Scrapbook from Nam: 1960 WHS graduate shares memories of war in book
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. -- It's been 45 years since Art De Groot served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Despite the passage of time, the memories of what he experienced and witnessed there are still vivid.
After many years of debating the wisdom of doing so, Art wrote down those memories and recently published a book, "Bu Ku Kilo: One Vietnam Vet's Reflections."
Art's intent was to write a no-holds-barred account that was different from others that he had read.
"I wanted to write this book to really tell about what I had seen happen in the war, my experiences," he explained. "I haven't found many people who are willing to tell you the crap that went on over there. I had in my mind to tell the story as I saw it happen or witnessed it happen, put it in writing, put it in a book and publish it, knowing I would get a little flak from people."
Knowing that his account would strike a chord with many people, his introduction includes some apologies -- to his fellow veterans, their spouses and other relatives, and even to Uncle Sam.
"Sorry, Uncle, I just have to tell the folks some of the crap you made us vets drudge through the last 40 years or so," he writes. "I know that fighting a war is a damned difficult and horrible thing to do and am aware that us vets were your servants of execution of the Vietnamese people, but the folks should know about Uncle Sam's responsibility to start, fight and disengage from Nam all those years ago. So sorry, Uncle, you are over 200 years old now, and by God, you are old enough to take it."
Life before the draft notice
Art isn't a Worthington native, but he considers the community his hometown, even after living the majority of his life in southern California.
"We moved to Worthington in 1952," he detailed. "My father's name was John, my mother was Viola. We moved from Hull, Iowa. My dad had a Dutch bakery in Hull, and he got burned out on being a baker. We lived on 11th Street. My mother was a housekeeper, and she ended up working in the cafeteria of the high school. My dad was always a carpenter, worked for construction companies."
During his teen years, Art also worked in the construction trade.
"I started working for Orville Appel when I was 15," he explained. "I had first asked him for a job, and he said he didn't need anybody. Then, one day when I was cutting grass, he came wheeling up on my yard. 'You still want that job?' He told me where to meet him at the job site on the south side of the lake, Monday morning at 7 o'clock. He hired me to be the cleanup boy, but within a few days he made me put on a tool belt and gave me a hammer and put me to work with the crew. I worked for him during the summertime, after school, holidays and weekends. He had me doing just about everything you can imagine. He was honest and always paid you what he said he was going to do. He gave me lots of responsibility."
After graduating from Worthington High School in 1960, Art moved with a friend to Chicago, where they both attended DeVry technical school.
"I was influenced by our electronics class in high school, so I got an associate's degree in electronics," Art said. "I worked with the Federal Reserve Bank while I was a student -- used to haul money around in armored cars, sort coins in the coin department. When I graduated from technical school, I tried to get a job in Denver, but there weren't any, so I got a job in Chicago. Joy and I were already engaged. She was a nurse -- met her at a dance at her school, and we dated for a year or so. When I got out of school, she had another year to go before she graduated, and they wouldn't let nurses get married until they graduated, so we waited until Nov. 2, 1963. We got an apartment on the north side of Chicago for $105 a month rent and bought a new '64½ Ford Mustang. That was our first car."
Uncle Sam comes knocking
The arrival of a draft notice put the De Groots' plans for the future to a halt.
"Most of the guys who were sent to Nam were fresh out of high school, 18 to 19 years old, single with no kids," writes Art in the beginning of the book. "Many fathers were WWII and Korean vets. I was older. I got my 'Report for Physical' when I was 24 years old. There was no doubt about it; I was A-1, and I was going to be drafted. The
Army didn't care about the fact that I had gotten married when I was 21 years old and had been with my wife for almost three years. The war was escalating, and we tried very hard to avoid being drafted by getting my wife pregnant; but my plan didn't work, and I was going in by draft."
Hoping to avoid infantry duty, Art enlisted in the signal corps for three years. Joy moved with him to Georgia while he attended signal school there. He signed up for officer candidate school to forestall his deployment overseas for another year. Just before Art and his classmates were to receive their bars, the decision was made to not promote them after all.
