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‘It was chaotic’

Carlos man lost vision in one eye, earned Silver Star while serving in Vietnam

Kerry Nelson of rural Carlos, Minn. had a vision for his life before he was drafted into the United States military in 1965, just as U.S. combat troops were being drawn into the Vietnam War. Looking back, from the hilltop home he built in 2003, and a span of over 50 years, his military experience and its long-term effects are much clearer, though his vision remains cloudy.

Kerry Nelson of rural Carlos was a gunner in the Vietnam War. In this award-winning photo that appeared in Life Magazine, Nelson is pictured using an M17A1 coincidence rangefinder. The fire control system included a repeater that displayed the gunner’s sight picture to the commander. The photo, by Co Rentmeester, received the prize of World Press Photo of the Year. Photo by Co Rentmeester

Nelson had planned to buy a farm and settle down, but instead he responded to his draft notice and, like many others, enlisted in the U.S. Army. Leaving his sweetheart, Linda Triebenbach behind, he went to Ft. Hood, Texas for basic training. Linda and Kerry married after he completed basic training. She stayed with her folks and worked in Sauk Centre while Kerry went on to Ft. Meade in Maryland and then to Virginia.

“I fired at an expert level throughout my training so I ended up as a tank gunner,” he said. When Nelson went to Vietnam in 1966 he was assigned to an M48A3 tank. He may have felt some sense of security in this updated model, and final version, of the Patton (General George S. Patton) series tanks. It had a supercharged diesel engine and an enhanced fire control system. The turret and hull were made from cast homogenous steel and had a 60-degree frontal slope. The turret had armor ranging from 2 to 4.5 inches. The hull’s front armor was 4.3 inches, and side armor was 3 inches forward and 2 inches at the rear. The floor plating was an inch-thick giving protection against enemy mines. The M48A3 had wide tracks but often became bogged down in Vietnam’s deep mud.

Kerry quickly learned that the M48’s 90mm M41 cannon fired a 24.16-pound shell with a muzzle velocity of 2,800 feet per second out to a maximum range of 4,500 meters. The tank’s armament was usually rounded out by a coaxial .30-caliber machine gun and a .50-caliber gun in the commander’s cupola or mounted on it. These were augmented by handguns and grenades.

Nelson became a bit of celebrity when Life Magazine photographer, Co (Jacobus) Rentmeester, covered the actions of his unit for the June 2, 1967 issue. Rentmeester photographed Nelson as he looked through the lens of the rangefinder. “It took four hours for him to get the photo he wanted,” remembered Nelson. “He was waiting for the light to be just right.”

Rentmeester’s patience, and Nelson’s too, since it was over 100 degrees in the tank without the engine running, was rewarded when the photo was chosen as the World Press Photo of the Year 1967. That was the 12th year that the photo contest recognized professional photographers for the best pictures contributing to the past year of visual journalism. It also had the distinction of being the first color photograph to win the award.

Life Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Hedley Donovan, who was born in Brainerd in 1914, wrote the article that accompanied Rentmeester’s photos. He had traveled to Vietnam in 1965 and again in 1967 which gave some perspective to his view on the war.

“In Vietnam we are fighting in three interlocking wars. The first is the ‘big-unit war,’ in which allied battalions, and sometimes regiments, fight more or less conventional battles against sizable N.V.A. (North Vietnam Army) units and V.C. (Vietcong) main-force units. The second war is a laborious business in which many kinds of allied units, including squads and platoons of famous U. S. divisions like the Air Cavalry and 1st Marines, are combing through the fields and hamlets, not to engage big enemy units but to flush out handfuls of Vietcong when they can, and bit by bit bring more of the civilian population under control of the Saigon government. The third war is not essentially a military operation, but it requires a shield of military security. This is often called the ‘real war;’ military success in the other two wars merely constitutes a ticket of admission to this crucial contest. The third war is a whole complex of economic, political, psychological, civic campaigns meant to create the fabric of a society with some natural defenses against subversion.”

