After 48 years, Stu McKee’s recollection of how he was left for dead on a Vietnam battlefield is still vivid.
Now, he says it is important to tell the story.
“I just want to relate what the guy on the ground had to go through,” said McKee, the keynote speaker at the Vietnam Veteran’s Day Observance, held at the St. Peter Community Center March 29.
After serving in Vietnam for three months, McKee, a Cleveland native, and other members of the Fourth battalion of the 47th Infantry found themselves somewhere in the Mekong Delta in the bowels of a Navy ship. There, on July 14, 1968, the captain advised the men to write home because “tomorrow would be a tough day.”
The next morning, McKee took a 20-minute helicopter ride to a tree line. His platoon was the first to maneuver toward the woods. The GI beside him heard a noise and walked in. Two AK-47 shots rang out before the entire jungle erupted in gunfire.
“There was so much wood flying out of the trees it looked like there were million woodpeckers up there.”
McKee hit the ground. Luckily, he wasn’t far from a hole and managed to “slither” in. The soldiers behind him called out “Mac, Mac,” but with the enemy only a few feet away on either side, he couldn’t respond.
After three hours in the hole and caught in the cross fire, he tried to make a break toward a hut about 50 yards away. The next thing he remembers is waking up with his hands over eyes.
“I was looking up and seeing nothing but red and thought ‘This is what death must be like.’”
Wiping his eyes, McKee saw his hands covered in blood. Finally a medic was at his side. He told McKee that he found him earlier but thought he was dead.
McKee was shot in nose, and his eye socket blown out, but the medic called it a “John Wayne” wound. He would be OK … if he managed to get home.
With bullets whizzing by, McKee crawled back to the drop off point 50 yards away. Luckily, a helicopter showed up only a few minutes later. On board, he vomited blood. The next thing he remembers, he was back on a Navy ship.
There they patched him up before transferring him to a land hospital with wounded and dying comrades. He remembers the facility was over capacity, and so he was to be transported to a larger hospital. Two days later, still in shock, he woke up. He stayed in the second hospital for another five days before he was moved to an Army hospital in Japan. He recovered there for two months and was then transferred to a hospital in Denver, Colorado.
Today, signs of McKee’s wounds are barely visible. But he doesn’t have feeling in his nose, and he’s deaf in his left ear.
But he considers himself lucky. Of the 24 members in McKee’s platoon, 13 were killed that day. Seven were wounded.
While his talk was a tribute to the guys on the ground, he also recognized the other armed service branches.
“The Navy and the Air Force saved our butts.”
The event was the anniversary of when the last of the American troops pulled out of Vietnam: March 29, 1973. St. Peter Mayor Chuck Zieman declared the day, Vietnam Veterans Day in the city.
More than 58,000 US military personnel gave their lives in the conflict, including seven from St. Peter: PFC Frederick Brenke, SP4 Harvey Enz, PFC Melvin Lurth, Jr., 2nd Lt Michael McClellan, PFC Dwight Duane Tollefson, PFC Richard Weise and PFC Steven Wettergren. Each was recognized at the event.
Also at the ceremony, Rick Walters, Commander of the Vietnam Era Last Man Club of St. Peter, gave the welcome. Chaplain Richard Kosek recited the invocation. The St. Peter Legion Post #37 presented the colors. The Mankato River Blenders provided traditional vocal music.
The event concluded with the Redman Club, the Embassy Bar and the Flame Bar presenting a check for $10,000 to the St. Peter Veterans Memorial Association.