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A sniper in Vietnam

RICHARD HOKENSON relaxing with his pet Wiemaraner at his home on Cotton Lake.

For many years, the subject of the Vietnam War was a painful one for Detroit Lakes native Richard Hokenson.

"I didn't want to talk about it," he says.

Hokenson, who graduated from Detroit Lakes High School in 1966, served with the U.S. Army's Company C, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, in Vietnam from May of 1969 to April 4, 1970.

"I was drafted," Hokenson said. Though he had been attending college in Moorhead, he became ill with mononucleosis and tonsillitis, and fell behind on credits, so he ended up as one of the army's newest recruits, taking his basic training and advanced infantry training in Fort Lewis, Washington.

"I thought, 'I'll go serve my country, do my time,'" says Hokenson. Thoughts of protesting his fate never entered his head.

In fact, Hokenson was one of those who volunteered to be trained as a sniper, learning to hit rifle targets from as far away as 1,000 yards.

"It wasn't bad at all," Hokenson said of his basic and advanced training at Fort Lewis. "I met people from all over the country -- it was really an eye opener. The way they talked, the food... it was very interesting."

After completing his training as a sniper, Hokenson knew he would be serving overseas, in either Korea or Vietnam.

"I was hoping I wouldn't get assigned to Korea," he says. "I wanted to go to Vietnam, because it was warm and tropical, not cold like Korea."

Not too surprisingly, he got his wish. As Hokenson recalls now, rather ruefully, "I was pretty excited -- I had no idea what I was getting into."

Assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry, Hokenson was happy to learn that his unit would be flying around in helicopters instead of walking through miles of jungle.

"We were air mobile," he said. What that really meant, of course, was that "we could get to the 'hot' areas quicker -- where the combat was."

Hokenson quickly discovered that the way military combat is depicted on television is nothing like the reality.

Arriving at the place where his unit was stationed, Hokenson found that the new-ness of his uniform and boots marked him as one of the low men on the totem pole.

"They looked at me with my new fatigues, shiny new boots and fresh haircut, but they really didn't see me," he says. "It took a while for them to learn to trust you."

The reason for that, as Hokenson later learned, was that they really had no idea how he would react to being on the front lines of the action for the first time.

"If you screwed up, you could get them all killed," says Hokenson.

There was an "invisible ladder" in place amongst the ranks of Charlie Company, a ladder that indicated not a person's actual military ranking, but rather how well they could be trusted in combat.

"The guy on the top rung -- that's the guy you want to hang around with," Hokenson says -- because that's the guy who's going to have your back in the heat of battle.

"On the bottom rung (of the ladder), it's a pack of wolves," he adds. "Your whole goal is to work your way up."

Eventually, Hokenson ended up on that top rung -- as one of only a handful of survivors from his original company.

"There was a lot of turnover (i.e., soldiers dying and being replaced)," he says.

In the next 12 months of his life, Hokenson saw more than his share of combat, and watched more than a few of his friends die -- sometimes in unimaginable pain.

On Feb. 14, 1970, more than a third of Charlie Company was killed or injured in a battle that came to be known as the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre."

"Out of our company of 78 guys, eight were killed and 20 were wounded," Hokenson says.

On April 1, 1970, Hokenson's company was stationed at Fire Support Base (FSB) Illingworth, near the Cambodian border, when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched a major attack that would result in the deaths of 70 G.I.'s.

It would turn out to be the single deadliest day of the year for U.S. forces in Vietnam, and at the center of the carnage was FSB Illingworth -- where 36 percent of the Americans killed died in a matter of two hours, according to a 2008 story in VFW magazine.

In between those two battles, Hokenson would see four more major conflicts -- and became one of only three members of Charlie Company who survived all of them.

"From Feb. 14 to April 1, Charlie Company had a 120 percent casualty rate," he says.

Hokenson remembers one encounter in particular, on March 7, 1970:

"We were in Cambodia, even though we weren't (officially) supposed to be," he says.

Under the cover of night, the soldiers thought their NVA counterparts wouldn't be able to figure out where they were.