Nelson was part of Donovan’s “second war” when on May 21, 1967 the Vietcong infiltrated a village and then ambushed the convoy of which Nelson’s tank was a part. The Pentagon’s Ambush After Action Report provided extraordinary detail of the events that day, a day that changed Nelson’s vision.

“First Platoon, Troop K, 3rd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry, commanded by Lt. Michael Boyd, was conducting a normal resupply run along National Route 1 from the Gia Ray Rock Quarry to the junction of National Route 1 and Interprovincial Route 2 on the morning of Sunday 21 May 1967. Shortly before, the platoon had completed clearing Route 1 for mines and VC (Vietcong) activity between Gia Ray Rock Quarry, where the bulk of Troop K was providing security for an element of the 595th Engineer Company, and Suoi Cat village to the west. This distance of approximately 6 kilometers [about 3.5 miles] had proved in the past to be the stretch of road most generally interdicted by VC activity. The clearing operation had proved uneventful, and the platoon had returned to Gia Ray, picked up the troop mess truck and an engineer jeep, and proceeded down the cleared route through Suoi Cat village.

“When passing through Suoi Cat none of the members of the platoon noticed anything out of the ordinary. The usual civilian traffic was on the road, farmers were tilling their fields, and children were waving to the troopers and begging for candy. The advance guard cleared the village, crossed the bridge over Song Rai stream, and moved west without incident. The main body followed…”

Nelson was in the third of a convoy of 10 vehicles that was strung out over 600 meters (about 1/3 mile) when an unexpected rifle round hit the lead armored vehicle and set the vehicle’s load of ammunition ablaze. Subsequent rounds and an all-out attack by Vietcong guerillas resulted in loss of contact between the vehicles in the convoy.

“It was chaotic,” remembered Nelson of the attack. “There was smoke and dust and it was hard to see.”

The ambush report provides the details of the altercation and its effects on each vehicle and troop within the convoy. The loss of life was high with nearly half of the men in the convoy killed in action. Fatalities were higher in the last few vehicles of the convoy.

Co Rentmeester took the picture of Kerry Nelson for Life Magazine. Here is Rentmeester receiving the prize for World Press Photo of the Year. Contributed photo

“It had initially appeared to Lt. Boyd that the M48A3 tank M-34 leading the main body of the column, had been critically damaged and abandoned by its crew. This was far from the case. The tank was a little late in getting into the battle, but when it did, it made its presence felt. The tank crew had just received Pittman’s [lead vehicle commander and acting platoon sergeant] warning [‘ambush, ambush, ambush’] and Sgt. Wright, the tank commander, had notified SP4 Blancarte, the driver, of the situation, when a recoilless round hit the TC cupola a glancing blow and destroyed the caliber 50 machine gun. The tank was about 400 meters west of Suoi Rai stream at this time. PFC Loisel, a recent replacement, who had never been under fire and disdained any real VC threat, was tank loader. He was riding on the tank equipment rack and was severely wounded by the blast from the first recoilless round.

“The tank replied with one round of 90 mm canister fire to its right side and continued to roll. It moved another 100 meters before a second recoilless round hit the underside of the tank’s front slope and knocked Blancarte, the driver, unconscious. The tank rolled to the left of the road and halted. Simultaneously, a third round penetrated the front turret lacerating the face of SP4 Nelson, the gunner, and disabling the coaxially mounted M-73 machine gun. As Loisel was severely wounded and lying on top of the tank exposed to heavy small arms fire, Wright manhandled Loisel through the TC’s cupola into the tank. Nelson helped fit Loisel into the relative security of the gunner’s seat and slid over to the loader’s position just as another recoilless rifle round took the left rangefinder cover off the tank.

“By this time, all the tank sights were inoperative because of the recoilless hits. Wright came up from the tank commander’s cupola and saw two VC at a distance of about 100 meters to the left rear of the tank. Thinking that the tank’s entire fire control system was destroyed, Wright used the only weapon available, his caliber 45 service pistol. The results were predictable; he missed. Nelson then came up with his caliber 45 machine gun and emptied two clips of ammunition at the VC with no greater success than Wright. At this time, the tank was hit by another recoilless rifle round that pierced the turret wounding Loisel again.

