Editor’s note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of troop on troop combat in Vietnam as well as the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Standard Journal is honoring Vietnam veterans throughout the year, continuing today with an Navy veteran from Milton.
MILTON — Service to country is something that runs in the Barnhart family. When it came time for Ken Barnhart to enlist, he didn’t hesitate, signing up before he turned 18.
The Milton High graduate enlisted in the Navy just before he turned 18, Sept. 9, 1964, and later volunteered for service in Vietnam. His family history aided in his decision.
“My dad was in the Army, Patton’s 2nd Armored Division, ‘Hell on Wheels’,” said Barnhart. “I didn’t want to be in the Army, though; I wanted to be in the Navy.”
Basic training took place in Great Lakes, Ill., then it was on to his first duty station in Newport, R.I., where he graduated from storekeeper school in November 1964.
Barnhart missed Christmas at home that year, ending up at Naval Base Coronado, San Diego, Calif., on Dec. 23. From there, it was on to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound area of Washington. There Barnhart received weapons and survival training.
By February he was in Vietnam, stationed across the river from Da Nang at Tien Chau.
“It was such a beautiful country,” remembered Barnhart. “It’s a shame it was ruined by war.”
In charge of record keeping in the subsistence office, Barnhart and a crew of five to nine supplied men from various branches of the service with various food-related supplies.
He remembered one interaction with a combat veteran from the Marines.
“The Marines had been in the jungle 20, 30 days and this guy came in and asked about getting resupplied,” said Barnhart. “This guy told him, ‘See Barnhart over there.’ I took him in there and said, ‘Take what you need.’ He looked like a kid in a candy store. He said, ‘I’ll remember this,’ and I said, ‘You guys are out there fighting in the jungle, take what you need.’”
That Marine came back with a case of Scotch and made sure it found its way to Barnhart.
When he first arrived in country, servicemen were allowed to visit a nearby town, though that ceased when an incident resulted in the death of a Vietnamese soldier.
Interaction with the Vietnamese was regular as the locals were hired to do laundry and other jobs for the American servicemen.
“I don’t think they had an overly high opinion of us,” remembered Barnhart. “They were real down-to-earth people. They cooked for us, did our laundry. There were never any incidents of sabotage in our immediate area.”
Barnhart also had regular interaction with men from the Marines and Army as well.
“The thing I took from my experience, they were regular guys just trying to get through the day, serve their time and get home,” he said. “Once I got home, I think it was surreal thinking about where I had been.”
He spent one night on patrol with a group of Marines, going door to door on a night partol. Viet Cong (VC) were suspected to be in the area.
“I did not enjoy that experience. I did not go on patrol again,” he said. “Sometimes, when we were allowed in the villages, you’d notice you wouldn’t see young men. You’d see older men and women. I was told it was because they were sleeping. At night they would work with the VC.”
To this day, Barnhart still looks back fondly on his time and notes he has recommended the service to others.
“We had good food, and entertainment,” he said. “I was at China Beach. It was a beautiful beach.
“There were other good times. We played poker almost every night. It was fun interacting with guys from different parts of the country. I got to meet (actor) Robert Mitchum, the only actor I every personally met. He was my mother’s favorite actor and I sent his autograph home to her.”
To this day, Barnhart remains proud of his service.
“I did my job as good as I could,” he said. “I’ve never been sorry and I never experienced anyone spitting on me or treating me poorly. I know some guys that did experience that and I lost a couple friends in Vietnam — Carl Stitely, who was from Milton.”
His last duty stop was stateside, at Key West, Fla.
Discharged in 1968, Barnhart returned home, married and had two children with his first wife. He married his current wife, Edwina, in 1972 and they have a son, Kenneth Barnhart Jr., who also served in the Navy. They also raised Edwina’s two daughters and the couple have seven grandchildren.
Chris Brady is managing editor at the Standard Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.