Kenny Turner laughs when he thinks about the letter that came to his parents house addressed to him from the U.S. Government.
“I got the official greeting, that said, ‘Your friends and neighbors have selected you….’ And I looked around and said, ‘What friends and what neighbors? What are they doing this to me for? That was the letter you got, your friends and neighbors have selected you to go to the U.S. Army on a certain date.”
Turner is a Switzerland County boy. Born and raised here, he attended Vevay High School; and like many teenager boys in the 1960s, the course of his early adulthood was shaped by a war happening a world away.
“I went into the Army on April 3rd, 1968, right out of high school,” Turner said from kitchen of the home he shares with wife Regina on Pike Street in Vevay. “I did my basic at Fort Knox, Kentucky, then I went to Fort Polk, Louisiana for Advanced Infantry Training; and from Fort Polk I went to Vietnam.
Turner said that they called Fort Polk “Little Vietnam”, right down to a village that was set up that was a replica of a Vietnamese town.
“They had it set up so you’d know what you were getting into, except for the jungle part,” Turner said.
At the end of August of 1968, just four months after heading for basic training, Kenny Turner and his fellow soldiers were headed to Southeast Asia.
Into the middle of war.
Turner says that the year that soldiers drafted into the Vietnam War spend “in country” is really broken down into three parts.
“Basically, when you first get there, the first three months you’re petrified, totally petrified,” he said. “You’re just scared to death. Anything that moves scares you. Then after that three month period, you hit this lull like months four through nine, where you just don’t care no more, I mean you just don’t care. It just doesn’t matter.
“Then, months nine through 12, you get that scared feeling all over again, because you’re getting close to coming home, so you get scared all over again. So you’ve got three phases you go through.”
“I was with a Mechanized Infantry Unit,” he said. “We were a battalion attached to the 173rd Airborne Division, so wherever the 173rd went, we went with them.”
Turner said that life in Vietnam was broken down into a series of 30-day missions, which rotated and took him all over the country, and into many dangerous situations.
“We would go out on bridge security, which was designated bridges that were most likely to be attacked and blown up,” Kenny said. “So there would be like 14 of us on a bridge for 30 days, and watch it 24/7. Then the next 30 days we would go out on what they called ‘convoy escort’, and we’d escort the convoys up the highways, and pull off of the side of the road and make sure they didn’t get ambushed.”
After that, Turner said that when he and his fellow troops came back in at night; it was their turn to go out on ambush missions.
“They’d take us out and drop us off, and we’d stay out there all night and look for them,” Turner said. “Then the next 30 days they’d fly us out by helicopter into the mountains, and they’d drop us off for two weeks at a time, then we’d get to come in for three days; and then we’d go back out for two weeks.”
Turner said that it was on a mission on February 2nd, 1969, when he ran a punji stick into his knee.
Punji sticks were a type of a booby trap that were sharpened sticks of bamboo or wood that were placed all around, and the tips were usually dipped into things that would cause infection to set in of the area where the stick punctured the soldier.
“I ran it into my kneecap, and I had to be medevaced out to a field hospital,” Turner said. “They’d stick them in the ground about knee high; and when you’re up there in the mountains, you’d step across a tree stump or a root. That’s what I did, and it went right up my knee. I got a Purple Heart for that.”
That’s just one of the brushes with danger that Kenny Turner had.
“Another time we were going down the road on a personnel carrier, and we hit a land mine,” he recalled. “There was nine of us on there, and I was on the back of it, and it blew me about 10 feet off of the top of it. I come right down on my back. When the dust cleared, seven of the nine had to be evacuated out. Me and another guy were the only two who didn’t have to be evacuated.”
Turner said that the next morning he was so stoved up that he couldn’t get up off of the ground, so they took him back to the field hospital to get treatment until his back was better, and then it was back to combat.
Turner says that he clearly remembers his first day in Vietnam.
“They first day there, actually I was supposed to go to the First Calvary Division,” Kenny said. “And the Cav had just moved out two or three days before I got there, so then they switched me over to the 173rd.”
But it didn’t take long for the reality of his service to his country to sink in.
“It was just another world. You’re in shock, really,” he said. “You’re looking around and you’re not really aware of what could happen to you until you get under fire. When you get under fire, then you really start to realize, ‘Hey, a person could get killed here real quick’. But when you first get there, you really don’t understand that whole meaning of what you’re there for, you’re just thinking, ‘I’m here, but what am I supposed to do?'”
Turner said that when soldiers first get ‘in country’, he landed at Cam Ranh Bay, but soon was taken to An Khe, which is located in the central highlands up in the mountains. That’s where he was assigned to his unit.
“You met lots of different people from different walks of life,” he smiled. “One thing everybody really enjoyed every week, was that my mother sent me the Vevay Reveille religiously every week; and them guys got off on reading the Reveille.”
He also spend Christmas in country.
