Looking back 50 years ago, being thousands of miles from home in Vietnam for the war, “it was a different world,” for O’Fallon native Gary Ahle.
“I’d hardly been out of Illinois before. It was like going back 100 years but in this country,” Ahle said.
Ahle, a graduate of O’Fallon Township High School, volunteered for the Army on his 21st birthday, with two years of college from Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville under his belt in 1966.
“I went in on my birthday, and boy did that cause me problems. Back then they didn’t treat you too gingerly in basic training or AIT,” Ahle said.
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The son of Albert and Loretta (Boegeli) Ahle, he was born in Belleville in 1945.
“My brother was in during the Korean War. He was a paratrooper, and I looked up to him, and that’s what I always wanted to be ... A lot of my best friends were already in, so I figured I should, too,” he said.
In retrospect, Ahle said his parents weren’t too happy about him following in his brother’s footsteps.
“After I was in for a while I started thinking the older I get, the smarter my dad gets,” Ahle said with a laugh.
Serving in the 82nd Airborne Division and in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1967-68, Ahle was a combat engineer.
In June 1967, Ahle said, “the 173rd Airborne Brigade got hit real bad, a company of ‘em got wiped out — almost to the man.”
“So in essence what I did was I went over there, like everybody else that was going over there ... they called us the ‘Sky Soldiers,’” Ahle said. “We didn’t jump from planes in Nam, but my unit did before I got there. It was the last combat jump until the Iraq War for the United States military.”
Due to the Battle of Dak To, Ahle said many were re-routed to assist the 173rd instead of their other scheduled posts.
“They gave me one week of demolition training, so we had two engineers (who) were trained demo men after a week, and we’d go out with the infantry units to dispose of ordinances (unexploded hidden weapons, such as bombs), take apart booby traps, clear mines or anything like that. In essence, we were out in the boonies for quite a while, mainly in the central highlands near Laos and Cambodia,” Ahle said.
Most consider 21 to be young, Ahle said, but “I was an old man over there. I mean, my first demo partner was 17 years old.”
According to Ahle, his unit was often away from any sort of encampment for weeks to a month —or more.
You were wet all the time where we were. It was either the rain or the heat, the bugs. Your uniform out in the boonies would literally rot off ya. It’s not like you see in the movies.
Gary Ahle, Vietnam War veteran
“Just hiking the hills in the jungle,” he said. “Every night digging a hole to hunker down into to sleep in case the enemy came through, and I did that for about seven months.”
Years ago, before his brother died, Ahle said his son wanted them to return to their battle grounds in Southeast Asia, “but I didn’t want to go. I mean I would; I got no animosity, but that’s not high on my bucket list — I had enough of it.
“You were wet all the time where we were. It was either the rain or the heat, the bugs. Your uniform out in the boonies would literally rot off ya. It’s not like you see in the movies. My three best friends then were my dehandle (tool used to dig a trench or hole), my helmet and, of course, my weapon.”
Ahle said he didn’t much care for the M16 weapon he was issued because “it was very difficult to keep clean and in good operating order.
“It didn’t work the greatest. It’s been improved upon since quite a bit. Sometimes you literally had to kick the ammo round outta there if you left it in there overnight and there was a temperature change because the round would swell in the receiver — literally kick it out — and more than one guy got hurt or killed doing that.”
In the bush
The U.S. military worked with the South Vietnamese villagers who were cooperative.
“The Montagnards (a French word meaning mountaineers), or the hill people we called ’em, I have the utmost respect for those people. They minded their own business; they were very loyal to us. Every time we went through one of their villages, ya know, all they wanted to do was to survive, and some of them even overtly helped us. We had a couple of them who served as scouts with us,” Ahle said.
One night in the central highlands, Ahle said he and his demolition partner were sent ahead of the company platoon about 100 meters to serve as a listening post. Once a covered area was located, the duo would set up a perimeter of claymore mines to act as an alarm system if the enemy were to approach.
“We dug a hole, got in it and we had a radio with us. We were right at the tree lines and there was this elephant grass in front of us and we set claymore (mines), ‘cause if attacked, you used the claymores first, then the grenades, then your rifle, which was a last resort because that would show the enemy where you were,” Ahle said.
If they heard anything, they were instructed to not speak or make noise other than belch the radio — make it crack a little to alert the company that something is out there, he explained.
“About 3 a.m. it was still dark and it was my turn to take a cat nap, and my demo mate Stok, Hilbert Stoker, 17, punches my arm and whispered there’s something out there. We couldn’t see it, and we sure didn’t know what it was or where it was coming from; we were just about to let go with the claymores, and all of a sudden the sound just disappeared,” Ahle said.
About an hour later, near the break of dawn, Ahle said he and his demo mate could hear it again.
“It was just daylight and I looked up in the trees, and you’re not going to believe me, but a tiger was up there not doing a thing,” Ahle said. “And they are mean; it’s the only one I’d ever seen, and we went back later on, and everything turned out alright, but that tiger went through a big limb in the tree, then down into some bushes and onto the ground. We heard later that was very unusual, of course. I didn’t even know they had ’em over there for one thing, but then again they had forest deer, which I didn’t know about either until one of the captains got rammed by one while we were on the trail; but anyway, (when) we got back to the company, one of the guys told us that he knew a guy who had seen one also, and that he had to shoot it ‘cause it charged him.”
“I’ll never forget that; I wish I’d gotten a picture of it, but I was shocked. I didn’t even know they climbed trees, and this wasn’t a tiny thing. It was big. It was beautiful — something else,” Ahle said.
