Forty years ago, the community suffered its only fatality of Vietnam
Posted 11/10/10 (Wed)
Looking at a bright future . . . Larry Jacobson, left, and Craig
Livingston share a light-hearted moment while the two are home on overlapping leaves from military service. Craig jokes now that
when Larry became friends with him and Jerry Mickelsen in high
school, he joined the wrong peer group. Both Craig and Jerry honor
their friend's memory in different ways at his grave each year.
By Caroline Downs
By all accounts, Larry Jacobson of Norma was a hardworking and loyal young man who had a future as a farmer or mechanic, with a family of his own.
Instead, Larry’s life ended 40 years ago on August 26, 1970, when the helicopter he was riding was shot down by enemy forces in Ba Xugen Province, South Vietnam.
Sp5 Larry Jacobson, age 21, was a helicopter crew chief with the U.S. Army at the time. He and four comrades were killed outright in the confrontation, with no survivors from the flight. His body was recovered and sent back to his family for burial. Larry started his tour in Vietnam on May 15, 1970, having just finished a year of military service in Korea and 30 days leave at home.
Larry Bruce Jacobson, known as “LBJ” to some friends, was born March 15, 1949, at the Kenmare hospital to Arthur and Doris Jacobson. He attended the first six years of school at Norma and graduated from Kenmare High School with the Class of 1968.
He entered the U.S. Army on September 9, 1968, attending basic training at Ft. Lewis, WA, and aviation training at Ft. Rucker, AL. He served in Korea as a helicopter crew chief from August 1969 to April 1970, and was sent to Vietnam in May 1970 where he was stationed at Can Tho.
Military rites were held Saturday, September 5, 1970, at Trinity Lutheran Church, rural Kenmare. Reverend Lowell Brandt officiated at the service, along with Chaplain Paul Mathre, who provided military escort. The Kenmare Veterans organizations participated in the funeral and interment, and pallbearers included Deral Ramsdell, Robert Laumb, John Clausen, John Seime, Trent Knutson and Craig Livingston. Honorary bearers were Greg Ankenbauer, Greg Grenvik, Marvin Madsen, John Patrick Branch, Greg Johnson, Henry Brekhus and Jerry Mickelsen.
Larry was survived by his parents, older brother Allen, younger sister Carol and younger brothers Roger, Mark and Greg, as well as his grandmother Mrs. Margaret Iverson of Tolley. Sorensen Funeral Home handled the arrangements.
Larry’s death was the first and only direct fatality of the Vietnam War from the Kenmare area.
“I never thought
he could die”
Carol (Jacobson) Kuvaas recalled that Larry’s death changed her family. “When he went to Vietnam, we didn’t know anybody who had died there,” she said. “I never thought he could die.”
She described her brother, older by one year, as the rebel of sorts in the family. “We all read books, and he wouldn’t read,” she said. “He wasn’t a good student. He was more mechanical. We went to Confirmation, but he was never confirmed because he hated it!”
She noted his blue eyes, his sense of fun, and his selfless behavior toward his family, as illustrated by one of her memories. “We were poor, but he had some cowboy boots he really liked,” she said. “We were outside playing, near a slough and it was the spring of the year, and Mark took off and ran into the slough. Larry went in, in his cowboy boots, and got him out.”
Larry wasn’t always a hero to Carol, however. She recalled studying night and day and working hard on her home economics projects, which included baking breads, while her brother was less than supportive. “I remember him bouncing the buns off the floor,” she said. “They were so hard. The animals wouldn’t even eat them!”
She also talked about her father’s relationship with Larry, which seemed different than that with the other kids in the family. “My dad’s way of handling everything was to yell and swear,” she said, adding that strict rules were enforced in the household, especially about breaking the law. “Larry was driving a Ford Falcon, but for some reason he rode the bus with us to school that day. My dad opened the trunk of his car and found beer in there. He met us down at the bus stop that afternoon to give Larry hell, but he only said about five words to Larry. If the rest of us had done that....”
