From an early age John “Jack” Kranchick had a “love-hate relationship with the Army.”
He loved the Army and his father was military, and he wanted to join with two friends. He didn’t, however, like where he ended up.
“They stuck me in the Signal Corps. Apparently the three of us were some of the only high school graduates with good grades, and they must have had a quota, so they sent us to be radio teletype operators. We fought like heck to get out of there and basically were told ‘Hey kid, shut up. Nobody asked you what you wanted to do.’ We couldn’t get out of it.
“So I was a 72-B Radio Teletype Operator stuck in a truck. Graduated from that, went to jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, then went to Fort Riley, Kansas where they put together a platoon of us. The 173rd Airborne only had a platoon of Signal Corp for the whole brigade, so we were going to make up the 173rd Signal Company.
“We got over to Vietnam and there were 72-Bravos all over the place, there were 72-Bravos stepping on top of each other. They didn’t know what to do with us.
“They came up with this: the brigade would send out four battalions, and the battalions would send out their companies, but information wasn’t getting back to brigade. So rather than have us sit somewhere, they came up with a Jeep with an AM radio on a secure net. The companies would get their information to somebody who brought it to me, then I would send the information back to the brigade headquarters telling them what was going on with my battalion. Basically we used FM radios from company to company or platoon to platoon, but AM radios, which had a much longer range, to talk further distances. So I was happy again: I was out in the field with the Infantry, and everything was going good.”
Jack ultimately spent 22 months in Vietnam. “So I was over there about a year, and nothing really eventful happened. Then in 1968 I got sent to Dak To.”
There he learned about the first Battle of Dak To. “They told us about how in June of ’67 a company went out, and 76 were killed and 23 wounded, 99 guys out of a company. That was one of the first times that I realized that this war was really serious. We took a pounding.
“What we called the Battle of Dak To 2 started in early November ’67. I was on the runway and a 122mm rocket went through the tail of the plane I was unloading, but it didn’t go off until it hit the runway. Fortunately for me I was able to dive out of the plane and run to a bunker. So I’m sitting in this bunker, it’s about 7 feet deep, and bombs are going off, mortars and rockets are coming in. I’m sitting on the runway as the biggest battle of the war is starting, and I’m stuck, and all this shrapnel is flying around, bullets are flying around, rockets are coming in. There was an Air Force captain sitting with me, and he looked at his sergeant, and he said ‘Sergeant, we’re getting our plane out of here.’ I watched this guy run across the whole runway, sit there and grind all four props. He started his plane, taxied and took off. You talk about guts, mortars are falling in, everything’s falling in, and this guys sitting up there cranking the plane. You could see the exhaust coming out and I’m like ‘Wow.’
“Eventually all the shelling stopped, and Hill 875 started, which was the biggest battle of the war as far as American casualties. First and 2nd battalion lost 318 guys. Major Watters, he was our chaplain, he was tending to the wounded and got blown up and received the Medal of Honor. I wasn’t on Hill 875, but I could sit in my bunker, which was at one end of the runway, the hill was at the other, and watch Spooky firing, the helicopters. I watched the bombers make their runs, and just knew our guys were catching hell, until the 4th Battalion ... finally took the hill on Thanksgiving Day.”
“We moved from Dak To to Tuy Hoa in time for the Tet Offensive. We didn’t even know the Tet Offensive occurred because there wasn’t that much happening, it was just another night of firefights for our guys. They were getting hit, and mortars were coming in, but we never realized there was an offensive anywhere, it was just another night of getting hit.”
Jack continued his commo work, and decided to extend his stay for 90 days after his year came up.
“December 30, 1968, I was out at a fire support base setting our Claymore mines. I just said to the sergeant, ‘Let’s set our Claymores up there’ when the first round landed 10 feet away. The guy next to me, Martinez, took all the shrapnel. Ripped open his stomach, all his guts were probably hanging out, I didn’t look too close. But you could tell he was bleeding bad and in a lot of pain. I got hit in my arm and my head. I moved him back to my bunker, then I ran through the mortar barrage and I got a medic and led him back to Martinez.
