While stacks of propaganda leaflets, pages of photographs and yellowed, hand-written accounts of missions all serve as reminder of Don Engelbrecht’s two years of service during the Vietnam war, he maintains that “unless you were there, you have no idea what it was like.”
Engelbrecht of Monroe joined the service in 1966 via Selective Service and was assigned to the 2nd Brigade of the 9th Infantry division of the U.S. Army. Engelbrecht trained all over the United States, from his home state of Illinois to Lousiana, before heading overseas to Germany and, eventually, South Vietnam.
As a heavy equipment engineer, Engelbrecht’s duties included maintaining Army machinery — on the occasion that it was necessary.
“They send out engineers with every infantry,” he explained. “We took out trees, bunkers and bridges, whatever was necessary, and when you were done you didn’t come back, you stayed with them (the infantry).”
“When no one was using the stuff, you had nothing to fix,” he said of the equipment that proved to be too difficult to maneuver in Vietnam’s swampy conditions. “Travel in Vietnam is mostly by boat — there’s not much in the way of roads. If they had roads, we put them there.”
This wet and marshy landscape led to the birth of the Mobile Riverine Force, a joint effort by U.S. Navy and U.S. Army personnel that employed a fleet of patrol boats to guard South Vietnam’s extensive network of rivers and canals, most notably the Mekong Delta.
Such an environment made bridges essential to any form of ground travel. As an engineer in the MRF, the maintenance, repair and removal of bridges was often relegated to Engelbrecht; he details one particular incident in a journal entry he penned in early 1968:
“Surprisingly enough during Christmas and New Year’s of ‘67, Charley (Viet Cong forces) left us alone, but he made up for it in January and February with the Tet Offensive,” he wrote. “After our fairly quiet holidays I was approached by my commander with a fairly hazardous mission ... My mission: to cut out a bridge so PBRs (patrol boats) could get through a canal ... my objective was an old French bridge someone attempted to blow and failed.”
“As I was cutting the last section, it showed no sign of giving so I continued to cut, and suddenly everything went down — the bridge, me, my equipment and everything. I never hit the bottom, but I never did seem to stop going down either. I would have drowned that day had it not been for a certain Lt. Kolstad. I don’t know how to swim, he saved my life.”
This was merely one brush with death Engelbrecht faced in the jungles of South Vietnam, as attacks from North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong constantly presented dangerous situations for U.S. troops.
“I was taking a load of wood and gas down to the boats and there was a mortar attack, 300-400 rounds,” he said. “I hit the dirt as some of it hit — it shredded the top of the vehicle and there was gas all over the place.”
“I was all alone,” he added. “Everyone else had hightailed it when they saw the mortars coming,”
“They would stagger the rounds, just hoping to hit something,” Engelbrecht said of the North Vietnamese. “I was dodging mortar flashes until I found a bunker. I got lucky because I could have been gone.”
Although Engelbrecht survived the attack, he carries a physical reminder of it to this day.
“I’ve got piece of this in my left forearm and the back of my left leg,” he said, picking up the tail of an 81-millimeter mortar. His Army medical records from September of 1967 indicate the same.
After serving two years in the swamps and forests of Vietnam, Engelbrecht returned to the United States where he served his remaining four years in inactive duty in Illinois.
In July of 1969, President Richard Nixon issued a the Presidential Unit Citation to the 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division for “extraordinary herosim in action against an armed hostile force during the Tet Offensive ... in the Mekong Delta, Republic of Vietnam ... The aggressiveness, determination, and exemplary courage under fire demonstrated by all members of the United State Army component are in the highest traditions of military service.” Engelbrecht’s copy of this citation proudly hangs, framed, on his living room wall.
Engelbrecht moved to Iowa from Illinois in the 1970s and, most recently, took a trip to Washington D.C. with the 2011 Jasper County Freedom Flight.
“When you get to the guys who died during my period (1966-68), you can stand there and the list of names will be over your head,” he said. “Sometimes the only way you’d get a clean set of clothes was off a dead body. It was a scary time for me, I was scared to death.”
“You can listen to stories, and see pictures and still have no idea what it was like unless you were there,” he said, “but I hope that by sharing this, this generation will start to understand.”