Her voice trailed off, but then she recalled an even earlier transgression. “When Larry was about 10, my parents had to drive to a well to get drinking water,” she said. “One day, my dad got picked up by the police because he was letting Larry drive the car, at 10 years old! He never let the rest of us do that.”
Greg Jacobson said his family has learned other details about Larry’s tour through the years. “We found out his helicopter had been shot down in June and landed in a river,” Greg recalled. “Someone else on that flight rescued him, and he spent 10 days in a hospital in Japan, then he rejoined his crew.”
Greg remembered the news of Larry’s death as a shock to the family. “We didn’t even know he was flying,” said Greg. “He had explained to us that the crew chief was a mechanic and stayed on the ground. I thought that was wise on his part, that he didn’t tell my parents he would be flying.”
As a 12-year-old at the time of Larry’s death, Greg described his big brother as an outgoing person. “Everybody in our family is so reserved,” he said, “and he knew what he wanted to do. If he wanted to do something mechanical, he would figure out something that worked. That’s the way I remember him.”
Allen Jacobson agreed. “He was a natural-born mechanic, and he could fix the things we broke,” he said. “He was more of a risk-taker than the rest of us. He had his own mind about everything and even the folks couldn’t change it for him.”
Allen described another incident the family had heard, a time when Larry’s helicopter was shot up and his brother demonstrated a clear head. “The transmission was leaking oil,” Allen said, “so they plugged it up with their shirts to fly back to safety.”
He remembered when his brother enlisted in military service. Allen himself had been drafted in 1965, but failed the physical. “Our family has always supported the military,” he said. He mentioned how his younger brothers Mark served in the U.S. Navy from 1974 to 1984 and Greg in the Army from 1976 to 1986, with an additional commitment to the North Dakota National Guard, despite the fact that all the Jacobson boys were exempted from the draft after Larry’s death.
Allen didn’t believe Larry would have stayed in active service as long as Mark and Greg did, though. “He didn’t intend to make a career out of the military,” Allen said. “He would have been one of the successful farmers around here. He had the aptitude to change with the times.”
He continued, “He would get every ounce of life out of every minute, and if he’d have come back, the sky would have been the limit as to what he could accomplish.”
Robert Laumb, who farmed in the area, hired Larry to work for him in the summers. “He worked good, and we had a lot of good times together,” Robert said.
Larry had the responsibilities for summerfallow work and hauling grain at harvest, which he seemed to enjoy. “I had a couple of old trucks and he liked to see how fast he could get them to go,” Robert recalled with a laugh. “He was very good, really willing to do whatever.”
That willingness even extended to child care duties one day when Robert’s wife was scheduled for back surgery in Minot. “His sister Carol used to babysit for us, but there was one time she couldn’t be here and our youngest daughter was still in diapers,” Robert said. “I asked him if he could take care of her while I went to Minot with my wife.”
He laughed again. “He did, but that didn’t last long and he took her over to his mother’s!”
Friends laugh with Larry
Stories about Larry seemed to be accompanied by laughter. Allen called his brother mischievous, saying he heard Morten Clausen, the father of Larry’s friend John, use the word often to describe both boys as they grew up together, living about a mile apart.
John just shook his head at memories of boyhood days with Larry. “I spent an awful lot of time over there,” he said, “and his mom made some damn good apple pies!”
Kenmare High School classmates Craig Livingston and Jerry Mickelsen both laughed as they talked about Larry.
“We became friends about freshmen year. We started hanging around in the summer and getting trouble,” Jerry said. “The first time he came out to our farm, the sediment bowl broke in his old car. Larry sat on the hood all the way from Kenaston to Kenmare, pouring gas in the carburetor while I drove!”
The two sometimes cruised to Bowbells and rode around town there until local boys chased them back to Kenmare. They would also head out to Mouse River Park every weekend in the summers to charm the girls into dancing with them.
“He was the kind of person you’d like to tease every once in a while,” Jerry recalled. “You could get him going pretty easy, but he’d do anything for you. He was a great friend.”
