Klein served 22 months in Vietnam as a Seabee

Mike KnaakPrint St. Joseph, St. Joseph0 Comments

The American Legion is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2019. In addition to national and statewide activities commemorating this milestone, American Post 328 of St. Joseph is planning a number of festive and patriotic activities for the community.  

One of those special events will be profiles of St. Joseph-area veterans published in each Newsleader during 2019. The Newsleader is joining with Post 328 to recognize veterans and Legion members who served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters of conflict and Cold War tensions.

by Tom Klecker

Donald Wilfred Klein, 72,  U.S. Navy (Seabees) – Vietnam Era

Donald Klein was born at St. Cloud Hospital. He and his nine siblings (six brothers and three sisters) were raised on a 12-acre hobby farm just west of St. John’s.

At the age of 6, Klein drove tractor provided he could slip down off the seat to reach the clutch. Not unlike his brothers and sisters, he was introduced to farm chores and field work quite young. His oldest brother was killed in a car accident when Don was 14 years old.

His father, a construction supervisor, imparted to Klein a good foundation for mechanical construction interest and aptitude.

Klein attended grade school at St. John’s Prep. He then graduated from St. Cloud Technical High School. Klein took all the shop and carpentry classes available to him.

Aware that sooner or later he would be drafted into the military, Klein enlisted in the Navy-Seabees in his senior year. He was 17 years old. He enlisted under a “buddy system.” This three-year active duty enlistment would normally conclude one day before his 21st birthday.

Perhaps it is best to clarify what a Seabee is and is not. Heterography is the study of words or abbreviations that sound the same, but have different spellings and meanings. Initially “CB” stood for “construction battalions”

Seabees are part of the Navy but are not sailors. They are not stationed on ships. They are composed of mobile battalions that go to all parts of the world. Most usually they complete their basic training with the Navy, but also undergo Marine Corps combat training. Their organizational command structure is similar to the Army and Marine Corps (battalion, company, platoon, squad and more)  Seabees uniforms are dress Navy blues and Marine fatigues.

Seabees are trained for combat as well as construction. Given the descriptors, it is understandable why being neither a sailor nor a Marine, Seabees tolerated the less reverential moniker “confused bastards” for CB.

Klein was assigned to Seabee Battalion No. 5 in Davisville, Rhode Island. He flew out to join his unit. Since there was a critical shortage of Seabees, he did not go through Navy basic and was given an E-4 Petty Officer rank and rate of a builder. From May until mid-June, Klein was familiarized with Battalion No. 5 where he was then flown to Port Hueneme, California.  There he was trained on all available weapons, closely supervised by a Marine Gunnery sergeant and a Marine captain.

Completing that training, Klein was flown to Danang, Vietnam (July, 1966). He was issued a rifle and basic gear and transferred to China Beach to build a number of projects.

From there, his team moved to Dong Ha and built a Seabee base near Hue. From up north to near the DMZ and several other locations, they built gun towers, bunkers, landing pads and air strips.

Most of the time Klein and his team lived in tents, ate MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) and were moved around from one location to another by helicopters. His last work assignment was in downtown Saigon. Removed from rocket and mortar attacks, Klein and his team were put up in “a really nice hotel.” “We even had our own room with maid service.” They remodeled an old consulate for an admiral.

During Klein’s 22 months in Vietnam, his team built fortifications, bunkers etc. and more for the Navy, Marines and the Army.  Klein loaned his pay out at the customary rate of $20 for $10 to those going on R & R.

Klein discovered very quickly why the women work the fields during the day and the young Vietnamese men slept during the day. They were carrying ammo and supplies for the Viet Cong at night.

Klein did not have a sweetheart waiting for him back home so he named his M-14 rifle “Dear John.”

Klein saw significant action for which understandably he is reluctant to discuss. He did share the pain of being a squad leader and having two of his guys killed up near the DMZ. Klein has service-connected PTSD.

After 22 months in Vietnam, Klein flew back to the states during the TET offensive in May 1968. After his discharge in Long Beach, California, Klein bought a brand new car. It was a “beautiful looking Oldsmobile” that he drove back home to Minnesota.

Back home in St. Joseph, Klein was unemployed for about a month. On one particular day while “drinking in a bar in St. Jo(seph),” a masonry contractor offered him a job. Klein worked for the contractor eight years that started a 40-year career in construction. He often commuted wherever the work was and often in the capacity as a foreman or job superintendent. Klein semi-retired in 2007-2008.

Klein met his future wife Erma who was from St. Anna. They dated for a year and a half.  They have been married for 51 years. Don and Erma have a 49-year-old son. Erma was an accountant by profession.

Don and Erma enjoy retirement, spending seven to eight months every year in Florida. They return to Minnesota during the warmer months where they live on the home place with their son.

In his spare time, Klein enjoys collecting things – including old German beer steins. As a point of trivia, Klein says during WWII German beer steins did have a pewter metal topper but were removed as the metal was much needed for the German war effort.

In 2007, Klein was involved in a serious car accident.

Klein still likes to tinker with small engines,

At 72, he takes each day as it comes. He is a member of the American Legion Post 328 and also a member of the VFW.

Klein is unapologetically proud of being a Seabee. He says the motto of the Seabees is ”the difficult we do immediately  . . .the impossible takes a little longer.”

Donald Klein

Author: Mike Knaak

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