The ballad of Bill Kendall
By ANDREW MCGINN
Bill Kendall has retired twice — three times if you consider that he never missed a single meeting of the Elks, the Lions, the Masons, the Genealogical Society, the VFW or the American Legion up until about five years ago.
But for the first time in his life, the Jefferson native feels he has no responsibilities other than to his wife of 33 years and the 24-hour news channels he likes to yell at.
Kendall packed a lot into the last decade alone.
He was the subject of multiple news stories both here at home and in the Des Moines Register for designing an official Medal of Honor flag to be flown by recipients of the nation’s highest military honor and their immediate families.
His flag idea soared through Congress, and in 2002, then-President Bush signed it into law.
The approved design was ultimately altered by an illustrator at the U.S. Army’s Institute of Heraldry — he still prefers the word “plagiarism” — but that’s now water under the bridge.
“What you see is what you get,” the 78-year-old boasted recently with a sense of pride. “I’m retired.”
It should be easy to take Kendall at his word, but his was a life of plausible denial, of doublespeak and of finding himself in places no kid from Jefferson had any right being — at least not officially.
His was a life of black ops.
A body can rest, that much is true.
The mind is a different story.
“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in 40 years,” Kendall confessed. “My brain never stops. It goes 24 hours a day.”
Kendall gave 20 years to his country as a member of Army Special Forces — the Green Berets — at a time when clandestine operations were used to maintain the balance of power during the Cold War without having to resort to World War III.
As early as 1956, Kendall was kicking supplies out of a transport plane over the jungles of Laos to be used in the Royal Lao Army’s fight against a communist insurgency, the Pathet Lao.
“This was not going on in ’56 and ’57,” Kendall said, referring to the fact that American involvement then in Southeast Asia was nowhere remotely official.
It took almost a full decade later, when the U.S. committed ground forces to Vietnam in 1965, before most Americans even realized there was this bunched-up group of little countries on the map below China and Russia.
By the time the U.S. found itself officially in Vietnam — helping South Vietnam fight a communist insurgency of its own, the Viet Cong — Kendall already had been there and back.
“I about met my Waterloo in ’64,” he recalled.
That’s when a truck he was riding in hit a booby trap.
But, in more ways than one, the four days spent in a hospital in all likelihood saved his life.
Kendall has good reason to believe he would have been on a C-123 transport plane that smashed into a mountain near Da Nang Air Base on Dec. 10, 1964.
The crash killed all aboard: 36 Vietnamese and two Americans.
“U.S. officials declined to confirm or deny the report,” an Associated Press dispatch stated. “The whole operation was cloaked in secrecy.”
“It took me a long time to get over that,” Kendall said, knowing full well what had happened.
A military spokesman would say only this much — the flight had been a “training mission.”
The remains of Sgt. 1st Class Dominick Sansone, a fellow Green Beret from New York, weren’t identified until July 27, 1984.
The remains of Air Force Maj. Woodrow W. Vaden weren’t identified until Aug. 11, 2010.
“They lost about 3½ years worth of work when that plane went down,” Kendall said. “That was not a training mission, I’ll guarantee you.”
Like Kendall, the two Americans were part of the now-legendary MACV-SOG, or the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam - Studies and Observation Group.
Eventually awarded the Presidential Unit Citation in 2001, MACV-SOG trained and advised indigenous guerillas — recruited from ethnic groups including the Montagnard and the Chinese Nung — to act as counter-insurgents.
Operations took them across Vietnam’s borders to Laos and Cambodia.
“I can say it. We had assassination teams,” Kendall said.
Kendall was a long ways from Jefferson in more than just geography.
Jefferson born and raised
“I call myself the poor kid from the north side of the tracks,” Kendall said.
He was a sickly kid who’d almost died of rheumatic fever, yet somehow still found a spot on the undefeated 1952-’53 Jefferson High football squad that no opponent scored a single point against.
“When you weigh 132 pounds and stand 5-foot-5, you don’t do much,” Kendall joked. “The water boy had more time on the field than I did.”
“I did letter,” he added, “if you want to call it that. I was a blocking back, if you can believe it. I was pretty good at taking guys out.
“They didn’t see me coming.”
Graduating in 1954, he first tried joining the Navy, but was disqualified by having had rheumatic fever.
He walked over to the Army recruiter and didn’t mention rheumatic fever.
