Born in rural Illinois, Ken Kays was a country boy who flunked out of college and wound up serving as a medic in the Vietnam War. On May 7, 1970, after only 17 days in Vietnam and one day after joining a new platoon, the young medic found himself in a ferocious battle. As a conscientious objector, Kays did not carry any weapons, but his actions during that engagement would earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yet Kays' valor came during just another unheralded fire fight near the end of a long and seemingly fruitless war. He returned home and, with other vets, struggled to reconcile his anti-war beliefs with what he and others had done in Vietnam. This dramatic and tragic story is a timely reminder of the price of war and the fragile comforts of peace.
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A Medal of Honor, Vietnam, and the War at Home
By Randy K. Mills
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2006 Randy K. Mills
All rights reserved.
Down in Egypt
If there existed a definitive moment of birth for Kenny Kays' generation, perhaps it was the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At the age of forty-two, Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president and the first American president born in the twentieth century. Kennedy's inaugural address, delivered on a cloudless and cold January day in 1961, captivated the nation's imagination and captured the hope and expectations of the decade. Further, his vigor and youth stood in sharp contrast with the previous Eisenhower style. The new president's inaugural address conveyed both a powerful optimism and a profound challenge. "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." Foreshadowing our deeper involvement in Vietnam, the young president declared, "To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." Calling for "a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war," Kennedy promised "a new frontier" of opportunity and challenge. With the young president in office, a new aura of hope and excitement filled the air.
Unfortunately for the idealistic president, he inherited a deteriorated situation in Vietnam. Between 1950 and 1961, the U.S. had provided more than a billion dollars in aid and more than 1,500 economic and military advisors. These efforts supported the hope that the South Vietnamese government would grow to become a successful military force capable of standing on its own. By late 1961 however, President Diem, in a letter to Kennedy, called for more aid to help him in his effort to stop Communist growth in his country. "The Vietnamese nation now faces what is perhaps the gravest crisis in its long history," the desperate leader wrote. "If we lose this war, our people will be swallowed by the Communist Bloc." At that time the cost to the U.S. of losing Vietnam far outweighed the cost of maintaining stability, and Kennedy, as did Eisenhower before him and Johnson afterwards, believed the U.S. would easily prevail against the more primitive Viet Cong and their brethren in the North if push came to shove. Consequently, the American president quickly responded positively to Diem's request. "We are prepared to help the Republic of Vietnam to protect its people and to preserve its independence," Kennedy replied. "We will promptly increase our assistance to your defense efforts."
Most historians believe that had Kennedy lived he would have reached the same conclusion as Lyndon Johnson did in 1965 and committed the United States to war in Vietnam. That Kennedy was willing to defend America's continued involvement in Vietnam is made clear by his response to a letter from the sister of an American GI killed in Vietnam in January of 1963. In her letter to the president, Bobbie A. Pendergrass despaired, "If a war is worth fighting — isn't it worth fighting to win? Please answer this and help me and my family to reconcile ourselves to our loss and to feel that even though Jim died in Viet Nam — and it isn't our war — it wasn't in vain." "If Viet Nam should fall," replied Kennedy, "it will indicate to the people of Southeast Asia that complete Communist domination of their part of the world is almost inevitable. Your brother was in Viet Nam because the threat to the Vietnamese people is, in the long run, a threat to the Free World community, and ultimately a threat to us also." For that, the president wrote the grieving sister, her brother "did not die in vain."
By late 1963, Diem's grip on the country continued to slip. A military coup, supported by Kennedy, carried out a takeover of the South Vietnamese government. In the process, and to Kennedy's horror, Diem was murdered. By this time Kennedy had increased the number of American advisors in Vietnam to more than 16,000 and had continued to send aid. Shortly after Diem's death, the president ordered an extensive review of how the United States "got into this country, what we thought we were doing there, and what we think we can do." The American president would not live to see the report.
No one could have known it then, but with Kennedy's death came the death of hope for the younger generation that good and necessary change could be accomplished by working through the established system. Perhaps the clearest sign of this occurred less than a year after Kennedy's assassination in the form of the Free Speech Movement. In September of 1964, the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley declared an area on campus used for organizing antidiscrimination meetings could no longer "be used for the mounting of social and political actions." The chancellor's declaration led to mass protests, with the rallying cry being the right to free speech. Melvin Small pointed out the importance of this movement for later campus unrest in universities such as Southern Illinois University, the school Ken Kays would attend. The Free Speech Movement, noted Small, "captured the spirit of the times on many large campuses where students felt their individuality and freedoms were suppressed by institutions devoted to turning out white-collar professionals to maintain American capitalism." In addition, many of these institutions continued "rigid curriculum requirements, maintained curfews for women students, and enforced dress codes," further angering students. For youths such as Kays, such restrictions would increasingly fan the flames of protest.
