Jim King and his buddy, Charley Carr, joined the Army right out of high school. The two 18-year-old California boys got an education about life long before they reached Vietnam and faced the enemy.
“We were inducted at Fort Ord, Calif. and ended up in Fort Polk, La.,” the 61-year-old resident of Pelican Harbor Mobile Home Park in Punta Gorda said. “Growing up in Garden Grove, Calif. I knew nothing about segregation or bigotry. Charley and I found out all about it in the deep south.
“We got a pass and went to Leesville, La., the closet town to our base. I was shocked to find out Charley couldn’t go in the front door of the bar in Leesville, he had to use the back door because he was black.
“It was 1967 and this was a bar near Fort Polk. I couldn’t believe it.
“Charley told me: ‘Don’t worry, it was alright,’ and brushed it off,” King said. “The next weekend when we got a pass the two of us ended up in the black section of Lake Charles, La. I was the one who had to go in the back door, but we had a good time that night.
Conditions on the ground for the two teenagers were about to take a big turn for the worse.
“We ended up with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. I was in Company B, 1st Battalion, 12 Regiment, 1st Division. We were suppose to get three days of orientations after flying into Cam Ranh Bay, but it didn’t turn out that way for me,” he explained. “Our first night there a sergeant walked into the barracks and anyone who was awake he pointed to them and said, ‘You guys come with me.’ The 1st Cav got hit the day before and they needed replacements and I became one of those replacements.
“They took me in the middle of the night by Huey (helicopter) to An Ke. I landed in the fire base in my pressed fatigues and shined boots. When I got out of the helicopter the company commander said to me, ‘You go over to that squad.’ as he pointed.
“I went over to the area and found one guy in a bunker. He said, “You’re the new guy?’
“‘Yea,’ I responded.
“‘You’re on guard.’
“He left me on guard in the bunker with my M-14 rifle. I was scared as hell. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Fortunately that night nothing much happened.
“An Ke was a very small observation post surrounded by Concertina wire protected by sandbagged machine-gun bunkers.”
After two weeks they were taken by chopper to Quan Tri, just in time for the Tet Offensive. This was a massive countrywide attack by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Vietcong (Vietnamese guerrillas) to take control of the country. Militarily it was a disaster for the NVA and VC, but politically it was the enemy offensive that resulted in American forces, along with their United Nations allies to pull out of Vietnam five years later in 1973.
“Quan Tri was a big base housing the 1st Cavalry. We were sent out on patrol to check out a village close by. The locals already knew the NVA were coming and wanted to get out of there. Some 400 to 500 people were trying to escape carrying everything on their backs they could possibly carry,” King said. “They were walking down the road toward us as we were walking toward their village. It was obvious something was up and I contacted my company commander by radio and told him what I could see.
“As we approached the village we started getting fire from NVA snipers. A two-man NVA outpost with AK-47 (rifles) were snipping at us,” he said. “We called in a helicopter gun ship, but they got away.
“By this time I was lying in a rice paddy with everything but my head under water. I was covered with leaches and I hate leaches. The NVA was continuing to shoot at us. I could hear bullets whistling by my head, so I couldn’t jump up and get out of there.
“Usually when the NVA was on the move they were quiet about it. This time, however, they were making all kinds of racket pulling out of Quan Tri. The NVA was moving south as part of a failed attempt to take the town and base during Tet,” King said.
“We moved on to Khe Sanh. The NVA had the hill-top fire base surrounded when we arrived. It was a Marine base, but the Marines called in the 1st., 7th and 12th Cavalry to help ’em out.
“I was the first out of the Huey. The helicopter pilot couldn’t judge where the ground was and told me to jump as he hovered above the ground. I hit the 10-foot tall elephant grass below and kept on going down until I hit the ground,” King said with a smile.
The chopper pilot lowered further down while continuing to hover. The others aboard jumped off the Huey and had a softer landing than King.
“We had no clue what was going on. All we knew was that we held a hill and the high ground at Khe Sanh,” he said. “Right below was was a North Vietnam howitzer that had been bombed out. On the other side of the hill B-52 (bombers) had come through and devastated everything.
“I’m looking down on this bomb crater. There’s maybe a dozen North Vietnamese in this crater and they’re all dead.
“The North Vietnamese had a lookout post in a tunnel over looking the main road. I came across the V-shaped underground tunnel and had my .45 (pistol) in hand when I entered the hole. Somebody was in the tunnel on the other-side of the V-bottom. In the dark I felt something hit my leg. It was a Chinese hand grenade that didn’t go off.
“I was scared, but I threw my hand-grenade around the corner of the V at the bottom of the hole. It exploded killing the NVA on the other-side of the V,” King said.
From Khe Sanh, he and his division left and headed by helicopter to the Ashy Valley. Up till then the NVA had controlled the valley for years.
“It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen with its lush-green foliage, but it was controlled completely by the NVA. They controlled the hills and had Howitzers and mortars and they were damn good,” King said. “When we arrived the NVA were shooting at our helicopter. We immediately went on patrol. A short while later there was a nearby puff of smoke.
“Usually that’s from an artillery unit marking its territory. But we had no artillery in the valley. It was the spotter plane overhead firing a white prosperous mortar round that would mark the spot for the jets to hit. Their patrol had been identified as the enemy by the spotter aircraft flying above them.
“All of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I could see one of our jets come in and dropped cluster bombs. Everybody on the ground started popping smoke. We suffered three dead, 25 wounded and one soldier was suffering battle shock.
“Funny thing about the battle shocked guy. I dragged him up to the waiting medical helicopter. The whole while I’m dragging him, he’s being loony. He whispered to me, ‘Jim I’m going home.’ He had faked the battle shock.”
By mid-December 1968 Jim was on his way out of Vietnam, too. He had spent a year in country and had a string of interesting stories to tell. He arrived home in the states just before Christmas 1968.
After a Christmas leave King served his last year in the Army at Fort Hood, Texas. He then went to college and received his Masters in Business Administration. He worked for a number of big firms after graduation–GE, Rockwell International and Black and Decker. Three years ago he retired and moved to Florida.
Name: James M. King
D.O.B: 9 April 1949
Hometown: Helena, Montana
Current: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 7 July 1967
Discharged: 8 April 1970
Unit: Company B, 1st Battalion, 12th Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division
Commendations: Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Army Commendation Medal, Air Medal.
Battles/Campaigns: Central Highlands – Vietnam
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011 and is republished with permission.
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