LESLIE VERN HINRICHS
Branch: U. S. Army
Status: Honorable discharge
Date of Service: Vietnam War
Home Town: Dudley Township
1. Les and his 105 Howitzer 007 2. Les home on leave 3. Les at Forward Base Camp Tango on March 14, 1967 4. Les and Joe Renner 5. Les with PFCs Slava and “Deano” southwest of Pleiku on June 2, 1967 6. Les on July 10, 1967 in a bunker in Forward Base Camp Jackson’s Hole.
Leslie Vern “Les” Hinrichs was born July 10, 1946 in Shevlin, Minnesota to parents Dick and Marie Wilson Hinrichs. He had seven siblings: Dolores (Johnson), Elaine (Hanson), Daryl, Carol (Hendricks), Wayne, June (Ward) and Sandi (Malterud.) He grew up on the family farm on the Clearwater River in Dudley Township and attended elementary school at Riverview District #39 country school. He graduated from Bagley High School in 1964 then went to work on the grain elevators all over the Midwest with his dad.
On September 27, 1965 he received an order from the local Selective Service Board ordering him to report for an armed forces physical exam on October 19 in Fargo. A couple of other local boys were also scheduled for that day – Joe Renner, son of the late Frank Renner of Shevlin, and Ray Bardwell, son of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Bardwell. All three of the boys passed their physicals and all received notice on November 17, 1965 that Uncle Sam wanted them specifically.
Three days later, on November 20, the boys took the train to Fort Leonard Wood for five days of processing before being transferred to a training regiment. Fort Leonard Wood covered 71,000 acres in the Mark Twain National Forest in south central Missouri and was the largest engineer training center in the United States. While at Fort Leonard Wood he was surprised to see people he knew from home, including Gary Gesell of Bagley and Junior George of Leonard.
From Fort Leonard Wood the three were sent by train to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training. Fort Lewis, named after Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition, consists of 87,000 acres of prairie land located about nine miles southwest of Tacoma. Today it is the most-requested duty station in the Army.
After graduating from basic training, Les was sent to AIT (Advanced Infantry Training) which was also at Fort Lewis. Les was to join the 4th Infantry Division, known as the “Ivy Division.” In January of 1966 the 4th Infantry Division began preparations for the Vietnam War.
Les was sent to Yakima for more training on the 105 Howitzer in May of that year. The 105 mm was the standard U.S. light field howitzer in WWII in both the European and Pacific theaters. It fired 4.1” shells which weighed 33 pounds each. It could fire 10 rounds per minute for the first three minutes, then could sustain a firing rate of three rounds per minute. It had a range of nearly seven miles.
Les got to go home on leave for 10 days in the first part of July, 1966. The very next month, he and the entire 4th Infantry Division got orders for Vietnam. Les also made corporal or E-4 that month.
His unit boarded the USS Gordon, a troop transport ship, and after two weeks at sea they landed at Cam Ranh Bay in the first week of October. Their landing was just like that depicted at Normandy on D-Day – they climbed down nets into an LSD (dock landing ship.) Then they were packed into a T-140 cargo plane and flown to Tuy Hòa Base Camp, an Army base southeast of Tuy Hòa in Phú Yên Province. Tuy Hòa sat about 120 miles north of Dong Ba Thin of the coast of the South China Sea. When Les landed, all he saw was tents because the base was just being built up – row after row of tents with nothing else in sight but sand.
They remained in Tuy Hòa until Christmas of 1966. On Christmas Day they were flown to Ban Mê Thuột, the capital city of Đắk Lắk Province, because some Green Berets there were getting hit and needed some support for a few days.
As soon as they returned to Tuy Hòa they were sent to just outside Pleiku, a city in Vietnam’s central highland region, because another division needed help. Pleiku is the capital of Gia Lai Province. It was strategically important because it was the terminus of the military supply logistics corridor along Highway 19.
“That was our base camp,” noted Les. “But I only got to see it once in July of ’67 for five days of rest.”
In early January of 1967, the 4th Infantry Division moved into the western area of the Central Highlands to engage the North Vietnamese Army 1st and 10th Division. This was known as “Operation Sam Houston,” and it began with U.S. units clearing the plains of Pleiku and Kontum Provinces before beginning more substantial campaigns west of the Nam Sathay River. Les spent all his time in-country in the Central Highlands, almost all of it out in the mountainous jungle terrain.
The 2nd Brigade of the 4th Division crossed the Nam Sathay in mid-February, entering some of the most difficult terrain imaginable. Valleys covered with dense jungle were overshadowed by rugged mountains; daylight temperatures soared above 105 degrees. Here the 2nd Brigade was joined by the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division in an attempt to push westward and trap the NVA close to the Cambodian Border. They suffered constant ambush because it was ideal guerrilla terrain. By mid-February the 4th Infantry had no less than eleven major engagements with the NVA. By March the NVA began retreating back to Cambodia.
