HUGHES SPRINGS, Texas --
Homer “Mike” Kesler Jenkins actively participates in military ceremonies for holidays and funerals throughout his hometown community wearing the same Marine uniform he wore in the 1960s. However, after more than six decades, memories of battles in Vietnam are still active in his mind.
“It’s an emotional trip to be a survivor. ‘Why me? Why did I survive?’ I wonder every day why I’m still alive. I still wonder. I don’t know why, but I am. I think about it a lot, still do. Somethings are still very vivid.”
Friends and finances influenced Jenkins to join the Marines in 1960. He attended officer candidate school at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, earning $220 a month.
“It was a tough program. When I went in, the Corps wasn’t looking for officers. The platoon sergeant told us the first day, ‘We’ve got too many of you guys, so we are going to weed you out.’ You were washed out if you couldn’t handle it physically, mentally or if the drill instructors didn’t like you. A few of us made it, and I guess I was one of the lucky ones. Sometimes I wonder if it was luck or not.”
After graduating, Marines got their choice of duty stations based on placement in the class. Jenkins chose Hawaii, spending two years there as an infantry officer. When the United States became more involved in Vietnam and began to send Marine Corps officers as advisors, Jenkins was interested in going.
“I went to see my lieutenant colonel, Joseph “Bull” Fisher. I told him I heard Marine Corps officers were being sent to Vietnam as advisors and I’d like to go. He said, ‘I don’t have a quota, and if I did have a quota you couldn’t go.’ He was not a guy to question, so I didn’t say anything and started to leave. He said ‘do you know why I wouldn’t let you go?’ I said ‘no sir I don’t.’ He said ‘because you are a reserve officer. Now get out of here.’”
Jenkins left Fisher’s office but went back again the first day of the next month and asked again. Fisher offered Jenkins the opportunity to transfer from regular reserve. If Jenkins transferred, Fisher said he would consider him. Jenkins didn’t accept the offer.
“The first day of the next month I went to see him. I said I wanted to go to Vietnam as an advisor. He pushed the same paper work across his desk to me. I pushed it back and left. No conversation.”
Jenkins went back the first day of every month at 9 a.m. for six months.
“The seventh month when I went to see him, he pushed a stack of papers across. It was paper work to be an advisor in Vietnam. He said ‘you leave Sunday morning.’ In less than a week I left to go to Saigon as an advisor.”
Jenkins spent six months as an advisor in Vietnam. He spent his time in the jungle with the Vietnamese troops to gain combat experience. Jenkins called in helicopters for the evacuation of wounded, called in weapons fire and air support.
“As advisors, we didn’t do decision making as to what position to take or attacking a position. The reason was because the company commander couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak any Vietnamese. The only person in my company I could talk to was the corpsman who spoke some English. There were about 175 in the company I was attached to. I saw a lot of combat, a lot of blood. A lot of people were shot. I saw a lot of mistakes. I saw a lot of good things.”
After his tour, Jenkins returned to Hawaii and was interviewed by Fisher. Fisher wanted to know everything that Jenkins had done.
“Lt. Col. Fisher told me there were three of us in the battalion who had seen combat, myself, the sergeant major and him. So effective right now, you are the H company commander. Go down and relieve the major.”
Jenkins, who was recently promoted to first lieutenant, questioned his instructions to relieve a major.
“I said ‘colonel, you want me to go down and tell him I’m his relief?’ He answered ‘you’re the company commander, go take care of your company. Now get out of here.’ So I went to see the major and told him that I was relieving him of his command. He was sitting at his desk and slammed his chair against the wall. He didn’t say a word and stormed out of there to see [lieutenant] colonel Fisher.”
Five days after assuming command, Jenkins and the Marines with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment deployed to Okinawa for intensive combat training. After a month, he and his Marines were in Chu Lai, Vietnam.
“I had the best company in the battalion for about a year. We had more kills than any other company. We got all the tough assignments. I asked Lt.Col. Fisher one day why we got all the tough missions. He said, ‘because you can handle it. Now get out there and take care of it.’”
Soon after arriving in Vietnam for his second tour in early 1965, Jenkins and his company were preparing for what would become a very deadly battle. Operation Starlite took place in order to attack the enemy before they could attack the Marines.
Jenkins and another company commander conducted a reconnaissance mission two days before the operation to scout out their landing zones.
“We were flying pretty low and pretty fast in a helicopter. We were sitting in the door of the chopper side by side. The VC stepped out from behind a bush and shot at us with a weapon. Three rounds went right between us and bounced off the back of the chopper and rolled back. I picked up one, put it in my pocket and carried it with me for a long time. I was pretty confident this was going to be a hostile landing zone. I didn’t realize how hostile it was going to be.”
