By Roz Kohls
DASSEL, MN The first six months Mike Colberg of Dassel served in the Army in Vietnam, he thought the chances were he wouldn’t make it home alive.
“It was a very trying time in your life. It was a very stressful time in your life,” Colberg said of his long-range reconnaissance unit’s work checking out enemy territory in North Vietnam.
However, in Colberg’s second six months in the army’s Hawk Recon, 101st Airborne, his attitude changed. The danger was the same, but Colberg began to think he might make it out, and get back to Dassel, he said.
Colberg was right. He did make it home alive.
Colberg, a graduate of Dassel High School, entered the Army two weeks after he married Karin Haapala, also a Dassel High School graduate. Colberg served in Vietnam from 1970 to late 1971, he said.
In long-range reconnaissance, a group of seven to 10 soldiers went into enemy territory for seven to 10 days, and assessed what the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese were up to. They checked out how many enemy soldiers there were, their movements, which were usually at night, and what weapons and supplies they had.
After the unit got as much information as it could, Colberg and his teammates hiked back to report to headquarters at Camp Eagle in Hue.
Colberg said he and his team mates were always tense in the field. Not only was the terrain extremely rugged, but their unit was very small, and they were alone in the jungle. If discovered by a large group of Viet Cong, they easily could have been overwhelmed, Colberg said.
In 1968, the Army had bad intelligence on the strength of the enemy, so were caught off guard in the Tet Offensive. Reconnaissance units like Colberg’s were important because the Army didn’t want to make the same mistake again.
Reconnaissance work was hazardous, though. The Viet Cong were creative soldiers. “They were a formidable foe,” Colberg said.
Colberg, himself, fell into a Viet Cong pungee pit, and was laid up for a couple of months. A pungee pit is a deep hole dug in the jungle trail. It’s filled with sharpened bamboo stakes pointing up. The Viet Cong relieved themselves on the stakes, so if puncture wounds from the stakes weren’t lethal, the infection from the bacteria-drenched stakes could be, he said.
The pit was covered with the same brush covering the trail, so Colberg didn’t see it until he was already falling into it.
Another danger was stumbling into a huge concentration of Viet Cong soldiers. Colberg and his team had to get out fast. If they couldn’t hike out, a helicopter came to lift them out while gun ships circled the area to protect their rescue, he said.
Occasionally, the Viet Cong took the offensive, and tried to overrun the team’s fire base, where they stayed when they weren’t in the field. Colberg remembered one particularly intense gun battle when US soldiers killed 170 enemy soldiers. Usually, US soldiers had the advantage at a fire base, because they had ample ammunition, stockpiles of weapons, and air support, while the Viet Cong didn’t, Colberg said.
Still, the soldiers at the fire base didn’t take gun battles for granted. “You saw people do extraordinary things,” Colberg said.
In addition to battling the enemy, Colberg and his unit battled the terrain and elements, as well. The area around the Ashaw Valley, where they did the most reconnaissance, was mountainous and covered with thick jungle. They carried 40-to 60-pound packs. Sometimes, they had to hack their way through the brush with machetes.
“We had the freedom to improvise,” Colberg said.
If team members were hindered by a cliff, ravine, or river, they changed their plans, he added.
The unit didn’t interact with civilians much, because most civilians were in South Vietnam, where farmland was flatter, he said.
However, the unit often had a “Kit Carson scout,” a local who was familiar with the terrain and willing to help US soldiers through it.
Vietnam also has only two seasons, dry and monsoon. During the monsoon, it rained every day. At night, the team slept in ponchos. It was a struggle to keep dry, especially their feet, Colberg said.
The soldiers ate freeze-dried meals, which weren’t great tasting, but were better than C-rations, he said.
After Colberg finished his tour, he gratefully returned to civilian life with Karin in Dassel. He attended Moorhead State University for a year, and then went into the real estate business. He now is in business at Colberg & Haapala Real Estate, 650 Parker Ave., Dassel.
The Colbergs have two sons, Shane, a chiropractor in Dassel; and Shawn, a professor at the University of Notre Dame.