Larry Engebretson

Legionnaire of the Month


For some, the Vietnam War seems like ancient history that took place before they were born. The Vietnam War was actually a prolonged struggle in an effort to prevent the spread of Communism, and it ran from 1955 to 1975. It resulted in over 3 million deaths (58,315 from the U.S. and 303,644 wounded). As we continue 2016 commemorating the 50th Anniversary of that war, we want to feature another Post 23 member. One of Webster’s definitions of commemorate includes “to serve as a reminder”. It is important that we remember and learn from history. There is no one better to learn from than those who experienced firsthand what took place. Post 23 has very few remaining individuals who were an “eye witnesses” to this piece of History. Larry Engebretson has agreed to share some of his memories of the time he spent in Vietnam. Before we relate some of Larry’s accounts, let’s do a short introduction.

Larry, a lifelong resident of Garretson, was born on September 18, 1947. Larry was the fifth son in a family of six boys and grew up in Garretson, graduating from GHS in 1965. After high school, he attended Northern State College (now NSU) in Aberdeen, SD and had only his student teaching to complete before graduating. But, let’s let Larry tell his story.

MY VIETNAM EXPERIENCE

I was not 100% sure that teaching was for me, but I also knew that the draft board would be waiting for me if I dropped out of college. I made the decision to drop out, and by the time I got home to Garretson, I already had my draft notice. An army recruiter paid me a visit and told me that if I signed up with him I could most likely stay out of Vietnam because I had three and a half years of college. So I enlisted and entered the service about a month before I would have as a draftee. History shows the recruiter may have been stretching the truth a little bit about not going to Vietnam. On April 1, 1969 (editor comment—hum, April 1st—interesting date. Was that a hint of what the army recruiter told Larry?) I entered the Army and was sent to Ft. Lewis, WA for basic training. Maybe they sent us to Ft. Lewis to prepare us for Vietnam, as it seemed like it rained every day of basic training. At this stage of the war, they really needed replacement troops, so basic training was cut from eight to seven weeks. I also had my AIT (Advance Infantry Training) at Ft. Lewis, and this was also cut from eight weeks to seven. After 14 days leave at home, I was headed to Vietnam.

I got to fly Continental Airlines from Seattle to Vietnam, via Hawaii and the Philippine Islands. I had a few “close calls” in my year in Vietnam, but the first one came sooner than I expected. I arrived in Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam on Aug. 25, 1969. Our staging area was so crowded we had to sleep on the ground that night. I was told that this was one of the safest places in South Vietnam, as it was a peninsula with water on three sides and had not been hit by the enemy in a long time. Well, that night Cam Rahn Bay was hit by mortars, and sapper soldiers came through the concertina wire with explosives. It was truly chaos for a while. There were a fair amount of casualties, and I thought, “Wow, if this is the safest place, it looks like it has the makings of a long year.”

I was assigned to a mechanized infantry unit: Alpha Troop, Quarter Cav., 1St Infantry Division (The Big Red 1). A mechanized platoon had three M-48 Patton tanks and six to eight A-Cav half-tracks (Armored Personal Carriers), with probably about 30 or so soldiers in each platoon. Our base camp was Lai Khe, located NW of Saigon. We worked areas known as the “Iron Triangle”, the “Trapezoid”, the “Fish Hook”, and the “Parrot’s Beak”, all on or near the Cambodian border. Our routine was two to three weeks in the jungle and then two to three days back in base camp. For the next nine months, this was the routine. It was monsoon season, and that meant rain almost every night. By day we broke jungle looking for the VC and NVA. At night, we went on foot ambush patrols. (Usually along trails we found during the day.) It was 100 or more degrees during the day, with high humidity. At night, it was 75 degrees or so with rain, and lots of it. It was hard to believe you would get cold at night, but you would. There were lots of 18-20 hour days, with not much sleep.

Adding to the difficulty was the red clay soil. It would stick to you like another layer of skin. Your hair was always dirty. Sometimes we swam in B-52 bomb craters that were 20-30 feet deep, filled with muddy water. It felt good, but I think you came out dirtier than when you went in. Mud and dirt made it a “must” to clean your M-16 rifle or M-60 machine guns almost every day if time permitted. Your life could depend on a clean weapon. (Editor: Note this for Dec. 3 incident.) We found enemy weapons caches every so often, and sometimes we even used the Russian/Chinese AK-47 rifles that we found, as they were not nearly as likely to jam as the M-16. We hardly ever moved the armor at night. Almost all of South Vietnam was a “Free Fire Zone” after dark. Anything that moved was deemed a target.

On October 4, we had a close call that could have taken my life. We were working between Lai Khe and Di An when we spotted a Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher sticking out of the bushes. Doc, Don, and I were standing on top of the ACAV when a Viet Cong jumped out of the bushes and threw a hand grenade right at us. We really got lucky as it hit an overhanging tree branch that deflected it and caused it to land behind the half-track. Otherwise, it would have been a direct hit on us. Even so, you could hear shrapnel flying by your head. Don did get hit in the face and was bleeding pretty bad. Another guy on the ACAV next to us also got hit by the shrapnel. A short ‘firefight” ensued, and when it was over we had killed seven VC and taken eight prisoners. I was one of the “lucky” ones who got to drag the bodies and put them in a pile for the body count. We never buried the bodies. The locals would come and take them away. This day stands out because of the tree branch. Maybe I should go back someday and see if it’s still there.