Jenkins landed with his Marines in a rice paddy of a village where the enemy had their headquarters. The day was August 18, 1965.
“When my company landed we were totally surrounded immediately. We fought for several hours and never moved 50 feet. Our tanks were being disabled. On one occasion I was giving direction to the tank commander on where I wanted to be for an assault and the telephone was shot out of my hand. The telephone was ruined, so I had to get on top of the tank to talk to the commander then a 82 mm mortar hit the front of the tank.”
Jenkins had been on the back of tank on the engine compartment talking to the commander. The impact from the artillery piece blew Jenkins off the tank and into a rice paddy approximately 15 feet away. The rice paddy had about 12 inches of water in it.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I was lying in that water and I looked up, it was muddy water. I thought this is what it’s like to be dead. My family and our farm, 25 years worth, all went by in about less than five seconds. I could feel I had both legs and both arms, for some reason I sat up. The water was about chest deep. I looked around and there was no blood in the water. ‘Hell I’m not dead!’ but I was totally deaf. I couldn’t hear anything. It was total silence.”
Jenkins crawled out of the rice paddy and found his radio operator. He explained to the radio operator that he couldn’t hear anything. Since Jenkins considered himself inoperable, he took cover for approximately an hour until he could finally hear. Then he went back to battle.
“We fought them all day into most of the night. It was getting late, probably an hour before dark. The only protection we had were rice dikes and a big ravine that ran through the position probably six feet deep. In the ravine we’d had hand-to-hand combat two or three times that day. We’d be in the ravine and they’d attack us in groups of 50 to 100. We just couldn’t kill enough of them and a bunch would end up in the ravine with us.”
Before dark, Jenkins had all the tanks placed in a circle facing outward. All the weapons faced outward and the Marines dug in underneath the tanks.
“I landed that morning with 200 people, at this time I had 50 left. We’d already evacuated 50 killed in action and about 100 wounded in action. They hit us one time after dark and we tore their heads off because we had plenty of protection. They hit us with mortars as they usually did before an attack. We had overhead protection unlike what we had all day. We had machine guns, heavy armor and us under the tanks. They hit us one time about an hour after dark and didn’t hit us again. They must have realized we were dug in pretty tight, and we were. We were there to stay.”
The next morning Jenkins and his Marines were relieved and they got on a ship to head back to Chu Lai. In early 1966, Jenkins’ replacement for his company arrived. Jenkins decided to spend three weeks with his relief to orient him to the situation and what to expect in Vietnam. They did everything together.
“The first patrol the new commander took the company on alone, I had three days left in country. During the night, he set the company up in a text book defensive position on top of a hill. When you had been there as long as I had, you know that perfect position is a terrible position. The bad guys know you’re going to set up there. They’re going to lay down artillery or mortars on you, or in this case there were mines. One of my former radio operators was digging in for the night with the whole headquarters group and was killed along with the first sergeant, new company commander and a medic.
Jenkins left Vietnam February, 1966 and was discharged two days after he left the country. After two tours in Vietnam he didn’t want to return.
“I didn’t want anymore. I turned down purple hearts. I got a lot of shrapnel at different times. A lot of Marines, including myself, thought it was a bad omen to take a purple heart if you still had your entire faculty together. I wrote up a lot of awards.
Jenkins’ company had 125 personal decorations awarded. He was awarded a Silver Star Medal for his actions.
“The most difficult thing was writing more than 50 letters after Starlite. Writing to families about how their Marine died took me weeks to get those things done. One of the difficult things was that I didn’t witness all of it. I had to go out and talk to witnesses that did see it and then even more difficult people wrote letters back asking for more details. That was the most difficult thing telling a mother why and how her son got killed. I’ve tried to erase that from my memory.”
Jenkins thinks it took seven years to overcome experiences from Vietnam after he was back at his family’s farm near Hughes Springs. The farm had been neglected, so Jenkins spent the next three years working the farm alone.
“I was right in front of the house trying to recover some of the pasture land, and I saw a rifle barrel reflection about a quarter mile in the woods in front of me. I stopped the tractor and bailed off because I thought there was a sniper over there. After a few seconds, I realized this is east Texas not Vietnam. Another time when I had my daughter, I got up in the middle of the night after hearing something in the house making a strange noise. I rolled out of bed, crawled into the kitchen to get a butcher knife. I didn’t want to use a gun because my wife and daughter were in bed. The noise was near my daughter who was less than a year old in her crib. I crawled under her crib and realized that the noise was the springs under her crib. I had a tough time getting over it.”
This story is part of an ongoing series of Marines who participated in Operation Starlite in Vietnam, 1965.