In 1968, like in the rest of America, change permeated the Evergreen State’s culture, college campuses, and political institutions. Civil rights workers marched for equality among the races. Women battled for leadership roles in politics and business. Native Americans fought for fishing rights. Musicians sang revolutionary songs about the need for change.
And Bryon Loucks, retired Weyerhaeuser Co. forester in Centralia, arrived in Vietnam, a Green Beret medic.
Loucks’ experience is among a collection of stories in a book by the Secretary of State’s Legacy Washington program, “1968: The Year That Rocked Washington.” Among activists featured in the book, which includes photos and memorabilia, are Polly Dyer (environmental), Art Fletcher of the Tri-Cities (civil rights), former Secretary of State Ralph Munro (disabilities), Karen Fraser (feminist), Larry Gossett (minorities) and Rep. Norm Dicks (political). Talented artists such as Pat O’Day, a well-known Seattle radio disc jockey, and Tom Robbins, a literary author and poet, are also featured.
The book launch is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 12 in the Legislative Building at the Secretary of State’s Office. Stories included in the book can be read online at www.sos.wa.gov/legacy/sixty-eight/exhibit-opening.aspx.
John Hughes, chief historian for Legacy Washington, spoke about “The Art of Oral History” in a presentation last month at the historic Schmidt House in Tumwater. Legacy Washington has published 14 books, opened nine exhibits, and completed 37 oral history profiles since it was launched in the fall of 2008. Hughes also spoke about the 1968 project.
“No story of 1968 would be complete without a Vietnam veteran,” he said. “We found an extraordinary one.”
Like many Vietnam veterans, he said, Loucks didn’t want to talk about the war, but eventually worked with Hughes to share a memoir he wrote about his mentor, Specialist 5 John J. Kedenburg, a young man from Long Island, N.Y., who joined the Green Berets in 1965.
Hughes noted that between 1963 and 1975, 1,124 Washingtonians were killed in combat or missing in action. My husband, Larry Zander, who also served in Vietnam during 1968, knew several of them. Just before shipping off to Vietnam, he served as a pallbearer for his childhood friend and schoolmate from Whatcom County, Donald Nelson, who was killed Dec. 14, 1967; he served in the 25th Infantry with Kenneth Sills of Spokane, who died in a firefight Oct. 7, 1968, at Hua Nghia in South Vietnam.
Loucks was the oldest of six children born to a police officer and a nurse in Port Angeles. After graduating from high school in 1964, he studied two years at junior college and then enlisted in 1966, eventually training for a year as a combat medic in the Army Special Forces, known as the Green Berets.
“Today, when I review some of my notebooks it amazes me how much information we were processing,” Loucks told Hughes. “We jokingly used to say we were qualified to do anything except brain surgery or open heart surgery. And that’s not far off the mark.”
At his request, Loucks was selected to serve with an elite reconnaissance group known as MACV SOG, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies & Observations Group along the Ho Chi Minh Trail doing clandestine work interdicting supply lines. The forward operating base was outside Kontum in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
The story describes his early experiences on clandestine missions behind enemy lines, dressed in nondescript clothing with nothing to identify them as Americans, carrying packs that weighed up to 80 pounds.
Kedenburg cared for others and taught Loucks and other newcomers how to sound-proof equipment, pack armament, pick out a place to sleep, and determine which rifles to use.
Then on June 13, 1968, he learned that Kedenburg’s “team was inbound on the ropes” or in serious trouble in the southeast corner of Laos.
“When the helicopters arrived, we got the devastating news that John had given his seat to another team member, an indigenous soldier,” Loucks wrote in his memoir. “John was still missing and not responding to radio calls. That was 50 years ago. It’s hard to share something I tried to forget for more than 20 of those years.”
Kedenburg’s team had been in a running firefight that day, pursued by North Vietnamese soldiers, when rescue helicopters arrived. After the first chopper left, Kedenburg and three other team members were in their seats when a missing man rushed from the thick jungle.
“In a matter of seconds Kedenburg was out of his harness and directing that soldier to take his place,” Loucks wrote.
Kedenburg raced into the brush near the extraction zone as the helicopter lifted off, but Air Force jets he had called in began a bombing run without realizing he was still on the ground.
Loucks volunteered for the Bright Light Mission, a larger team sent in to rescue Kedenburg or recover his body. They arrived at “an area pockmarked with B-52 bomb craters” where Kedenburg had last been seen, and found his body within 100 yards of the extraction point, his “crypto book,” maps and mission notes still in his gear.
“The conclusion we drew from John’s wounds and the fact that the enemy had not taken the valuable code book and radio was that bombs from our own jets had killed him,” Loucks wrote.
A North Vietnamese soldier threw a concussion grenade that knocked Loucks unconscious as a major firefight erupted. His team leader retrieved him and dragged him to the main bomb crater. When he regained consciousness, he asked what to do and they told him to lob grenades, which he did until one hit a tree and rolled back close to them. He started treating the wounds of the injured.
“During that first tumultuous baptism by fire, I was convinced there was no way I was going to come through alive. We were totally surrounded by enemy troops. Numerous attempts to extract us had failed. The number of enemy killed by us and the air component must have been staggering. Yet they kept coming in greater numbers.”
Air Force Skyraider jets dropped cluster bombs that eventually cleared the area near them so the men could be extracted from the landing zone by three helicopters. Loucks flew on the first helicopter.
“For some reason the decision was made to send me out with the first helicopter with our dead,” Loucks wrote. “The ship was loaded and I was the only live team member on board. It was a sobering moment.”
He fired into the jungle as the helicopter lifted off and hot shell casings from his M-60 machine gun landed in his lap and caused first-degree burns to his inner thigh.
“Once I knew what had happened, I slumped down on the body bags and slept until we arrived back at camp,” Loucks wrote.
The team lost some indigenous Montagnard members, all the Americans were wounded, and Kedenburg was dead. But they retrieved his body and his vital crypto books.
Loucks had no time to mourn. He hardened his heart to survive. He left Vietnam nine months later.
“For me it was meeting a girl who would become my wife and lifelong partner that helped me get over the feeling of not being capable of loving someone,” Loucks said.
Bryon and Donna Loucks, recognized statewide as outstanding tree farmers, are active volunteers at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at email@example.com.