SEDALIA, Mo. — Wayne Balke, of Cole Camp, closed his eyes tight, clasped his hands together and rocked as he shared his Army experiences. For a brief moment, it was as if he had returned to the jungles of Vietnam where he nearly lost his life.
Balke was a Benton County boy who lived with his grandparents on a farm in rural Cole Camp. He never missed a day of school or was tardy over 12 years. Though school was important, he preferred to be outdoors. He spent countless nights hiding in the woods in search of raccoons. Through hunting he learned vital navigation and listening skills no amount of schooling could teach. He became a part of the Army like a lot of young men.
“I hadn’t of been a veteran if I hadn’t went to the mailbox,” he said with a smile. “Back in the 60s, you did what you were told to do.”
He was drafted in 1968 at the age of 18. Though friends, including his girlfriend at the time, urged him to run to Canada, he felt it was his responsibility to answer the call. He did his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood and his advanced training at Fort Polk, La. He was selected for communications.
“I thought I was going to work for a radio station, I really did,” Balke said. Then a man walked into the room and shared a message that sent chills down his spine.
“I’m not all here and I don’t really care... I am here to teach you what I know because I have been there and I’ve hunted the hunt. And I don’t care if you go to sleep or not,” he said. “The job that you all are going to have is a very important job but it’s a big price because the life expectancy of an RTO in Nam is zero.”
Balke had been chosen to be a radio technician operator. These men wore the radios on their back and called in air strikes. They had to learn the terrain by merely looking at a little map and had four weeks to learn this specialty. They were the men the Viet Cong loved to hunt.
Upon arriving in Vietnam, Balke was shot the first day he was in the field. He was out on the patrol and thought he saw something in the woods but dismissed it. A Viet Cong soldier proceeded to open fire and shot him in the leg.
“I was scared. I mean I was scared,” Balke said. When the medic gave him morphine, Balke admitted it was his fault.
“You saw him and didn’t tell us? He could have killed me.”
He kicked Balke in the ribs and another American soldier followed suit. Balke eventually got an infection and was sent to the hospital.
“I don’t know how many people were in that room but they had their legs shot off. They couldn’t see. They hollered. Come to find out that room was for people that wasn’t going to make it,” Balke said.
After a month of therapy, he was finally able to go back in the field. He vowed never to return to the hospital.
Being in the jungle had numerous hazards. The Viet Cong attached bamboo sticks to hanging vines that would shoot right through a person if they got tangled.
“They soaked the bamboo in human waste and let it dry. When that goes in you, it’ll go in a thousand splinters... I don’t know anyone whose come out of a punji pit alive,” Balke said.
Another hazard was the Agent Orange.
“The planes would come over and would spray. That stuff would get in your eyes and all over you and it would just burn. You could go back into that area in two days and it would be completely brown,” he said.
Then there was the problem of guns jamming due to the rainy weather. The men were required to sleep with their guns and would sleep back to back to keep their weapons from falling into the mud. They discovered placing a condom over the top of the weapon was a lifesaver.
“They were government issued. They were in a green package and the water wouldn’t get down in the barrel,” he said.
Being a target
The Viet Cong were constantly searching for RTOs, so Balke always had a target on his back.
“If you could knock them or an officer out, then you pretty well got it under control,” Balke said. The radio was a valuable resource for the platoon and his men knew it. They were very protective of him. Those who followed close were trained so well they could see the flash of a gun and save his life.
One of his soldiers told him, “Balke, you know what? We think a lot of you and if they get you, we’re going to get them.”
During his time in Vietnam, Balke was injured a total of five times. Once a man stepped on a mine and shrapnel hit Balke in the face. He thought he lost his eye.
The medic came over and said, “Balke I’ve got some good news and some bad news to tell you. The good news is you’re still going to be our RTO. The bad news is you’re not going to lose your eye.”
On another outing, his platoon received the call to assist a unit that was in trouble. Five choppers made their way to their location. As Balke jumped out of the chopper, he took one bullet to the chest and another hit his backpack and blew his radio battery up. Acid fell all down his back.