November 7, 1969­­­--I was driving the lead ACAV in the Iron Triangle, and I hit a landmine. There was a tremendous explosion that actually lifted me out of the vehicle and blew my headset off. I was dazed and had slight shrapnel wound on my right arm. They wanted to send me back for observation, but I knew it was just a “skin wound”, and we kept on going. (Editor note—this technically qualified Larry for a Purple Heart).

December 3, 1969--I was on the point of a night ambush patrol. I could make out figures coming down the trail in the darkness. The main problem was, you never knew how many. It could be one or 50. You let them get real close, and then initiate the ambush. I pulled the trigger on my M-60 machine gun. It fired one round and jammed! Hard to imagine a worse feeling! Now they knew we were there, and the fight was on. Everything turned out all right for us. We found seven bodies the next morning.

March 16, 1970--We stumbled onto a big enemy base camp near Cu Chi. We had a long firefight with the NVA (North Vietnamese Army Regulars). The NVA were well trained, well equipped, and always a much tougher fighting force than the rebel VC. When it was over we found 32 dead NVA. This was one of my hardest days in Vietnam. I was a track commander at this time, and one of the men on my track was killed. He lost both arms and legs. I had to wrap him up and put him on a stretcher. He would have gone home in less than 60 days. This is something you will never forget.

In April of 1970 President Nixon made a move to pull some troops out of Vietnam. The Big Red 1 Division had orders to come home. It looked good politically, but very few troops went home. You had to have 11 months or more to go home. By then, I had almost nine months in country. It took a little while, but finally my new orders came down, sending me to the 101st Airborne. They were headquartered in Phu Bai, north and west of Da Nang, close to the DMZ in the mountains. Their units were really getting beaten up by the NVA. I didn’t want to go back out in the field as I was now a “double digit midget”, meaning I had less than 100 days before I was scheduled to go home.

I wish I knew the name of the sergeant that processed me into the 101st. He said that he noticed I had been with the Big Red 1 and had worked the Iron Triangle and Cambodian border for about nine months. “Can you type?” he asked. I told him I took typing in high school and that I was pretty rusty, but I sure would like to give it a try. I came back the next morning and took a typing test. I think I typed about 20 words a minute with about that many errors. He said “That’s pretty good”, and I was assigned as a clerk and jeep driver for Lt. Col. Keyes, the Protestant Chaplin at Camp Eagle. I drove him around, did some typing, and ushered for church on Sunday mornings. I had my own room, a bed with a mattress, a fan, and even a mosquito net. If this wasn’t Heaven, it had to be pretty close to it.

When it finally was time to leave, I didn’t get to fly Continental back home. I flew out of Saigon on a Flying Tiger, basically a cargo plane with some homemade seats attached to the walls of the plane. It was one of the most enjoyable flights I have ever had. I flew to Tokyo and then back to Ft. Lewis. After I processed out, I returned to Sioux Falls, wanting to get on with civilian life. There was no welcome home for the Vietnam Vets, but that was OK. I finished college at Dakota State College (now Dakota State University) in Madison, SD, graduating with a degree in Business Administration.

They say that wars are started by old men and fought and finished by young men--young men on both sides who have no real reason to dislike, much less kill each other. But we answer the call when our country needs us. We all have that obligation. I am proud of my service record. I received a Bronze Star, among other medals, for my service. Vietnam is a somewhat painful memory, and I really don’t talk about it very much. I have only looked at my pictures and read the letters I sent home a couple of times in 46 years. It was not a popular war, if there is such a thing. We did what we had to do, and I am very proud of the men and women that I served with in Vietnam. It makes me appreciate where I live. There is no better country than the USA. “

As Larry stated, better than I ever could, some military experiences can be painful. Larry--thank you for sharing some of your experiences of this war. Many things one would rather forget, but that does not always happen. Through your and other’s willingness to share, we do have a better appreciation for what our men and women in combat go through. It is important for us to never forget the real cost and consequences of war. Hopefully, we learn from our past and as a result, will have a better future.

As most of us know, Larry did get on with his civilian life. In 1972, he was married to Jackie Moe. They made their home in Garretson, where they raised two children, Christopher and Rebecca. Chris lives in Garretson, and Becca and her husband, Eric Tidemann, live in Brandon. Becca and Eric have two children, Brady and Emma. Larry worked for Pam Oil Co. of Sioux Falls for over 30 years, doing road sales work. Now Larry is retired enjoying the “Good Life”. Larry has been an active member of the Garretson community and Zion Lutheran Church. He has served on a number of community organizations and boards. He has been a long time member of American Legion Post 23. In his earlier years he served as Athletic Director for the post. He has also held every office of the Post, including Commander. He continues to be a strong supporter of the American Legion.

Larry, on behalf of Post 23, our Community, State, and Nation, we thank you for your dedicated service to our Country.

Respectfully,

Marty Luebke-Post 23