This Veterans’ Day, the Acantha shares the stories of a few local veterans, and gives thanks to many more not mentioned here.
World War II
When Andrew Jenson and Owen Monkman graduated from Teton County High School in 1942, the Great Depression had only recently ended, and jobs were scarce. Jensen got a job building Farragut Naval Training Station in Idaho, with a union wage of $1 an hour, and then moved to Spokane, Washington, for radio school. Monkman attended Montana State University for a year.
When the boys’ time for the draft was due, they both said they wanted to go into the service as pilots. The friends completed their physical exams and training together at Malmstrom AFB, and were sworn in with a dozen other Teton County boys.
The Air Force had 30,000 more pilot prospects than they needed at that time, so Monkman was instead sent to gunnery training in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Jenson went to Fort Douglas, Utah, and then Amarillo, Texas, for pilot training. A twin-engine bomber crashed while he was on guard duty in Texas, and he helped the emergency medical responders pull the victims out.
“There were seven men, all like hamburger,” he said. “After that, I told myself, ‘I’m never flying.’ Later, I got over that, and said I wanted to fly anyways.”
Then, just like his buddy Monkman, Jenson was reclassified. His background made him a prime candidate for radio training in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Monkman was made a B-17 tail-gunner and sent to Germany. Waist-gunner Paul Lynch, who had gone to gunnery school with Monkman, wrote that the young man “never complained about being assigned to the most dangerous position as tail-gunner. He just crawled back like he belonged there.”
Jenson was sent to Arizona, Nevada and California. He spent time flying on B-24s, checking whether the equipment worked properly.
Jenson was given orders for Okinawa in June 1945. When the time came, he waited with his uniform and gear ready to go. His flight was delayed, and his anticipation heightened. On Aug. 6, he looked on as Hiroshima was hit with the first nuclear bombing the world had seen.
“None of us really knew what to do. We just kept awaiting orders,” said Jenson. Three days later, on Aug. 9, Nagasaki was hit. The war officially ended a month later, on Sept. 2.
Jenson got out to care for his dad, who was ill. Monkman was killed in action Nov. 26, 1944, when his B-17 went down in Altenbeken, Germany. He is buried in the Choteau Cemetery.
The Korean War
Les Arensmeyer and Bill Leys both served in the Korean War, but neither was stationed in Korea. As a result, each man has a unique perspective on the war.
Arensmeyer served as a stenographer in Yokohama, Japan, between 1954 and 1955. An armistice was signed in 1953, and the war was coming to a close. His job involved a lot of logistics: interviewing NCOs and officers about where they wanted their personal belongings shipped, hand-delivering papers and managing ocean manifests for cargo ships.
Recently married, he enjoyed six months with his wife, Carol, before being deployed. She gave birth to their firstborn, Norman, while he was away. When he returned, they continued their normal way of life: raising cattle and their new family.
Leys served in the Air Force from 1952 to 1956, and was deployed for the last three years: first in Frankfurt, Germany, and then Dreux, France. As a flight engineer on C-119s with the 11th Troop Carrier Squadron, he was able to put 27 different countries and 1,200-plus hours of flight time under his belt.
“We hauled everything from shoes to Karachi [Pakistan] to camel saddles to Cairo, but our main operation was carrying paratroopers,” said Leys. “We dropped 1,000 troops on England within a week.”
Leys saw a few scary situations during his flight time. Once, his plane lost an engine, and they had to make an emergency landing and wait for a new engine to come and the plane to be repaired in Malta. Another time, the flight control tower accidently directed a group of American fighter aircraft into their C-119 formation, causing them to lose one fighter and one or two C-119s.
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: my time was a paid vacation compared to what other guys went through in Korea,” he said.
The Vietnam War
Choteau resident George Anderson comes from a heritage of military service. His father of the same name turns 97 this month, and is a veteran of three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. For Vietnam, both father and son were deployed, in Thailand and Vietnam, respectively.
