Ernie Wensaut, a former Army machine gunner for the 1st Infantry Division, was born in a traditional Potawatomi tribal family home, on their reservation in Wisconsin.
Growing up, he remembers native ceremonies held for each passing season.
The ceremonies often integrated beating drums with a lot of dancing, he said. The tribal men used the rites as a declaration of their heritage and beliefs.
Wensaut was given the native name “Wimigo” by his father, a traditional medicine man, he said.
“Ceremonies help us stay in touch with our tribe, and our family roots,” he said. “Each family has a drum dedicated to their ancestors.”
Wensaut’s family lineage dates back hundreds of years, with relatives who fought alongside historic Native American figures such as Black Hawk, a war chief of the Sauk American Indian, he said.
“With my people, it is expected that if we’re called to fight for our country — we fight — no matter how our country treated us in the past,” Wensaut said. “I’m proud to have fought for my country.”
It was also his Native American culture, Wensaut said, that helped him survive the Vietnam War.
Drafted into the Army in 1966, Wensaut knew war was imminent. Before he left, the tribe had a ceremony and he was given a buckskin tobacco pouch and his father said, “Carry this, it’ll see you through.”
Wensaut held his pouch close during his year-long combat tour in Vietnam, and experienced many close calls in battle.
Before he left, he asked his girlfriend, Darlene, to wait for him. She said yes, and the couple planned to marry after he returned.
In October 1966, Wensaut deployed to War Zone C in South Vietnam, a mountain region near the Cambodian border known for its high concentration of enemy forces hidden throughout its pathless jungles and boggy swamps.
Nightmare in jungle
The Soldiers of the 1st Division — sometimes called The Big Red One — usually patrolled around noon, he said, when the sun — like the temperature — was at its highest point. In the jungle, the temperature and humidity were both usually around 100 percent.
The men carried upwards of 60 pounds of gear, with additional weight carried by radio operators and machine gunners, like Wensaut. After a while, their crisp, olive-drab fatigues started to fade and were usually sopping wet from sweat.
Although the Soldiers were only a few weeks into their combat tour, he said, they would soon face danger — and not just from things like sun stroke, mosquitoes, dehydration, leeches, and fatigue.
Enemy forces could be just a few yards away, completely veiled in jungle foliage and you’d never know, Wensaut said. It was hard for his patrol to see the guerilla fighters. The Viet Cong also used intricate underground tunnels to travel, and booby traps — called punji spikes — against their American foes.
“It felt like the Viet Cong were everywhere we turned,” he said.
While on patrol, the Soldiers followed a basic principle: never take the jungle trails, he said.
This meant if they had to use machetes and tediously hack through the thick, nearly impenetrable jungle floor, they did.
Until one day, when their lieutenant — fresh from college — tried to save time, he said.
The young officer — who, like Wensaut, had been in Vietnam only a handful of weeks — hoped to take a short cut along the trail.
“Being caught on a jungle trail was the easiest way to be ambushed,” Wensaut said.
Although Wensaut was suspicious, he followed the officer’s orders. At first, everything was calm. The only exception to the silence came from ambient noises of the jungle — like tree frogs croaking or tropical birds chirping in the distance, he said.
However, when the Soldiers came to a fork in their trail … the nightmare started, Wensaut said. Without warning, cracks of machine-gun fire tore through the air from all directions.
It was what Wensaut feared — they walked into a death trap. A few Soldiers — toward the front of the patrol — were killed instantly. Others fell over clutching onto their wounds, he said.
“We didn’t know how many VC were even out there,” Wensaut said. “It was all happening within seconds.”
The Americans fired aimlessly back into the jungle, almost reactionary, he said. They were unable to see the enemy, let alone target any of them. Wensaut lobbed multiple grenades, hoping to keep them at bay — wherever they were.
The VC — who spoke little English — taunted the surviving Soldiers, Wensaut recalled. From all directions they chanted in chorus, “Tonight GI, you die!” with laughter, and circling their prey.