“In my outfit we were all volunteers, and back then the 173rd Airborne Brigade was known as ‘(General William) Westmoreland’s own,’ or ‘OWN.’ He was a big shot then when I was in Vietnam before (U.S. Army General Creighton) Abrams took over, and he took a special liking to us and visited us several times when we were in the rear area; and it seemed anytime there was a problem anywhere he’d send one of the 173rd battalions to assist,” Ahle said.
Being near Dak To, one of the endings of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and close to the Laotian and Cambodian border, Ahle said he saw things that would scare anybody.
“In November 1967, in Dak To, that was real bad; there was a lot of heavy fighting then, and during Tet I was at Pleiku Air Base and Kontum. There weren’t a lot of Viet Cong up that way. There were north Vietnamese, and they were very highly trained, very good jungle troops, and we rubbed noses with them several times,” Ahle recalled.
In December 1967 at Tuy Hoa, Ahle said he received a shrapnel wound to the jaw from a hand grenade or a B-40 RPG.
Ahle said it wasn’t just luck on his side that pulled him through the war in one piece, but rather the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers always looking out for one another.
“We depended on each other,” Ahle said.
Ahle said he has so many nostalgic memories to go along with the horrors, “ten thousand of ‘em, but there’s not enough time (to tell).”
“We were on a hillside one day, and we stopped to rest until the lieutenant or captain up above us (were ready to move on). Me and my demo team member were usually behind the radio man, the dog handler and the point man — somewhere in there. There was two platoons at this one particular point, and the other one was in front of us and so they passed the word down to just take a break because we had commo wire up ahead of us.”
Commo wire was a term used for communication wire. Ahle said, “blue commo wire was usually North Vietnamese (because) we didn’t use blue, so we knew something was up there.”
“So we’re just sitting there in the middle of the jungle ‘boonies’ and someone yells ‘grenade,’ and here’s an American hand grenade come rollin’ down the trail, but the pin hadn’t pulled,” he said. “And somebody grabbed it ya know, but it wasn’t long after that a helmet come rollin’ down and it hit me in the rucksack, in the back, and I picked it up and I looked at it, and it had ‘Kahoks, Collinsville, Ill.,’ on it, so I passed it up the hill.”
Later that evening after the platoons settled “we made bivouac (a temporary shelter), and I found the guy the helmet belonged to, then wrote my mom and dad and found out they visited his family. His last name was Boensteil, and he was from Collinsville; and I can’t remember his first name, but it was just a small world for that to happen. You know, 10,000 miles away from home, in the middle of a jungle that nobody’s ever walked before, and have that occur,” Ahle recalled.
Other memories will be seared in Ahle’s memory he said, like “the leeches, the bugs, the mosquitoes; it wasn’t unusual to have some 50 leeches burned off of ya some mornings, the little brown ones; the bigger black ones you could see easier and just pluck them off.”
Despite the hardships, Ahle said he wouldn’t trade the experience “for the world.”
You were worried about taking care of yourself and each other, not the politics.
Gary Ahle, Vietnam War veteran
“I never talked to anybody in my unit who regretted being there, and I mainly served with the second and fourth battalions of the 173rd, and I mean you had some disgruntled ones, but nobody that was (so upset or against the war) like you’d see in the papers or hear on T.V. I’m sure there were probably some, but I never knew of anybody — you were worried about taking care of yourself and each other, not the politics.”
It wasn’t until after the Tet Offensive that the U.S. military cut back on the range area for patrols, and they were able to stay at a fire support base with only an occasional excursion.
“Newer, younger guys took over doing it,” Ahle said.
In April 1968, he contracted malaria and was in the 67th Evacuation Hospital at Qui Nhon for about a week.
He returned stateside with big plans to finish his education by earning a bachelor’s degree from SIUE, and settle down. In 1971, he married Tana Eatkins. Then he taught in multiple O’Fallon District 90 schools for 32 years, beginning at Marie Schaefer and ending in 2002 at Edward Fulton Junior High.
Later, Ahle served as O’Fallon Township assessor for 23 years, township trustee for four years and is currently the township supervisor. Tana is a registered nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. They have four children: Jennifer, Sheridan, Adrienne “Addie” and Cale.
Never discussing the Vietnam War and his part with others outside his close circle of friends and family, Ahle said he was well received when he came home, “aside from maybe one fist fight in college. But everybody was good to me. I never had anybody spit on me; it would’ve been a bad idea back then but yeah, coming back to a little town in Southern Illinois, it wasn’t like coming back to San Francisco, Calif., where I know a lot of guys had problems from people who were against the war.”
“We did what we signed up to do — we followed orders and rarely questioned, only if we thought it wasn’t the right way or if we thought people were going to get killed — other than that, you follow the chain of command, and for the most part we had good leaders — basically that’s why I’m here. And I’d do it again.”
With most of his fellow soldiers from the war dying, Ahle said he hears from some periodically, “but not like I used to,” because they are all working against time — the war happened 50 years ago.
“I heard from Stok, my 17-year-old demo mate; I heard from him not long ago. He gave a speech last Memorial Day in Melrose, Mass. to the schools about his service,” Ahle said.
If there’s anything Ahle hopes future generations can learn from the Vietnam War and the stories of its veterans, its “when you take an oath — you live up to it, and what you see on T.V. is not always the absolute truth; there’s always more, especially now. How did we get into this shape?”