The story of Sgt. Jack A.S. Le, Jr.
I was an engineer captain assigned to Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas, in July 1966. The 595th Engineer Light Equipment Company was being activated for duty in Viet Nam and I was assigned as the unit commander. We had about 16 experienced NCOs, five officers and 165 green soldiers just out of basic training. Our equipment was mostly new, having just come from the manufacturers.
Not your typical mascot
As we were collectively training with our new equipment and otherwise getting ready to deploy to Viet Nam, some of the troops asked if we could take along a mascot. I said, “Sure,” but had assumed they were talking about a dog. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the orderly room one morning and saw a 35-pound donkey grazing out front!
The story I got was that two lieutenants and an NCO had transported the donkey from somewhere in western Kansas, riding in the back seat of their Chevy alongside the NCO, and all were eating hamburgers and fries. By the way, I have always believed they all were also drinking lots of beer.
There was nothing we could do but make him, the donkey, a soldier. He needed a name and a serial number, so we called him “Jack A.S. Le, Jr.” with the “Le” standing for “light equipment.” His serial number was MB 5-595-595, where “MB” stood for “Mexican Burro” and the 595 represented our unit. We prepared his official papers and medical records and entered his name on the Morning Report. Thus began Pvt. Jack’s Army career.
We penned him in an area between the orderly room and day room. Both buildings fronted on the company street where the First Sergeant held his frequent formations. When the First Sergeant blew his whistle, all the troops all fell in and it didn’t take Pvt. Le long to figure out the routine. Like most animals exposed to repetitive routines, he quickly learned to “bray” before each formation.
Pvt. Le was well trained. He ate most anything the troops brought him from the mess hall and he loved all types of fruit. He also learned to drink his share of beer and developed a taste for cigarettes. I guess he was just like most everyone else in the Army at that time.
Since he was not yet fully grown, the troops liked to put his front feet on their shoulders and dance with him, and after a few beers, they all did pretty well. When he reached his grown-up weight of 65 pounds, Le still wanted to dance, but he could no longer find a willing partner.
Preparing to ship out
One day we decided we’d better get permission from someone higher up in the chain-of-command in order to take him along with us to Viet Nam. Provisions were no problem, since we planned to obtain grain and store it in a CONEX container, which the troops planned to label “Tools and Equipment.” Still, getting official permission was a disturbing thought to me. Fortunately, BG Andy Seitz was Post Commander, and he had previously served in the Corps of Engineers. He was a frequent visitor to our unit during training and on one of those visits I asked him what to do.
The General suggested we write a letter through him, up to HQ, Department of the Army, seeking permission to take our mascot to Viet Nam. We sent the official letter and began the long wait to see what was going to happen. One day a colonel from Headquarters, Department of the Army called, asking if we had any problem with our unit going to Viet Nam via ship. (As if I, a simple captain, had any authority to answer that question.) I replied, “That would be great, Sir,” and shortly thereafter we had official permission to take Pvt. Le with us. We received official notification that our unit would be transported to Viet Nam aboard the USNS Weigel and, with the help of the Fort Riley Post Engineers, we constructed a travel crate for Pvt. Le.
Before departing, the officers and NCOs held a going away party at the local Officer’s Club, and there was a lower-ranking enlisted man present. You guessed it: Pvt. Le stopped by for a few beers.
Early one day in February, the troops and Pvt. Le were loaded on board a troop train headed for Oakland, CA, and a date with the U.S. Navy. Our equipment and supplies had been shipped out days earlier to a port in Texas. Our troop train journey lasted two days, with a short stop in Wyoming. When we arrived in Oakland, the Navy loaded Pvt. Le aboard the ship with a crane and placed his crate on deck. The ship’s captain had designated a spot for him on the aft deck, where he spent the entire trip to Viet Nam out of his crate, tethered by a 50-foot rope.
We sailed from port late one afternoon, and soon encountered the typical off-shore ocean groundswells, familiar to all who have ever sailed out of Oakland. Most of our troops immediately became seasick, all except Pvt. Le and myself. I have to admit, it was often said by the troops that there was some likeness between Pvt. Le and me.
It was a slow trip, lasting 21 days with a stopover in Subic Bay, Philippines, for some ship repairs. We arrived at Vung Tau, Viet Nam, and the troops were flown to Camp Black Horse. Pvt. Le traveled by barge up river to Saigon, and then was loaded aboard a truck going to Camp Black Horse. After about a month there, our unit was reassigned to Camp Bearcat, where we spent the remainder of our 12-month tour. Three months after our arrival in country, 14 June 1967, Le was promoted to corporal.
