During the late spring and early summer of this year, the sights and reports of looting and rioting in America hurt Larry Flenniken to his core. His anguish is real, as he fought with some of the men whose Vietnam Memorial was defaced.
“That broke my heart,” said Flenniken, choking back tears. “It crushed me, that America has become a place where we don’t mean (anything) anymore. All those boys left behind, and they do that to the memorial.”
Flenniken, who earned 11 medals during his time in Vietnam, served in the First Calvary of the U.S. Army. He was “rotated in” just after the famous battle at LZ (Landing Zone) X-Ray, immortalized in the book, “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang - the Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam” by Hal Moore and Joseph L. Galloway; Mel Gibson directed and starred in the movie version.
Flenniken was “in country” for one year, from June 1967 - June 1968, and did one two-year stint in the Army.
“It was a leap year, too,” Flenniken said with a smile. “I was there 366 days. You count every day.”
Flenniken, a resident of Sherman, explained that back in the 1960s the Army rotated soldiers in and out of the units to keep them fighting strong. When that unit came out of the famous battle, the Army moved a lot of them out, because of the 87 who went into battle that day only 38 men survived. It was the first major battle of the Vietnam War for the First Calvary, whose roots extend back to General Custer and the Battle at Little Big Horn. Flenniken was one who went in during that rotation after the battle.
“I met some of (the men) who were in that battle,” recalled Flenniken. “Just horrible. Horrible.”
Flenniken was in three major battles during his time in the Vietnam War: Ashau Valley, the Battle of Hue (Way) and the famous Tet Offensive, started by the North Vietnamese on January 31, 1968, with 85,000 troops attacking multiple locations. He was wounded twice and awarded two Purple Hearts among his 11 medals.
“I had never heard of Vietnam until I got out of high school,” Flenniken said. “Then I heard some in 1964, then a little more in 1965 and a lot more by 1966.”
His number came up the next year and Flenniken became an official “unwillingly selected” soldier for the U.S. Army.
“I got drafted,” Flenniken said, “and then I learn a whole lot more about Vietnam.”
In each company there are three radio operators, of which Flenniken was one. These soldiers are tasked with “calling in the rounds” from artillery units, based on coordinates calculated in the field. He also called in air strikes for cover fire during ground assaults and even to helicopters and navy gun ships off shore for support. This makes the “radio guys” extremely important in battle.
“The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were trained to look for those (radio) antennas first and take them out,” explained Flenniken. “Our life expectancy was very short.”
True to form and intel, during the Battle of Hue Flenniken charged into battle, but wasn’t there very long.
“I was wounded within the first 45 seconds of the battle,” he recalled. “They came right for me.”
The Battle of Hue was also the subject of the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” Flenniken explained that the U.S. Marines were on the west side and the Army First Calvary was on the east side; the plan was to fight their way to the middle and meet to take the town.
“That round is still in me,” said Flenniken, matter-of-factly. “How I survived is quite a story.”
According to Flenniken, an Army major who normally didn’t fly missions was flying that day in order to keep his certification current. The battle was about 13 clicks (or 13 kilometers) from the First Calvary Hospital and Flenniken was in the middle of a war zone. The pilot replied to hold tight: “I’m coming to get him.”
“He got me there in eight minutes,” Flenniken recalled. “I was laying in the hospital getting ready to go home, but I got a fever and they kept me longer, so I missed the ship to Japan. The next day, my captain came to see me. He asked the doctor how soon I could come back; he really needed a radio man. So I spent six days in rehab and within 14 days of being wounded, I was back in the field with my unit.”
According to Flenniken, he didn’t see much action during the first three months in Vietnam. In the fall, the unit participated in a minor action, Codename: LZ Colt. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions during that battle on Nov. 8, 1967.
“We were hit during the night; we were outnumbered,” he said. “We lost 11 officers that night. We still don’t know how they knew we were there.”
According to Flenniken, there were 13 field grade officers with the unit who were doing planning for upcoming actions. Once the unit was hit, a howitzer lost both operators and Flenniken sprang into action. He replaced one of the gunners for a time until another one could get there. Then, he “lit up the site” for a couple of hours so the troops could see the battlefield during the fight.
“I gave them light so they could see what was happening,” he explained.
One aspect about wartime that Flenniken will never forget has to do with the mundane side of war— waiting and eating.
“Basically, we would dig a foxhole every night and eat sea rations every day,” Flenniken said. “Yes, sea rations— in the Army— from 1947! It was 1967 and we were eating 20-year-old food. You knew if you got the scrambled eggs and ham you didn’t want to eat that.”
Much of Flenniken’s and his unit’s work was “search and destroy” in the jungles of Vietnam. He noted that their job was to “put rounds on the targets.” The Army consists of armor, aviation, artillery and infantry; Flenniken was part of each one during his tour in country.
“I got to know a lot of different guys from every group,” he said. “We were like a well-oiled machine; if everyone did their job, we usually won. And if something was out of balance, we had to make do. Everyone’s job is important.”
His movement around the army sections may have contributed to one of the highlights of his time in the U.S. Army: he was selected as “Soldier of the Year” while in Vietnam. (He was awarded another bronze star for meritorious service due to his earning that distinction.)