Apparently feeling emboldened, Kendall asked to be given the hardest job the Army had.
That, it turned out, was something called Airborne Unassigned.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Kendall confessed.
These days, there’s scarcely an American who doesn’t know about Special Operations, in part because of popular culture and in part because that’s the way the U.S. has largely fought the Global War on Terror since Sept. 11, 2001.
It’s just universally known that SEAL Team Six took down Osama bin Laden in 2011.
“We’re just individuals that were highly trained for a specific mission,” Kendall said. “We were not Superman. If we looked at a list of who’s who in SOG and how many died, you’ll see nobody is Superman.”
But when Kendall was handed his green beret in 1955, few people knew enough about Special Forces to even form an opinion.
The Navy SEALs weren’t activated until 1962.
Army Special Forces had itself only been activated in 1952.
President John F. Kennedy wouldn’t make the green beret the official headgear of Army Special Forces until 1961.
By mid-decade, though, their daring exploits were beginning to fuel the public’s imagination.
“It’s the challenge of a mission that 99.999 percent of the men on the face of the Earth wouldn’t do,” Kendall said.
Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler — whom Kendall knew — picked up a guitar and scored a No. 1 hit in 1966 with “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”
A comic strip about the Green Berets was appearing in newspapers across the country.
And then came “The Green Berets,” the 1968 John Wayne movie.
A preview of the movie in The Jefferson Herald before its opening at the Iowa Theatre in May 1969 called it “a gripping story of courageous men under extreme stress.”
At the time, Kendall himself was back in Vietnam.
“I’ve never heard an officer say, ‘Move ’em out,’ ” he said, chuckling. “That movie is as far from the truth as you could get.”
But the whole truth is still something you won’t get from Kendall.
“There are a lot of things I can’t talk about,” he said, “and won’t.”
The mid-’60s took him to Panama, but high blood pressure made worse by high elevation likely kept him out of Bolivia, where the hunt was on for the man who literally had written the book on guerilla warfare.
“You ever hear the name Che Guevara?” Kendall asked matter-of-factly.
Che, whose likeness now adorns everything from shirts to iPhone cases, had helped Fidel Castro take control of Cuba in 1959.
By 1967, Bolivian Rangers, aided by a unit of U.S. Green Berets, caught up with the communist guerilla.
The Bolivians promptly executed him.
The Green Berets — who last year became the subject of a new book, “Hunting Che” — were from Kendall’s Special Forces group in Panama.
Even with 36 combat decorations, Kendall recoils at the thought of being regarded as a hero.
“I hate the terminology hero,” he complained. “They’re men who served their country. The heroes are the ones who didn’t come back alive.”
Kendall, who was married with children during his time as a Green Beret, came back alive, but not without invisible wounds that are still tender.
He tells of being back from Vietnam for a second time in 1969 and being on Highway 30 with his wife as they returned home from a trip to Carroll.
He still doesn’t know why, but he suddenly jumped from the car going 55 mph.
“The next thing you know,” he explained, “I’m sitting up in the ditch.”
Post-traumatic stress remains something he grapples with to this day.
“It’s something I try to keep buried,” he said. “That’s why I sit in there screaming and talking to the TV.”
He believes the stress his first wife was under eventually caused her fatal aneurysm in 1977.
“I think back now,” Kendall said. “Out of our 20 years of marriage, I was gone for 11 years.”
Kendall was eager to get on with a normal life, though, returning to Jefferson for good in 1974.
He retired from the Army on Sept. 1, 1974, and by Sept. 3, was sacking and carrying out groceries at Jim’s Super Valu.
“I wanted the simplest job there was,” he said.
Kendall spent an additional 16 years as the dairy manager of G&M Grocery.
That transition from Green Beret to grocery store employee was as difficult as you might imagine.
He remembers being reprimanded for not talking to the customers.
“I just didn’t want to talk to people,” he said.
A doctor once told him he’d either have to learn to live with his past or else it would kill him.
Come April, he’ll turn 79.
“I often wonder, ‘My God, how’d I make it? How’d I get this far?’ ” he said.
“I’ve had a beautiful life,” he added. “I’ve seen the worst of things and I’ve seen the best of things.”
Kendall continues to live on the very property — north of the tracks — where he was born.
“I haven’t went too far in life,” he said.
That, of course, is debatable.