Fallen sailor's recordings from Vietnam rediscovered decades later
They were the kind that spool out their long, dark cellulose secrets from 3-inch reels. After four decades unheard, the metallic oxide on the surface of the tapes had begun to flake.
The real estate agent was in the Snohomish home clearing away the last belongings of popular local teacher Doris Berg Wentworth, who died in August.
Some of the cardboard boxes still bore addresses from a different time. San Diego. Salt Lake City. Mostly, though, the boxes said "Vietnam."
Those tapes could have gone in the garbage. Instead, the real estate agent helped Wentworth's children hear a voice long missed. They were made by the brother they lost, the brother we all lost.
There were more than 40 audio-tape reels containing dozens of hours of his recordings from the 1960s. It took months before anyone in the scattered family could listen to them, and no one owned a reel-to-reel player any longer.
When the tapes were converted to digital files, their brother's voice came surging back all the way from the South China Sea.
"South Vietnamese Broadcasting Company in living color. Your recording -- and I must say it was a rather long one -- came in very good time. As a matter of fact today is Dec. 21 and I got it today. Excuse me while I light a cigarette."
A metal lighter flicked. He drew in a puff and let a slow breath escape.
"It came and we hadn't had mail for about 30 days being out here in the South China Sea. … I don't know, maybe it wasn't that long. It seems like this cruise has been one trip back and forth through the South China Sea anyway."
Carl Kollmeyer's family called him Bud. He was born in the Midwest in 1938, the son of a man with a string of jobs, including jazz musician. By the time Bud was 10, he had moved half a dozen times, bouncing from town to town in Indiana and Kentucky. It's not clear what became of his birth mother.
Carl "Bud" Kollmeyer as a boy.(Courtesy of Tom Kollmeyer)
As a young man, Bud was a golden boy at Minnetonka High School: tall, athletic and handsome in a hunky Midwest farmboy sort of way. He earned all conference as a forward in basketball and made his mark as a quarterback for the football team, the kind of guy who could call his own plays from the huddle. His senior class voted him "best looking."
His younger half-siblings Tom, Carole, Rod and Jim remembered him as charming, adventurous and warm. He liked to call the three youngest his little tigers and tigresses. Later, when the family relocated to Snohomish, he also called them his little pines.
After graduation in 1956, Bud attended college. Eventually, he attended the U.S. Navy's Officer Candidate School. By early 1963, he was moving up the ranks as a junior officer aboard destroyers patrolling the shores of a country in Southeast Asia most Americans hadn't heard of -- yet.
"Rather a strange thing. You're all at home talking about the Christmas season and decorations you're going to put up. It's snow and ice skating rinks and Santa Claus and Christmas trees. We're out here in our shirtsleeves and it's steaming hot and we are steaming at high speed toward the southern part of south Vietnam for I don't know what.
We are in advance readiness posture now supposedly ready to hit the beach in two hours. … So somebody is being a bad boy around here somewhere."
America's involvement in the Vietnam War arose out of fear of Communism and a series of complicated policy and political decisions spanning years.
The Vietnamese people fought to free themselves from French rule in 1954, then carved their country in two in a power struggle. In the vacuum that remained after French forces left, Vietnamese communists gained control of the north. In the south, a free-but-less-powerful government was established. Worried that the communists would also take control of the south, American leaders sent help to the southern leaders: money and advisers, and then troops.
By 1964, Bud's involvement in Vietnam was limited to his duties aboard ship. He served on the USS Porterfield, a destroyer which provided logistical support to ground forces and patrolled the coastal waters off South Vietnam.
He worked hectic 16-hour days punctuated by periods of extreme boredom. He filled his free moments reading books, writing letters and listening to jazz. He also recorded his day-to-day military life for his family, speaking into a microphone attached to an Akai M-8 stereo. He talked of leave in Hong Kong. The lack of privacy onboard. A dramatic weapons demonstration for foreign dignitaries. Exhaustion.
He was only 25 but already he felt old, with nearly three-quarters of the men on his ship still teenagers. He was known around ship for his sharply pressed uniforms and for knowing how to have a good time on leave. He was a man who knew how to push papers efficiently but preferred action.
In August, another destroyer, the USS Maddox, reported that it had been fired on by a North Vietnamese patrol boat in the Gulf of Tonkin. Five days later, Congress approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, launching the U.S. into full-blown war in Vietnam.
Lt. Carl Kollmeyer's service in Southeast Asia was about to become a lot more dangerous.
• • •
Bud Kollmeyer met Marie Kurz in San Diego while he was home.
His younger brother, Tom, remembers this story. Marie first saw Bud playing basketball out her apartment window and she turned to her roommate and proclaimed, "I'm going to marry that man" -- or something along those lines.
Marie, speaking in a tape recorded later, tells it this way.
"When I first met Carl, I thought he was the homeliest fellow I had ever seen in my whole life. He needed a haircut. His hair I don't think had been cut in a month. You know how curly it is, it really looked bad because it was so long and it was just standing straight up and sticking out. And the first couple of times I saw Carl he was hungover -- terribly so."
