Vietnam vet ponders holiday’s meaning
The attacks began at nightfall.
In the jungles of Vietnam, everything blended together in the darkness.
But the infantry unit knew the North Vietnamese were close.
Norm Jepson, who lives in Tonganoxie, though trained as a radio operator, was working that night as a gunner.
It was May 12, 1969, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail near the Cambodian border.
After dark, the unit had moved two howitzers to the south end of the landing zone, in an area cleared for a larger howitzer that hadn't yet arrived at the camp. The Americans had been warned of an impending attack by a North Vietnamese battalion and assumed it would be at the south end of the landing zone, as that end, during daylight, had been without a howitzer.
"The distinct sound of thump, thump, thump went off," said Jepson, who heard the noise as he and another man were near the perimeter repairing a broken communication wire. "They were mortars, they (the North Vietnamese) started the attack. I started running."
¢ Tonganoxie's VFW Park will be the center of Memorial Day activities in Tonganoxie. The park is a block east of First and Main. At 2 p.m. Sunday, the VFW's annual Memorial Day Service will be held in the park.
¢ Memorial Day services at McLouth Cemetery will be at 11 a.m. Monday.
¢ Services at Wildhorse Cemetery, southeast of McLouth, will be at 2 p.m. Monday.
¢ There will be a memorial service at 2 p.m. Sunday at Fall Creek Cemetery.
¢ There will be another memorial service at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Eagle Cemetery.
¢ At Holy Angels Cemetery, a Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Monday.
The two men ran toward a wall of sandbags to take shelter.
"All I remember is I was just getting ready to jump when a mortar went off behind me," Jepson said. "All I felt was hot rods going through me."
The man who was with him was seriously wounded, and was later shipped off to the hospital.
Jepson, who said the hot shards of metal cauterized his wounds and stopped the bleeding, continued fighting.
"They came in and put bangalor torpedoes over the constantino (razor) wire right after the mortars went through," Jepson said, explaining that a bangalor torpedo is a long explosive tube used to blow up cement walls. "One hit our center howitzer and killed almost everybody there."
Jepson was behind a parapet, a wall made of sandbags, armed with an M-16 rifle and a couple of grenades.
"We were pinned down," Jepson said. "They were throwing grenades at us, and we were throwing grenades at them. ... We got to the point where we had to do something or we were going to get wiped out."
The North Vietnamese blew out the constantino fence and stormed inside.
"They were screaming coming in there, they were everywhere in masses, we were blowing them over with M-16s," Jepson said.
Knowing if the enemy soldiers made it past the howitzer, the rest of the men in his unit would likely be killed, Jepson made the decision to load a beehive round into the howitzer.
A beehive round contains thousands of metal darts. After it is shot, the beehive round splits apart, shooting darts throughout a wide area.
"It's a last resort, that's how desperate we were getting," Jepson said.
He paused, putting a hand over his mouth in silence, seemingly searching for the right words and, yet, seeming as if he did not want to speak them.
A few tears rolled down his cheeks and Jepson's voice cracked as he added, "It killed a lot of them -- it stopped the attack."
When morning came, Jepson said, he saw "the carnage" for the first time. Jepson estimated at least 200 enemy soldiers had died.
"When the sun was starting to come up you could see them, they were starting to haul off the dead bodies," Jepson said. "There were so many of them they had to bring in a bulldozer and dig a pit to put the bodies in."
At the time, Jepson said, he was relieved. After all, his decision to shoot the beehive stopped the fighting and likely spared the lives of the men in his unit.
Staying to serve
Jepson, 56, served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.
It was the heart of the war.
And it was a war in which the 19-year-old rural Kansas man didn't plan to participate.
But he had little choice.
"When I got my draft notice, a couple of my friends were heading to Canada to avoid having to go to Vietnam," Jepson said. "But I made a decision, right or wrong, that this was still the best country in the world and I wasn't going to leave it."
Jepson doesn't paint himself as a hero. If anything, he said he feels a tremendous sense of guilt because he did what he was expected -- as a soldier -- to do.
Jepson, who says he's the type of person who will go out of his way not to hurt someone, did what he had to do in battles in Vietnam.
That's partly why, today, 36 years later, the tears are likely to fall when he talks about Vietnam.
And there's another reason.
He made it home.
His best friend -- and about 60,000 other Americans -- didn't.