“They took my white t-shirt grandma gave me. It was a JCPenney soft cotton T-shirt and ruined it. That pissed me off. They could have poured water on it or did something else,” he said. She sent him the shirts because she was concerned he was always shirtless in the photos he sent back home.
The medic determined his chest wound wasn’t serious and placed water and powder to help his back. To this day, his back will not sweat because of the injury.
Balke said the scariest part of his service was coming to grips with the fact that he would be killed.
Balke experienced numerous close calls. One night while he was on patrol, he saw some Viet Cong soldiers. The other men on guard had fallen asleep. Balke feared if he would have touched them, they would have gotten startled and alerted the VC to their location. He knew he needed to handle the situation himself. He got his magazines out and lined all three of them in a row. When the VC got closer, he opened up and shot all three magazines before anyone else got a shot off.
He received the Bronze Star with V-Device and his citation reads, “On Jan. 29, 1970, Balke’s platoon was setting up a night location in the Le Hong Phong forest when he noted an ignited trip flare and detected enemy infiltration. Spec. Balke immediately began laying down accurate and deadly fire on the enemy and was conspicuous by his aggressive actions and tenacity during the fire fight. He exposed himself to enemy fire continuously while bringing the full effect of his weapon on the enemy. His alertness and quick response to the combat situation resulted in several Viet Cong killed with no friendly casualties.”
He was surprised to receive this honor from a general while on the field.
Battle of Song Mao
He later was diagnosed with jungle rot and was sent to a base camp. On April 1, 1970, he was jolted awake by a loud noise. That fire base was the fuel supply of the north for the United States and they were under attack.
A two- to three-hour fire fight broke out. The gun ships were circling, but they couldn’t shoot or they would have killed the Americans. Only 22 men were at the fire base that night. The next morning they discovered only one American had been killed, yet close to 400 bodies were found around the perimeter.
Some of them didn’t die right away. After the fire fight, a captain started walking into the dark without his weapon. Balke thought he was crazy and noticed a VC who wasn’t dead. The captain, A.J. “Beau” Bergeron, was standing right over the man. If the VC had a little more strength, he could have pulled the trigger. Balke knew he couldn’t shoot the enemy between the captain’s legs, so he threw the captain his weapon. This action saved the captain’s life.
In 1997, Bergeron wrote Balke a letter that stated, “I would not have the latitude to write this letter in the comfort of my home and the love of a wonderful family if you had not thrown me a M-16 that I subsequently used to save my life when that Viet Cong officer tried to shoot me from his hide location. You and Kestner, who warned me, clearly saved my life — period. And I will never forget you or stop being grateful for you for that.”
Preparing for home
In Balke’s line of work, it was common to be a bit on edge, but this feeling was magnified the closer it came to coming home.
“Toward the end of your tour, then you really started to get jumpy because you’ve made it this far,” Balke said. “At our unit at the end of two weeks, they would pull them out of the field because they got too jumpy. They would start seeing things they didn’t see, killing their own guys, shooting them in the back.”
He was in Vietnam for 364 days. When he got to Fort Lewis, Wash., he walked off the plane and kissed the ground.
“I said when I got home, I wasn’t ever going to leave,” he said.
He went through the induction center. As he was starting to get into a taxi headed for the airport, a bunch of hippies threw rotten eggs at him and called him a baby killer.
“I was kind of hot headed,” he said. “It was a good thing I didn’t have my weapon.”
The cab driver told him to just ignore them and that it had been happening all the time.
When he came through Oakland, Calif., men who served in the infantry had to pass a stress test. The instructors would do things like drop a book. If the soldier flinched, he failed. Balke was sent to Fort Hood, Texas, for six months to decompress. He was discharged on Jan. 21, 1971.
He returned to the farm in Cole Camp and married his wife, Ruth, in 1972. Though his service was very stressful, he’s glad he did it.
“I’m very happy. I thought we were keeping Communists out of the United States,” he said.