Months ago, Darryl McKenzie contacted me after he read our Signal newspaper’s Friday veterans page and he provided me an overview of his military service. Well, it took awhile but we finally met at George Thomas’ Route 66 restaurant on Soledad Canyon Road in Canyon Country. Darryl and I enjoyed swapping memories of our combat days in Vietnam from so many years ago and I was thoroughly absorbed by his compelling experiences.
Uncle Sam’s Greeting
Darryl W. McKenzie was born Sept. 6, 1945, in Burbank, but grew up in Sun Valley and graduated from John H. Francis Polytechnic High School June 21, 1963. Darryl’s work ethic education began in high school while working at a Chevron gas station at Lankershim Boulevard and Telfair Avenue. After high school, Darryl worked in maintenance at General Motors on Van Nuys Boulevard. However, in November 1965, Darryl received his dreaded “greeting letter” from Uncle Sam, which sent him into the U.S. Army Nov. 23, 1965. Darryl took basic and advanced infantry training at Fort Lewis, Washington, and then received a two-week leave of absence to visit his family.
The Great Race
While home on leave, Darryl married his sweetheart Saundra (Sandy) Saunders Feb. 19, 1966, at Burbank’s Rosewood Wedding Chapel. Interestingly, Saundra had spotted Darryl at a 1964 Easter Sunday gathering with friends and family members at Sun Valley Park. After eyeballing Darryl, the next day Sandy told her mother that she wanted to meet Darryl so her Mom said to just give him a phone call. Darryl missed her call, but a mutual friend informed him that Sandy wanted to meet him so he immediately called her for a date to dinner and a movie. They saw the best comedy movie of the day, “The Great Race” as Darryl sought to impress her. Apparently, Darryl succeeded as they continued seeing each other until he was drafted and then marriage. Darryl and Sandy have been happily married for over 52 years.
Good Morning Vietnam!
Following his leave of absence, Darryl returned to Fort Lewis and soon he and his fellow 4th Infantry Division troops boarded the USS General W. H. Gordon, a World War II-era troop ship, and journeyed to Nha Trang, South Vietnam. Darryl’s unit, nicknamed “Dragoons,” arrived early September 1966 and promptly flew by helicopter to Tuy Hoa Air Base located at the South China Sea. They immediately began establishing their new base camp but due to random Viet Cong sniper fire they began perimeter patrols and night ambushes the very next day. During Darryl’s very first night patrol they experienced a hard rain so he and a buddy took cover under a tree, not realizing there were monkeys in that tree. We had a saying in Vietnam after muddy patrols, rainy nights and enemy contact: “I feel like I’ve been shot at and missed but S _ _ T at and hit.” Well, that perfectly summed up Darryl’s first night patrol in Vietnam.
Central Highlands Action
At daylight the next morning, Darryl and his pals ventured into the village and captured a lone Viet Cong with his antiquated single-shot rifle who had been sniping at them. Once back to base camp for three days, Darryl’s unit resumed establishing their area until they were then whisked off on Huey helicopters to the Central Highlands mountains. For the next three months Darryl and his fellow grunts were on patrol seeking Viet Cong guerilla fighters, dealing with snipers, booby traps and numerous firefights. During one enemy encounter at a small hamlet, Darryl’s platoon leader called in a Huey to transport a captured Viet Cong suspect so he told Darryl to pop a smoke grenade. As Darryl proceeded alone, a black-pajama-clad Viet Cong with an AK47 rushed around from behind a hooch intending to kill him point blank, but Darryl beat him to the draw.
For three months, Darryl’s unit patrolled the mountains without having showers, shaving and clean fatigues. Yes, they were nasty, but headquarters occasionally brought in hot meals, which were a great relief from bland C-rations and one time they even brought beer. During a patrol on Nov. 12, 1966, while advancing down a well-beaten trail, Darryl was roughly 10 feet behind point man and pal Jerry Kelly from Texas. The rest of their platoon was back 25 feet. Suddenly, Jerry kicked a trip wire, triggering a bouncing betty hand grenade and a huge explosion 4 feet above ground. Darryl vividly recalls that tremendous explosion, dirt blistering his face, shrapnel blasting into his body from his chin down to his feet, and instantly being thrown onto his back, howling in pain. Darryl was horrified, realizing his intestines were hanging out of his abdomen as two grunts dragged him away.
Bandages and Tourniquet
That bouncing betty triggered a 90-minute firefight that delayed Darryl’s Huey helicopter med-evacuation, but soon he was flown to Tuy Hoa and then to the 8th Field Hospital at Nha Trang for three weeks. Darryl, sporting a bandaged body and a tourniquet on his right leg, was next flown to Camp Zama Hospital near Tokyo, where he recovered after five surgeries during four months. Altogether, Darryl experienced 16 surgeries including one two years later at the Veterans Administration. Darryl gives profound credit to his platoon medic, Wayne Brown, for saving his life along with his buddies Sam Greenly and Tommy Moore, who pulled him away. At a 2007 reunion in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with great emotion Darryl personally thanked his heroes for saving his life.
Army Commendation Medal
Following Camp Zama, Darryl expected to return to his infantry platoon, but his doctors wouldn’t permit it, so he was ordered to Korea’s DMZ until his honorable discharge Oct. 3, 1967. Darryl had been promoted to sergeant E-5 and he earned the Combat Infantryman Badge, Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal for Valor, among other Vietnam service medals. Darryl earned his medal for valor during a night enemy skirmish involving a sister platoon so his platoon leader sent him and three soldiers to search for a missing wounded soldier. When they found the soldier alive they rolled him over and to Darryl’s astonishment it was Nick Hartman, a friend since junior high school. They quickly carried Nick down the mountain for med-evacuation but sadly he died a week later on Nov. 7. Darryl was seriously wounded just five days later.
Dreaded GM Assembly Line
Once out of the Army, Darryl returned home to Saundra, who had rented an apartment in Sepulveda, and back to his General Motors job that was held via the G.I. Bill. However, he ended up working a grueling assembly line job, hence Darryl promptly left after landing a job with Southern California Gas Co., where he worked for 12 years. In 1968, Darryl and Saundra purchased their first home in Canyon Country and five years later they purchased their current Canyon Country home. Daughter Michelle was born in 1970 and son Wade in 1974. Darryl worked for Schlitz Brewing Co. for three years, Western Offshore Drilling Co. for another 15 years and finally Patriot Environmental Co. for three years until retiring.
Achieved the American Dream
These days, Darryl and Saundra enjoy traveling and getting away for several weeks camping with their fifth-wheel trailer. Darryl proudly holds life memberships to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Order of the Purple Heart, plus he loves attending local Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies. Thank you, Darryl, for your honorable service to America.