Rain in our hearts

Rain in our hearts

Sent off in the prime of life, the men of Alpha Company faced some of the heaviest combat of the Vietnam War, many never to return. Two Auburn alumni recall the life—and death—they encountered along the way.

Adapted from “Rain In Our Hearts” by Gary D. Ford and James Allen Logue.

Capt. John Wilson leaving ChuLai, Vietnam to take command of Alpha Company, 4/31st, 196th LIB Americal Division.

In the photograph, snapped in searing noon heat, Capt. John Agnew Wilson ’77 leads Alpha Company into Hiêp Dúc, a village in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. He stands erect, head held high, but he’s as thirsty, famished and fatigued as his men behind him. They include commander of 1st Platoon, 1st Lt. Michael Keeble ’67, who shares two, strong bonds with Wilson. Both are Alabamians. Both are Auburn men.

Since April 30, 1970, Alpha Company, 4/31, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, had fought day and night against elements of 2nd North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Division, and now, May 14, had gone four days without rations. Canteens were almost empty. Several soldiers were sick or wounded or both. One man had a fever of 105 degrees.

As they reached the village at midday, nearly all dropped in the gift of shade and slept where they fell. They awoke upon sensing, even before hearing, the high, beating heart of helicopter rotors. Re-supply choppers descended with manna: food, water, mail and ammunition. Alpha feasted and shared their C-rations with villagers.

One infantryman from New Jersey, James Allen Logue, a professional photographer before he was drafted, carried his rifle as well as a 35mm camera and snapped that photo of Wilson leading Alpha, one of some 2500 images he captured of his Vietnam War. Many now illustrate “Rain In Our Hearts: Alpha Company in the Vietnam War.” The volume won first place among military works in the 2020 Indie Awards, from a national organization of independent publishers, including academic presses.

“Rain In Our Hearts” began in 2012 in Florida when I interviewed Logue for an oral history. What of the men of Alpha, we wondered? Would they speak of that dangerous year and lend “voice” to Logue’s photographs for a book about one infantry company in one year of the Vietnam War? Most we called said yes, so we kissed our wives goodbye, roamed across America, and gathered not only “war stories” but also life stories from those who served with Logue in 1969-1970. In all, we interviewed 70, including widows, mothers and siblings of Alpha men killed in the conflict.

The survivors came home to a country that ignored, even reviled them. Like most Vietnam veterans, few, for decades, spoke of the war. So it wasn’t unexpected when, as the red light of my recorder blinked “on,” these men, now gray and grandfathers, began with these words: “I’ve never talked about Vietnam.”

Out tumbled memories that still shake them awake at night. They cried. They also laughed. And they marveled at a time of youth now long gone. A veteran in Colorado gazed out in morning sunshine and said, “We were so young. We were so very young.”

“I’ve never talked about Vietnam.”

So were Wilson and Keeble. Keeble was an Auburn freshman in 1962 when the student population was 8,954, and ROTC for men was mandatory. An excellent athlete, Keeble played freshman basketball and starred for four years on the golf team. To earn tuition, he worked summers in cotton mills in his native Valley, Ala.

Keeble stepped on campus when men wore crew cuts and co-eds sported white socks and saddle oxfords. While he fought in Vietnam, however, change was roiling America and Auburn: the war, civil rights, women’s rights, longer hair, higher hemlines and new visions of adulthood. In spring of 1970 The Auburn Plainsman covered local anti-war protests. It also reported as waning a traditional phenomenon among co-eds: “Senior Panic.” For many women, the Cinderella vision of college was snagging an engagement ring before graduation. By 1970, however, most Auburn women were considering careers before marriage and children.

Wilson wished he were at Auburn. Raised by a widowed mother in Grove Hill, he yearned to play football for coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan, but “wasn’t quite big enough.” Instead he attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery before enlisting. A captain when he reached Vietnam, he was bent on a military career.

Capt. John A. Wilson ’77 addresses the men of Alpha Company in a jungle clearing.

On Wilson’s first day as Alpha commander in December 1969, Logue snapped a panorama of men gathered around Wilson in a clearing in “the bush.” Typical of infantry companies in the conflict, they were black, white and brown, from small towns, cities, farms and suburbs. Most were in their twenties. Most were single.

