McGrath: Childhood classmate remembers Vietnam
By David McGrath May 25, 2012 9:24PM
Sgt. Jerry Kamper (left) receives the award for best brigade dining from Gen. Joseph K. Britton in 1968. | Supplied photo
Updated: July 3, 2012 10:08AM
Jerry Kamper grew up in Evergreen Park and attended St. Bernadette School the same time I did. We weren’t close, but I remember him as a kid with wiry strength and nervous energy that occasionally got him into trouble in a school where Dominican nuns expected “self control” until 3 p.m. every day.
After eighth grade, we went our separate ways, and Jerry might as well have fallen off the planet as far as I was concerned because I never saw him again.
Except that Jerry did not fall anywhere and instead had the kind of planetary impact that’s recounted on Memorial Day.
After working his way through Evergreen Park High School as a cook at The Holloway House on 95th Street and as a part-time delivery man for Rosangelo’s Pizza, he was drafted by the Army and shipped to Fort Campbell, Ky.
Following basic training, he logically assumed that the Army would like to make use of his culinary skill, so he requested an assignment to a base in Alaska where cooks surely were needed. The Army honored approximately half of his request, allowing him to make use of his mess hall expertise as long as he did so at the battlefront in South Vietnam.
The 23-hour flight to the Mekong Delta gave him plenty of time to think, and he figured he was still ahead of the game. Clerks, battalion commanders and cooks like himself, after all, were considered REMFs — an acronym for a profane reference to those whose assignments meant they were a safe distance from combat action.
Except that Jerry landed in the infamous 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry of Col. David Hackworth, whose every clerk, cook and man on board was expected to be able to disassemble and assemble an M14 blindfolded and know how to use it against the enemy.
Hackworth had been given what was thought to be an impossible task — to “fix” a unit that was losing men, losing ground and losing badly to the North Vietnamese on a daily basis. He set about the task with grueling, old-school, no Mr. Nice guy discipline, while retraining soldiers in the same mobile, hit-and-run tactics that the Viet Cong used.
The colonel’s self-described “tough love” made him the most hated man in the country, and rumors even circulated of a contract put out on his head by his men.
Hackworth wrote about it all in “Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, United States Army, Vietnam.” The book chronicles the three years during which Hackworth’s “misfits” became the most deadly and efficient fighting force in the war. The book would later become a textbook in officer training school.
Jerry Kamper was among the misfits, awarded the Bronze Star for “meritorious service” under Hackworth’s command (in addition to six commendations and three other service medals).
Jerry protested recently in an email that he didn’t do anything special, and that his most dangerous encounter was landing in a chopper and then taking cover during a half-hour firefight — all to deliver the first hot meal that B Company had in two days.
He also said he shed tears and felt his share of guilt when he viewed the names of 121 men from their battalion of 750 inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Jerry probably got his humility from his father, no stranger himself to war. Jerry Kamper Sr., was a B-17 navigator in World War II and a member of the so-called Lucky Bastards Club, for which one qualified by surviving a minimum of 30 bombing missions over Germany.
Jerry had to learn about his father’s service secondhand because the old man could never bring himself to talk about the war and died way too young from lung cancer at 46.
“You must remember, I was the guy who wanted to be a cook and go to Alaska,” Jerry told me. “I wanted no part of infantry units and Vietnam. Real heroes to me are the guys who never made it back and those whose lives, like my father’s, could never return to what they once were. I learned while serving with Col. Hackworth that being accepted as a soldier is what meant the most to me.”
All these years later, Jerry said he’s a “lucky bastard,” too, for marrying Cindy, who helped him reconstruct his life after the war and has saved his hide every day for the past 38 years.
I still haven’t seen Jerry since we were 14. But that should change come September, when our St. Bernadette Class of 1963 will have a reunion at the American Legion Hall at 97th Street and Kedzie Avenue.
I initially was ambivalent about reuniting with people I haven’t seen in half a century — people who are just names with children’s faces in my memory, their characters barely formed back then and strangers to me now.
But to think that while I was going to school and raising a family and staking my claim to the American dream, a skinny kid I knew from the playground flew to a jungle on the other side of the world, contended with mosquitoes and snakes and firefights, confronting death and fear on a daily basis, so the rest of us wouldn’t have to.
Memorial Day is for honoring our war dead, and as Jerry said, the real heroes are the guys who did not return. But because we can no longer embrace them or shake their hands and thank them, Jerry will have to put up with all of that from us, come September.
David McGrath is a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest and is a professor emeritus in English at the college of DuPage.