Late in the afternoon of September 16, 1969, Captain John Kalen of the United States Army prepared for a routine reconnaissance flight over the highlands of Pleiku, Vietnam. He strapped on his powder blue flight helmet and boarded the OH-6A Loach, eager to scout the jungle-covered terrain and towering peaks for enemy forces.
As the helicopter set off over the thick brush and dense landscape, its departure unknowingly marked a final farewell to John’s company on the ground and family and friends back home. Like thousands of American soldiers who toiled, sacrificed, and served during the Vietnam War, this would be John’s last tour of duty.
Eremich, Pauline. Letter to son-in-law, John Kalen. 20 Sept. 1969.
“I have already sent you two letters since we got the word that you have been missing... My letters are going to you John, because I want you to find them when you are brought back… I want there to be a stack of mail waiting for you, telling you how much we love you and miss you and want you back with us.”
On September 22, 1969, John’s wife, Pauline was visited by two officers at her Massachusetts home. “As a military wife, you hate to see officers come to your door,” she said. It was during that visit that her life changed forever—her husband’s aircraft had been brought down by hostile, enemy fire, and he, along with two of his men were declared killed in action.
“He didn’t have to be up there,” said Pauline. “He could have sent someone else, but he was always so gung-ho. He had to do and see everything for himself… He didn’t want to leave me and the children, but he felt it was his duty and I felt the same way.”
John Kalen enlisted in the Army on June 7, 1966, as a private. He was voted "outstanding trainee” at Officer Candidate School (OCS), where he missed graduating as the top honor student by one-tenth of a point. After 23 weeks of OCS, he was commissioned, serving as an infantry officer at Fort Riley in Kansas and then in Augsburg, Germany. In the spring of 1969, as an “old man” of 28, he was named number two in his class at Ranger School, where the average age was 23. Then, just a few short months after, John left for Vietnam where he was assigned as commander of Company A, 8th Infantry, 4th Division.
John’s commendations included the Bronze Star, Air Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, and Combat Infantryman’s Badge, among others. Posthumously, he was cited the Medal of Liberty, Purple Heart, and Silver Star.
Silver Star Citation. Fort Devens, MA. 13 Feb. 1970.
“Upon receiving word that an element of his company was engaged in heavy enemy contact, Capt. Kalen immediately organized a reactionary element and moved to the area of contact. Upon arriving in the area, he maneuvered his element to give the platoon in contact the best possible protection and place maximum fire power on the enemy. Although painfully wounded, Capt. Kalen assumed the duties as the forward observer for artillery support when the assigned observer was wounded. Advancing to the strategic point through an intense barrage of enemy fire, Capt. Kalen continued to give commands to his ground element as he effectively adjusted artillery and gunship fire on enemy enplacements.”
While over 50 years have passed since John Kalen lost his life in Vietnam, his family holds his memory and unwavering dedication to his service close to their hearts.
“He died for our country,” said Pauline. “There’s no greater love than that.”