The period of the Vietnam War was filled with many fears and uncertainties, leaving many to wonder of the outcome of the war raging in Southeast Asia; yet one promise seemed to remain in the forefront of every young man’s thoughts –the potential of being caught in the military draft.
Upon his graduation from Jefferson City High School in 1964, local resident John Knaup knew that he might one day end up in a military uniform, but chose to first pursue his education at Lincoln University.
“Let’s just say that I wasn’t really focused on my studies back then and ended up leaving school,” smiled Knaup, California, Missouri. “I knew at that point they were going to draft me, so I decided to join the Navy and hopefully not have to go to Vietnam.” Smiling, he added, “Instead, I ended up going to Vietnam twice because that’s where the (Navy) liked to send us, it seemed.”
The recruit attended his basic training at Great Lakes, Ill., in April 1966 and and then transferred to Port Hueneme, California, beginning several weeks of training to become a light vehicle mechanic for the “Seabees”—a group of sailors possessing both construction knowledge and fighting abilities.
“I told them that my first choice was to serve on submarines and my second choice was to be a Seabee, but I didn’t pass the depth perception test,” Knaup said. “That’s at least what they told me … but maybe they were just in need of Seabees really bad,” he grinned.
Completing his training, Knaup was assigned to the 31st Naval Construction Regiment on Port Hueneme, which he describes as “little more that a holding company” where he performed “horribly mundane duties” such as sweeeping and painting barracks. In May 1967, he was assigned as a light vehicle mechanic with Mobile Construction Battalion 3 (MCB3) and deployed to Vietnam, where his newly acquired skills were modified for a lube rack, changing oil and performing maintenance on bulldozers and other heavy equipment.
“We arrived at Phu Bai (an Army and Marine airbase that now serves as an international airport) and the battalion started building a brand new base about ten or twelve miles from the A Shau Valley,” he said.
For several months, Knaup explained, the Seabees operated forward of the rest of the troops assigned to the area while they built a new base, with a battery of 155mm howitzers positioned to the rear to provide any necessary artillery support.
“Six months or so into our deployment,” Knaup shared, “we came under attack. The artillery began firing rounds that were supposed to be forward of us, but they hadn’t properly plotted our location,” he added.
By the time the episode ended, two of his fellow Seabees were killed and seventeen wounded because of outgoing American artillery rounds falling short of their intended targets.
“You got as close to the ground as your body would let you,” he said. "After that incident,” he glumly noted, “we built ourselves much better bunkers.”
Knaup recalls leaving Vietnam in late January 1968, days before the eruption of the famed Tet Offensive. He remained in Port Hueneme for five months of stateside training, returning with MCB3 to Vietnam in July 1968.
“This time they sent us to Da Nang and we relieved another Seabee Battalion,” he said. “I was placed in charge of a tire shop and had another soldier working for me and two older Vietnamese men that had worked for the French Army.”
With a battalion of 700 sailors, Knaup said, he and his crew remained busy repairing damaged tires for all of their assigned equipment. By March 1969, the battalion’s tour ended and they returned stateside, where Knaup received an early discharge after completing two tours in Vietnam. The following year, he married his fiancée, Linda, and the couple soon welcomed their only son, John. The veteran went on to spend several years working for a local supply company and retired in 2007.
“There was no fanfare when I came home; I wasn’t treated any better or worse than I was before I went (to Vietnam) … it was like it never happened,” Knaup said, when reflecting on overseas service nearly five decades past.
Though he has since faced medical concerns that were a result of his exposure to chemicals in Vietnam, and realizes that many of his fellow Vietnam veterans did not receive the homecoming they deserved, Knaup affirms that his experience in the Navy was, overall, an enlightening experience.
“It’s a brotherhood—a mentality that you develop which proves that you are part of a group … not an individual,” he stated. “Whether what we did helped change the world, I’ll never know, but you quickly learn to watch out for each other because what you’re doing might just save yours or someone else’s life.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.