Vietnam veteran remembers Hue … and more
In Vietnam, it was the skinny guys who were sent into claustrophobic tunnels to root out the enemy. Bill Kohl was a skinny guy and still is. Here’s how he went into that tunnel, in a known enemy village, the time Sgt. Jeff Brown called his name.”I had a .45 in one hand, a survival knife in the other and a flashlight in my mouth. We had a rope tied around our ankles so they could pull us out. … I didn’t want to shoot in that confined a space. A .45 will blow your eardrums out. It would disintegrate your ear drums on the spot,” Kohl explained.In November of 1967, Sgt. Brown assigned Pfc. Rizzo, Kohl and himself to go into the tunnel, which burrowed into the floor of a hooch, a traditional hut where people lived. Rizzo was first to go in, head first.”We knew they were in there. Rizzo got a hand grenade and was severely wounded. We got Rizzo out. Then we had to go in and get them,” Kohl said.The platoon had set up camp at the village, and “If we didn’t get them, they’d come out at night,” Kohl said. The enemy would throw grenades, “or shoot us in the back.”Kohl squeezed into the tunnel, and Brown followed behind. The first Viet Cong he encountered was nearly dead, so Kohl stabbed him and handed him back to Brown.Kohl continued crawling through the dark. He grabbed the second Viet Cong by the ankle and stabbed him a couple of times. “But I knew he hadn’t been mortally wounded,” Kohl said.After a struggle, Kohl laid on his back, tugged the man over his chest and yelled, “Jeff, he’s coming (to you).”Sgt. Brown finished the man off. They dispatched the third and final Viet Cong the same way.”Then Jeff and I crawled out of there. I sat there and shook for about two hours,” he said.-Kohl, a 58-year-old Rifle resident, rose to the rank of Sergeant before being honorably discharged in March of 1969. He was recently notified he will be awarded four commendations for his service in Vietnam: the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, a Unit Citation, a Presidential Unit Citation and a Tet Offensive Combat Action Ribbon.Kohl said he doesn’t know who nominated him for the citations, but a while back, Sgt. Brown got in touch and told Kohl about the medals he is entitled to.”I won’t know why I got these until I receive them. They send a letter telling you why,” Kohl said.Part of it might be for Kohl’s actions in the battle for Hue City, considered by many to be the bloodiest of the whole Vietnam war.”But there were so many incidents that were happening every day. You lose track of them,” Kohl quietly said.-Bill Kohl lives in a second floor room that overlooks Rifle City Hall, up above attorney and construction company offices.Kohl’s room is well kept but crowded, with a TV, a single bed, two chairs, two chests of drawers, a coffee maker and a book shelf. Cowboy boots are piled in a corner.On one wall is the soiled American flag Kohl carried throughout his tour of duty in Vietnam.”See that hole on the bottom white stripe?” he asks. “That’s a bullet hole. I was taking it down when they started shooting at us. That’s how close it came to me.”Then Kohl chuckled and added, “It hit the flag. I didn’t hit me.”Kohl grew up outside Springfield, Ill., and served two tours with the Marines, the first in the mid-1960s, and the second one from 1967 to 1969.”I volunteered to go to Vietnam. At that point, I thought it was the right thing to do,” Kohl said.Kohl was a platoon radio man. He also acted as forward observer, and did whatever else he was asked to do in Fox Company. Another fierce encounter occurred on July 4, 1967, when Fox Company was assigned security duty on a hill near a Vietnamese coal mine. Kohl estimates the hill was 1,000 to 1,500 feet tall, and Marines were positioned at the base, the middle area and the top.Kohl’s platoon was located at the bottom of the hill, and was overrun by 200 Viet Cong and members of the North Vietnam Army (NVA). He and six others regrouped and mounted a counter attack. In Sgt. Brown’s words in a letter to military officials, the group “surprised and killed many of the enemy.”Two other Marines were awarded posthumous Congressional Medals of Honor for their actions on that hill.The most vicious fighting that Kohl and just about any other Marine saw came during the battle for Hue City in February and March of 1968. Kohl received his most serious injuries there.The battle for Hue City came during the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army’s Tet offensive, which simultaneously struck a number of big targets across South Vietnam, including Saigon.Hue was a major city.”It was like Denver. It was a modern city, with gas stations and everything,” Kohl said as he sat on his bed, leafing through military documents and newsletters he keeps in a large envelope.Kohl said the Viet Cong and NVA had been infiltrating Hue for more than a year before they took over the city during the first days of the Tet Offensive. Kohl’s platoon was brought in by helicopters, landing on a soccer field inside the city.”One chopper was shot down and everyone was killed,” Kohl said.There were fewer than 2,500 Marines facing more than 10,000 of the enemy in Hue. Kohl said it quickly became obvious that the jungle warfare techniques they had been using weren’t enough for urban combat.”Hue was the scariest because we were jungle fighters,” Kohl said. “We weren’t used to house to house fighting … room to room. We had to transitionalize ourselves into how to do this stuff.”Lessons were learned quickly. For example, walls around homes, buildings and other compounds had jagged glass embedded along the tops for security purposes, even before the war.”So guys would try to climb over and get all cut up, or they’d get shot by snipers,” Kohl said.The platoon had an