The Letter Home From Vietnam: A Lesson For Those Serving In War

A man that has meant, and still means a lot to me is my Uncle Ken. He has been a mentor and hero for me throughout my life. As I was speaking with my Mom several weeks ago, she reminded me I needed to thank Ken for his service on Veteran’s Day. Knowing that I write for P/T Commander, and the admiration I have for Ken, Mom sent me the letter he wrote home to his family just before leaving Vietnam.

Ken was drafted into the Army in 1967 and after basic training and advanced individual training, Ken was shipped to Vietnam and war.

I contacted Ken and asked if I could share this letter that he sent home. I believe there is a good lesson for other soldiers in that, it is not healthy to share everything that is happening while in the heat of war. Keeping a positive outlook will not only help your family, but it will also help you.

These are pictures of my Uncle Ken Tilton sent to his family from the jungles of Vietnam. They are used with his permission, and after is the letter from him that he also gave me permission to share with all of you.

Military Days by Ken Tilton

Jan 4, 1968 Took a physical in Des Moines and was shipped off to Ft. Bliss, Texas for 9 weeks of basic training.

After that, I received orders to go to Ft Polk, Louisiana for 8 weeks of Advanced Infantry Training. This left no doubt on where I was headed next. Ft Polk was a swampy ass hellhole. The barracks looked like a big line of old chicken houses. It seemed like there was a lot of social tension there between the blacks and whites. When my A.I.T. was over, I came back home for 30 days leave, then had to report to San Francisco for deployment orders to Vietnam. I had a day to somewhat tour San Fran before my flight to Vietnam. It was a real good place for the fags and the hippies.

On the flight over, we stopped and refueled in Hawaii. We were not allowed to leave the plane. The next stop was the military base in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. This is where you received your assignment. The soldiers there said you didn’t want to get stuck with the 4th Infantry Division up in the central highlands. I shouldn’t have asked. That is where I was headed: Co. A, 3rd BTN, 12th IFT, 4th Infantry Division. We were helicoptered out to 4th Infantry Headquarters at Camp Enari in the central highlands. From there, we were choppered out to Base 29 where Co. A had been partially overran two nights before. They suffered casualties, but had been airlifted off. We spent the next couple of days piling up bodies of dead “gooks,” and burning them. The ground was just too hard to dig very deep.

Base 29 was on the top of a hill, probably the size of 2 city blocks, with A Co. Dug in all around it. They had 4 3.1 inch mortar units and 4 4.2 inch mortar units on the hill. The 4.2 were the bigger ones.

When setting up one of these forward bases on one of these hills, it kind of meant a little stability where you could dig in, fill sand bags a get a cover from incoming air missiles. It wasn’t always that way. If things quieted down in that area, it was time to move on.

Choppers and Shinook helicopters would come in and move everything out to another hilltop that was already burnt off by small planes spraying agent orange from high in the air to kill off the vegetation on the hilltop. Usually, 2 platoons would “hump it,” and the other 2 would airlift in. If it was a “hot LZ,” the door gunners on the choppers were shoving you out at about 10 feet so the chopper wouldn’t have to sit down.

Once there, it was time to dig in, fill sand bags and get the 4 large 4.2 mortars sighted in.

We were usually on a hill for a month or two, constantly sending 5 man reconnaissance teams out for 2 or 3 days. It doesn’t sound like fun going out with only 5 people, and it wasn’t. You had a “point man,” M60 machine gun operator, medic, radio operator and a squad leader. Your mission was to locate enemy movements and if contact was made, radio back for help. When you reached your destination for that night, you called back to base camp with your grid coordinates and had mortar rounds dropped in around you, about 100 yards about. That way, if you had movement out there during the night, the guns on the base would be ready.

I was promoted to Sergeant shortly after being there. After about 6 months, I took my week R & R to Australia. Sydney was real nice, but you didn’t want to get too comfortable knowing where you left and were going back to.

I guess I didn’t anticipate sleeping on the ground 51 out of 52 weeks wherever I landed; or eating WW 2 C-Rations 90% of the time. When they said, “You don’t want to be in the 4th Infantry up in the central highlands,” maybe that is what they meant. I sure served with a lot of good men in the 4th Infantry.

When the monsoon season started, it rained all the time. There was rain and fog for about 2 1/2 months. You just as well get attached to that wet set of fatigues you have on since you wouldn’t see another one for awhile. It was real hard getting choppers in to bring ammunition, food & water and to take out the casualties. The medics were extremely busy on the base.

The yearly T.E.T. Offensive was beginning. North Vietnam would come at you with everything they had during this wet, foggy season. They knew the choppers would have a difficult time. They also knew they had the numbers, and they were not afraid to send them at you. I would have to assume their casualties were enormous.

By this time, I was Platoon Sergeant over the 4.2 mortar unit. I had the map, range director and locations of friendly locations and our troops. I had the men set the guns on locations very close to where they may be needed. We could have rounds out there in a hurry. These guys were terrific! I was the only guy in the unit from Iowa. We all entered Vietnam on different dates, and came home on different dates. I hope they all made it home safely.

The Dog

A dog entered me and my unit’s lives. I believe he was in the fox family, but he howled like a wolf. I would take perimeter guard from 2 until 4 at night, which was about 50 to 75 yards outside the base. I would relieve the other guy and shortly after, I would hear this wolf howl. I would imitate him and howl back. He would move closer and closer every night.

I told the guys in my platoon that one of these mornings when I come up from my guard shift, I’d be carrying that wild dog. They laughed and said that the only way I would carry that dog up is if I shot and killed it first. I had $20 bets with about 10 of the men that I would.

This went on for about a week. Each night he would get closer. I would open a can of C-Rations and dump it on the ground about 10 feet from me. He would come up and eat it and I would talk to him. I always thought they tasted like dog food anyway.

After getting closer each night, I had him up right by me eating and letting me pet him. He was thirsty and would drink half of my canteen of water. I named him FIDO. After a couple more nights, I decided it was time to take him up the hill and show the guys. You should have seen the shock on their faces when they got up and saw me sitting on the wall holding FIDO.

I didn’t collect any of my money, but I really didn’t care. I had accomplished my mission. I was getting short with less than a month to go. FIDO was quickly becoming the platoon mascot, getting all kinds of loving care and all the dog food he wanted.

My departure date was finally here. It was hard leaving this super bunch of guys and FIDO. The company presented me with a nice plaque calling me the Chief of Smoke and telling me I would be missed.

The 4th suffered plenty of casualties during this year, and if you came back alive and unscarred, you were blessed.


P.S. This is my story and I’m sticking to it.

Final Thoughts

This is my Uncle, and I am proud and blessed to have him be both a mentor and a hero in my life. Because of that, I am truly blessed and I am sticking to it.

Ken, lives in Minnesota and has some great kids and beautiful grand kids. I know that this letter he wrote did not even go into an inkling of what he saw or experienced.

This is the lesson for you who have, or are in the Army and at war. Yes, write home and tell some… but don’t tell all. There is no sense putting fear in the hearts of those we love. As I read this letter again, I found myself with tears in my eyes.

Kenny, I will share that I love you. You helped me through some rough patches in my life even though you were facing some rough patches. May God keep blessing you, and may others learn from your experience.

This is a picture of the plaque Kenny’s men gave him.

As a writer, I greatly enjoy finding words for military based articles. I also do have one book that has been fairing well about Puerto Ricans who have served.

Thank you for reading this story about my uncle, and thank you to all who served in Vietnam and all other wars to defend the United States.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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