By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — Thomas Behrensmeyer served in Vietnam, where you’d think working in the PX — the base store — would exempt you from exploding trucks and ammo dump mushroom clouds.
Behrensmeyer is from Quincy and graduated from Quincy College in 1965. The future buck sergeant knew the draft was likely.
“The war was hot then,” he said.
Rather than be drafted, Behrensmeyer chose to enlist in the National Guard, which had an armory in his hometown.
But after his basic training, the hot war got hotter, with the massive Tet Offensive of early 1968. His unit was put on high priority — with specialized training — and a likely move from the Midwest to southeast Asia.
“In the spring of 1968, I received a phone call at my Kroger store in St. Louis and returned to my unit in Quincy,” he recalled.
They’d been activated to federal duty, one of only four units from this state — and the only one of the units sent to Vietnam, he said.
His unit left for Vietnam in the fall of 1968. The plane refueled at Midway Island, and the soldiers found themselves at Danang Air Base.
A few days later, they were on the way, close to Marble Mountain Air Facility, where villages were filling sandbags for their bunkers.
His most intense moment: One of the Viet Cong put a stick-shaped explosive “the size of a pencil” in the gas tank of their truck.
The gas tank was close to empty.
“If it had been full of gas, we’d all be dead,” he said.
Promoted to buck sergeant, he was put in touch with a sergeant major who recommended him for the PX at his base, about the size equivalent of a convenience store.
Behrensmeyer sold cartons of cigarettes for $2, he recalled.
He had two vehicles at his disposal to pick up supplies and also trained PX soldiers — including those at the border.
Taking a boat there on the South China Sea, he got seasick and was relieved to come back by plane.
His Vietnam service saw family changes — his son was born — and there were lighter times, like seeing the Bob Hope USO show.
Behrensmeyer was back at his camp when an ammo dump exploded “with a mushroom cloud.”
The explosives were 2,000-pound bombs. Behrensmeyer jumped into his truck and drove to Danang Air Force Base to see what everybody was talking about.
That was near the end of Behrensmeyer’s tour in Vietnam. He flew back to the U.S. and to Quincy, where he was reunited with wife Jeanne and son Steve, then about 10 months old.
He spent a career in the grocery business, which brought him to Champaign.
After seeing southeast Asia, Behrensmeyer said, he believes more than ever “America is the greatest country on the Earth.”
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.