anti-tank bazooka and a few rounds of ammo. “Finally, someone woke up and said `Let’s blow this damn thing down.'”The antitank gunner proceeded to blow a hole in the wall, which enabled Marines to go through. “We could get through faster with a hell of a lot more men,” Kohl said.Inside buildings, the Marines learned to toss hand grenades into every room before they entered. Kohl and his buddies threw a lot of grenades.”We were in houses. We took a hospital, the treasury building, the post office. We took a university and three cathedrals. In one building we got out Kathy Elroy, who was a French correspondent, and her camera man. The NVA had captured them, so we got her away from them,” Kohl said. Then he chuckled, “She loves Marines to this day, and so does her camera man.”By the 27th day of fighting, Kohl’s platoon was down to three men. He was acting as platoon sergeant, and was hit by shrapnel from an enemy rocket.”Or it could have been a mortar,” he said.Kohl was hit in the back, lower buttocks and leg, and spent three months recovering in Guam before returning to finish his tour of duty.After Kohl was injured at Hue and left Vietnam to recover, the Marines fought their way through the city and seized it from the Viet Cong and NVA.During Kohl’s 27 days and nights in Hue, 128 Marines were killed.”There wasn’t a time when there wasn’t fighting going on. It was 24 hours a day. They’d try to sneak in at night. They’d hit us with human waves and when they weren’t doing that, they were sniping at us,” Kohl said.
Bill Kohl is a quiet, cordial man. He has short gray hair, a gray beard and stands well over 6 feet tall.All these years after being hit by a rocket, bits of shrapnel are still working their way through his skin to the surface. He laughs when he tells about a piece of shrapnel that worked its way through his back side last Christmas.”I was lying in bed, rolled over, and it felt like something sticking me. I started scratching and a piece came out,” he said, somewhat amazed.Kohl rolled up his shirt sleeve, held up his left arm and pointed to the scars.”I get them coming out of my elbow,” he said.One time at the airport in St. Louis, Kohl’s shrapnel set off the metal detector. “They damn near had to strip search me,” he laughed.Kohl moved to Aspen 22 years ago, then later to Glenwood Springs and Rifle.”I love Rifle, the people here. It’s a good community,” Kohl said, as he flicked a cigarette ash into an ash tray on the bed.Kohl receives minimal disability pay from the government, and he just started the paperwork to try to get that increased. He hasn’t been able to work much lately due to his back. When he can, he works as a heavy equipment operator for David Rippy and Ty Trulove.”I’d like to mention those guys in this article,” Kohl said as he leaned forward on the bed. “The last year or so I’ve had a lot of trouble with my back. They let me work when I can. They’ve been real good to me.”-Kohl said he doesn’t have any regrets over serving in Vietnam, although when bullets and rockets were flying, he often asked himself what he was doing there.”I made a lot of friends there … and lost a lot of friends there,” he said.There is some famous television news footage of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the iron gates of the South Vietnamese capitol in Saigon when it fell. Remembering it, Kohl paused, his shoulders slumped a little, and he sighed.”I’ve got mixed emotions,” he said.A second later, Kohl grew animated. He looked up and said, “The armed forces got sold down the river by our government. I’ll think that until the day I die.”Kohl’s sentiments are not unlike those of some other Vietnam veterans, and they go like this: “The bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., were fighting a war they didn’t know anything about, and were telling the generals how to do it.”They should have left the generals alone to fight the war … McNamara and Johnson, I can’t remember all their names, but those two especially,” Kohl said of the former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson.Kohl didn’t sound angry, just incredulous, as he continued. “We should have fought it like a war, fought it to win, not just be there.”We could have bombed them off the face of the earth, but we didn’t choose to do that,” he said.-Kohl doesn’t dwell on what might have been in the war, or what should have been. Still, the Vietnam war seems to be an important part of his life. His Purple Heart, awarded during the war, for his injuries, sits in a case in a top drawer.”That’s one medal I’d just as soon not get,” he said with a smile. “I’d just as soon skated by that one.”Kohl receives Fox Company newsletters, and in one there’s a list of all the Marines killed in Vietnam from 1967 through 1969. He fingers the list and goes down it, naming the guys he knew.”One of my best friends is on this list – Steve Huber,” he said.Placing a finger on his forehead, Kohl said, “I was 15 feet from him when he caught it. Right here. We were going up a hill. He got killed the day before I was hit.”Another Marine, who they called Houserat, was killed after the platoon set up a command post in a house in Hue.”Someone down the hall hollered for him, and for some damn reason he walked in front of a window. They killed him dead,” Kohl said.Kohl said he doesn’t have any plans to participate in veterans ceremonies or get-togethers on Memorial Day, but he might take part if anything is going on in Rifle. He also doesn’t have any plans to ever visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C.”I don’t want to go to the wall. I respect the wall and respect what it stands for, but I don’t want to go see it. There are too many names on the wall I know,” he said.
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