All night long, however, the U.S. soldiers heard a lone NVA flute player's song wafting out over the stillness of the jungle. It was what would be later identified as a "death flute" -- a tribute to the NVA soldiers who would most likely die in the coming battle.

"It was unnerving," Hokenson says of that eerie tune.

Though his comrades thought they knew where the NVA soldiers were, they didn't want to risk giving away their position by firing their rifles at night.

"We thought we were being quiet," Hokenson says -- but not quiet enough.

The NVA soldiers ambushed them the following morning.

A few weeks later, on March 26th, Hokenson's company took on the 272nd NVA regiment.

"There were 78 of us, and 400 to 600 of them," he says. "We fought until they (army command) got us reinforcements.

"Thirty-nine of us walked away from that one," he says.

Ironically, their unit was sent to FSB Illingworth a few days later -- to recover from their ordeal.

Instead, "we got hit again," Hokenson recalls.

In most of their battles, Hokenson's unit had to "fight our way in, then fight our way back out," he says. "The fight on the way out was usually worse than on the way in."

Though casualties were heavy, Hokenson says it was only the skills and training of their commanding officer, Captain George Hobson -- a former special forces commander -- that kept the outcome from being even bloodier.

"One of the reasons why we did as well as we did was because of his skills and training -- I would never have survived without him," Hokenson says.

Hobson, however, didn't see it that way: "He felt so much sorrow, so much guilt that he lost so many men," says Hokenson, who still keeps in touch with his former commander.

As he told Hobson after they both returned to the U.S., "I felt that it was only because of his skilled leadership that a lot of us are still alive today."

Not that he survived entirely unscathed -- before he returned to the U.S., Hokenson was twice wounded in combat, for which he earned two Purple Hearts.

"When I first got in-country, I was shot in the legs," he says.

The second time he was wounded was at FSB Illingworth on April 1.

"It was so dusty and dirty, we really couldn't see (until the enemy soldiers were almost on top of them)," Hokenson recalls of that battle. "Our weapons were jamming up on us because of the dirt.

"You had to keep looking to see if they were coming, and keep an eye on the incoming fire at the same time. Your first instinct is to curl up and hide, but you can't."

Just four days after being wounded in battle, Hokenson was on his way back to the U.S. -- permanently.

"My tour was up," he says.

Hokenson was given a 40-day leave to recuperate, then spent the next four months serving out his term with the Army at Fort Hood, Texas -- which was in the midst of a series of race riots between the black and white soldiers stationed there.

"The real danger was on the base," he says. "Being from the north, I wasn't really prejudiced -- but I found that there were some black people who hated me just because I was white."

When he returned to the Red River Valley four months later, after his honorable discharge from the army, Hokenson found the transition to civilian life to be a difficult one at first.

"I went to college at Moorhead State, but I couldn't get Vietnam out of my head," he says. "I felt like a square peg in a round hole -- I didn't fit.

"On the outside, I looked the same (as before he left), but on the inside..."

Hokenson also noted that there was "a real dislike for veterans" on the college campus at that time.

After dropping out of college, Hokenson found himself working in steel construction for about a year, before going back to Moorhead Tech to get his license in heating and air conditioning.

His first job after graduating was at Northwestern Bell, where he started as an operator in 1978.

"I moved up to the service bureau, then I went into working on the buildings -- heating, air conditioning, security systems. I traveled all over North Dakota."

He would stay with Northwestern Bell through its subsequent incarnations as U.S. West and Qwest, until retiring in January of 2000.

In April of 1981, Hokenson married his wife Gail, who was a secretary at North Dakota State University for 32 years. (She is retired now as well.)

Six years ago, the couple bought a home on Cotton Lake -- which had fond memories for Hokenson, whose family once owned and operated the Sunny Beach Resort across the lake from where he now lives.

"In Vietnam, when things got really tough I'd bring myself back here (to Cotton Lake) and remember the happy times," he says. "That's how I coped with the stress."

When he got back to the area after completing his tour in Vietnam, however, Hokenson discovered that his parents had sold the resort.

"That really hurt," he admits. "It was a big part of my life. It was gone -- it felt as though my roots were cut out from under me."

Now that he's back on Cotton Lake, however, Hokenson feels those roots growing again.

"It's really nice to be back," he says.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454