“People all over the United States would send Christmas cards, and they would come by with a truck and they had what they called an SP Package. You got one about every two weeks or once a month. It was a big box and it had cartons of cigarettes and writing paper and shaving cream and razors. Pencils, pens. Everything you could think of, they had it in there. At Christmas time they’d come by with great big boxes, and they’d say, ‘Boys, reach in there and get whatever you want. There were cards and stuff. I’d start writing these people, and I didn’t even know them. They were from Georgia, Alabama. I got writing these girls, and they’d write back and send my pictures of them, you know; and told me when I got out to come and see them. That was interesting, but when I got out and I never did go see any of them.”
Being a ‘mechanized division’, that meant that Turner and his squad were on personnel carriers that had machine guns on them and other firepower.
“We were a support unit,” he said. “We were supporting Airborne, but we the same as the infantry, too, because I think we were out of them more than we were on them. We were only on them 30 days out of 90. The rest of the time we were on the ground, too.”
Turner said that groups of about 16 soldiers were taken out and dropped off about dusk, and the soldiers then had a location to report to, and once there they would arrange themselves into a diamond formation of four soldiers, all keeping watch in different directions, so that all sides were covered.
The memories of his first day in Vietnam are very vivid, and also are those of his last day there.
“The last day I was there, I got to go back to Cam Ranh Bay to catch my flight out to come home, and they had like a little PX, where you could get a sandwich or something like that,” Kenny said. “When you’re going home, they give you a brand new set of fatigues, no insignias, no patches, no stripes, just plain fatigues; and these new guys who had just got there, they sat down and said, ‘How long have you been here?’ I said, ‘I’ve been here three days.’ They said, ‘we’ve been here for a week. We’ve got more time in country than you have’.
“I said, ‘no boys, you don’t understand, I’ve been waiting here three days for a plane to go home on’. They thought they had more time in country than I did. That was my last day.”
And then there was the flight home.
“When that plane took off, you could have heard a pin drop,” Turner said. “It was so quiet. Once we got airborne and the pilot come on and said, ‘We’ve now left the Republic of Vietnam’, everybody just roared. We flew into Seattle, Washington, and as soon as we got there, they had a big sign at the mess hall, ‘Welcome Home Vietnam Returnees’.”
In their honor, the soldiers could eat whatever they wanted, from steaks to eggs; but Kenny Turner was so excited to be back on American soil, he wasn’t hungry.
“I didn’t even have time to call home, they got you through that quick,” Turner said of his processing back here. “They just ran you through and got you out of there.”
From there, Turner said that he had six months remaining on his enlistment, but said that had he agreed to stay in Vietnam for another 60 days, the final four months would have been dropped and he could have come home then.
But when those in higher positions told him that those extra two months would be spent on the firing line just as the other 12 months had, Turner decided that six months stationed here was better than two more months in country.
“You put in for where you want to go to,” he said. “So I put in for either Fort Knox, Kentucky; or Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, which would have been the closest for me; so naturally they sent me to Fort Carson, Colorado – and right in the winter.”
On April 2nd, 1970, Kenny Turner was discharged from his service with the U.S. Army.
Returning home, he took about two weeks off before he returned to his job at Reliance Electric in Madison, where he had worked prior to being drafted, and where he returned to work for 41 years following his discharge.
Does it seem like it’s been nearly 50 years since he was sent to Vietnam?
“I was just 20 years old when I went over,” he said. “I spent my 21st birthday in Vietnam. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. We were in this village and we had gate security that morning. We had to stand down there and open up the gates and let the people come into the village to do their trading and stuff; and then at night we had to clean it out and lock it up and stand guard all around the perimeter all night long. That’s how I spent my 21st birthday.”
As he and his buddies went through high school, most knew that either enlisting in the military or being drafted was almost assured. Enlisting meant a three year commitment; while being drafted called for only two years, so Turner decided to just keep working and wait for his draft number to be called.
“There was four of us who went at the same time,” Kenny said. “Donnie Tingle, Freddie Beach, Ronnie May, and myself. The day we got drafted, this big Marine came out, and he said ‘one out of every 37 today is going to be drafted by the Marine Corps’, even though the Army drafted us, one out of every 37 was going to the Marine Corps. We were standing there in alphabetical order, and that old drill sergeant came walking down through there counting, and I’m looking and trying to count. 34, 35, 36….Tingle was in front of me, and he went ’37’, and he pointed at Donnie in the chest and he went, ‘Fall out, Marine’. Donnie looked at me, and I said, ‘I can’t help ya, brother. I mean, if I go with you, I’ve got to go for four years, because he only had two years because he’d been ‘drafted’ by the Marine Corps. They sent him to San Diego, California.”
So, what was the difference between the 20-year old Kenny Turner that left Vevay; and the 21-year old Kenny Turner who returned after a year in Vietnam?
“When I came back from the service, you learn to respect people more, and you learn to appreciate everyday things you take for granted. When you don’t have them, you miss them,” Turner said. “You appreciate them when you get back. Just something simple like your own bed, or a nice big sofa to sit on, or a home cooked meal, things like that. Things that you took for granted. And you learn to respect people and their property and stuff like that, too. You learn a lot.”