Burkett was a sailor in the “brown water Navy,” zipping around the Mekong Delta and laying ambushes on the Cambodian border with a special naval unit lost to history.
Hull was already a seasoned soldier by the time his boots hit the dirt of An Khe province in 1967, a platoon sergeant who earned a Bronze Star for his “vast store of professional knowledge and devotion to duty.”
Paulk was 16 months out of high school when he stepped from a transport plane into the smothering heat of Saigon and “one hell of a welcome party” from the enemy.
What they share is the impression that fighting a war far from home stamps on every service member’s life, the bond forged among men who can describe the face of death, a belief in fighting for a cause greater than oneself. They will honor those memories this Veterans Day weekend in Washington with about 20 other veterans from Augusta at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
No matter where or how they served in Vietnam, Paulk said, “in the end, it’s about paying tribute to the fallen comrades.”
Ken Burkett: Sailor patrolled dangerous waters
Ken Burkett blames a clerical error for sending him to the treacherous canals of Vietnam.
Right out of Butler High School in 1966, Burkett went to Augusta Technical College to learn a trade and “postpone the inevitable” draft.
After two years of studying to become an electrician, he decided to join the Navy Reserve in hopes of swapping Vietnam for a quiet tour in the Mediterranean. He jokes that he wound up on a patrol boat because some paper-pushing yeoman looking for an engineman, or EN, accidentally chose him, an electrician’s mate, or EM. Any illusions he would be holed up in some ship soldering wires were quickly quashed by the type of training the Navy put him through before Vietnam.
He went to gunnery school, expecting to start immediately with an assault rifle. Instead, he was issued a Red Ryder BB gun.
“I thought this is the cheapest thing I’ve ever seen from the Navy,” Burkett said.
Cheap, but effective. By the time they were issued their automatic weapons, the sailors were experts at conserving ammunition and striking moving targets.
They were also taught to survive a week in the bush with just a fish hook, tossed into a swimming pool with simulated body parts and trained how to effectively fire from a boat traveling 50 mph over choppy water.
They pushed their boats to the limits in training. But even filling the boat with water couldn’t totally sink the foam-lined watercraft.
“It would sink right up to the rub rails, but, unlike the Titanic, it was literally unsinkable,” Burkett said.
While Burkett shot clay targets with his BB gun, Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the commander of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam, was laying plans for a blockade at the Cambodian border. The canals, rivers and streams dividing the two countries provided a watery gateway for the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong to smuggle in food, ammunition and soldiers.
What Zumwalt pictured was a craft even smaller than the Patrol Boat River, or PBR, the 30-foot boat made famous by the film Apocalypse Now. What he got was the Strike Assault Boat, or STAB, just 24 feet long but heavily armed and so silent that the slap of waves on the hull was usually heard before the engine.
The open-cockpit boats, manned by only four sailors, fanned out across the Mekong Delta, setting ambushes at night.
“The boats were attacked all the time … but due to our low silhouette we weren’t receiving casualties or injuries,” Burkett said.
Most often the enemy’s rounds would fly right over the craft, and the boats moved too fast for rocket fire.
A sense of invincibility began to creep into the squad, but it wouldn’t last long. The Viet Cong soon changed tactics and mined the waters instead. A bounty was put out on the “new PBRs.”
Here’s what Burkett and his comrades on “STABRON 20” accomplished in just over six months: 330 night missions; 2,172 waterborne ambushes and 31 firefights, 43 enemy dead. The enemy answered their efforts by killing four U.S. sailors, including three on one boat with a rocket attack. The rules of engagement relaxed as reality hit home.
“After our first (killed in action), you could hear machine guns rattling as they were asking permission” over the radio to fire, Burkett said. “The attitude totally changed.”
One boat captain began throwing grenades at almost any noise; by his reasoning that didn’t qualify as “opening fire.”
Clinton Paulk: Soldier was face to face with death many times
It was 1965, and the first major battle between U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese army in the Ia Drang Valley had ended with catastrophic losses on both sides.
Clinton Paulk was part of the first wave of replacements for the decimated battalions, and they bypassed the Republic of Vietnam training most soldiers would later receive in Hawaii. Instead they landed in Saigon to the sound of bullets and mortars.
“It was a hell of a welcome party … when you’re taking cover as you get off the plane,” Paulk said.
Paulk knew his father was a worrier, so he never told them he was sent to Vietnam. For a while it worked. All of his letters home were postmarked out of California. But three months into his deployment to Vietnam his parents read terrible news about him in the newspaper.
Death seemed to always be two steps behind Paulk.
After landing under fire in Saigon, the young private and his group were herded to a holding area until they were assigned to the First Air Cavalry Division. The guards in the holding area were attacked that night, and several died.
“A lot of guys were saying they weren’t scared. Well I was scared as hell. Many times death just seemed better than life,” Paulk said.
Jungle patrols began soon afterward, “search and destroy missions” intended to take the fight to the enemy. On one occasion, Paulk was walking at the front of the patrol, or “on point,” when his lieutenant sent him to the rear of the platoon. The next soldier to take point walked 20 feet and received a sniper’s bullet in the heart. Everyone’s face reflected the unspoken question: “Who’s next?”
“It wasn’t just that day,” Paulk said. “There were plenty of days you just felt like giving up.”
