Kenny Williams serves in Vietnam: ‘I was a pretty lucky guy’

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Kenny Williams says he’s a lucky man.

A lifelong resident of Ohio County, Williams lives in a home on Woods Ridge Road not far from his parents home where he grew up. Around him are the homes of some of his children; and his grandkids are regular visitors.

Retired from careers as an iron worker and with the postal service, the 68-year old looks out over the farmland that he used to work; and enjoys the warm sunny day after all of the recent rain.

Yes, Kenny Williams is a very lucky man.

The son of Leroy and Bea Williams, Kenny went to Cass Union grade school and was a 1965 graduate of Rising Sun High School.

Less than two years after he graduated, Kenny found himself heading to a country that he’d never even heard of when he was in high school.

“I went into the military on November 1st, 1966,” he said. “I served in the Army, the infantry. I took basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky; and I took Advance Infantry Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

“Then I went straight to Vietnam.”

Williams left for Vietnam as a part of the 25th Infantry Division on April 24th, 1967.

He would come back home a year later, on April 24th, 1968; but those 12 months were filled with action and danger and a lot of growing up fast as Williams tried to serve his country and come back all in one piece.

“I earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for Valor while I was there,” Williams says.

The circumstances surrounding the situation that Williams and his fellow soldiers found themselves in are truly heroic.

“I was riding on an APC – an Armored Personnel Carrier – when it hit a mine,” he said. “It blowed the APC over, it blowed it out of the air. It killed the driver and wounded everybody that was on it.

“I got shrapnel in my leg and I got perforated ear drums, blood was coming out of my ears,” he continued. “But I didn’t loose any limbs or anything. I can still remember, I couldn’t hear anything, but as I was laying there on the ground, I checked myself to make sure I didn’t loose a leg or anything. So I was fairly lucky.”

Williams had been in Vietnam just about four months when the APC hit that mine in August of 1967.

“We had been out on search and destroy all day, and was headed back to base camp,” Williams recalled. “We were the lead APC going back, and that’s why we hit the mine.”

The incident happened while Williams was serving near Tay Nihn, Vietnam, which is in the southwestern part of the country.

Williams spend just three days in the base camp hospital before he went right back out into the field.

Then there was December 16th, 1967.

“We were in a perimeter base camp up on the Cambodian border, and we got hit with a wave attack,” Williams said. “It was about 11 a.m.. They fired RPGs, and they were coming in; and our track – we were all just set up in a big perimeter, you know. They had tracks every 50 feet, APCs. They hit our track, and four guys were sitting in them writing letters home and just BS-ing, and it killed all four of them. I happened to be on the outside doing something, or I could have been in there with them. That was something I’ll remember all my life. Four of my squad members were all killed at once.”

Williams said that the RPG came in and hit the gas tank, causing an explosion and fire that no one could have survived.

“Right after that, the first of January, we started getting diesel tracks in, because they didn’t explode when they hit the gas tank,” Williams said. “The VC (Viet Cong) knew where to fire at a track because they knew where the gas tank was, and if they hit the gas tank it just exploded and killed everybody in it. But we got diesel track because diesel fuel doesn’t explode like gasoline.”

And in a strange twist.

“Guess what we did with the old gasoline tracks? We gave them to the Marines,” Williams said. “Ain’t that sad? The Marines got a lot of our old stuff.”

Through all of the danger and through all of the battles, Williams continued to serve his unit and his country; but he never forgot those fellow soldiers who didn’t get to come home.

“I was very fortunate to make it home,” he said quietly, “A lot of my buddies didn’t.”

And his last day in Vietnam – does Kenny Williams remember that day?

“Oh yes,” he said. “The night before I come home, we were at Long Bin, and I went to an NCO show, that’s where they have American bands and different ones. They had an Australian band there, and the place was packed. It was packed with guys going home; and it was packed with a lot of new guys who had just got in country. This Australian band played, ‘Are you going to San Francisco?’ It was a big song back in the 60s, that’s when I knew I’d made it. It was unbelievable.”

Does Williams ever think about how much that year shaped his life?

“Yes, it changed my life forever,” he said. “It makes you really appreciate a bed to sleep in. For a year we didn’t have a bed, we either slept out on the ground or slept leaning against a tree. For six months it rained everyday, and I’m not talking rain – I’m talking monsoon.”

He also wonders about those who weren’t so lucky.

“I had trouble, wondering why I made it and so many of my friends didn’t,” Williams said. “Why was I lucky and not my buddies? I wasn’t a great soldier. There was a lot of good soldiers over there who died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wasn’t a bad soldier, but I was lucky. I couldn’t figure out why I made it.”

But in retrospect he knows why.

“It finally came to me years later,” he said. “I didn’t make it because of anything I’d done. I made it because my family and the church I went to, prayed so hard for me. I really believe that. I mean there was a half a dozen times when people around me died, and somehow I missed the bullet or I missed the shrapnel. I was just lucky. I never regretted it, but I hate to think of all the guys who died there. I hate to think it was for nothing. These wars are created by old men, but young men die.”

Home from Vietnam, Williams was sent to Fort Hood, Texas for about six months before finally being discharged in late September of 1968. It was then that decorated Army veteran Kenny Williams headed home to Rising Sun.

“I went right to work as an iron worker, I worked on building Riverfront Stadium,” he said. “That stadium was built to last forever, and they’ve already torn it down.”

But the pride of his life are his five children that he and wife, Darla, have together: David, Matt, Curt, Kenna, and Steve; as well as their seven grandchildren. Everyone lives nearby, including Kenny’s mother, with the exception of one granddaughter who lives in Colorado.

After 28 years as an iron worker, a bad back forced him into a second career with the postal service, where Kenny worked for another 15 years before retiring. He is also very active in the Hartford Masonic Lodge, serving as its secretary for 15 years.

So what special meaning does Memorial Day this Monday hold?

“It does, it carries a lot of meaning,” he said. “In fact, last year I had the honor to ride in a Jeep and be the lead in the parade. I was the veteran that they chose. That was quite an honor.”

“I think about those guys who didn’t make it,” Kenny says. “One of those guys I was real good friends with in Vietnam, his name was Marvin ‘Rex’ Young. Me and him was real good friends. I came home in April, and in August he got killed, and he received the Medal of Honor. Very few people get that. There’s a guy who needs to be remembered. He saved a whole platoon of men. He would have come home in September.”

And remember that track explosion that Williams spoke of that happened on December 16th, 1967?

“Sergeant Kenneth Cralick was supposed to be home by Christmas,” Williams said. “He died with just a few days left in country. I think about him a lot. He was within a week of coming home.”

It’s more than a friendship.

“You depend on those guys to save your life; and they depend on you to save theirs,” Kenny said. “Nobody can imagine, they can pretend and they can think, but until you’ve got bullets flying all around you and people trying to kill you, you’ve got to suck it up and get tough. If you don’t, you’re dead for sure.

“I went over there a 19 year old farm boy, straight off of the farm, and I’d never even heard of Vietnam when I graduated in ’65,” he said. “And two years later I’m in the (manure). But that’s life, you can’t dwell on it.”

And how does he sum it all up?

“I’ve had a great life, I’ve been blessed,” he says. “I was a pretty lucky guy.”