While international and national forces slowly conspired throughout the 1950s and early 1960s to bring the country ever deeper into the dark pit that would become the Vietnam War, and while the counterculture revolution loomed just on the horizon, folks in rural Wayne County, Illinois, and in the county seat of Fairfield, went about their daily lives in relative ignorance of events outside the region. On the surface, the community where Ken Kays grew up looked to be the perfect example of nostalgic Norman Rockwell America. Yet the rural community and the county stood as one of the most self-contradictory places in the country. Taylor Pensoneau, in his study of the gang violence which racked southern Illinois from the 1920s through the early 1950s, described Ken Kays' hometown as "a quintessence of small town America. An embodiment of a way of life fundamental to the early character of the country, far afield from urban sprawl. A place where traditional trappings were not sacrificed, even through the stagnant cycles of the region's up and down oil industry and other economic upheavals."
In Kays' youth, outsiders often commented about the charm and friendliness of the community. The year Kenny Kays began as a sophomore at Fairfield High, city leaders placed large signs at the edges of town proclaiming "Fairfield. The city with a smile for you." Another set of earlier signs had declared Fairfield "The city of beautiful women." The community's conventional ways, which Ken Kays would eventually come to battle, can be understood to some degree by examining the local newspaper, The Wayne County Press, during the decade of the 1960s. Farming concerns most often headed the list of topics. A typical article noted, "The soybean crop in the Wayne City area is about 60 percent harvested now and yields are reasonably good." Another headline and article lamented the previous year's poor harvest. "Wayne County farmers ended 1968 with less income from their crops due to lower prices and reduced yields!" A feature column, "Soil and Water Conservation News," also touched on farming issues deemed important to this rural area. One piece noted how the then new technique of chisel plowing gave "farmers excellent erosion control the past two seasons in the Wayne County Soil and Water Conservation District." Entire sections of the Press were devoted to relating the many happenings of annual farming celebrations such as "Bean Days" in nearby Wayne City. The tiny village, just west of Fairfield, contained fewer than a thousand souls yet would see ten times that number show up daily for the free food, carnival rides, and prizes the festival offered. Results of the "Wayne County Press Cooking School" also frequently took up an entire page.
Wayne County, because of its strong fundamentalist culture, had been the location of two earlier religious movements which had persuaded many people to leave their homes and jobs and band together to await the end of the world. Abundant stories in the Press during Ken Kays' adolescence announcing upcoming church "revivals" and church rallies also testify to the power of the conservative religious culture in the area. One article, for example, related the initial plans for an extensive religious "rally" which would hopefully become an evangelistic crusade of the caliber of a Billy Graham conference. Letters to the editor also demonstrate the penetrating religious conservatism of the area. One writer called for local media to tell more "about Christ and his coming and what was going to happen to people if they don't change their ways." Another reader "urged more Bible reading. I believe without God this country will not stand long."
These strong religious sentiments, typical of the region, did not bode well for anyone who had an inquiring mind or disliked authority. Indeed, there were those whose personalities just did not seem to fit the local norm. One young lady, for example, wrote to the Press during Kays' youth complaining of the critical opinions of many townspeople toward those who varied from traditional notions. "I would like to say that the sign at the edge of this town should be changed. It is not 'the town of friendly people,' or 'the city with a smile for you.'"