Les spent most of his time at tiny forward base camps with names like Jackson’s Hole, the Oasis and 3-Tango. He was the section chief of a Howitzer unit. As section chief, he became a “buck” sergeant, or corporal with the temporary rank of E-5. Les was responsible for setting the deflection and quadrant for his Howitzer. There were generally six of these 105 mm Howitzer sections in a battalion firebase to provide indirect fire support for the battalion’s infantry companies and whomever else needed fire support and were in range. Five Howitzers were in the field at all times. The artillery units were always on the move, at least twice per week in a normal week. Once Les and his men moved five times in seven days. “We spent a lot of time in the air,” he remembers. “We were so tired.”
Les and his section were flown to hot spots by Ch-47s (Chinooks), twin-engine, tandem rotor heavy-lift helicopters. These helicopters were known for the placing of artillery batteries in perilous mountain positions that weren’t accessible by any other means. Once the Howitzer was in place, the unit’s first task was to build a bunker for their ammunition, then for themselves. If there was enough time, they built a parapet from the sandbags they brought. His section painted the name “Little 007” on their gun and it remained until they burned the paint off it by continuous firing.
At night Les and his crew shot “H & I”s to keep the Viet Cong awake. He lived with constant danger. Once at Jackson’s Hole he and a buddy were sitting on a parapet about 3 p.m. when a mortar shell fell six feet away from them. Luckily, it didn’t explode.
In June or July of 1967 his section had been dropped at 3-Tango. He was just emerging from the bunker when fixed infantry called in a fire position and the Howitzer crew fired. Les was thrown back and had blood coming out of both his ears. He suffered permanent severe hearing loss from this incident plus the constant barrage upon his eardrums from the firing of the Howitzer.
While on assignment the men ate C-Rations, which consisted of a rectangular cardboard carton containing one small flat can, one large can, two small cans, and four “dried-up old cigarettes,” according to Les. There was always a meat-based entrée item, a bread item which was composed of the “crackers and candy” can and the flat “spread” can, and a dessert can. Les didn’t mind the C-Rations. “They were good,” he said. “The only thing that wasn’t good was the lima beans and ham.”
Les never got to see a USO show. Once he was supposed to see a Bob Hope/Jayne Mansfield show in front row seats because his battery had the most “kills,” but that never happened because that was the Christmas Day they got the call to support the Green Berets in Ban Mê Thuột.
It was on the 13th and 14th of March, 1967 that Les earned an Army Commendation Medal for Heroism at 3-Tango. The letter from Chief of Staff Colonel Charles Jackson accompanying his award said, “For heroism in connection with military operations against a hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam. Sergeant Hinrichs distinguished himself while serving as Chief of a Howitzer Section, Battery B, 6th Battalion, 29th Artillery, which had the primary mission of defending the camp containing the 1st and 2nd brigade command posts of the 4th Infantry Division. At 2245 hours (10:45 p.m.) on March 13, 1967 the enemy began a series of mortar attacks against the camp. Sergeant Hinrichs immediately moved to his howitzer’s parapet, organized his men and commenced counter-mortar firing. For the next ten hours, he led and directed his men in repelling four enemy mortar attacks and in the firing of support missions. Under his leadership, the section was able to maintain a rapid rate of fire and keep ahead of ammunition requirements in spite of the incoming rounds and high rate of ammunition depletion. Sergeant Hinrichs’s personal bravery, and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
The summer monsoon season began and the 4th Division was concentrated in the hills of western Pleiku, guarding the border against NVA filtration. By the end of the summer the 4th Division was close to exhaustion, having suffered continuous ambush.
In September Les received word that his tour in Vietnam was over. On the 2nd of September, 1967 he was flown to Oakland from Cam Ranh Bay. He took a plane to Spokane and went to visit his sister Elaine in Montana.
Les was also awarded two bronze stars, and a purple heart along with the Army Commendation Medal. The Bronze Star is a decoration awarded to members of the Armed Forces for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.
Les went back to Shevlin, got married to Sandy Emery and became a logger with three children – Gregg, Jeff and Kelly. After his retirement he became a tireless volunteer for veterans, including serving as the Bagley American Legion Commander and countless hours driving veterans needing transportation to VA medical centers. He received many awards for his service, including an already-surpassed “7,500 Hour Award” and two Citations for Meritorious Service from the American Legion.
(This article is reprinted from the Clearwater County Historical Society’s newletter)