John Zajdlik had a reason to dislike the Communists. He and his family escaped Communist rule when they took control of his Czechoslovakian homeland shortly after the end of World War II.
“My dad was fairly wealthy, so he was on their list when they took over,” the 67-year-old former Army sergeant said. “He was away on a hunting trip when he found out he was going to be arrested. So he never returned home. He and my older brother crossed the border into Austria.
“Then he arranged for a woman in Vienna to smuggle me out of Czechoslovakia on her son’s passport who was about my age. I was 5 years-old at the time and I was drugged so I would sleep while we crossed by train into Austria.
“My mother was taken into custody by the Communists, but was eventually released. My dad arranged to have her brought by a guide across the border. We all came to the states 18 months later, on Nov. 9, 1949, as refugees.”
By the time the Vietnam War rolled around, Zajdlik was married, worked in his family’s restaurant in Cicero, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. It was Al Capone’s home town.
“I joined the 1st Cavalry when they were in Tay Ninh in Three Corps. I was sent to a mortar platoon as fire direction control-man. We flew into battle on Huey helicopters.
“The longest fire fight I was in during my tour in Vietnam was when we flew into the Michelin Rubber Plantation in March 1968. We were the first American unit to invade the plantation,” he said.
“We were in the process of setting up our defensive perimeter and here comes this guy in black pajamas bicycling down the road. About 30 guys opened up on him.
“Right after that we sent out patrols and they immediately came under heavy enemy small arms fire. The fire fight at the rubber plantations was very personal. I could see the guy that was shooting at me and he could see me shooting at him. It was a one-on-one thing,” Zajdlik explained.
“We called in artillery. The first round came in right about where it was suppose to land. The second round came in a little shorter. The third round of 105 Howitzer hit the top of the tree we were all laying around. We would have all been killed if the tree hadn’t have absorbed the round,” he said.
After that close call they called off the artillery and spent the rest of the night waiting for an enemy attack that never arrived.
“Because we were only a rifle company they sent a mechanized unit out of the 25th Infantry Division to support us,” Zajdik said. “Our job was to push the North Vietnam Army troops through the rubber plantation into the 25th Infantry’s mechanized unit that was acting as a blocking force with its tanks and armored personnel carriers.”
The fire fight lasted three days. When the shooting stopped 100 NVA troops had been killed. None of the 1st Cavalry forces were KIA, but some troopers were seriously wounded. The rest of the enemy melted away.
Zajdlik came close to death in Vietnam during a fire fight atop “Black Virgin Mountain.”
“We had a landing zone on the top of the hill called “Dolly.” It overlooked a trail the Communists used to supply their forces. Our base was supposed to be a secure area, but one night we came under heavy mortar and small arms fire from two different directions,” he said. “I think it was the 9th NVA Division that was attacking us.
“The only way to stop enemy mortar fire was to start firing our mortars at the enemy. We began firing at them as fast as we could,” Zajdlik said. “Our artillery went to direct fire on the enemy. This means they dropped their barrels down and shot straight ahead with rounds that burst at a certain distance after coming out of the barrel.
“We had helicopter gunships coming in to help us out. Phantom jet air strikes were called in to hit the enemy with rockets and bombs. ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ was even there with its Gatling guns helping us out.
“In the midst of all the firing ‘Puff” was hit by enemy machine-gun fire and had to fly home. We were being overrun by the enemy and so we had to call in fire on our position.
“I was hit by shrapnel from a rocket fired by a Phantom jet. It was a minor injury but I was Medevaced out of there for a couple of days.
“We had some fantastic Medevac pilots flying choppers. One guy had four helicopters shot out from under him in one day and came back again. I had to threaten another Medevac pilot because he wouldn’t come down and pick up our wounded. That gives you the range of how good and how bad some of these helicopter pilots were.
The 1st Cavalry Division was something special former Sgt. John Zajdlik says.
“Our thing was everybody went home. They went home walking or in a box, but they went home! We never left anyone on the field. NEVER!” he said.
Two days short of a year in Vietnam, Zajdlik flew back to the States.
“I took a Halloween flight home on Oct. 31, 1969 aboard a United Airline. The stewardesses were very nice to us. They had a Halloween party aboard the plane on our way home,” he recalled with a smile 40 years later.
“I flew into San Francisco where I was processed. We were each given new Class-A uniforms with all our decorations. I was walking down a street in San Francisco with my Army uniform on and this young high school couple walked up to me.
“The girl said to her boyfriend, ‘Look at all his f’ing stripes!’ Then she spit on me. There was nothing I could do,” he said.
“I am very thankful to see how the people in uniform are treated today when they come home from battle. This is the way men and women should always be treated when they come home from war.
“The first night I was home I took my wife to dinner. She told me she wanted a divorce,” Zajdlik said as he slowly shook his head. “What a great home coming.”
He went back to work at his family’s restaurant until it was sold in the 1970s. Then he struck out on his own. He and his second wife, Donna, moved to Port Charlotte nine months before Hurricane Charley made a direct hit on the town in August 2004.
Name: John Zajdlik
D.O.B: 11 June 1943
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 3 Nov.1968
Discharged: 1 Nov. 1969
Unit: 1st Cavalry, HQ 5th US Army
Education/Training: Army Training Program, Light Weapons Infantry – Ft. Ord, Calif.
Commendations: National Defense Service Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, Army Commendation Medal w/V device, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Vietnamese Air Medal, Cross of Gallantry w/Palm, 2 Overseas Bars, Expert Badge (M-14), Expert Badge (M-16)
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper on Monday, June 6, 2011 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Zajdlik’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
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