/1948 in Watertown SD. His family soon moved to Sioux Falls where his dad went to work for Minnehaha Country Club and eventually Morrells. Jim grew up in Sioux Falls and attended Lincoln High School. Jim said, “I’ll never forget my 18th Birthday. I must have had a low draft number as that was the same day I got my letter from Uncle Sam saying ‘We Want You’. So in the spring of 1968 I was sent to Ft. Lewis WA for basic training. Like most everyone in my unit my next tour of duty was Infantry Training at Ft. Lewis WA. By August I found myself attached to the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. From August 68 until May of 69 I was on constant patrol marching along in the A-Sau Valley.”
“We were on patrol every day and slept under the stars (or more likely clouds and rain) every night. At 4 PM every day you could set your watch to rain. The cover was thick and allowed our enemy to hide and ambush without being seen. It was not unusual to wade through water that was waist deep. There were snakes everywhere—BIG snakes and some were poisonous but I never was bitten. The worst duty within each squad was taking your turn at being the Point Man. You walked in front of your squad and had to not only watch for the enemy but also tried to spot trip wires or other booby traps. The 2nd worst job was that of the Slack man (rear guard). You were that last one in line and had to watch for the enemy who often preferred to ambush us from the rear. Sleep was hard to come by as we had to take turns at Guard Duty and we always slept in we muddy foxholes. I only recall one ‘real bath’ when were crossed a big clean river.”
“Occasionally we would do night maneuvers but that was even more dangerous as you could not spot trip wires. Also that was when the enemy would try to locate and attack us. The jungles were often so thick that you couldn’t see far ahead in the day, much less at night. To help the ground troops we were spraying Agent Orange that killed the vegetation. I still remember seeing what looked like big bombers flying over with spray like mist as if they were crop dusting. We could always tell when we entered an area that had been sprayed as all the vegetation was dead. Unfortunately we also had to fill our canteens from those same streams to get our drinking water.”
Psychologists say that our memory of ‘smell’ is one of our most powerful memories. Like other War Vet’s who I’ve interviewed the memory of the “smells” was something they never forgot. Jim agreed and said “I will never forget the stink and stench of decomposing flesh. To make matters worse, when we came upon graves of the enemy we had to dig them up to see how decomposed the bodies were. If they were fresh, that meant we had to really be watching as most likely the enemy was still very close.”
When I ask Jim about any good memories he had he said there were not many. But one that stood out was getting mail and goodies. “About once a month they would drop new supplies of clothing, c-rations and mail. We had to wear our same wet soaked and rotting cloths until replacements came. Sometimes this new supply would include chocolates along with mail.” When I ask Jim about R and R he said. “We were always on the move and on patrol. There was never any ‘days off’. Although I did get Christmas day off and we had real food.”
One of Jim’s worst memories came on May 10, 1969. “It had been raining for 10 days as we were ordered to “take hill 937”. It was steep and muddy as we tried to crawl up 3,000 ft. while we were constantly under fire. We had very little cover and the North Vietnamese were well protected in fortified bunkers. It was about day 6 when I felt the worst pain I can ever remember. As I was trying to low crawl up the hill shots from the enemy’s AK 47 hit me. It shattered my right leg and I just laid there in pain and watched others in my squad take fire. I remained conscious and after some time the medics carried me to a first aid station. They gave me a shot of morphine and wrapped my leg and treated it like a broken leg to stop the bleeding. All around me there were others wounded and dead bodies lying in mud. Some of those bodies were others from my squad including my buddies John and Larry. Because we were still under attack they had to use the bodies of our dead comrades like sandbags to protect us from the shooting. It kept raining and I must have laid there in that mud for 12 hours. The only way out was by helicopter and they could carry only 2 or 3. Those who were more critically wounded had priority. Since my wounds were none life threatening I had to wait. The helicopters were also under attack and I saw more than one go down and explode.” (Side note: that muddy hill came to be known as “The Battle of Hamburger Hill”, and one of the most significant week long battles of the war. Of 1,800 infantrymen, 72 were killed and 372 wounded during a frontal assault on a well fortified hill that had little strategic significance. After taking the hill it was soon abandoned. The casualties of that week were not unusual but what was unusual is the amount of publicity Life Magazine provided. In the June 27 issue they featured photos of every killed soldier along with the story of Hamburger Hill. This led to considerable public and political publicity that affected the support of this war. The sacrifice Jim and others made that week to promote freedom and democracy in Vietnam should not be minimized or taken lightly. They were also a huge factor in efforts made to help end this war.
See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hamburger_Hill or read the June 27 Issue of Life Magazine for more very interesting details.
Jim’s turn finally came and he was loaded on a chopper. It was all a bit of a blur but as he was sent to Japan on a cargo plane filled with wounded comrades. In Japan they were so full, they sent him to Germany where they finally performed some surgery and sent him on to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, CO. “I recall being placed in this ward where the entire unit was filled with amputees from the Vietnam War. The doctors were surprised that gangrene had not set in and were so certain that it would that they suggested amputation. Only then did I learn that my leg was just hanging on by some muscle and ligaments. I said if there was any chance of saving the leg, to give it a try so we had a long battle that required frequent changes of bandages, etc.”
Jim was at Fitzsimons from July to November and although he was able to keep his right leg it has never been the same. For his actions he was presented the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and Unit Citation. He was also given an “early out” and discharged from his duties as a SPEC 4 Infantryman. He came back to Sioux Falls and went to work at Eggers Steel. He also worked for Tri-State Tobacco before signing on at the US Postal Service. On May 31st he married Illa Snieder (sp?) and made their home north of Sherman. Jim and Illa raised two children, Michael and Julie. He continued his career at USPS until his retirement in 2005.
Jim has been a member of the Garretson Community and Post 23 for many years. On behalf of Post 23, the Garretson community, our state and nation we thank you James for your sacrifices, dedication and service to our Country and promote freedom throughout the world.