CLEAR LAKE — When Jim Knutson drove a tank retriever during the Vietnam War, he faced two foes: the Viet Cong and the jungle.
“It was no place for a tank,” said the Clear Lake resident. “The terrain was terrible. The enemy could see us coming a mile away.”
Knutson and the others in his unit had to deal with mud during the monsoon season as well as mosquitoes and biting ants. They also were in danger of contracting disease.
His unit’s job was to seek out the enemy and keep them from establishing themselves deep in the jungle.
Knutson said the Viet Cong tried to pick them off one at a time through snipers and land mines.
“You never knew when your number was up,” he said.
Knutson was injured during an ambush and received a Purple Heart.
He said he was never a lucky guy but considers himself “very lucky to make it out alive.”
Knutson, 70, grew up in southern Minnesota and graduated from Kiester High School in 1963.
He was drafted in 1965 and enlisted in the Army after that so he could get a better choice of what he would do and where he would go.
Knutson said he had the chance to train as a helicopter pilot but turned it down because “all those guys were going to Vietnam.”
He went to tank mechanic school instead, but still ended up going to Vietnam.
A tank retriever is like a wrecker for tanks, according to Knutson. The M-88 retriever he operated weighed 62 tons.
It was his job to pull out tanks that got stuck in the mud or tow tanks that got hit.
“We never left anything behind,” Knutson said.
He once towed away a tank while it was still burning after being hit. Ammo was still going off at the time.
The four members of the tank crew were badly burned.
Another time five tanks got stuck in quicksand. Knutson said they couldn’t be moved so they had to spend the night where they were.
“Good thing the enemy didn’t know,” he said.
The next day chainsaws were flown out to them so they could build a log road to get out.
Knutson’s unit lived in the jungle for two or three months at a time and ate C-rations. He said he would dream about McDonald’s cheeseburgers, fries and chocolate shakes.
Knutson served in Vietnam from January 1967 to January 1968.
When he flew back to the U.S. it was “one of the happiest days of my life,” Knutson said.
He said he kissed the ground when his plane landed in San Francisco.
Knutson worked at Jerry’s Body Shop in Clear Lake for a decade after coming home. He has worked for McKiness Excavating in Mason City for the past 38 years.
Every Vietnam veteran had a different experience, according to Knutson.
“I think about Vietnam every day, but don’t let it affect my daily life,” he said. “I forget a lot about it until I start talking about it.”