Adjusting to Viet Nam
While in Viet Nam, Le lived in the motor pool with the dozers, graders and other equipment. During enemy mortar attacks when the troops hit the protective bunkers, Le stayed close alongside the heavy equipment, where he was protected as well. After such attacks, I would always head to the motor pool to check on him, but throughout our entire tour he never received so much as a scratch. Le continued to eat as much as he was fed, and had all the cigarette butts he wanted. I must say, our company area was well-policed of cigarette butts. He also had fresh rice straw (which he grew to relish) brought daily to us by some local Vietnamese whom we had hired to help with unit tasks.
The Vietnamese were always fascinated by Le, since the country had only a small population of horses that were about his size. Le’s primary job was to serve as a morale booster, which he performed very well. But, one day the First Sergeant and I decided to give him a new task. We made a harrow from 2×4 lumber and 60-penny spikes, and rigged up a harness so he could level areas that were not accessible by our motorized equipment. That was when his true personality came out.
There was nothing we could do to get him to pull that harrow. We tried whole packs of cigarettes, his favorite fruit (bananas) and beer. He just stretched his neck and head, and firmly stood there, braying because he could not reach the treats we were offering.
Thus ended our experiment with extra duties for Le.
As we neared the end of our tour, many of the troops who had left Fort Riley together expressed concern that Le must return home with us, since new arrivals had less of an emotional attachment to him. I promised I’d get him back somehow.
After returning home, I wrote to three airlines asking how much it would cost to fly a donkey back from Viet Nam. I always added the colorful history of Corporal Le, and his dedicated service with our unit in combat. Much to our surprise, all three offered free transport. Since TWA was the first to respond, we selected them.
The soldiers of the 595th still in Viet Nam constructed a new shipping crate, and a veterinary officer came by to give Corporal Le his shots and a check-up. He was then transported by truck to Tan Son Nhut airbase near Saigon for the trip home.
TWA flew him to San Francisco, where no less than three other veterinarians again checked him. He was cleaned up, and remained in quarantine until results of his numerous blood and other tests were received from a Department of Agriculture laboratory in Maryland. Everything checked out OK, and he was then flown to Kansas City in a cargo jet.
We later learned that we had been very lucky in getting him back to the States from Viet Nam. After our experience, and as the war continued, no other animals were allowed to return.
Now a major, I met Corporal Le at the Kansas City airport along with SP5 Brian Bolt and John Kaiser, who was a Fort Riley photographer. Members of the local press were also there. My wife had made Le a blanket for his homecoming. It was “engineer red” wool, bordered by gold fringe and engineer’s castles. Also sewn on the blanket was his new rank insignia: Le had been promoted to sergeant.
Sgt. Le returned to Fort Riley in style, destined for his new unit, the 138th Engineer Group stationed at Camp Forsyth.
The national media had covered his return to the States, and we received numerous newspaper clippings and photographs from many people all over the country.
His stay in Kansas was pretty much uneventful, except that the local variety of straw was not as good as the Viet Nam rice version Le had grown to love. He lived in a small fenced area behind the group headquarters and continued to enjoy being around the troops. He participated in unit parades and other events, always wearing his red engineer blanket.
When the time came for his reenlistment, we thought maybe he should enjoy civilian life, so on 12 October 1969, he was discharged from the Army. We sent him to a friend’s farm in Onaga, KS, where he was put out to pasture along with the cows. Le liked the freedom of the pasture, but was never too sure about the cows. However, he eventually became friends with a particular cow, and they hung out together all the time.
In 1977, when it was time for our retirement from the Army, my wife and I decided we would move Sgt. Le to our place, where we had constructed a stable for our horses. When he arrived, Le met our two horses and later they became good companions. It was at the time of this move that we decided to start calling Sgt. Le, “Leroy.”
He did well living with us, and quickly adjusted to all the new things we had, in comparison to his time in the Army at Fort Riley and in Viet Nam. As the years passed, Leroy began to show his age, and in the spring of 2000, he had lost a lot of weight and started to refuse his grain, even with a can of beer mixed in with it.
A visit from our vet determined he had a severe disease, from which there was no cure. So, with great sadness, we let him go at 34 years of age. He was buried in our south pasture, along with his Army red blanket. We miss him very much, but he had a long and good life.
Those who served with him are very thankful for the time together as fellow Army engineers. If you live on a farm and served as an Army engineer, you may want to keep an eye out for Leroy, who may one day be peeking out in spirit from behind a barn door.