Paulk considered suicide, but pride stayed his hand. He didn’t want his family back home to know he killed himself. He would soon learn, however, there are many other ways of dying in Vietnam.
Paulk’s constant worry about the enemy’s rounds eventually proved unfounded. It was friendly fire that nearly killed him.
On Jan. 27, 1966, his 19th birthday, Paulk and his unit were called to reinforce a company that was pinned down in a landing zone. They found their colleagues huddled together in a village, taking fire from all sides. As they returned fire, one of the soldiers in the company mistakenly threw a grenade that spewed a column of red smoke within their perimeter. Those were used to signal the enemy’s position to the circling helicopters, and one of the U.S. gunships swooped in.
The incident left 21 soldiers wounded, including Paulk, who was riddled with shrapnel all along his shoulder, thigh and leg. Paulk witnessed soldiers with their skulls blown apart, intestines spilling out, hands blown off. Three of the 21 died.
He’s still haunted by an image from the aftermath of that battle: a two-ton truck with the legs of dead American service members hanging off the side.
“That wasn’t a good feeling. That wasn’t good at all.”
Clifford Hull: Sergeant’s experience helped him lead
Clifford Hull had earned his sergeant stripes by the time he deployed into combat for the first time. But he very nearly served in war as a private.
Three of his brothers were fighting in Korea by the time Hull was old enough to enlist in 1952, so he wasn’t deployed there. Instead, Hull was sent to Cold War-era Europe, where he joined a garrison of American troops intent on stopping the Soviets. He finally got his shot at combat in 1967, when he deployed to Vietnam with the 70th Engineer Battalion. His promise to his wife and five kids to return home was not made idly. One of his brothers remains missing in action from Korea.
“Being that long in the military, I knew there was a possibility of not coming back,” Hull said. “But I knew if I paid attention to my training and did my duty I would come back.”
“Doing his duty” brought him home and earned him three Bronze Stars – including one for valor – and three Army Commendation Medals. But it wasn’t without risks.
The enemy knew Hull by name.
“Sgt. Hull,” they called over a public address system somewhere in the dense jungle. Then they addressed his troops, harassing them as they labored over the construction of a long steel runway.
“B Company: You may build it, but we will blow it up.”
It was a hallmark scene of Vietnam. The unseen enemy had spies in every village who knew everything about the U.S. troops, including their leaders’ names. Hull wasn’t fazed by the harassment. He leaned in and told his men in a stage whisper: “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get those” guys.
That was Hull’s first tour, from 1967 to 1968, when he was building combat outposts and sweeping 30 miles of road every day for mines. It was also on his first tour that he earned his first Bronze Star, this one with a “V” device for valor. On Oct. 9, 1967, a radio message was broadcast from a work party under attack about two miles from his position. Hull jumped into a jeep and drove straight to their position, stopping only to alert an armor unit to follow him. He found nine soldiers hugging the ground and out of ammunition in a densely vegetated gully. Hull immediately opened fire with the gun mounted on his jeep, and the enemy responded with a hail of gunfire so fierce that the antenna was stripped off the vehicle.
He matched their attack for a spell, but by the time the armor division arrived, Hull was down to one bullet, his bayonet and a hand grenade.
Nevertheless, “due to the quick reaction, courage and outstanding leadership of Staff Sergeant Hull, no … friendly casualties were sustained,” his commendation reads. For Hull, this was not heroism but duty.
“If I did not go back, it would be on my conscience for the rest of my life,” Hull said. “You had no choice but to go back and help somebody.”
Hull returned home from that tour without a scratch, but the Army wasn’t through with him. After a short stint as a drill sergeant at Fort Gordon, he was to go back to Vietnam, this time as an adviser.
Veterans returning home from combat faced difficult challenges
Home was a goal for Ken Burkett, Clifford Hull and Clinton Paulk, but it was not the finish line they were expecting.
Instead of a handshake or a “thank you,” Hull and Burkett were greeted by calls of “baby killer” and spit on as they crossed the tarmac. Their superiors advised them to change into civilian clothes before traveling farther and delay cutting the shaggy hairdos they’d grown in the bush. Paulk was headed home when he spotted a sign in Columbia that read: “Dogs and soldiers keep off the grass.”
“Veterans get the open arms today. That was not the case for us,” Burkett said.
Though they physically left Vietnam, their minds were forever altered by their experiences there. Less than a year from returning home, Burkett was driving down Highland Avenue with his wife when he thought he saw green M-16 tracers race across his windshield. Burkett screamed and jerked the wheel into the Aquinas High School parking lot. Later, he realized that what he saw were the wing lights on a plane landing at nearby Daniel Field.
Paulk finished his service at Fort Gordon, training recruits. He said he was useless as an instructor on the firing range.
“Even when they were firing blanks, I was taking cover,” he said.
His post-traumatic stress disorder has only grown worse with age and presents itself in different ways, he said, including the sudden smell of burning flesh.
“It’s like something branded on your brain,” Paulk said. “There is no getting rid of it. Once it’s there, it’s there.”
For the old platoon sergeant, service in Vietnam was an honor, and he feels confident that he did the right thing.
“All the Vietnam veterans did their job,” Hull said. “They’re heroes in my book.”