“Then I went to the bunker I was in charge of and made sure everything was okay there. We didn’t get a ground attack but we took a heavy mortar attack. I have the after action report that says we took 35-40 mortar rounds in 10 minutes. I got medevacked to Ahn Khe Hospital, was there 6 or 8 hours, and they determined I was OK and sent me back to the field. I never saw or heard about Martinez again.”
As time went on, Jack started seeing changes in the Army.
“When I got there in ’67, most of the people were service guys who had been in the Army 5-10 years. So they were dedicated guys. Now in ’67-’68 it was guys my age who thought we were going over there for the betterment of the world. Late ’68-’69, we started drafting all the people off college campuses, and then things started turning for the worse. People who didn’t want to be there started looking at us and saying, ‘Wait a minute, you guys volunteered to come over here, you didn’t win. What am I doing here? I don’t want to be here.’”
As his tour of duty drew to an end, it turned out Vietnam still had a few surprises for him.
“The Army had a thing where you couldn’t go back (to the States) if you had less than 150 days remaining (in your enlistment), so some stayed right to the end. We’ll wouldn’t you know it: March 12 or something like that, I was carrying my radio rig and a sniper shot at me. He was a bad shot because he only grazed my back. But the bullet went into the radio, and all the shrapnel went into my back. So I got two Purple Hearts in 89 days. After that nobody would come near me because I was such bad luck. So I did out the rest of my time with that.”
“Then I started to hate the Army. The medic who followed me back running through the mortar attack immediately got a Bronze Star with V device for valor. I was put in for the Silver Star since I ran twice as far, risked my life while wounded, and saved a life, but the paperwork was missing. I was also put in for the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, which you have to be Infantry to get, but they were going to put me in for a secondary MOS because I was out with the Infantry so much, but that must have been with the Sliver Star paperwork.”
The issue with his medals lasted until the day he left Vietnam. “I actually sat in An Khe waiting for my Silver Star and my CIB, and I was going to re-enlist when they gave it to me. They said ‘We don’t know where it is, it’s time for you to leave. Go to Cam Ranh Bay they’ll have the ceremony there.’ I go to Cam Ranh Bay, no ceremony. They couldn’t find anything out. They said ‘Look, go to Fort Lewis, they’ll have it there. Right up to the last moment I was sitting on my bunk waiting to reenlist and I said ‘If they can’t keep track of one piece of paper, forget it.’ So I got out of the Army. But until then I had every intention of reenlisting.”
Jack received an honorable discharge from the Army and went on to a career as a Pennsylvania State Trooper. Ten years after his discharge, he finally received a Bronze Star with V device for valor in recognition of his actions.
Jack left the Army on a sour note because of the issue with his medals, but years later reconciled. “I started going to (173rd Airborne) reunions and met some of the sharpest Infantry company commanders, and realized then what kind of guys were leading us. While I was out there, all I was around were enlisted men, I rarely ever saw an officer out there. Not that they weren’t there, they just weren’t anywhere near me. But I got to realize just how sharp these guys were, they were looking out for us, they knew to a T what was going on. So I started liking the Army again. So I started off loving the Army, ended up loving it, but in the middle...”
Looking back on the experience, Jack has few regrets. “I’ve never hid the fact that I was in Vietnam. I don’t shout it from the rooftops, but I was someone who tried his best. And it’s pretty rare to say you did your best at something, and then to find out it was all for naught. Although, in all honesty, I really did believe we stopped the Communist from taking over further, which showed that we were willing to take a stand.”
Ultimately Jack had this to say about the experience. “(Defense Secretary Robert) McNamarra wrote a book saying Vietnam was one of his bigger mistakes and I’m like ‘Well that’s great; 58,000 Americans died and untold thousands of others, and you figured out it was a mistake.’ But at the juncture we were at in Vietnam, the time we were living in, with the people we were around before, it wasn’t a mistake. It was absolutely the thing to do. We proved it in World War II it was right to get involved, we proved it in Korea, and we were going to prove it in Vietnam. And if it was my generation that was going to prove it, so be it, I was going to be there.”