MEET OUR VETERANS…
Ken Thompson. U.S.M.C. (Canton, Tx.)
“The shot went thru my helmet and my sweat band into my skull. It kind of knocked me out for about ten seconds.”
Ken Thompson was born in Dallas, Texas on September 15, 1942. “I was an only child,” said Ken from his home in south Canton. “My dad, who was in the Army, was Kenneth Thompson and my mom’s name was Marky. My parents were in Dallas and I stayed with my Grandmother in Martins Mill when I was about four or five years old. They would come every weekend to visit. I went to school in Martins Mill in the first grade. I moved back with my parents in the 2nd grade in Dallas in Oak Cliff,” said Ken.
ON THE MILITARY
“I was drafted into the Army,” recalled Ken. “I was 24 years old when I got my draft notice to report by the 25th of September, 1967. I didn’t really want to go into the Army so I went down and talked to a Marine recruiter.
It was September 15th and I signed up for the United States Marine Corps on my 25th birthday. I went to San Diego California for boot camp. I don’t know why I went into the Marines, I just heard that they were the toughest and the meanest, so I joined. I had three kids at the time. I probably could have gotten out but I decided to go ahead and join the Marines,” said Ken smiling.
MARINE BOOK CAMP, San Diego
“I drank and smoked everyday so I was really out of shape when I got to boot camp. It was five of us leaving Dallas to go and it was a nightmare for me. Since I was older they put me in charge of the younger guys. I got to the desk at the airport and the Sargent asked me for our papers and then he started yelling at me for leaning on his desk. I thought he was going crazy, I was in shock. We finally made it to the receiving barracks in San Diego and that is when the nightmares started. We were on the grinder, it was a mile all the way around it. They started running us. I was so out of shape it was unreal. I made about half of it and I fell out. I wasn’t strong enough to make it thru boot camp so they put me back into a physical conditioning platoon. All we did was lift weights and ran everywhere we went. We would run down to one end of the parade ground, do pushups and back to the other end and lift weights. This went on all day long. I got into shape pretty fast. I lost 47 pounds. All we ate was jello and skim milk. But I got into shape and made it thru boot.
When I was drafted they were sending just about everybody to Vietnam. I was an 0311, a basic grunt. I went to Basic Infantry Training School (BITS). Then I went to Infantry Training Regiment (ITR) for a few weeks to get more educated into Infantry. I then went to a makeshift prison camp. We were told to try to escape and then we went to a jungle training facility. After that I went to Vietnam,” said Ken.
MY TIME IN VIETNAM
“It was April 1968. The TET Offensive was just over. We landed in Danang. I was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, India Company. The Platoon I was assigned was based in Khe Sanh. That Platoon had only about eleven guys who hadn’t been wounded or killed. Once we got enough to build up the Platoon again, we started out on patrols. We were guarding a bridge at Quang Tri. We had a squad at each end of the bridge. I walked that bridge each night and threw hand grenades every hour into the water to keep their frogmen from blowing up that bridge. The locals loved it. There were hundreds of dead fish for them every morning,” laughed Ken.
“I started out carrying an M-16 and after a few months one of the guys left and I ended up with his M-14. That is what I trained with in Boot Camp. It was a little heavier than the M-16, but I liked it because I knew I would never run out of ammo. It shot the same 7.62mm as the M-60 machine gun. Everybody had a bandolier of 7.62 ammo around their shoulders. It was very dependable and quite a weapon,” said Ken thinking back to his days in Viet Nam.
“We went on a patrol one night and we were supposed to retrieve a dead VC body from another patrol that had gone out ahead of us. I threw his body over my shoulder. I had never touched a dead person before, it was kind of a shock. We set up out there all night long in ankle deep rice paddies but nothing ever happened. We were running patrols around mountains and thru jungles. In December 1968 we ran an operation called “Mead River.”
INFO: The major battles of Operation Meade River would take place in the two-square-mile center of Dodge City.
When the Marines mission shifted from defensive to offensive, it became necessary for platoons, companies or battalions to completely and simultaneously cordon off an area and search and clear inward, literally foot by foot, because the Viet Cong (VC) had infested hamlets west and south of the vital Da Nang airstrip.
Intelligence had determined that remaining elements of the decimated VC Doc Lap Battalion, which had operated in the area against the Marines for more than three years, along with other understrength VC units and several hundred NVA (North Vietnamese Army) troops, were again massing in the area. On November 20, 1968, at 4 a.m., Operation Meade River commenced. (Courtesy: historynet.com)
“I got wounded on that operation. It was December 4th, and we had already lost two men by sniper fire. We had a war correspondent named Dave Warsh from Australia with us and he got wounded,” said Ken.
INFO: David Warsh started his career as a staff reporter for Keene Evening Standard in Keene, New Hampshire, then reported on the Vietnam War for Pacific Stars and Stripes and Newsweek.( Source: informationcaradle.com)
“At this time, I was the Platoon guide. The lieutenant wanted me to take the journalist back about a hundred yards so we could medivac him out. There was an NVA shooting an M-79 40mm at us so we held up a helmet and a poncho hoping they would reveal their location.”