“I was SOY for the first Air Cav. All the divisions vote for one soldier,” Flenniken explained. “I talked to all of them in my position; maybe that’s why they remembered me. I don’t think it was because I was such a good soldier. The Battalion colonel was so proud. I was one of only two drafted men to ever win SOY. It was very special.”
Flenniken served in ‘C’ Battery of the First Battalion 21st Artillery of First Calvary; and also in the “Fifth of Seven,” as Army vets would remember. The First Calvary was mobile and there were eight men assigned to each helicopter. His call sign was “69er Mike” and he was “artillery attached to infantry.”
“Those 11 men we lost in one night, I knew their names. They were names of men I knew well,” said Flenniken softly. “We got so close. I didn’t really know why I was in Vietnam, I guess to suppress communism, but I knew those men, those brothers of mine. We were in the same boat with the same goals; nothing else mattered.”
“Those boys (whose memorial was defaced) became your brothers,” he continued, with tears in his eyes. “Your brothers! Regardless of color or anything else.”
Flenniken couldn’t continue without discussing the leader of his platoon, Lt. Bobby Brown. Flenniken said that Brown “taught me not to see color, but to see the man.”
“We got close over the four months we served together. He was one of the finest soldiers I ever met,” Flenniken said. “He was such a tremendous leader. When I was wounded, he came to stay with me. That really impacted me.”
Flenniken also shared about his captain, a West Point graduate, who explained to him “the difference between a coward and a hero” during Flenniken’s early time in the unit.
“It’s what you’re fighting for. If you don’t have a reason to fight, you won’t be effective,” said Flenniken of his former captain’s explanation. “It became apparent he was right early on. We had a hundred men in a battle and began to take casualties. It made so much difference to the ones left fighting. I looked around and could see the difference; they had lost a buddy. They came alive right then. We took that city in less than three hours. I don’t know that we could have done it without that fire in our eyes.”
After the war, Flenniken went into ministry. It was on a day in 1975 that the war came back to him in a most peculiar way. He was preaching in Chicago, Illinois. Remember the army pilot major who flew Flenniken out of the warzone to the First Cavalry Hospital seven years earlier?
“I had never heard from him or about him again,” Flenniken said, “but there he was in the congregation that day. It was him who came to LZ Judy for me. It was an incredible feeling seeing him there. It wasn’t by chance, but by divine appointment.”
Flenniken discovered the pilot had been shot down two weeks later on another certification flight. By 1975, he was selling insurance and was transferred to Chicago right before Flenniken came there to preach. Something told the former pilot to come to the service that day.
Another aspect of that battle at LZ Judy was what happened back home. Flenniken’s mother, Mary, stood up in church and told the congregation that something was wrong with her son, and could they please pray with her right then in the middle of the service. It was Feb. 4, 1968.
“Ever since that day, people who were there remember how it happened, exactly what happened and how it lined up with me being wounded,” Flenniken said with astonishment. “They were in Flint, Michigan, while I was in Vietnam on the ground dying. It was a miracle. She has a connection to God that’s unbelievable. She’s still going strong at 94 years old and people still come to her for prayer.”
Another “divine appointment” connecting him to the Vietnam War happened in 2012 in the mountains of Colorado. His party was some 11,000 feet up, riding horses on the trail.
“I had a heart attack. We were five hours from the truck,” explained Flenniken. “I tried to make it down, but I fell off the horse so hard that it knocked the blood out of my heart. Med Evac tried for three hours, but couldn’t find me. Five deputies and an EMT hiked to me in the middle of the night.”
Those first responders got the coordinates for another Med Evac helicopter, and after what seemed an eternity, finally got a pilot to come get Flenniken after nightfall.
“He said, and I heard it over the radio, ‘Tell that soldier I’m coming to get him,’” Flenniken said. “We got to the hospital in Durango, where something really amazing happened.”
Remember Flenniken’s stay in the First Cavalry Hospital following the Battle of Hue
“It was that same doctor who operated on me (at the First Cav Hospital); saved my life,” said Flenniken, tears coming again. “He was on call at that Durango hospital that night; he saved me again. I remember he was a real hard nose kind of guy, but that night tears were running down his cheeks. He knew who I was.”
According to Flenniken, that doctor told anyone nearby that there was “a real war hero” at the hospital and that people should acknowledge him. Flenniken still gets cards from that doctor every year.
“All I can say is ‘by divine appointment,’” Flenniken said. “I was dead on that mountain, and there was that doctor again, not by chance at all, (but) by divine appointment.”
Flenniken left the Army wounded, with just seven days left in his tour. He talked doctors into letting him get home first, promising he would get his foot treated and do the necessary recovery— and he did. Flenniken left with two Bronze Stars for valor and meritorious service among his 11 medals, which he has displayed in his home.
He has been a minister for 43 years and a professional bird dog trainer. He and his wife, Judy, have three grown daughters. If the name Judy sounds familiar, it’s because Flenniken got to name that Landing Zone at the Battle of Hue. He wanted to do something memorable for that site, and what better way than to name it using his wife’s name.
It ended up being memorable for more than one reason, and Flenniken knows he was there for many reasons that day.