Bud Kollmeyer holds his baby daughter Anne on her first birthday while on home on leave in 1967.(Courtesy of Anne Wood)
Bud talked about becoming a teacher and did some instructing while in the Navy. At times, he toyed with the idea of getting out of the service. Instead, he made a choice his brother Tom Kollmeyer now says might have been fueled by the lifelong over-achiever's drive to prove himself.
He volunteered to go back to Vietnam, knowing full well this tour of duty could be more treacherous than his earlier service, even deadly. And it was.
"As you can probably figure out, I don't tell you everything that goes on here. … I don't think it's the kind of thing people's parents and wives should hear about. The way I figure, what you don't know, you won't have to worry about."
Bud then begins to tell the family about the Viet Cong's coordinated takeover of every substantial town and city across South Vietnam just days before on Jan. 31. The VC continued to hold on to most of those cities, and their ammo supply didn't seem to be running out.
"If you hear some extremely loud noises while I'm recording the tape, those are 500-pound bombs going off fairly close to here. Close enough the whole building just shakes whenever they go off. At 3 in the morning, they go off and you jump out of your rack and think you're under mortar attack. … So far our base hasn't been attacked at all. It's one of those things where you can look out your back door and you can see a treeline a mile and a half away, and know there are probably 500 VC in the treeline. You can watch the jets drop bombs on 'em, watch the helos come in and shoot, watch spooky come up and shoot those mini-guns that shoot 8,000 rounds a second."
By the time Bud taped that account of 1968's Tet Offensive -- a coordinated effort by the Viet Cong meant to shake American confidence -- he'd already been serving for months in what was known as the brown Navy. He and his men ran patrol boats up the muddy waters of the Mekong Delta, a series of narrow tributaries flanked by deep jungle and farmland.
The delta is fed by the Mekong River, which stretches all the way north to its headwaters in Tibet. For centuries, the river served as a transportation route from northern to southern Vietnam.
It was Bud and his men's job to keep the Viet Cong from using the waterways to transport weapons and other supplies.
Bud served as commanding officer of 20 boats and more than 50 men. Patrol boats went up the river searching every sampan for illegal goods or Viet Cong.
It was dangerous, difficult work. The boats frequently took fire from an enemy that proved elusive and sometimes impossible to differentiate from the friendly South Vietnamese peasants.
"This is one heck of a place to be fighting a war. You go steaming down the river and see farmer types out in their fields playing with their rice and herding water buffalo and the next time there's nobody in the field but there's somebody in a foxhole shooting at you. It's a bad scene. You know for darn sure the people out in the field are VC but what do you do? You can't just go and shoot them."
He lived in a small room on base, with a tile floor and a woven straw mattress. He decorated the bare white walls with pinups of pretty girls and turned a giant wooden box that once housed a Seawolf missile into a bookcase for his novels, cognac, Life Savers and shoestring potatoes.
One wall of his room was made up of louvered screens to let in the air. Not that it mattered.
It was wicked hot and the air was as thick as a wet, woolen blanket. During the rainy season, the sky suddenly fell open and the deluge seemed as if it would never relent, filling the tributaries' many tendrils and turning farmland to lakes. The rain would abruptly stop and the sun would shine fierce and bright until the downpour started again.
As the months wore on, he told his family about his frustrations of the war. The incompetent military leaders. The phony talk of politicians. The real story missed by the press. The culture he didn't understand. The southern Vietnamese who didn't seem to risk enough for their own freedom.
"Americans came over here to fight the war, while the majority of the Vietnamese sit on their American-fed rear ends and watch, which makes me only more disgusted every day. This war will never be won without total American support because the South Vietnamese want freedom, want peace, want security but they don't want it enough to do anything about it."
The commander tells the story of how he and his men would clean up their boats for inspection. They would pass -- never mind many of them didn't work. There were never enough parts available to fix them.
Charities would gather toiletries for the South Vietnamese. Bud tells of dutifully distributing bars of Zest soap, only to learn the people sold them on the thriving black market.
Lt. Carl "Bud" Kollmeyer died in a firefight on the Bassac River in Vietnam May 5, 1968.(Courtesy of Anne Wood)
Despite those frustrations, Bud believed in what he was doing. In a tape home to his mother's third-grade class in Snohomish, he told the children that bravery is more complicated than people realized.
"What I think bravery is the American fighting man's everyday action. Just being over here and just being able to do your job and be able to be alert and react to anything that happens is a very brave thing."
Living in Vietnam was a culture shock for a man used to Minnesota winters, but Bud quickly got used to the weather and things like monkeys running loose on base. He even told his family he adjusted to the constant threat of death.
"It's amazing when you're in a place like this. We can have the war going on so close and you'd think any normal human being would be scared to death to sit and think there's a bunch of VC out there. … Things just get going hot and heavy and the aircraft flying over and helos putting in strikes and we sit out there and watch. There's nothing else to do.
It's not a scary thing. So if all of you back home think this a tremendous strain on the morale of the American forces or the psychological effect that we sit around worrying about getting hit -- we don't. If we get hit, we'll do a standard mark-one American job killing VC. But until then, it's not a matter of sitting around and shaking in your boots or anything. We get up and watch the war like we're going to a movie."