The M79 grenade launcher is a single-shot, shoulder-fired, break-action grenade launcher that fires a 40x46mm grenade which uses what the US Army calls the High-Low Propulsion System to keep recoil forces low, and first appeared during the Vietnam War. Because of its distinctive report, it has earned the nicknames of “Thumper”, “Thump-Gun”, “Bloop Tube”, and “Blooper” among American soldiers.
“Stars and Stripes wrote an article with that picture. Looking back, it was a stupid idea cause now the NVA knew where we were. He was wounded right after he took that picture. We were fired on when we started taking the wounded war correspondent to get medevac’d out. The shot went thru my helmet and my sweat band into my skull. It kind of knocked me out for about ten seconds.
My head felt like a big bell ringing. I did finally get the correspondent medevac’d out and I felt a large knot on the back of my head. The corpsman said we got to get you out of here, there is a piece of metal in your skull. They called another medivac and got me out of there. I went into Da Nang Hospital for several weeks and they finally got that metal fragment out from my skull. I was in a head wound ward. I was very fortunate, there was some very pitiful sites in there. I was in Nam for 13 months and 20 days,” said Ken.
“After my stay in the hospital I took some R & R time in Malaysia. I liked it because there were a lot of pretty girls. I got my stiches out when I was on R & R.
When I got back I was transferred to 3rd Battalion 1st Marines, Kilo Company. They were a pretty Badass outfit. Again, I humped it all over the mountains and jungles of Vietnam. I was back in the thick of things. I got wounded again with Kilo Company. I got some shrapnel in the hand. It wasn’t all that bad but the corpsman wrote me up for another purple heart.
Months later I was in another place called “Mortar Valley.” We would run about a hundred yards out in the open. They would shoot 82mm mortars from the mountains at us. We were guinea pigs. I remember one hit near me and I jumped and ended up in the riverbank. I got up and found blood trickling down my neck. They tried to write me up again for a purple heart, and I emphatically said, don’t do that,” and Ken started laughing. “I always heard that if you get three purple hearts they would pull you out of combat. I was so gung ho I guess,” said Ken shaking his head.
“I finally got out of Vietnam and they sent me back to California as a troop handler. I was in the military for 21 months. Lieutenant asked me if I wanted to re-up, and I said no sir, I have had enough. I got two meritorious promotions and a combat promotion to Sargant. I made rank fast in Nam. With my reserve time I did a total obligation of six-years. I had enough time when I got out.”
LOOKING BACK ON VIETNAM
“We went into some places in Vietnam that had vegetation that was all dead. So, I could have been exposed to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. There were several jungle areas that were all dead so I felt like that was Agent Orange.
There was not a whole lot I liked about Vietnam and sometimes we would stay out on patrol for four to six weeks at a time. When we did get back to the rear there was usually a USO show for us. We had all the beer and steak we wanted. We had an old metal pallet we used to cook the steaks on. I enjoyed going to “Freedom Hill” that was the big PX in Da Nang.
In Vietnam all I thought about was surviving. I didn’t think of death that much. I just didn’t think I could be killed. Those 18- and 19-year old’s felt that way too. Sometimes at night I would be on watch and the VC would be about a hundred yards away but I could hear their radios. I felt sorry for those people. I was just trying to make it back,” said Ken shaking his head.
“The NVA was more trained and better equipped. Both were formidable foes. I went thru another TET in 69 and we were hunkered down in a place called “Sandbag City.”
We had razor wire ribbon all around our compound. A guy in our squad came running in and said there were VC all over our perimeter trying to get in over the wire. Out in the night there were flares going off and about a hundred yards out we could see a temple and those guys running all around. I grabbed my “throwaway” bazooka and about that time a group of ARVN’s (South Korean Army) came running in and yelled “Bookoo VC, Bookoo VC,” and they jumped behind the sandbags and threw their rifles over the bags and started shooting. They had no idea what they were shooting,” he laughed. “Next day, nobody was there. The VC were moving all the time. This was one of several times I thought I was not going to make it back to the states. That was the closest I remember of being overrun. We saw a lot of shit but we didn’t see as much as some of them did. I was very fortunate to make it back because a lot of the vets went thru a whole lot worse than what I went thru.”
“I heard horror stories about guys that were spit on and called baby killer when they got back. I never experienced none of that. When I got to Dallas I didn’t tell any of my family that I was back. I flew into Dallas Love Field and tried to rent a car but they wouldn’t rent me one because I didn’t have a credit card,” laughed Ken.
“In the military I gained discipline and respect and to this day I am very prompt with everything I do in my life. I am also dependable. I received two purple hearts and a Navy Accommodation Medal for heroism, it says. There was a squad leader named Ross. He got shot in the throat. I was about five feet from him and I took my belt off and dragged him back off the knoll. I guess he died instantly. That is why I got that medal,” he said.
“The best food I had in the military was jello in boot camp. The C-rations once you got use to them are pretty good. Most of em didn’t like the ham and lima beans. I loved them suckers. I carried a bottle of tobasco sauce in my backpack. I put that on my ham and lima beans, that was gooood boy,” and we both laughed on that one.
