BROOKINGS – No thanks, don’t want to be a “tunnel rat.”
“Not liking spiders, not liking snakes and a little claustrophobic, it was easy for me turn my back on that offer,” said Lionel Torgrude, 72, then in the Army, now retired and living in Volga. His time in Vietnam would be spent with artillery, known in military circles around the world as “king of battle.”
A native of Sinai, Torgrude grew up there and graduated from Brookings High School in 1966. Next came a couple years of college at Black Hills State University. Then came an offer he couldn’t refuse: his draft notice.
“Back in those days, we were pretty undecided about what we wanted to do,” he said.
In 1969, he went into the Army. First came boot camp at Fort Lewis, Washington, followed by advanced individual training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a “13 Bravo” (artilleryman).
He called that time period uneventful, except for one event unrelated to that point in his life: “I do remember sitting in the barracks at the time of the lunar landing (on July 20, 1969).”
Laughing, he added, “All of us were questioning if it was real or not. That was before fake news. It was just one of those unbelievable events in our lifetime, I guess.”
Supporting the ‘queen of battle’
Not surprisingly, Torgrude’s next stop was Vietnam; he arrived in (“I’m guessing”) September 1969 and was assigned to Bravo Battery, 7/11 Artillery, 25th Infantry Division (“Tropic Lightning”). While artillery is king of battle, infantry is queen.
“We were stationed in and around Tay Ninh Province, northwest of Saigon,” Torgrude recalled. “Our mission was to support the infantry. In most cases that support amounted to us traveling with them. We would follow and set up a small fire support base and provide fire support for them on their missions, patrols, whatever.”
That might last for a couple of days, and then the unit would again be on the move.
The 7/11 did have a secure semi-permanent fire support base that smaller units would move out of in support of the infantry. Each battery had six 105mm howitzers, with a range of about 7 miles, very accurate and usually deployed as a single unit. Torgrude did note that sometimes the battery could be split into two units of three guns each. He recalled one instance where three guns were deployed on a river barge and provided fire support to troops ashore.
On most occasions the guns were deployed to the field by helicopter.
“We rode in the chopper and they would set the cannon down on the ground and then move over and set us down,” he explained. “Sometimes we would be in a different chopper, so we would be there to unhook them.”
Vietcong controlled the night
The gun crews tried to work in 12-hour shifts of six men per cannon; that didn’t always work out.
“One of the things I learned early on in Vietnam is that there was no start of a day or end of a day, especially when you’re trying to work shifts,” Torgrude said. “You get a firing mission when you’re resting or supposed to be sleeping.”
Explaining how a firing mission worked, he cited some specifics: “Each of the shells weighed about 33 pounds; each gun was capable of shooting about 10 rounds per minute for a short period of time. But on a long fire mission, a couple hours or several hours, about three rounds per minute was what we averaged.”
Except for time spent at their semi-permanent fire support base, Torgrude and his unit were “on the move, sometimes into Cambodia, out of Cambodia.”
About halfway through his 13 1/2-month tour of duty, he went from firing the guns to working in the fire direction center: “You’re still with the guns; you’re the one who computes the data.”
While describing the different types of ammunition the guns fired, Torgrude talked about how illumination rounds could “make daylight, for a few minutes anyway, and give us an advantage, because the Vietcong really controlled the night.”
Helping his fellow veterans
Torgrude returned to United States, California, 50 years ago Nov. 11. Unlike the unpleasant welcome some veterans experienced, his return to South Dakota was a pleasant one.
“An advantage upon return, coming home to rural South Dakota, I did not experience some of the difficulties that a lot of the veterans did,” Torgrude recalled. “Coming into Sinai, you were welcomed back and thanked for your service. My membership in the local (American) Legion was paid for.”
He had been drafted for two years. His military service was over; he had no requirement to spend time in a reserve status.
“I was done,” he said.
Using his G.I. Bill benefits, he returned to college at Dakota State University and earned a degree in social sciences.
Now retired from working for the state, he spent 23 years as Brookings County veterans services officer.
“Getting to know my veterans and hearing some of their stories were the most rewarding parts of my job,” Torgrude said.
“I have one regret, and that’s that I didn’t do some taping: I had a couple World War I vets. I sat with one of them four hours one day, not even realizing it had been that long. He shared story after story after story.” He was in the Army and taking part in what historians at one time called “the war to end all wars.”
In the case of one family, he served veterans from four generations: World I, World War II, Vietnam and the Gulf War.
“You’ll never forget the sights and sounds,” he said, looking back to his own in-country Vietnam days.” One of those sounds was the whup, whup, whup, whup of blades on a helicopter. “It was kind of a love-hate relationship; because they took you to the field but they also brought you back.”
Lionel now lives a relaxed retirement with his wife Fran. They have three sons and seven grandchildren.
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]