Anderson did two tours at Vietnam’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base, just outside of Saigon, from November 1967 to June 1969. He was a machine gunner with the Air Force’s 377th Security Police Squadron, charged with defending the base. At first, it was a relatively calm operation, working alongside members of other U.S. military branches and the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces.
Then came January 1968. A truce was expected to come for the lunar New Year (a major holiday in Vietnam called “Tet”), as it had in years past. Instead, they were warned to expect an attack.
“We didn’t know when it would come, or how big it was going to be. We just knew something was about to happen,” said Anderson.
They weren’t allowed to fire until fired upon. There was nothing to do but watch as weapons and troops gathered on the horizon. Two men in an unassuming three-wheeled taxi broke the peace by firing RPGs, killing two men instantly. The Tet Offensive was officially upon them.
Just 804 defending unit members were available for duty that day, against approximately 2,500 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
“We held out for about 20 minutes, but then they broke in and took over the O-51 bunker,” said Anderson.
O-51 was modest, but critical to the base’s defense strategy. The enemy knew as much, and made it a primary target. They climbed over mounds of more than 100 of their own dead, through machine gun fire on the ground and strafing from AC-47s and Cobra helicopters in the air, to capture O-51.
“After that, we didn’t know if our five guys inside were dead or alive,” said Anderson.
Enemy fire was now coming out of O-51. Major Carl Bender made the tough call for air support to hit the bunker, assuming his men inside were already dead.
After the bunker was hit, they saw a figure emerge. It was Sgt. Alonzo Coggins, badly burned and bleeding, but the only one of the five in O-51 to survive.
“This guy in my unit, Larry Blades saw it happen, and told me about it,” said Anderson. “Coggins was a black man, and thank goodness for that, because then we instantly knew he wasn’t Vietnamese, and didn’t shoot. Right behind Alonzo came a VC or NVA guy who tried to shoot him as he was running out. Larry said, ‘man, it was a sight to see. Two hundred M-16’s were all aimed at this one guy, and it turned him into a red mist.’”
Communication was difficult, as all the radios were on the same frequency. When they finally were able to get a call out for help, the ambulance from the base hospital couldn’t get to them, and there were no trained combat medics in the field to give immediate care.
“All we had was a little box on our gun belt with a bandage in it. That’s it,” Anderson said.
Coggins fully recovered and received a Silver Star in 1999. Bender made his peace with Coggins in 2000, after 32 years of harboring guilt from his decision. Anderson was stationed at Malmstrom AFB in 1969, where he led a security forces team on the Juliet missile field. He ended his military service as a staff sergeant in 1971, moved to Choteau and served 35 years with the Teton County Sheriff’s Office. He still carries a piece of paper with him today, listing the men in his unit who were killed in bunker O-51: Sgt. Louis Fischer, Sgt. William Cyr, Sgt. Charles Hebron, Sgt. Roger Mills.
Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and Tan Son Nhut Air Base converted to what is now the busiest airport in Vietnam. Bunker O-51 is still standing, surrounded by Vietnamese C-130’s emblazoned with red stars. Locals are generally friendly to foreigners who want to visit the memorial of “the American War.”
Choteau farmer Aaron Leys is the grandson of two veterans: Bill Leys mentioned above and Elmer Henry, who served in the Marine Corps at Iwo Jima.
“Listening to my grandpa tell stories of his time at Iwo Jima made me want to join the Marines,” he said.
Leys, who served from 2007-2011, was assigned to multiple units during his career, but spent a significant amount of time with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) as a light armored vehicle technician, performing maintenance and repair work when the vehicles needed it.
The 15th MEU is based out of Camp Pendleton, California (the same place where Henry trained before going to the Pacific theatre) but in his time, they deployed to the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. Leys named Australia, the Philippines and Guam as some of his favorite deployments.
“I just remember having a good time. When you’re in the Marines, that’s a brotherhood, and that never goes away,” he said.
For Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day, he said he has just one tradition: remembering his brothers-in-combat who never made it home.