Randolph County native became Vietnam prisoner of war
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series, which features veterans in our area and shares first-hand accounts of their military service. The series is published each Monday through Veterans Day.
LEWISBURG — It’s been nearly 45 years since Staff Sgt. Gail M. Kerns kissed the ground when he stepped back on United State soil, after surviving 1,439 days as a prisoner of war.
Kerns was shot on the left side of his head when he and his fellow American soldiers were ambushed March 27, 1969, on a reconnaissance mission in a remote region of South Vietnam, near the Cambodian border.
Up until that point, Kerns said his service in Vietnam was fairly uneventful, although it was lonely at times.
A Randolph County native and a 1965 graduate of Tygarts Valley High School, he had completed one year of electrical engineering studies at West Virginia University Institute of Technology when he was drafted.
“I got a letter (saying) Uncle Sam wants you,” Kerns said in a recent interview.
He was inducted into the military Sept. 21, 1967. After he went through basic training and advanced individual training, he was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, and attended a 22-week non-commission officer leadership course.
On Sept. 16, 1968, Kerns boarded a plane for Fort Lewis, Washington, and from there, he was sent to South Vietnam. He thought he’d have a 12-month tour.
“It was good that I didn’t know what was in store for me, because I may not have been able to perform the job that was given to me,” Kerns said in a biography of his military experiences. “I arrived in Cam Rahn Bay on a hot, dreary, muggy day. The rainy season had not begun, so the days were almost unbearably hot.”
He said he had completed 11 months of training, but he discovered that nothing could have prepared him for Vietnam.
Kerns was based at Pleiku, serving with Company A, 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division. He recalls spending six months looking forward to a week of rest and recreation leave in Honolulu, Hawaii, which he finally was eligible for in March 1969.
When his short trip was over, he returned to Pleiku and was sent straight back into the field.
Kerns and his unit were assigned to complete a routine reconnaissance mission to locate and report enemy activities on March 27, 1969. The area was very rugged, and the American soldiers suddenly came under heavy enemy fire from a group of well-concealed North Vietnamese Army soldiers.
“We crossed over a stream and trail and before we knew what happened, there was Vietnamese everywhere,” Kerns said in his biography.
He was shot in the left temple, near his hairline, and he said he can’t remember much of what happened next. He remembers seeing some of his buddies get shot down behind him. Military reports indicate five Army soldiers were killed, and their bodies were recovered a few days later. Three men were listed as missing in action, including Kerns.
“When I regained consciousness, I was a prisoner of war,” he said in his biography. “I lapsed in and out of consciousness for days. The other American prisoners of war in my camp took care of all my needs. I could not talk, except for very few words. I could not walk, and as a result of being shot, I had developed epilepsy.”
He said after four or five days, his captors placed a few clamps on his 6-inch headwound — that was basically the extent of his medical care in the communist prison camp. His head injury caused partial paralysis on the right side of his body; he couldn’t use his right arm and was not able to walk.
“Since I was wounded so severely, I was not guarded as heavily as the other prisoners were. The Vietnamese knew there was no way I could escape,” he continued.
His diet consisted mainly of rice gruel and water. He also was given bread and tea. Occasionally the prisoners received bananas, and on very rare occasions they were given a small portion of fat meat.
“It really wasn’t very appetizing, but at that stage of the game, no one cared. We were concerned mainly with surviving,” Kerns said.
It took three to four months for him to regain simple body motions, and he said that when he did finally regain limited use of his legs, he was confined to a 10-by-25-foot cage with three other prisoners.
He spent two years at that camp, where 12 Americans were kept as prisoners. Then in 1971, all war prisoners were moved to the Hoa Lo Prison, also known by its sarcastic nickname, the Hanoi Hilton.
Kerns recalls the extremely difficult journey, where he and several other prisoners were forced to march hundreds of miles before they eventually were transported by truck. Because of his injuries, he would struggle to keep up, but his fellow prisoners would carry him on a bamboo stretcher.
He said the hardest part of the trip was the hills.
“I had to slide down on my rear end. I don’t know how I made it, but I really had no choice. It was either go or be shot,” he said in his biography.
A fellow American prisoner was shot and killed for not keeping up.
He said he can’t explain how he got through that time, other than the help of other soldiers and his faith in God.
At the Hanoi Hilton, he said the conditions were not very different from his time in the first prison camp. There were a lot more prisoners in one place, however. In fact, Kerns was held captive at the Hanoi Hilton during the same time as John S. McCain II, now a famous United States senator from Arizona.
Kerns was a prisoner of war from March 27, 1969, through March 5, 1973. For nearly that entire time, Kerns was listed as missing in action, along with two other Army soldiers from his unit who were never found — Sgt. 1st Class Clarence A. Latimer and Sgt. Raymond Czerwiec.
He said it’s very emotional for him to remember those who were lost in the Vietnam War. Kerns has visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as the West Virginia Veterans Memorial.
Each year around Veterans Day, Kerns takes part in a ceremony to remember all prisoners of war and soldiers listed as missing in action. The ceremony is hosted by the JROTC Honor Guard of Greenbrier East High School, and Kerns said it’s designed as a tribute to all missing men from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force.
After Kerns returned to the United States in March 1973, he spent several months receiving medical treatment and physical rehabilitation. He was medically discharged from the Army on Sept. 21, 1973, with 100 percent disability.
He eventually regained the ability to walk with a leg brace, but he never regained use of his right arm. He said it was hard to learn how to complete daily tasks with his left hand, but he made the best of it.
He settled in Greenbrier County in the 1970s because his wife at the time was from that area, and he has lived in the Lewisburg area ever since. He said he has enjoyed becoming involved with veterans organizations over the years, as well as playing chess and checkers.
Kerns said he is proud that he served his country.
He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device and First Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart and First Oak Leaf Cluster, the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and other military honors.