“…Wright dropped into the turret to check on him and noticed that the 90 mm gun light switches were on. Hoping that the main gun might function, Wright yelled to Nelson, “Let’s try it,” and traversed the gun until it paralleled the south side of the road pointing east. Wright hit the switch and the main gun fired. Nelson and Wright then began to fire south of the road and east to west traversing the gun slightly after each round until they had completed an arc covering the south of the road. While this transpired, the tank suffered four or five more recoilless rifle hits, one of which temporarily blinded Nelson, who just kept on loading.”

The battle continued and before relief troops arrived the tank had sustained a total of 14 hits from recoilless weapons, not including numerous other glancing hits and near misses. The tank’s occupants (platoon sergeant, driver, loader and gunner) had all survived though Loisel, the loader, died shortly afterwards.

Nelson was airlifted to the Saigon hospital, where surgeons attempted to save his right eye, which had been blinded by one of the hits.

Meanwhile, Kerry’s wife and his parents received notification of his injuries via a visit from police officers followed by an official telegram.

“We only knew that he was injured. He was alive but we didn’t know about his injuries,” remembered Linda. She wouldn’t see Kerry until he left the hospital and came home the end of June. He returned to the hospital at Fitzsimmons General (in Denver) for two more eye surgeries, neither of which was successful in restoring sight in his right eye.

Nelson was awarded the Silver Star for “gallantry in action while engaged in military conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam.” The letter of commendation further states, “Private Nelson’s indomitable courage and complete disregard for personal safety were an inspiration to all those with whom he served and contributed significantly to the overwhelming defeat of the enemy force.”

While the Vietnam War raged for eight more years, Nelson was discharged from the military in November, 1967.

Back on the home front and reunited with Linda and their baby daughter Kristi, Nelson got busy.

“I did chores for the neighbors and then bought a farm that winter. Linda’s dad (Ed Triebenbach) was a carpenter and made cabinets and I worked with him.”

Only a year later, Ed passed away so Kerry took over the construction business. He had always been mechanically inclined and both farming and construction work suited him well. Two more children, Kerry John and Cinthia, joined the family on the “home farm.”

Over time the construction business grew as did the farm. The Nelsons now farm 700 acres and father and son work side by side in both. They also own rental properties and storage buildings. Linda handles the bookkeeping and Nelson’s brother-in-law also works in the construction business.

Kerry and his wife, Linda, were married while Kerry was in Vietnam. On the table in front of the Nelson is a photo of the Life Magazine article, the framed World Press photo, and a composite of the postage stamps (2005) that includes Kerry’s photo. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Linda and Kerry tried wintering in Arizona but it wasn’t for them. They obviously like staying busy and take the opportunities to travel when they can, especially through agri-tourism. They have taken farm tours through Brazil, Panama and Central America. They’ve also visited farms in Ireland, Scotland and England. They’ve even gone to China and Kerry revisited Vietnam, this time enjoying ports and inland excursions. He noted that the rich and poor live right across the street from each other.

In 2005 the photograph of gunner Nelson that won the World Press Award in 1967 was featured on a postage stamp of the Netherlands. Photographer Co Rentmeester, now 83 years-old, not only covered the Vietnam War but went on to produce photo essays and three books: Three Faces of Indonesia, Holland on Ice, and FOOTPRINTS.

And as to Nelson’s vision, well, the vision or plan for his life may have turned out significantly different from what he thought it would be. There may also be some hope for sight in his right eye. Though surgery five decades ago wasn’t successful in restoring his visual acuity, he managed to keep the eye.

“I didn’t want a glass eye. They get dirty and are difficult to manage,” he said. And now that eye is showing some signs of improvement. “I had cataract surgery on my left eye. Before the surgery they think that as my left eye was getting worse, my right eye was trying to compensate.” He can now distinguish light and dark and there’s talk of trying surgery again. “They’ve learned a lot in all the years since my last surgery while I was in the military. I might have a new lens put in this winter.”

At age 73, Kerry Nelson’s vision may change once again. It might be 20/20 this time.

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