There were farmers, mechanics, a printer, three cowboys, a cooper, a baker, a candy maker. Nearly all were high school graduates. Many had attended college. Some held bachelor’s degrees, a few their master’s. Two entered doctoral programs when they came home.

That day Wilson told his company a little about himself, spoke of his expectations of them and concluded: “I have one job: to get all of you, and me, back home, safely.”

“I have one job: to get all of you, and me, back home, safely.”

He likely thought of those words that afternoon in Hiêp Dúc when orders came: advance east. In the low light of a bamboo structure, Logue snapped a shadowy, somber image of Wilson with his platoon lieutenants around him, including Keeble. All knew the enemy prowled nearby. All knew it might be a bloody afternoon.

So the men “rucked up” and marched east, fed and rested, but wary. Villagers had disappeared, as usual, upon sensing the enemy near. One boy stood at a roadside, somber and silent, his arms crossed, watching Alpha depart. Logue snapped his photograph.

“He knew,” veterans recalled when seeing the image. It came with a sudden fury in a hard rain. Alpha fought back against greater odds, and stopped cold one last enemy attack. Keeble was in the midst of the fighting when a spent AK-47 round slammed into the right side of his face. “Like a sledgehammer,” he recalls. Now he chuckles at one thought as his life seemingly ebbed away: “‘I haven’t been to church in 10 years and it’s too late now.’ Well, 20 seconds go by and I’m alive.”

Medevacs whisked away the wounded. Keeble’s recovery began at a battalion aid station, then in a field hospital, and on to post-operative care in Tokyo and months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was promoted to captain, and for his actions on May 14, 1970, earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

From Walter Reed, Keeble stepped into a corporate career with Delta Air Lines, and in his free time indulged his passion for golf at great courses around the world.

L to R: Unknown, Lt. Pettit, Capt. John Wilson, SSG Perry Steman, Lt. Mike Keeble

By late May of 1970, Wilson had completed his combat tour, having earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He largely had kept his promise of getting all of Alpha “home safely.” Yet, he lost a farmer with a fiancée back home in Indiana, a Minnesotan who in two months was to marry his beloved on a beach in Hawaii, a beloved medic from Wisconsin that everyone called “Mouse” and several others.

“I have a little boy,” were the last words of a sergeant with a wife back home in North Carolina, and their infant son he’d never seen. And in the May 14 battle, a young man from Michigan, Sgt. Donald Kuzilla, died in a ditch in the rain, 17 days before his 20th birthday.

After Vietnam, Wilson and his wife found both joy and despair when he reported to Fort Carson, Colo. There, long wanting children, they adopted an infant daughter. There, too, his military career ended with an acronym, RIF: Reduction in Force. As the war wound down, Wilson, with thousands of others, got “Riffed.”

“I was 28 and having to start life again. That was a dark time,” he recalls.

“I think about them every day.”

Light returned in classrooms. He graduated from Huntingdon, and then at Auburn University at Montgomery earned M.S. and M.Ed. degrees for his second life of service. At predominantly African American Carver Junior High School in Montgomery, he was among the school’s first “three or four” Caucasian teachers. He also served as principal, and on weekends again wore olive drab as a company commander in the Alabama National Guard. “I had a ball,” he says of both academic and guard service.

Then his life took a third turn. Long a lay speaker in the United Methodist Church, he completed seminary and served two decades as a pastor.

Keeble, with 40-yard-line season tickets, drove down to Auburn each autumn and, in more recent years, found delight in the growth of the campus and town.

“I’m more of a city man, but I could live in Auburn now,” he said. Near Equality, Ala., Wilson and his wife, June, for years treasured life beside Lake Martin, where John often ended a day stalking bass and bream from his pier. As sunsets fired the water, he saw again all those young faces gathered around him that December day in 1969. “I think about them every day,” he said.

Now, Auburn has lost both of these distinguished alumni. John Agnew Wilson died Feb. 10, 2022. Michael Joe Keeble passed one month later, on March 21, 2022. Both Auburn men were laid to rest with military honors.

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