Operation DeSoto in early 1967 was “the most deadly operation for Marines in Vietnam.”
This was Jim Heimerl’s way of summing up the horror he had experienced while serving with his Marine Corp “grunt company” in Quang Ngai Province — and afterwards. As he spoke at the Veterans Day Program in Hamel Saturday, Nov. 10, the horror came back, emotions flooded through him and he had difficulty talking about it.
In his talk, he decided to do a brief re-enactment of what happened to him and his fellow squad members rather than using a lot of words. He asked two American Legion baseball players — a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old — to join him in the middle of the room at the Heinzen-Ditter Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post.
Riley Kellum and Peter Benson had sad looks on their faces, as they served as silent actors. Heimerl said they were the same age as some members of his squad. He himself was 19-years-old and the oldest squad member was 23.
During an especially deadly week, March 30 through April 5, all of Heimerl’s squad — except one — sustained wounds or died. His squad had to be dissolved. One of his comrades was severely wounded in the stomach. He returned to the States and was getting help, when he committed suicide.
Over 60 percent of Vietnam veterans are already dead, Heimerl said. While many people think of Agent Orange as the reason for the deaths, even more are due to veterans committing suicide.
Heimerl’s Marine company consisted of 190,000 highly technically oriented men. They ate K rations vintage 1954. They contained “so much salt that you could eat them today,” he said.
The K rations were so bad that Vietnamese children who were begging for food refused to eat them.
“When you see a veteran, say thank-you,” Heimerl said. “I can’t tell you how much it means to them.
“Machine gunners had the highest rate of mortality,” he said. They stood up and sprayed the enemy with bullets. If a gunner could get enemies to put their heads down, American Marines had a better chance for survival.
While Heimerl respects all veterans, he has the most respect for corpsmen. “They made house calls all the time,” he said, and this is the reason their names make up a large part of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
Corps men made house calls three times for Heimerl, who was wounded three times.
The Hamel Veterans Day Program was a joint effort of the John Pohlker American Legion Post No. 394 and Heinzen-Ditter VFW Post No. 5903. They invited veterans, families and the community to a breakfast and program. Keynote Speaker Heimerl is a member of both the American Legion and VFW posts.
During the program, veterans stood up, introduced themselves and described briefly their military service. The oldest veterans served in World War II.
Patricia Schon, past national president of the Veterans of World I Auxiliary, represented World War I veterans, as she read the poem “In Flanders Fields.” She has served in the VFW Auxiliary for 68 years and his tapped danced at many a Veterans Administration Hospital.
(PULL QUOTE OR END OF STORY?)
We are the Dead.
Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
— From “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae