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For 30 years, no one asked about his Vietnam service. Here's his story

When Daryl Duden saw this religious medal on the ground in a village in Vietnam, he bent over to pick it up just as gunfire erupted in an ambush. He says the medal saved his life. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Operation Independence sent U.S. troops across in the hazardous flatlands along the coast of Vietnam during February 1967. Daryl Duden and his fellow Marines were on alert as they walked through the farming village of Minhtan. They never knew which villagers were friendly, and which were not.

He held his rifle in front of him as he looked back and forth. Something shiny caught his eye. He thought it might be a booby trap or a mine, so he stopped and bent down. It was a Catholic medal lying in the dirt. He wrapped his fingers around it just as gunfire erupted. Ambush.

READ MORE: Red Wing will welcome home Vietnam veterans

"If I had been standing up," Duden said, "I probably would have been dead."

Leaving Red Wing

Duden graduated from Red Wing High School in 1964 and went to work for Red Wing Shoes. In December 1965, he received his draft notice.

"That was my Christmas present when I was 19 years old," he said. "Report for your physical."

Daryl Duden carries a mortar tube while on an operation in Vietnam in 1967. Photo courtesy of Daryl Duden

He rode on a bus to St. Paul with 80 men from the area. At the first meeting, officials announced that most of them would be going to Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri, but that eight would be going to sunny southern California.

"We had no idea what that meant," Duden said. "We didn't know at the time that the Marine Corps was drafting and taking 10 percent of the draft. I was one of those lucky individuals."

He went to boot camp, and it was two weeks before he was allowed to call home for the first time to tell his parents he was in the Marines and not the Army. After boot camp, Duden went into Advanced Infantry training and was made a squad leader.

"I was a 19-year-old kid put in charge of 12 men, and I was responsible for their lives," Duden said. "I was barely able to take care of my own life."

He and hundreds of other soldiers were loaded on a troop transport ship headed for Vietnam.

When they arrived, they landed on the coast, climbed down cargo nets and ran onto shore carrying their rifles, but no one was there. No shots were fired. That would quickly change.

They rode in trucks to a location northwest of Danang in a mountainous area called Happy Valley, though he said he wasn't sure about the name, because "there was nothing happy going on there."

Combat operations

Duden was in Vietnam for 12 months and 27 days. During that time, he was on 17 combat operations. Each operation had a name and a specific mission. He would often go out for several days, return to base camp for a day or two, then head out on another operation.

"All of the combat operations I was on were search and destroy," he said. "Find the enemy and extinguish them. That's search and destroy."

Duden said Marines would fly in helicopters to a mountaintop, get dropped off, and fight their way back to the base camp. Other times they would be trucked to an area and walk back as they searched for enemy troops.

"You can't fight a war and not have some humor," Duden said about walking through the mountainous jungle terrain. "We weren't sure if USMC meant Uncle Sam's Mountain Climbers or Uncle Sam's Misguided Children. Either of those was probably more accurate than United States Marine Corps."

Although he frequently moved to different sites, he was eventually assigned to a base at Phu Bai, and spent his tour of duty within 100 miles of an area called the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ. This area, a strip three miles wide on each side of the Ben Hai River, was, according to agreement, free of military personnel from either side. However, U.S. intelligence officers discovered that the North Vietnamese had occupied the DMZ.

Into the DMZ

President Lyndon Johnson sent orders for the Marines to go in after them. Duden was part of the first unit, a battalion of approximately 1,200 men, sent in. They were an armored column moving along a road, Duden said, when they reached a bend in the road.

As the column turned left, Duden said he heard "a church bell ring three times and then all hell broke loose."

"It was an L-shaped ambush," Duden said. "The road made a bend and they were in front of us and on our whole right side. They let us make the turn, so that we were all exposed then they opened fire. Once they started firing, it just didn't stop."

There were many casualties. "I think we lost two lieutenant colonels," he said. "Most of our senior staff was gone. It was not a good day for the Marine Corps."

Duden said that when casualties added up on an operation, officials often changed the name to prevent having too many casualties tied to one operation. The operation into the DMZ changed names three times in just a few days.

Daryl Duden spent a week at this mountaintop site during a jungle patrol near the demilitarized zone in Vietnam in 1967.

The ambush kept the Marines pinned down for hours, but when the firing ceased, the Marines moved into the North Vietnamese line of defense and discovered 73 dirt and teak wood bunkers.

The North Vietnamese pulled back to a second line of defense where the Marines eventually found 90 bunkers, all inside an area where no military should be.

When the North Vietnamese pulled back again, a lieutenant colonel called all the majors and captains together for a strategy meeting. The group gathered in a small clearing and quickly, "it started raining mortars," Duden said. "They obliterated everything what was in that clearing. Those were our leaders. We had none."

Another colonel ordered the men to put camouflage paint on their faces and twigs in their helmets and backpacks. "We started weaving back and forth through the jungle toward North Vietnam," Duden said. "That's where they went, and we couldn't let them get away."

'Blonds up'

However, as they moved ahead, a U.S. spotter plane dropped a red rocket right in front of them. They knew that meant an air attack from American planes was coming. With most of the officers and radio people killed in the mortar attack, they had no way of communicating with the airplanes.

"Somebody yelled, 'Blonds up!'" Duden said. Everybody with light-colored hair ran into a clearing, removed their helmets, and waved their arms. "The spotter plane came down, gave us a wing wag, and called off the airstrike."

The Marines eventually made it to the Ben Hai River, but the North Vietnamese had disappeared. Duden said they were aware of the tunnels used by the North Vietnamese, but it wasn't until much later that he understood how extensive the tunnel system must have been. The North Vietnamese who disappeared after the ambush may have been underneath the Marines.

By the time they reached the Ben Hai River, the Marines were rationing their food. Some days they had a packet of sugar or a cracker for the day. They turned back from the river and returned to their camp at Phu Bai after 20 days in the field.

"We were looking pretty ragged," Duden said.

Letters to home

Before he left for Vietnam, Duden promised his parents he would write to them every day. He kept that promise. He said some days he could only write, "Today, I have to keep my head down," but he did write and mailed the letters home when he could.

On his way home, he called his mom from Okinawa and asked if she had the letters. She did. "Burn them," he said. "There is nothing in there that I need to remember."

Looking back, he regrets that decision, because "a year of my life was documented every day, both the good times and the bad times. I wrote when it was nasty. I wrote when we had people dropping all over. She listened to me, and she burned them. I wish I wouldn't have done that, but back then, I was a young kid."

Duden survived his tour in Vietnam, but many of his friends did not. When he left California, his unit, 2nd Battalion, F Company, was 185 men. Many were killed and wounded. Some were transferred. Duden has a photo of the six men who returned together.

No welcome home

While Duden was in Vietnam, things changed in the U.S. The war was being portrayed on TV each night and war protesters became common across the nation. The draft lottery started in 1969, and that was unpopular. Soldiers were not welcomed home in the manner they had after previous wars.

"We were called every nasty name in the book," he said. "You didn't talk about your service in Vietnam. It wasn't that you were ashamed of it. Everyone who went there and served, I hope, was proud of what they did. I certainly was proud that I served my country and did what they wanted me to do."

He also realized that no one wanted to talk about the war.

"It was probably 30 years before anyone even asked me about Vietnam," he said. "I would have been happy to tell them what my experiences were."

Duden said he only saw a small portion of Vietnam, the area near the DMZ, where 50 percent of the U.S. casualties in the war occurred. He knew little of what might be happening in the Central Highlands, the Mekong Delta, or in Saigon.

"All Vietnam veterans have different stories," he said. "They all had different jobs. They were all in different places. All we knew was what we were doing in our area."

Years later, the military created the Combat Action Ribbon to honor the soldiers who had fought in combat as opposed to those who were in Vietnam but not involved in combat.

"Of all the ribbons I earned when I was in Vietnam, the one I am most proud of is the Combat Action Ribbon," Duden said.

When Duden left Red Wing for Vietnam, he weighed 175 pounds. When he returned he weighed 129. At the airport, his mother said he looked thin. On the drive to Red Wing, they stopped at King's Bar in Miesville, and Duden said, "I ate two cheeseburgers and fries, and I really enjoyed that."

Return to Red Wing

Back in Red Wing, Duden returned to work for Red Wing Shoes. He worked as a computer programmer, accountant supervisor, and marketer during a career that spanned almost 51 years. He traveled frequently for work and saw many places in the world, but he always considered Red Wing his home. He retired in 2015.

Vietnam is a beautiful country with white sand beaches and plenty of sunshine, Duden said, but he won't be going back. "No desire."

Over the years, he has served three times as an honor guard for the traveling Vietnam Wall. While he was guarding the wall, he did not turn around to look at it. He knows too many of the names engraved in the wall.

When Daryl Duden bent down to pick up the Catholic medal in the village of Minhtan, he was lucky. He avoided being shot in the ambush.

He had been raised a Lutheran. After he returned to Red Wing, he married a Roman Catholic girl, Ann Marie, became Catholic himself, and had the medal blessed.

He has worn that medal on a chain around his neck for 50 years.

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Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner taught high school English and journalism for 38 years in Montana and Wyoming.  He started working at the Republican Eagle in May 2018.  He focuses on features and outdoor stories.  

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