SIOUX CENTER—Dennis De Kruyf still remembers the day he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the height of the Vietnam War.
The then-19-year-old farm boy lived with his family on their farm just north of Lebanon.
De Kruyf had graduated high school and worked for area farmers instead of pursuing higher education or a career. Like many other young men of the day, it just didn’t seem wise to start doing anything much in case they were drafted.
After all, in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was escalating America’s military presence in Vietnam, with a sharp increase in the number of troops being sent to Vietnam.
De Kruyf’s mother would leave him his mail on the windowsill. It was the first thing he’d look at when he’d get home from work.
“Then one day, I came home and there was a letter in the windowsill. It was from the president of the United States,” De Kruyf said.
The letter informed him that he, like his older brother one year earlier, had been drafted, with orders to report in Orange City on May 8, 1968.
Things went by quickly from there. From Orange City, De Kruyf and others like him were bused to Sioux Falls, SD, to be assigned a branch of the service. He was chosen for the Army.
On May 9, 1968, they went to Washington state to begin boot camp, which lasted until July.
It wasn’t too tough for him, as he was no stranger to physical work. The only thing was the severity of the officers in charge, “but you learned to deal with that and keep your mouth shut and do your job. Do that and you’ll get through it all right.”
Training for gas attacks were some of the hardest parts of basic training.
“We had to learn how to put our gas masks on and get them sealed,” he said.
They also had to experience tear gas firsthand. So, at one point, they had to go into a building and get a dose of tear gas.
“That was quite an experience. We had to put our hands on the shoulder of the person in front of us, and we had to go walk in a circle before we could go out,” De Kruyf said. “Your eyes are just burning and tears just running down. That was hard; it didn’t last that long, but that was hard. They tell you not to rub your eyes, but that’s the first thing you want to do.”
Thankfully, he never had any need to put that training to work during his time overseas.
When that was complete, De Kruyf and the others were assigned an area of study as part of advanced individual training.
“That was going to be your occupation while you were in the service,” De Kruyf said. “You kind of went into that with a lot of anticipation — what am I going to do, what are they going to make me do?”
He was assigned to go to Fort Sill, OK, where he’d go to meteorological school.
“That was for the artillery,” De Kruyf said. “Artillery needed meteorological data twice a day to adjust their guns. They had to know the air density and wind direction and wind speed.”
After graduating from there, he received his orders for Vietnam.
He ended up with the 2nd Battalion 11th Artillery under the 101st Airborne Division, to be stationed at Camp Eagle right outside the city of Hue, which had been the capital of Vietnam before the country split into North and South Vietnam.
Coming into a different country was an eye-opener for De Kruyf. Everything seemed different. People mostly drove around on bicycles and scooters, and signs of the war scarred Hue.
Still, there was plenty of beautiful views and history that he got to see while in Vietnam.
In particular, he recalled the imperial palace where the king had ruled.
“That hadn’t been maintained and was somewhat in ruins, but you could see that it was a beautiful area. It had lily ponds and little bridges across them and quite ornate buildings,” De Kruyf said.
Among the buildings at the palace grounds was a building where the king used to entertain foreign dignitaries.
“It was really a beautiful building with stairs going up. At the base of the steps were two big lion heads on there. We couldn’t go into the building, but I would have liked to have gone in there,” De Kruyf said. “There were some pretty nice places in Vietnam. It was just a shame that the war tore that all apart.”
Although trained for meteorology, De Kruyf found out that Camp Eagle’s meteorological unit was already fully staffed. Instead, they needed a vehicle mechanic and so he took up that work, which he didn’t mind.
With a chuckle, De Kruyf said you meet all kinds of characters in the military, with all kinds of personalities and backgrounds from all over the country coming together to serve.
Some had more learning to do than others. As a farm boy, De Kruyf started with some of the necessary basic knowledge: how to use a rifle and how to drive, for instance.
He recalled having to teach a New York City man how a car worked and how to drive; the man had never driven before, having gotten by with subways and taxis.
On nights, De Kruyf would patrol the base perimeter on guard duty. Those, he said, were long nights spent watching, listening and praying nothing happened.
“I was always glad when the sun came up,” De Kruyf said.
Rolls of concertina wire lined the base perimeter with trip flares scattered that, when tripped, would fire a flare, alerting the guards. The Vietnamese, however, could wiggle their way through the wire and feel the trip flares without triggering them.
“You’d never know if they were out there or not, so you’d listen. You start hearing things, seeing things. Once in a while, we had it where a critter would set those flares off,” De Kruyf said. “Then you’d think, ‘Oh, gosh, here we go; we got somebody out there.’”
De Kruyf made it through the war, however and the last few months of his service were spent stateside. He was discharged in 1970.
De Kruyf was a bit anxious returning home. He had read of the war protests, and even though he had gotten support from his church and family while overseas, he couldn’t help but wonder how he’d be treated.
De Kruyf himself wasn’t sure how to feel about the war.
“Our motives, what we wanted to accomplish there, were right,” De Kruyf said. “Whether we should have been there in the first place, I don’t know.”
But for anybody who would ask him, he’d respond, “That wasn’t for me to decide. I says, we live in the best country in the world and if your country asks you to do this, you respond and you go. Right or wrong, it wasn’t for me to decide, but I answered the call.”
He’s proud of his service, and he said that as difficult as it was, he wouldn’t give up that experience for anything.
After his discharge, De Kruyf wanted to go to trade school. Refrigeration and air conditioning was taking off at that time, and De Kruyf thought this could be a promising future.
NCC offered that course, but it turned out it was filled already. They offered to put him on a waiting list, which he accepted. Looking at some other options, powerline courses got brought up.
De Kruyf took home some brochures and thought it over.
He enrolled in the one-year course and graduated in July 1971.
For about a year after that, he worked power lines in Harlan before taking a job with the city of Sioux Center. He worked for the city’s Municipal Utilities Department, beginning as part of the electric department’s line crew and then as head of the electric department.
Forty-two years later, he retired in January 2014. He’d since become a husband, a father to two children and a grandfather to four grandchildren.
These days, he works part time doing maintenance work at American State Bank in Sioux Center.
He still does a lot with the local VFW and the Color Guard, including military funerals.