“I was back home about three or four months and I went fishing. I went down to the Army-Navy store to get me some C-rations. I missed em, but I found out pretty quick they weren’t any good. I couldn’t eat em anymore,” he said laughing at the thought.
MOVING BACK TO VAN ZANDT COUNTY
“I moved back in Van Zandt County about twenty years ago. First Monday got me back to Canton. I have had spots down there forever. I sell mostly military surplus, but I also rent spaces out to people. My wife works in one of the booths selling military surplus like backpacks, canteens, shirts and things like that.”
MY JEEP PASSION
“I saw this jeep one time and I was fascinated by it. I found one in California on eBay. It was in a hanger out there. I had my son in law go look at it. He is not a mechanic, but a musician. He told me, the guy took us around and said it run well. It was all decked out and had a replica 60mm machine gun on it. I bought it and had it shipped here. I didn’t even know how to start it. This was a 1968 model jeep, an M151.”
INFO: Commonly referred to as a “jeep” or “quarter-ton”, it was produced from 1959 through 1982 and served in the Vietnam War. The M151 utilized a monocoque design making it roomier than previous jeep designs, and incorporated an independent suspension with coil springs.
Ken continued his story, “I got it all fixed up and displayed it at First Monday and everybody wanted to buy it. It was worth about $15,000 so I put a $25,000 price on it and the next day a guy bought it. The man is from Oklahoma and he has oil wells all over and that was a toy for him. Still got it in his barn and hasn’t brought it out in seven years, “he said.
“The jeep I have now I bought out of Kansas. It was in a military vehicle museum. He had two of these M151’s. I went up there and bought it. This is a Ford 1966 model with a Hercules four-cylinder. I have added a few things to it including the M-60 mounted replica machine gun. The engine was bad so I had to replace it. I got an almost new engine from a Military Army Depot in Texarkana. It has been a really good motor,” said Ken.
I took a ride around the backroads of Canton with Ken and it was a nice ride for a jeep as old as this one. I had my picture taken with it and bragged to my hunting friends that I found a new way to hunt hogs in Texas.
“I display the jeep all over the place. I once took it to the front door of the VA hospital in Dallas, I got all kinds of comments. Guys would look up at the M-60 mounted machine gun and say, man I’ve fired that thing a thousand times. It is an Airsoft replica, but it looks just like a real M-60,”
“I was in the Dallas Veterans Day Parade several times. I drove in the Ben Wheeler Hog Festival a couple of years ago and last year displayed it in front of Kelley Chastain’s Restaurant on top of Boot Hill for a veteran’s fundraiser.
Several years ago, I went to the Veterans National Cemetery. There was a guy with a military Plymouth and he let veterans sign it. I thought that was really cool. I have started doing that as well. My only criteria are the veterans must have served in Viet Nam. I served in Viet Nam and it is a Viet Nam era jeep. I have had people cry when they sign it. They tell me it makes them feel so happy. The front hood is covered in veteran names, including Navy Seals. I have had every branch of the service sign it. I only drove in a M151 in Nam when I was leaving the hospital and I was looking for a ride and a guy stopped and took be back about five miles to my platoon. Only time I ever rode in a jeep,” he laughed.
A very special honor to his lost buddies from Viet Nam hangs prominently in Ken’s jeep. They hang down in a cluster of dog tags. Nineteen of them. All names of veteran friends from Viet Nam he served with. “I have been to the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington. I have nineteen personal and close friends on that Wall. I have counted all nineteen of them,” recalled Ken sadly.
“I have worked hard all my life. I was about 14 when I was selling cold drinks at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. I walked out of school to go work there and never went back. I was in the 9th grade.
I have been so blessed to live this long. I have gone thru lung cancer and part of my right lung has been taken out. I went thru Viet Nam dodging bullets. I went into business in 1990 opening up four retail stores. To do all that with my education, it is hard to believe.
I have done just about everything I have wanted to do in my lifetime. I have been all over the world. I told my wife I wanted to go to the state of Maine and eat fresh lobster, that is on my bucket list,” he said.
For Ken Thompson, the friends, the memories from 50 years ago never leave him. “Yeah, it’s sad,” his head looking slowly down at the floor.
“I have PTSD, bad,” said Ken. “Part of my pension is for that. I have told you more than I normally tell anybody,” he said to me. “People act different in situations. A lot of people are weak and they can’t cope with stuff like that. I was fortunate.”
Ken Thompson, thank you for your sacrifices, and thank you for your military service to this country.
Note: Ken Thompson has graciously loaned our Veterans Museum several items from his Marine Corp time in service. If you go to the Gift Shop at the top of the main menu and drop down to Museum and click on Ken Thompson Display.
GOD BLESS OUR VETERANS AND GOD BLESS AMERICA
(ALL photos on this Facebook page are ©2019, Phil Smith and Van Zandt County Veterans Memorial. NO unauthorized use without permission) All Rights Reserved
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