Through the gunfire, their fresh-faced lieutenant was heard pleading for help over the radio, Wensaut said. His arm was riddled in wounds and nearly amputated, but he was able to call in medical support.
Meanwhile, Wensaut and another assistant gunner — a Texan named Pvt. Regan — were in triage mode. The gunners pulled a wounded sergeant, shot through the chest, from the line of fire and concealed him in the bush.
There, they started to patch the non-commissioned officer up, but he needed to be stabilized. Although bandaged, the sergeant required a medical evacuation.
Shortly after, a medevac chopper was whirring overtop the trees. Medics tried lowering a rescue basket down to collect the killed and wounded. Although clearly marked with four bright red crosses overtop a white background — a symbol of non-combative activity — the medics also took ground fire, he said.
In the midst of the chaos, Wensaut recalled, he looked toward the sky just beyond the jungle canopy, and prayed to himself, “Don’t let me die here.” After all, he had Darlene waiting to marry him in Wisconsin.
After the medical evacuation failed, the lieutenant called in an air strike. From the sky, fighter jets screamed toward the battlefield. They carpeted the area with small butterfly-style cluster bombs.
“It was like firecrackers going off everywhere,” Wensaut said.
After the cluster bombs, their hidden enemy persisted and shortly after, more air power came roaring in. Stuck between firefight and air power, all the Soldiers could do was hunker down into an embankment, he said.
The jets roared through the clouds and swooped down into the battlefield. From those jets came a trail of 10 massive napalm canister explosions. Each one ignited on impact, and caused an inferno burn into the sky, taller than the trees.
As the napalm seared the jungle, another wave of jets plunged into the fight to finish the job. They sprayed rounds from their rotary cannons at lightning speed. After that, things went quiet again.
“We waited and waited… but, that seemed to be it,” Wensaut said. “It was over, for that day at least.”
As the dust settled, the dead and wounded were evacuated. Only three gunners, including Wensaut, walked away unscathed. The battle was only a taste of what his year-long combat tour would be.
“Everybody had fear in them, but after a battle or two, we started to get hardened,” he said.
“War affects you, but what really affected me were the men we were losing. The guys you got to know and become friends with, then the next week they’re gone.”
As expected, new Soldiers — identifiable by their crisp, new fatigue uniforms — rotated in to replace the fallen Soldiers after that day on the trail.
In the 11 months that followed, Wensaut was part of multiple search and destroy missions throughout War Zone C.
He fought in Operation Cedar Falls and Operation Shenandoah, but admits, “I was in more battles than I can remember, because wherever the first division was, I went.”
No hero’s welcome
Back in the United States, Darlene waited patiently for Ernie to come home. But, as the nightly news started airing images of the war into living rooms across the country, waiting became difficult.
“Watching the news was really scary,” she said. “I never knew if he was okay or not.”
She sent Ernie multiple letters and care packages. He was usually in the field, and rarely had time to respond. One of her care packages was even returned, she said, covered in mold.
An antiwar movement swept the country, he said, but those feelings never extended to Wensaut’s native tribe. They viewed him — and every veteran — as a warrior, who was called to fight for his country, and bravely answered the call.
Wensaut didn’t receive a “hero’s welcome” by his country, when he returned in 1967. He flew into California at night to avoid protesters who notoriously spit on, yelled at, and called Soldiers names, he said.
The only title Wensaut cared about was “survivor.”
On the other hand, his tribe in Wisconsin honored him as a warrior. His dad hosted a ceremony to welcome him home. During it, he was brought to the front of the tribe — a location reserved for warriors of the highest honor.
“They honored veterans in my community,” he said, “All tribes still hold their respect of veterans very high.”
Wensaut and Darlene were married on Nov. 11, 1967, at his Potawatomi reservation in Wisconsin. They recently celebrated 52 years together and have two children.
Wensaut separated from active duty after he completed his enlistment. He spent the following decades working in construction, logging, and mills.
Today, he’s retired and enjoys deer hunting and says he is proud to be a Soldier for life.