U.S. Army – Vietnam
There’s a military maxim: “Never volunteer for anything.” Joe Zentis volunteered many times, virtually always with fortunate results.
A Distinguished Military Graduate in ROTC at Gannon College, Zentis was commissioned as a regular army officer in 1963. His volunteering for the infantry got him assigned to the 2nd Battalion 21st Infantry, 24th Infantry Division, at Warner Kaserne in Munich, Germany. Warner Kaserne is a former SS headquarters rich in both German and American military history. He served in an excellent unit, developed great friendships, and got to travel throughout Europe. One of his favorite trips resulted from his volunteering to lead a platoon on a four-day 100-mile road march in Nijmegen, Holland.
Troops in Europe could not request assignment to Vietnam until late 1965. As soon as he could, Zentis volunteered. In November, he received preliminary orders to depart for Vietnam in January.
A glitch in his orders kept him in Germany until May. During that interim, he met and married a lovely Australian lady, Edi Terfy. They recently celebrated their 47th anniversary.
Before Zentis left Germany, some of his friends who had not volunteered were assigned to combat roles with newly-deployed U.S. military units. Because he volunteered early, Zentis was assigned to a relatively safe Military Assistance Command provincial advisory team, which he found far too boring. He volunteered again for reassignment to any unit in Vietnam where he could serve a useful purpose. That got him transferred to the 23rd Vietnamese Infantry Training Center in the Ban Me Thuot, in the central highlands. The MACV compound there surrounded the former emperor Bao Dai’s spectacular “Grand Bungalow.”
The training center allowed Zentis to exercise leadership and creativity. He invented a unique pop-up target range that earned him a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service.
He describes his time there as stressful rather than horrible.
“ I didn’t have to kill anyone, and I never saw anyone killed or wounded. But every day I rode five miles between the MACV compound and the training center with my little M-1 carbine on my lap. We never knew who or what was in the trees beside the road. But we were fully aware that the area was ‘pacified’ only because the Vietcong had other priorities.”
That was proven seven months after Zentis left Vietnam, when the Vietcong easily swept through the area during the infamous famous Tet offensive. The advisors who left the compound that day were killed on their way to their units.
Because of his willingness to volunteer, Zentis suffered no ill effects from his year in Vietnam other than a weight loss from 165 to 138 pounds.
Today, 50 pounds heavier, he says, “That problem was far too easily corrected.”