Craig knew about Larry’s limits to teasing because when older members of the football team would hassle Larry with a hated nickname during practice, Craig would help him out. “He’d take the abuse, but you could see it bothered him,” he said.
“He’d tell me about it. ‘Larry,’ I’d say, ‘take my spot.’ We’d switch places on the line and I’d take care of that.”
Both Craig and Jerry remembered taking advantage of Larry’s weak stomach on occasions when beer or other drinks were involved. “Jerry and myself would go out and drink, and we’d just pretend to get sick,” Craig said, “but that would set him off and he’d really get sick, every time.”
Larry stayed loyal to his buddies, though. “If you ever needed some help, it would never be a no,” Craig said. “He’d help you no matter what. He was pretty shy. He’d talk to you, but you’d better talk to him first. But he’d do anything for you. He never had an enemy in his life and never had a fight, not that I remember.”
Craig, Larry and Jerry hunted and went to dances and passed their classes and graduated, but they didn’t enter the service together. Craig and Larry actually left Kenmare for Minneapolis soon after graduation and found part-time jobs in the city. “We lived downtown in one teeny room,” Craig said. “I think we had one pullout bed and a couch. Neither of our families could afford college.”
As high school graduates, their names were selected for the draft, so the two volunteered to enlist, rather than wait for their numbers to be called. “I think that was in August, and we were serving by September,” Craig said. He and Larry started basic training together at Ft. Lewis, WA, but after a month or so, they were separated as medical problems slowed Craig’s progress in the military.
The two stayed in touch through letters, including one letter that Craig has regretted sending to Larry for 40 years now, encouraging Larry to get together with him in Vietnam. “I should have said, ‘Stay in Korea and we’ll party when we get back,” Craig said.
Jerry also enlisted for the draft and started his service in November 1968, but he didn’t hear much from his friends until he went home on leave from Vietnam in the spring of 1970 and saw Larry. “Larry had orders to go over there then,” Jerry said. “We got together and he asked me, ‘Is it as bad as they say it is?’”
Jerry recalled telling him some areas were all right and others were bad. “He must have got sent to one of the worst areas,” he said.
John was working in Tucson, AZ, at the time, but he met up with his old friend there just before Larry shipped out for Vietnam. “I’d heard from him once in a while,” said John. “In Tucson, he told me he’d signed up for an additional year, and he said to me, ‘I’m young. What’s an additional year?’”
The pain of saying goodbye
Larry’s service in Vietnam began in May 1970, but Craig actually left Vietnam on June 11th before ever seeing Larry. In fact, he didn’t know for certain if Larry had been assigned there. “I had a pretty good idea he was coming,” said Craig. “I knew he would be the best mechanic in the Army, but I also knew if he got to Vietnam, he would be a door gunner.”
Craig was home in Kenmare when the news came of Larry’s death, and Jerry was stationed in Texas, training, and unable to get home for the funeral. John was still working in Tucson. “That was a sad day,” he said. “It was pretty rough, but I came up for the funeral. It seems like those wars always get the best.”
He paused for a moment before continuing, “He was pretty loyal, always had your back. He had a sense of humor and a sense of adventure. He was better than me.”
“We had some pretty good times together,” Jerry recalled. “I still miss him.”
He and Craig and other Kenmare friends had a plaque made to commemorate Larry’s death and military service. “We had it at Tasker’s Coulee for the longest time,” Jerry said, adding that Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge personnel had them remove the plaque, attached to a cement square, a few years ago.
The plaque is now stored in Coulee, but Craig would like to see it displayed for the public, perhaps at Mouse River Park. “There should be some kind of shrine,” said Craig, “so he gets a little bit of recognition or a place where people can remember him.”
Jerry commemorates Larry’s death each Veterans’ Day. “I go out to his grave and take him a bouquet,” he said, adding that occasionally he and his wife Barb have hosted Army friends of Larry’s from other parts of the country who come to Kenmare and visit the cemetery.
