Tulsa County Assessor Ken Yazel wasn’t in Vietnam but he served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
His military story began when he was a teenager in Wichita, Kansas.
Every spring, he would go to his grandfather’s circus and work hard and return in October. He never went to a traditional full term of school.
At age 15, he ran away from an abusive home situation and his grandfather took him in. His grandfather became his father figure.
“I wanted to be independent,” Yazel said. “Nobody in my family had ever been in the military. I wanted to serve my country.”
In June, 1962, at age 17, he forged a parental signature and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. The recruiter told him that if he scored well, he would be eligible for officer training.
He chose the Marine Corps because “I wanted to be the best.” He went to boot camp in San Diego.
A chaplain in San Diego discovered that Yazel was wanted as a runaway. Yazel’s attitude and success in boot camp convinced the chaplain to help and he stayed in and the legal problems were eliminated.
During the Vietnam era, men who had a minor scrape with the law could avoid jail by joining the military.
“You can’t do that any more,” Yazel said. “That alternative is not available anymore and I think it’s lowered our commitment to our country. We need more people to filter into the military and come back into civilian life. It didn’t hurt me certainly.
“I was never a criminal but it straightened me up. It gave me a purpose. It gave me a way to be independent. It’s not my fault I inherited the wrong parents.”
Discipline was not a problem after working for his grandfather at the circus. And the circus work helped him adjust to military life.
Yazel made PFC out of boot camp. No wars were underway (Vietnam had not started) but eventually he made lance corporal and sergeant. He went to Morse Code school in San Diego after infantry training.
Then he was sent to Camp Legeune because he was selected to go to the Naval Academy. But federal law doesn’t allow entrance into the academy unless you have “seat time” in school and Yazel didn’t.
He joined the Air and Naval Gun Liaison company and deployed to Cuba. The unit was on call for emergencies.
Yazel was asked if he wanted to go overseas and he did (which doubled his pay) and he wound up in Hawaii.
“All Hell broke loose after that,” Yazel said.
He was in support of U.S. and Allied armies. They did a “practice invasion” in the Philippines with SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization – which no longer exists).
“Part of that was me flying to Japan and getting on a boat with 600 Philippino soldiers,” Yazel said. “That was my first experience with foreign people per se. We were warned that this was a secret, practice invasion. The trail was lined with people, little children asking for candy. It was quite an experience.
I think I was 19 years old by then. When I came off the ship I ripped my britches and my white shorts were showing through and everyone was laughing at me as I walked through the village.”
This was in 1964 before the War in Vietnam has gotten fully underway.
“We kept hearing about it but it really hadn’t broken out,” Yazel said of the war. “I got to spend an extra two weeks in the Philippines. Christians were being kidnapped back then, it happens now, and they are held for ransom. And occasionally their heads are chopped off.”
He and seven other Marines were with the Philippine army for two weeks to help them go from village to village to rescue Christian missionaries. Yazel, as a radio operator, called in air strikes.
“That scared the bad guys and helped get these people released,” Yazel said. “We got some released in those two weeks.”
While hunting for the kidnapped missionaries, the U.S. State Department told Yazel and the other Marines to not carry live ammunition due to fears it would start a conflict.
“I was thinking, what country do I work for?” Yazel said. “I was on a radio calling in bombs and they didn’t want us to have bullets in fear an American would get killed. But I was getting shot at anyway.
“I never went without live bullets. A sergeant major of the Philippine army made sure we had bullets.”
The people in the Philippines were extremely friendly to the Americans.
“They loved having us there,” Yazel said. “The only problem was we ran out of American food after two days. I had to eat the local food and that was an experience.”
After the Philippines, Yazel went back to Hawaii and he took a language test and an officer test. He went to 18 weeks of language training because the War in Vietnam was accelerating. A woman from Hanoi who didn’t speak English but spoke French taught North Vietnamese to Yazel’s class. A major asked him to transfer to the Army and become a pilot. Instead, he got assigned to a counterintelligence team. He served in Thailand to help Laos.
“The United States had hired the Hmong people to slow down the Communists, to defend the radar stations on the mountaintops to guide pilots into Hanoi and to rescue downed pilots,” Yazel said. “I have a deep respect for the Hmong people.”
America hired about 100,000 Hmong people and then left them “high and dry,” Yazel said. About 30,000 went to Thailand and about 16,000 imigrated to the United States.
“I looked at the Communists coming south, the domino effect came into my vocabulary, and they were vicious people,” Yazel said.
Yazel got selected for an officer program and was shipped back to the United States and earned a college degree.
A retired major, Yazel served as a radio operator, parachutist, Vietnamese Interrogator-Translator, Nuclear Artillery Officer, Recruiting Officer and Financial Management Officer. In 1982, he was recognized as the Marine Corps Fiscal Director’s Top Budget Officer. Yazel rose through the ranks to Staff Sergeant before being commissioned as a Marine Corps officer, and in his 13 years as an officer he served in command for six years.
He is a member of The Retired Officer Association / Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), and the Marine Corps League.
November 10 is the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress approved the resolution to establish two battalions of Marines able to fight for independence at sea and on shore. This date marks the official formation of the Continental Marines.