Bud adapted and learned to improvise fixes on the boats and talked of ways to work the system to help his men. He also counted the days until he could go home to his family.
That day never came.
• • •
"Don't expect any mail after this tape for at least a week. I'm going back to the same place just like last time. It's Wednesday now and I'm leaving Friday in the morning … I'm turning into the nomad of the delta."
In May 1968 the Viet Cong started another campaign, which some later labeled as a "mini Tet." The VC caused trouble along the rivers, and in response Navy leaders started up patrols on the upper Bassac River.
On May 5, 1968, Bud and his crew were headed toward the city of Chau Doc on one of those patrols when they received orders to check out enemy activity downriver. The lieutenant's two-boat patrol sped down the river. One of the boats broke down on the way.
More than 40 reel to reel tape recordings were found in a Snohomish home last summer. They tell the story of Lt. Carl Kollmeyer´s service in Vietnam.(Michael O'Leary / The Herald)
For whatever reason, Bud directed his crew to continue ahead.
When he arrived at the trouble spot, he found two Vietnamese from a local quasi-soldiers group who were supposed to be supportive of American troops. They motioned downstream to a recoilless rifle position hidden about half a mile away. No sooner had the men pointed to the position, than two 75 mm rounds slammed into the boat's bow. Bud's forward gunner was hit, badly wounded.
The two Vietnamese disappeared and didn't return. The Navy men were alone. The boat was taking on water. His gunner was bleeding profusely and bullets were whizzing past.
He acted quickly, ordering his crewmen to pull the wounded man from his mount. Then he had most of his crew leap off the listing boat into the protection of the river. Remaining aboard, he radioed other units for help.
Bud scrambled under heavy fire to the .50 caliber mounted gun at the back of the boat. He yelled for another crewman to man the forward gun. The two blasted back at the enemy downstream.
The crewmen in the water managed to get the damaged boat beached and pulled their injured crewmate to shore. Bud radioed for help again. The Viet Cong downstream sent more rounds from the 75 mm recoilless rifle spinning toward the men. Two screeched across the engine cover of the boat, hitting Bud in the legs and stomach and blasting another man overboard.
The two crewmen left standing pulled Bud and the other man to the beach. For a while, Bud remained lucid, issuing commands to his men while automatic rifle fire rained around them. After a while, it became apparent to his crew that Bud's injuries were serious.
Thirty minutes after the firefight started, two other river boat patrols arrived and returned fire. They loaded the wounded men aboard and sped toward Chau Doc. Bud, along with his gunner, Ronald Saporito, died before they could reach help.
• • •
"It was ecstasy for the first time. I heard Annie-Belle say, 'Hi Daddy.' "
In March 1968, Bud Kollmeyer heard his little girl say her first words on a reel-to-reel tape recorded by his wife. He died just days before she would have turned 2 and a few months before he would have come home to hear those words with his own ears.
Bud's little Annie-Belle grew up without a father, but he did leave behind a small piece of himself. When she was a little girl, she'd pull out her father's old reel-to-reel player and listen to another set of tapes he sent her mother. These tapes were largely scrubbed clean of the hell of war; they were more of the how-are-things-at-home variety. Little Anne loved listening to her father's voice, and she played them again and again until the player broke.
Anne Wood grew up without knowing her father, Bud Kollmeyer. She's shown here with her children, Morgan (left) and Lauren. (Courtesy Anne Wood)
For Bud's younger siblings, the tapes have been equally powerful. The family was never the same after the uniformed men came to the door of his parents' farmhouse on the Snohomish River.
Bud's daughter is still working her way through the tapes. She can tell he loved his country and believed the U.S. should fight the war. She can also hear the frustration in his voice when he talks about the barriers that prevented him from doing his job. It reminds her of America's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Her family laughed when they heard the tape recorded in San Diego in 1966 where she was a newborn. The recording brings up other feelings as well for Wood, ones that are more difficult to express.
"I don't have any memories of him and I was just sitting there, listening to his voice," she said. "I was just hearing his voice and thinking, 'Wow, this is my Dad, this is really neat.' I treasure these things."
"Anne-Marie in concert. Stand by. Would you tell everybody what you think of the war in Vietnam?"
On the tape, Baby Anne smacked her lips and sucked for a moment. Bud chuckled softly.
"That doesn't sound like much of a comment. Can't you do any better?"
Baby Anne breathed softly for a few moments. Then, she gave a sharp, piercing wail. Bud cooed to her softly and hoisted her onto his shoulder. The microphone catches the sound of her nuzzling his cheek, and his delight.
Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or email@example.com
How this story was written
Most of the story comes from the more than 40 tapes Lt. Carl "Bud" Kollmeyer recorded in the 1960s.
Other details were shared by Bud's family: sister Carole Couture of New York and his younger brothers Tom Kollmeyer of Vancouver, Rod Kollmeyer of Bellingham and Jim Kollmeyer of Snohomish.
The story of his death is drawn from a report later published by one of his crewman and confirmed by Joe Mettler of Burlington, then a 21-year-old gunner who stayed behind to help fix the river patrol boat that broke down.