Craig has his own anniversary date at Larry’s grave site on June 11th. “Every year, I go out to see him,” he said. “I pour him a beer or sometimes I give him a shot of schnapps or the whole bottle. He was a good friend. You could trust him forever.”
Craig also wants to visit the scene of Larry’s death in Vietnam someday. “I’m going back to that spot,” he said. “I was all over that place as a ‘river rat.’ I have a nephew in Thailand now, and I think I could just about find the spot where it happened.”
Whenever Carol thinks about the day the news came of her brother’s death, she is taken back to her nursing school graduation ceremony in Fargo on August 28, 1970. “I had heard [on the news] that four helicopters were shot down in Vietnam and I thought to myself, thank God Larry is not flying,” she said.
Her family left for Fargo in two cars for the ceremony, but her brothers Allen and Mark had to return home because of vehicle trouble. When her mother called to check on them, they told her military personnel had been there to visit.
Her parents discussed the situation, wondering if something had happened to Larry. “I heard it, but I wasn’t processing it,” Carol said.
She went back to an earlier memory of a neighbor who said Larry’s service in the Army would make a man out of him. “I’ve thought about that a billion times,” she said. “The three oldest of us, we hate war, but our two youngest brothers are both military people. It’s interesting how this all turned out.”
According to Carol, Larry enjoyed his time in Korea. He dreaded going to Vietnam, but he remained true to the principle of doing right instilled by their mother. “Before he went to Vietnam, he was in Ft. Lewis, Washington, and we have relatives out there,” Carol said. “They talked to Larry about going across to Canada and he would not do it. He wouldn’t do that.”
She didn’t hear from Larry while he was in Vietnam, not until the news came of his death. “I can’t believe how sad that time was,” she said, “and what a sense of loss. I don’t have the vocabulary for that. Everybody at home just went to bed as soon as it was dark, and I cried myself to sleep that night.”
She described her schoolteacher mother, standing all of five feet tall, as a pillar of strength for the family at that time, while her father was devastated. The first holiday following Larry’s death and funeral was Thanksgiving, and Doris Jacobson filled the house with relatives for the day. “That was her spirit,” said Carol, who had to request the time off from her new job as a nurse in Fargo. “We might be sad, but we go on.”
Carol doesn’t remember many details of the funeral itself, but the night of Larry’s return is etched in her mind forever. “I could not get over the outpouring of love for our family, by some people we knew and some we didn’t know well,” she said. “We got a phone call the body would be in Minot, so we went to the Minot airport. I thought it would just be our family.”
Instead, aunts, uncles, neighbors, friends and acquaintances showed up, as well as a color guard and an honor guard. The plane’s passengers were allowed to leave, but they did not exit through the gate into the terminal, waiting instead for Larry’s coffin to be carried through first. “What I remember about that night is just that there were so many people there to honor him and to love my parents,” she said. “Even now, I cannot get over how many people came and sent cards.”
One soldier’s legacy
For his service in the U.S. Army, Larry received the Army Aircrew Wings; patches representing the 164th Aviation Group, the 13th Aviation Battalion and the 162nd “Vultures” Assault Helicopter Company; and the Purple Heart, National Defense, Vietnam Service and Vietnam Campaign medals.
His name can be found on Panel 07W, Line 011, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., one of the 58,256 names representing U.S. service men and women killed or gone missing during the Vietnam War.
“We were proud of having him as a brother,” Allen said. “I wish he was still around with us.”
Carol maintains that the veterans who served in Vietnam have not been appreciated enough by the American public. “When I was working in the clinic, a Vietnam veteran came in and I thanked him for his service,” she said. “He said to me that I was only the third person who had ever thanked him.”
She continued, “It’s nice to remember Larry, but it’s nice to remember all of them.”
Sp5 Larry Jacobson
Memory on display . . . This plaque commemorating the life,
military service and death of Sp5 Larry Jacobson is currently
stored at Tolley, after being displayed for 25 years at Tasker's Coulee.
Larry's friend Craig Livingston is currently seeking another, more public,
home for the plaque, which had to be removed from its
former site a few years ago.