MASON CITY — Jerry Knoll of Mason City vividly recalls the difficult conversation with his best friend’s mother in 1971.
It was in the kitchen of her home in Horton, Kansas. A photo of her son — Knoll’s friend and fallen soldier Danny Petersen — was hanging on the wall with medals he earned in Vietnam.
Petersen, in Knoll’s unit, was killed in a firefight on Jan. 9, 1970, in Tay Ninh Province. He would later be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Knoll, there with his wife, Barb, tried to answer as many questions from Petersen’s mother as he could.
It would be the last time he talked about Vietnam for decades.
“I wouldn’t talk about this to my kids,” Knoll, 67, said recently. “My kids, they, I don’t think they realized I was in Vietnam until somebody asked me one day and I admitted it.”
He was drafted into the Army shortly after graduating from North Iowa Area Community College in 1968.
Basic training was in Fort Polk, Louisiana. He landed in Vietnam in August 1969.
Knoll drove an armored personnel carrier for Company B, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. The unit worked an area west of what was then Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
A few firefights from the approximately one year he spent in the country are burned into Knoll’s mind.
He remembers the day he drove down a stretch of road that hadn’t been swept for mines. They never did that, not without clearing the road first, but did it that day because another unit was getting hit by enemy fire.
Tension filled the air as Knoll’s vehicle safely rolled slowly through a big puddle filled with water. But the crew’s relief was shattered when a mine blast blew the next vehicle that rolled through that spot into the air and upside down.
Knoll can’t remember the day his friend, Petersen, was killed. Normally they rode in the same vehicle, but were separated because a platoon sergeant needed a replacement driver.
“I’ve forgotten so much,” Knoll said. “I’ve wiped a large portion of this out of my mind. For years.”
He figures part of it was his mind coping with the trauma. The hostile reception that greeted soldiers returning from Vietnam had a lot to do with why he never talked about it, Knoll said.
That reluctance began to fade in recent years. The breakthrough came at a reunion with soldiers in his unit last year.
They met in Kansas.
Knoll and his former unit-members traded stories and photos for hours, in many cases talking about things they hadn’t shared with anyone.
A few units of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a VFW auxiliary, local law-enforcement and 38 members of Petersen’s family attended.
“It really helped, I think, all of us, that week we were there together and were able to renew our friendships again and talk about our families and what you did for a living,” he said. “And, obviously we got to know Danny’s family very well.”
Knoll and two other men had the honor of putting flowers on Petersen’s grave during a prayer service at a country cemetery near Horton.
“That was really special,” Knoll said. “We’re all brothers. I’ve got a bigger family now than I ever had before.”