Times Past

Dan Krieger: An unlikely soldier but a combat veteran

‘SP5 Jon M. Young was an unlikely warrior. With gangly features and thick black-framed glasses, he reminded one more of a nerd than a jungle fighter. Yet, circumstance would thrust him squarely in the thick of battle in Vietnam, where he bravely fought and died in service of his country.”

Bill Killian, a Cal Poly history grad and high school teacher has relentlessly searched out the stories of 10 people from San Luis Obispo who died in the Vietnam War. Here he tells the story of Jon Young.

“Born in Santa Maria in 1945, Jon was the only child of a doting widow, Alma Tognazzini Young. His father, a Caterpillar salesman, died when he was 2 years old. Raised by his overprotective mother, Jon sought to strike out on his own, and the U.S. Army provided a convenient escape.

“Unlike many GIs who served in the Vietnam War, Jon was not drafted. Instead, he joined the Army in 1965, after graduating from (San Luis Obispo) High at the mature age of 20 years old.

“After basic training, Jon was sent to Mannheim, Germany, serving with the 8th Infantry. His unit was the tip of the sword of America’s Cold War forces in Europe, there to discourage the Soviet Union from forcing (its) communist will across Western Europe.

“Jon’s service in Mannheim was an ordinary, if not an entertaining diversion: lots of training, occasional guard duty, and field maneuvers, punctuated by frequent leave, where he explored the prosperous and cosmopolitan world of 1960s West Germany.

“There were hijinks, too. A shy and quiet soldier, Jon didn’t relish the idea of sharing the showers with a hundred other men. This resulted in at least one ‘GI shower’: tossed fully clothed into the showers when his bunkmates got fed up with his lack of hygiene.

“But the fun ended at the close of 1967 as Jon’s tour of Germany wound down. Assignments would change for many of his buddies. Most returned to U.S. bases. Some, however, were sent to Vietnam. Jon was one of these.

“SP5 Young arrived in Vietnam on Jan. 4, 1968. He was now assigned to the U.S. Army’s Mobile Riverine Forces (MRF) in Delta Company, 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division. The MRF was an aggressive unit, designed to ply the rivers, canals, swamps and marshes of the Mekong Delta in search of elusive Viet Cong insurgents.

“Jon never handled an M-16 rifle prior to arriving in Vietnam. In Germany, he carried the bulky M-14 while pulling guard duty. And his specialty as a ground surveillance radar operator was unusable in the Delta. Instead, he served as a replacement in a rifle company.

“In his first month in Vietnam, Jon’s unit was engaged in fierce combat during the Tet Offensive, including battles at My Tho and Vinh Long. In fact, the 90 days Jon served with ‘Riverines,’ the MRF achieved its deepest penetrations of the war into the Mekong Delta. He quickly became a seasoned veteran of combat.

“Jon lost his life on April 4, 1968, when his unit was ambushed after a beach landing along the Ba Lai River. His platoon became pinned down on a muddy river bank by heavy automatic weapons fire during a battle which became known as Crossroads. Rescue of the trapped soldiers of the 3rd platoon with their mud-jammed rifles was futile as heavy fire drove back the support ships and other platoons attempting to reach them.

“Jon was one of 16 soldiers killed. Another 69 were wounded that day. He was 22 years old. Jon received the Bronze Star. He’s buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in San Luis Obispo.”

The local servicemen killed in Vietnam have their images and stories on display during November at the San Luis Obispo City-County Library.

To help support a permanent local exhibit, contact Killian at wkillian@smjuhsd.org.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.