Sgt. Kenneth Templeton has always been a comedian.
He makes self-deprecating jokes about how before the war he was in a couple of high school plays, but was never good enough to play the lead role. He tells the funny story about when he volunteered to become the camp barber while he was in Vietnam, despite the fact he had never once cut hair. He hits punchlines involving himself, in a portable latrine that was blown over by a helicopter landing nearby, sending the toilet, him and its “contents” rolling the whole way down a hill.
“Somehow I didn’t get hurt, but even after I showered and put on deodorant, no one would get near me for a week,” Templeton joked.
He luckily came home from the war, and never stopped cracking jokes and lighting up rooms when he walked in.
You may realize, after speaking with him for an extended period of time, that Templeton’s humor is based on his knack for riveting storytelling and never taking himself too seriously. But some stories, if you’re paying attention closely, do not come from his lifelong “happy-go-lucky” disposition.
Those few things are “soldiers’ humor.”
And as he sat and shared his various wartime anecdotes with a captivated single-member audience, Sgt. Ken Templeton realized he had “never shared some of this with anyone before.”
Kenneth William Templeton was born April 29, 1947, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to William and Vivian Templeton as the couple’s only child.
“My dad saw me come out, saw how big I was, and immediately said, ‘Nope, that’s it. We’re done after this one,’” said Templeton, a joke his parents repeated throughout their lives in regard to why they had an only child.
Templeton said his father had been wounded in Germany while fighting the Nazis, and although he survived multiple gunshot wounds, his wartime injury caused blood clots and other medical issues throughout his life.
Due to his father’s health requiring a dry climate, the family relocated to Burbank in 1952. It was there, in the shadow of Hollywood, Templeton developed an artistic side, performing in both his high school’s choir and theater programs.
“I was always a comedian and cracking jokes in class,” said Templeton. “I wanted people to be happy when they were around me, and I kept that up even after I joined the Marines.”
Seeing the writing on the wall when it came to the draft, Templeton made the decision to enlist in the United States Marine Corps on Jan. 11, 1966.
“When I was sitting in the office, waiting to head out just before boot camp, they asked everyone there to stand up and count off,” said Templeton. “We did, and everyone was nervous ’cause we knew this would decide who would get on the bus to become a grunt. The officer asked all even numbers to ‘step forward,’ and I was an even number so I did. Then he goes, ‘Everyone who didn’t step forward, get on the bus.’”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Templeton was sent off to receive training as a radio operator. Following completion of those courses, he and his fellow technicians were sent to Da Nang, Vietnam.
In addition to being a comedian, Templeton also found he could be a decent photographer and was able to catalogue a lot of his time spent in Vietnam.
His pictures show everything from the mundane chores Templeton and his team were responsible for, to showcasing the communications equipment they were in charge of to one series of images Templeton captured showing a cloud of fire and smoke hundreds of yards in the air.
“The Viet Cong somehow hit an ammo depot by accident,” said Templeton. “The blast nearly knocked me over.”
Templeton was also fortunate enough to have a mom who would send care packages overseas.
“They sent me things like green beans, canned Chef Boyardee, dry socks … on my birthday my mom was even able to send a sealed cake with frosting,” said Templeton. “The guys in my tent could have whatever they wanted, but if they weren’t my guys, they could buy the stuff off of me.”
Always looking for more entrepreneurial opportunities while an active soldier, Templeton decided to open up his own jungle barber shop.
“A guy had found a pair of brand new clippers, and asked if anyone was a barber,” said Templeton. “I raised my hand … I had never cut hair a day in my life.”
However, in those times he didn’t feel like laughing, he said he could count on feeling fortunate.
“Someone was watching over me.”
When he first arrived in Vietnam, before he was sent down a hill in a latrine or was hustling his care package stockpile, Templeton found himself in a foxhole alongside a friend of his from boot camp.
A corporal approached the hole, informing Templeton that a colonel wanted to see him. As he walked away from the hole, an enemy mortar round struck the hole with his friend still inside.
Templeton also touched on how his reputation as a barber preceded him — although there were plenty of horror stories from customers that happened in his chair — and he was called by a major, to the front lines, in order to give the commanding officer a “Ken’s Clips” classic.
Flown out on a helicopter designated solely for this mission, Templeton arrived at the forward base and cut the major’s hair. However, when he wanted to leave, and return to his camp miles behind the lines, a Viet Cong offensive and artillery barrage forced his helicopter pilot to leave without him.
The barber was given a flak jacket and a rifle, and told to get inside a bunker. The only other man inside the concrete structure, a soldier named Freddy, struck up a conversation with an out-of-place Templeton.
“We joked around for a bit, while he walked me through the claymore mines (switches) that controlled the explosives in the ‘killing field’ in front of us.”
Templeton said that as the night wore on, he thought he was going to be in the clear. But then, as he and Freddy prepped to call it a night, Viet Cong troops were spotted on the edge of the field. Airborne flares then lit up the night sky.
“There were hundreds of them charging at us … and if you didn’t kill them, they just kept coming,” said Templeton.
“In the morning, I could look out and see that the whole zone in front of us was filled with dead bodies,” said Templeton. “The chopper landed a little bit later and I got out of there as fast as I could.”
Templeton was rotated out and sent back stateside. He did decide though, after being back home for only a short time, to return to Vietnam for another six months.
“My mom was not happy … she knew what I knew and that’s when you’re ‘in country,’ no one is safe.”
After his second deployment to Vietnam, Cpl. Templeton was sent to the Twentynine Palms military base in San Bernardino County and promoted to the rank of sergeant. Three months later he was honorably discharged.
Templeton left the service with “Twentynine Palms in the rearview mirror” after serving a total of three years, four months and 20 days of active service. For his actions in the previously mentioned stories, as well as for the ones he couldn’t share, he was awarded a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal, a Vietnam Campaign Medal, a Combat Action Medal and a Good Conduct Medal.
Templeton went on to work a variety of civilian jobs, generally finding himself employed in the communications industry.
He would go on to marry his wife, Sue, after his proposal featured him putting the ring on the wrong finger. Despite the early mistake, they built a life together, having two children and eventually moved to the Saugus area.
And to this day Templeton maintains the comedic persona he has carried with him since he was a kid. When asked about his 24/7 demeanor, as it is “different” than many other veterans who returned home, he confesses that he’s cheery all the time not because the war did not faze him — it did — or because his time in the war was easy. It wasn’t.
“Some guys came back bitter, and I get why. There was a lot of negativity going around at that time,” said Templeton. “A lot of guys had a lot harder time over there than I did and an even harder time when they got home.”
“But I try to joke about some of it because I have stories that would make your hairs stand up. I know what I and others did when we were over there, and know not to share some of those stories. But I am still very proud of us.”
“I came back and felt blessed … and I want to find the good inside the bad,” said Templeton. “I wouldn’t let the war change me … I had a whole life still left to live.”