OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Jim Kenbeek was born in Michigan but does not claim that as home since his family moved to Florida when he was only 2 weeks old. “I was tired of the cold weather,” he laughed. The family lived in Ohio part of the time too though, so they weren’t completely averse to the north.
After graduating from high school in Ohio, Kenbeek got a letter from Uncle Sam and joined the service in 1966. “I was out of school, 18 years old, had a brand new muscle car, making good money, just living the dream for an 18-year-old.”
Kenbeek’s father was in the Army during WWII and was dead set against him joining the Army. He was afraid they would send his son straight to Vietnam. “I think there were five of us who all got our draft notice at the same time, and a Navy recruiter came out to talk to all of us. I think three or four of us signed up right then,” he recalled.
They signed up under something called the “120 Day Program” and did not have to go in right away. “I wasn’t in any hurry to go, so I said that sounds good to me.” The program also guaranteed your A-School.
Kenbeek ended up going to Great Lakes, where he said it was cold like he never saw before, and he froze! He went to diesel school. When he finished his training, he was sent to New London, Conn. so he could learn to work on submarines.
He went all the way through submarine school and then they decided submarines were changing to nuclear and they were phasing out the diesel.
They decided they didn’t need diesel mechanics, and he was sent to California to become a “river rat.” He got extensive training on boats, Vietnamese language school, jungle survival, prisoner of war and things like that. “It was pretty intense training, about like you’d get going in the Marines, and I ended up in Vietnam after all.”
He landed in Saigon and was loaded into a helicopter. He was dropped of three miles from the Cambodian border.
His job was to patrol the Mekong River checking to see how many boats there were in the sections. The area they were in was all water, canals, rivers and small roads. Everything traveled on the water. They had to keep an eye out for the Viet Cong. He was on a 30-foot fiberglass boat.
While he was there, he lived on a barge anchored out on the river. It was some of the best living conditions he ever had in the Navy, he said. It was air conditioned and the food was great. There were probably 100 or so men living on the barge, including cooks and support staff who fixed the boats and then the river rats like Kenbeek.
One day, he and some of the other men were sent to pick up a new boat, and while they were gone, the barge they were living on was attacked by the Viet Cong. They sunk it, and a lot of his friends were killed. Everything he owned was lost as well. He remembers getting letters from home occasionally and hearing about people protesting the war. “We didn’t understand. We were just doing what we were sent to do.” He said it was not like it is now with the internet where you know what’s going on on the other side of the world, and maybe that was a good thing.
Kenbeek said he spent a year in Vietnam and then spent a few months visiting an island off San Francisco while waiting for orders. When his orders came in, he was sent to Connecticut where a battleship was being recommissioned, and he was supposed to be on it.
He was not there long though before it was decided there were too many diesel mechanics aboard, and they sent him to the reassignment office. “When I walked in, there sits a guy I was in Vietnam with, Stony Burke! He asked me where I wanted to go, and I said I wanted to go to Florida.” The next thing he knew, he was headed for Key West.
In Key West, he was assigned to a destroyer escort. They did surveillance runs up and down off Cuba sometimes for 30-40 days. Their job was to guard the surveillance ships. When he was off duty, he was able to go home to Hollywood to visit his family.
After he had been there for a while, he realized he was having difficulty hearing the orders through the headphones. He had his hearing checked and found his hearing was impaired.
He had to be reassigned and was put on a destroyer out of Mayport headed for Vietnam again! It was a completely different experience this time around he said. “You’re sitting out there off the coast and you can see it, and they call for support fire. There’s the shore way over there. It was a little different the second time around.”
He was on that ship until he got out of the service in 1970 and came home to Hollywood, where he had a 2-month-old son.
“Hollywood when I was a kid was a lot like Okeechobee is now, but Hollywood when I came home was totally different — just city. I’m an old country boy. We ended up moving to Okeechobee in 1974, and I went to work for Gilbert Chevrolet — still work for them, going on 47 years now.”
Kenbeek and his wife, Tammy, have five children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
One of Kenbeek’s sons, a stepson and a step grandson have all served their country, and another grandson will be joining the Air Force after he graduates.