"We never got commissioned," he said. "That took the wind out of my sails. Our whole group of guys, about a dozen of us, got booted. I guess they took too many people in. That's the way the Army works. They always buy too much food and have to throw it away. They train too many, have to dump them out."
Art's orders to go to Vietnam came just after his daughter, Tammy, was born.
"I was able to navigate a delay of orders and get my wife and baby situated in California with family members, and in September of 1967, I was sent to Vietnam," he explains in the book. "My Vietnam experience was much influenced by the fact that I had received all the education to be a commissioned officer. I was older, married, had a baby, but was a PFC by rank. This now sets the stage for my story and makes it more comprehensible."
Tales from Nam
The title of Art's book is the nickname that was bestowed upon him during his time in Vietnam.
"Bu Ku Kilo -- that was the name that the Vietnamese kids called me," he said. "Wherever I went, they called me the same thing, and I didn't tell them to call me that. It means 'Big Fat Guy,' 'Big Tough Man.' I wasn't really that fat, but was big. You have to understand that they are small people. The average Vietnamese guy probably weighs 120 pounds, and these kids were probably 75 or 80 pounds who were filling our sandbags. I ran into a lot of Vietnamese soldiers, and there were the people who did our laundry, filled our sandbags, and they all called me the same thing. So when I decided to write the book, you have to come out with some kind of name and a reason for the name, and I figured that was as good as anything."
Art is quick to tell anyone who wants to read his book that he doesn't sugarcoat the experience or censor the language very much.
"I toned it down -- it was probably worse in the real world," he said. "If you don't include some of that language, people who were there are just going to laugh at you. That's just the way it was. You have to tell it the way it was. The description and language draws them into the story, and they can better envision what happened because of that. People should be mature enough to realize that when guys are fighting a war and dying, they're not too worried about what they say."
Stationed first at Pleiku, the terminus of a strategic supply corridor in Vietnam, Art realized he was lucky to not be part of a unit that had to go out and directly engage the enemy. He was relatively safe at his appointed post, and he was determined to keep it that way. He moved to Dak To Firebase, where some major offensives took place, before returning to Pleiku for the end of his service. Even though he wasn't out in the trenches, his experiences weren't without peril.
"Probably the most serious story in the book is the story of the kid at the dump, where I was unloading trash," shared Art. "I thought the kid was going to throw a hand grenade at me, so I pointed a gun at him and fired a couple shots over his head. It was a split decision. I could have cut him down, but I had to think: Was I going to wipe this kid off the map or scare him away." If I'd made the wrong one, I would have been dead. Those kind of things happen."
Life after Nam
Art returned stateside in November 1968, returning to his wife and daughter, and with a son on the way -- the result of R&R with Joy in Hawaii eight months earlier.
"I stayed one extra month so I could get out completely when I got home," he said. "I wanted to get out."
The De Groots rented an apartment, and Art got a job with National Cash Register. Eventually, he got into the real estate market, and they added another son to their family.
"That worked out good for me," he said. "It more or less filled the excitement void. You can create a lot of excitement doing real estate sales."
Now mostly retired, Art and Joy live in Orange County, about 10 miles east of Disneyland. They have four grandchildren.
The De Groots enjoy traveling and camping in their motorhome, including annual visits back to southwest Minnesota, where Art's mother is still living in a nursing home.
Getting his Vietnam memories down on paper wasn't an easy process, but Art is satisfied to have finely done it.
"I had gotten over it pretty much by the time I wrote the book," he reflected. "I put it aside for so many years -- should have written it 20 years earlier. I had to relive some of it write the book. It was not really that pleasant. My wife didn't really enjoy typing it, but I didn't have anyone else to go to. ... Most of the people I've corresponded with have been positive about it. I was trying to write the story about the war, but not about me, but I had to include me in the story because people want to hear your involvement in the war. My intent was to write a story about the war as the character Bu Ku Kilo."
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.