Psychologically pummeled by the growing national turmoil that erupted in the mid-sixties, many residents grew increasingly more conservative as the decade progressed. The developing conservative reaction of the community to national changes can be seen in the writing of the Press's primary columnist, Jack Vertrees, who, in one particular editorial in the late sixties, railed against one specific "liberal" antipoverty program. "We're gonna join the anti-poverty program and get us a $16,000 house. With no money down and only 1 percent interest on the easy payments. Its possible, or so said an FHA wheel at a Wabash Area anti-poverty meeting at Carmi some few days ago." The drastic changes occurring with young people also caught the concern of Vertrees. In another column, the journalist eagerly related an article found in a St. Louis paper calling for the printing of the names of juvenile delinquents in local newspapers as a way of confronting expanding crime among youth. Concerned citizen letters often made it to the front pages of the Press in the middle and late sixties as well. Most vented conventional concerns, clamoring against the militant direction black protesters seemed to be taking or attacking welfare programs which seemed wasteful to local people who had been taught in the southern Illinois world of rugged individualism to make it on their own. Typical of these conservative readers, and there were many in the county, was one who wrote to the editor complaining of government waste. "The poverty game is a real big fake," this writer angrily declared. Vertrees himself came to fear the growing disrespect for the law "deepening in America and of great concern."
By the summer and fall of Ken Kays' sophomore year in high school, 1964, Republican leadership in the community had grown concerned over the choice of conservative Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate. The concern did not stem from Goldwater's rock-solid conservative views, but from his slim chances of defeating Lyndon Johnson. When the election dust settled, Goldwater had been mauled in a Johnson landslide. The Wayne County Press dutifully reported, "Democrats sweep nation in Tuesday's election." The state ticket was also glumly reported to have gone "all to Democrats." In Wayne County, however, Republicans easily won the majority of county contests, and as the press noted that "only one democratic state candidate carried Wayne County."
Perhaps the greatest "liberal" challenge to Fairfield's seemingly picture-perfect conservative world in the 1960s involved a bitter contest between those who wanted to bring back the right to sell alcohol in Fairfield and those who vehemently sought to keep the county dry. The struggle demonstrates the odd dichotomy that Ken Kays would eventually face, a community split personality of sorts between a strong religious worldview and a more hidden desire for living on the edge of the law. Letters to the Press on the issue in 1969 clearly illustrate the commanding puritanical mood of the community, with most opponents of alcohol sales advancing a religious argument. Pastor James Clark explained, for example, "I am pastor of the General Baptist Church here, and as such, I will do everything that I am big enough to do to keep Fairfield dry. I believe Fairfield is as clean and good a town as I know of anywhere, why not keep it this way." Another minister noted, "I have personally always been proud of Fairfield for its cleaned-up, neat, trim appearance. It has always had a unique, wholesome 'personality' of its own. But if liquor becomes available on a 'wet' basis, one had better get a picture now, the often-mentioned 'before' picture, for the 'after' picture will not only be not pretty, but it shall not even be worth taking."
Not every reader, however, agreed with these arguments. One woman wrote to the Press pointing out what she considered to be the hypocrisy of such viewpoints. Her comments also indicate a darker side to the community and the region. "We have had prohibition in Wayne County for several years now. First question — Has it worked? No, it has not. This is the wettest dry county on the face of the earth. This county is not dry! Can you accept that people? The county is not dry! Anyone who wants a drink can get one through local clubs, from bootleggers, or can buy it in neighboring towns and bring it in. Among the first bits of information that any new-comer to town is given is the location of several bootleggers should he desire to patronize them."
The seemingly idyllic world Wayne County offered to the outsider, an environment perpetuating a kind of Eisenhower-era world of black-and-white certainty, belied another more hidden element which flourished in the county and in that region of southern Illinois. In fact, the county and region had a long history that sheds some light on what was beneath the veneer of uprightness and conformity.
The region where Ken Kays grew to manhood had long been labeled "Egypt." Over time, the title was expanded to become "Little Egypt." Today tiny Wayne City proudly proclaims itself to be the "Bean Capital of Little Egypt," while Mt. Vernon, Illinois, the larger county seat of next-door neighbor Jefferson County, claims to be the "King City of Little Egypt," and so on. It remains unclear how the southern third of the state garnered this title. Perhaps the most logical explanation involved the region's reputation as the state's main source of corn, a basic food element to early pioneers, in 1830-31, "the winter of the deep snow." Since the only corn raised in the entire state that harsh, unusually cold year grew in the southern section, many settlers from the north rushed south for this basic food source. In the process, Illinois folks from both parts of the state were so reminded of the scripture in the book of Genesis that related "the famine was over all the face of the earth ... and countries came into Egypt to buy grain. ..." that the region became known as Egypt from that time on. While this explanation carries a benign and gentle ring to it, the historic culture of "Egypt" has often been anything but gentle.
Excerpted from Troubled Hero by Randy K. Mills. Copyright © 2006 Randy K. Mills. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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