Heroes Among Us will feature Khe Sanh Night and vets involved in hand-to-hand combat during the Vietnam War
The Helicopter hadn't touched down before bullets were tearing through the air, a day local Vietnam veteran Sgt. Donnie Kimball of the 26th Marines will never forget.
A 19-year-old rifleman, this was Kimball's welcome into the Battle of Khe Sanh, 77 days of a bloody siege in Vietnam.
Kimball said it was by the grace of God that he got out alive and he, scout and sniper Sgt. Sonny Campbell and H-34 pilot Maj. Dan Smithson will share a first-hand perspective during the Pensacola Marine Corps League's last Heroes Among Us speaker series event of the season Oct. 29.
"It was one of the most horrific, most terrible things that I've ever been in and had to go through," Kimball said. "And anyone who's ever been there knows that."
Khe Sanh Combat Base was a United States Marine Corps outpost just south of North Vietnam. In the hopes of taking the area to launch attacks into the south, North Vietnamese attempted to overrun the base. While they were unsuccessful, the battle claimed many lives and wounded countless numbers of U.S. servicemen, including Kimball.
"The jungles were so thick, you couldn't see your hand in front of you," he said. "And the fighting was fierce. I remember one time there was three days of nonstop, unbelievable hand-to-hand combat."
Frequently marching through the area jungles, Kimball and his battalion would sit in L-shaped ambushes and wait for the enemy to walk through. It was always a dangerous situation but more so when they had to cross a rice paddy because it was out in the open. These were times where the fear of death was constant, he said, and heavy on your minds.
"Every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week — it was nonstop," Kimball said. "I prayed a lot and tried to get my mind on something else but you couldn't daydream. You had to be paying attention."
Serving two tours in Vietnam, Smithson has similar memories, even as a helicopter pilot. Having been shot down five times, he too experienced brushes with death but never regretted enlisting into the Corps.
"I knew I wanted to be in the Marines Corps," he said. "I heard stories but I was always told that if I had to go into battle, go with the best."
Smithson was a pilot with the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 363. Flying in the mountains around Khe Sanh, he said they were pretty high and would lose a lot of lift, which caused him to roll his aircraft down on one occasion. Still, he stayed the path.
"When you're 21 or 22 years old, you were focused on the mission," he said. "We tried not to think about (dying) but it crossed your mind."
Servicemen at Khe Sanh refused to let the enemy have the base and despite heavy losses, U.S. forces prevailed. Looking back at the sacrifices of their brethren, Kimball and Smithson said they did what had to be done and wouldn't change it.
"I learned a lot about teamwork and leadership," Smithson said.
"I love my country and did my duty," Kimball said. "I'd do it again if I had to. This is the home of the free because of the brave and we're free because thousands of men and women have laid their lives on the line and given their blood."
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Marine Corps League "Heroes Among Us" speaker series, "Khe Sanh Night."
WHO: Veterans across eras and wars sharing their military service stories.
WHERE: Veterans Memorial Park, 200 South 10th Ave.
Inclement weather location is Rosie's in Seville Quarter, 130 E. Government St.
WHEN: 6 p.m. Oct. 29.
CONTACT: Ed Rouse, Pensacola Marine Corps League Public Affairs, Heroes Among Us 623-3250, [email protected]