During an interview last week at Tonganoxie's VFW Park, Jepson talked about his experiences in Vietnam. As he spoke, the leaves of a cottonwood tree rustled overhead, the American flag and the prisoner of war flag on the flagpole flapped in the breeze. Fittingly, Jepson, dressed in jeans and T-shirt, wore a baseball cap with "USA" emblazoned across the front.
For Jepson, raised by a stern father in rural Kansas, the rigidity of the Army came as no shock.
"I came out of a controlling, restrictive environment and went right to another one," Jepson said.
After being drafted, he took basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., then trained as a radio operator in Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
Then, at the end of a 30-day leave, he was shipped to Vietnam.
Jepson was in the U.S. Army, a member of the B battery 2/19 artillery of the first cavalry.
"We were the primary air mobile unit that always flew into trouble," Jepson said.
After three weeks in northern Vietnam, Jepson's unit was flown south to the Cambodian border. They were in the jungle near Tay Ninh, about 60 miles north of Saigon.
The men would go in as assault teams and clear landing zones, Jepson said. This meant they removed trees and brush so that bunkers and other structures could be built. And they fought.
"Sometimes we had to fight our way in," Jepson said.
Jepson, who said he didn't talk much about his Vietnam experiences until the 1990s, said it's difficult to explain what it was like.
"I can tell you everything about it, but you'll never know what it was like because you never experienced it," Jepson said. "It was to me the hardest year I ever spent."
He talks not only about the stress of war, but also the living conditions.
"There was always 100 percent humidity and the temperature was always 100," Jepson said. There were countless sandbags to be filled, the military rations, and the rare treat -- 3.2 beer shipped in once a week. That was before pop-top cans were common. Soldiers opened the beer cans with a P38, which is a small can opener, if they had one.
"You used that or you learned to open a beer can with your teeth," Jepson said.
Challenges such as those were miniscule compared to combat.
The Tet Offensive had begun Jan. 31, 1968, with North Vietnamese launching attacks in cities throughout South Vietnam. Tet, which occurs on Jan. 31, is the name for the holiday that celebrates the lunar new year. The Tet operations continued the next year, with the North Vietnamese targeting military bases.
"In 1969 they tried to wipe out all the outlying bases with an effective force as they did in the cities in 1968, Jepson said. "We were about 162 people in an LZ (landing zone) -- we got hit by what they told us was a battalion force."
Jepson was awarded several medals, including two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, an air combat medal, a presidential unit citation and a Vietnamese award.
Despite the awards, Jepson said he's haunted by his decision to launch the beehive.
"You realize that that's another human being and that that life stopped right there," Jepson said.
However, he realizes what war is all about.
"In a war situation you're not out there for the glory, you're out there to protect each other's back," Jepson said. "You do whatever is necessary to protect as many guys as you can. Sometimes I've seen guys sacrifice their lives to save a few more."
That battle that began on May 19, 1969, continued the next two nights. The men took turns sleeping two hours at a time. Jepson estimated they got about eight hours of sleep during the three-day period.
A month later, a rocket attack struck the unit Jepson was in. That barrage permanently damaged his hearing.
And he was involved in numerous firefights while in patrol in Vietnam.
"That's a harrowing experience," Jepson said.
Though Jepson, who was in Vietnam for one year, said the Vietnam War was hell, his homecoming was brutal.
"We landed in San Francisco," Jepson said, "and we might as well have been wearing prison pinstripes because nobody wanted to talk to us, nobody wanted to talk about the experiences, everybody was protesting the war."
Jepson likened the Vietnam veteran to the proverbial "skeleton in the family closet."
"You weren't treated like they treat the soldiers today," Jepson said. "You were totally discarded and actually spit on. When we walked through that airport there were a couple of people that actually spat on some of those guys."
It's taken years to begin to begin to put the bitterness behind him. In fact, only recently has Jepson, who has worked for the city of Tonganoxie since 1999, become involved with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In March, he walked with local VFW members, carrying a flag during Tonganoxie's St. Patrick's Day parade.
And lately he's been thinking about what Memorial Day means. Though he's not ready to participate in Tonganoxie's Memorial Day ceremony at VFW Park, he's been thinking about what Memorial Day symbolizes to him, and should, he said, symbolize to all Americans.
"It's when the country ought to sit back and take stock of what the military has done for them," Jepson said. "We take a lot of things for granted in this country. We would not have the freedoms we have if it hadn't been for our military. Everybody would like to live in a world of peace and harmony, but it would never happen that way. Everybody takes for granted their freedom, but without the military they wouldn't have their rights and freedoms."