John Levenduski is convinced a guardian angel was watching over him during his time in Vietnam.
During a recent interview at his home in Snowville, Levenduski, a staff sergeant with the U.S. Marine Corps who served a 13-month tour of duty during the height of the Vietnam War, recounted several instances in which his life could have easily been lost but for a few inches here or there.
One day, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the armored vehicle he was driving, but somehow didn’t ignite the volatile load of ammunition he was transporting.
“The metal on those amtracks (slang term for the amphibious armored vehicles commonly operated by Marines in Vietnam) was only an eighth of an inch thick, so RPGs could go through them like a knife through butter,” he said. “Thank goodness it missed the boxes by about five inches, maybe.”
Another time, a 140-millimeter rocket landed in his camp with him just a few yards away — well within the lethal blast zone for such heavy artillery — but didn’t detonate.
“It was the only dud I ever saw there,” he said.
On a return trip from a mission to support another platoon, he watched an amtrack in front of his hit a land mine, killing everybody in the vehicle but one.
And in yet another close call, he and other members were out on foot when he came across an enormous toad.
“We were going out on a three-day ambush and something caught my eye. I’d never seen a toad that big in my life,” he said, shaping his thumbs and forefingers into a circle the size of a small dinner plate. “It took another hop and next to my left foot was a tripwire.” If it hadn’t been for the toad, “I never would have seen it.”
Stationed near the Demilitarized Zone, the supposedly neutral area separating the northern and southern regions of Vietnam, Levenduski’s platoon would take artillery fire or engage in firefights on the ground on a near-daily basis, but somehow he always emerged nearly unscathed. To Marines, the common acronym for the Demilitarized Zone, DMZ, stood for “Dead Marine Zone.”
In many cases in which his fellow Marines lost their lives, “it could have just as well been me,” he said. “Somebody was watching over me.”
Levenduski was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1947. His father died when John was just three years old, and John, along with his sister and mother, moved to Deweyville when he was six.
After graduating from Bear River High School in 1965, he was working a job in Gabbs, Nevada when he received his draft notice. After coming back home and weighing his options, Levenduski decided he would enlist in the Marines.
“I thought ‘If I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go with the best,’” he said.
He enlisted in October 1966 and arrived at boot camp in California “scared s---less.” But he made it through and even excelled, placing high during amtrack training and drawing praise from his instructor in .50 caliber machine gun training, where he learned to fire at enemy aircraft by aiming slightly in front of the moving targets, similar to the way he would lead birds in flight while hunting as a youth in the wetlands and foothills of the Bear River Valley.
“The instructor said ‘How are you so good at this?’ I said ‘Well, I’ve hunted ducks a lot, and pheasants.”
After arriving in Vietnam by boat in May 1967, he spent a couple of months in the southern region before heading north near the DMZ boundary. His platoon used amtracks to evacuate wounded combat troops, haul “grunts,” ammo and supplies, and “whatever needed to be done,” often finding themselves on the front lines of combat. He started out as a driver then became a crew chief, a role in which he was in charge of two other Marines at any given time.
“Wherever we led, the Corps followed,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned we had the best tractor in the platoon. I didn’t let my guys do anything I wouldn’t do, and that’s why they’d do about anything for me.”
Firefights became commonplace, as did artillery rounds coming in from above, and he had to quickly get adjusted to the constant possibility of death.
“I hated the artillery, but a firefight never bothered me,” he said. “The first time a saw a guy aiming a rifle at me, it didn’t take me a split second to shoot him first.”
Levenduski’s platoon endured many battles, and toward the end of his tour was attached to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, an infantry battalion known as the “Magnificent Bastards” that was key to a U.S. victory in the Battle of Dai Do, a well-known skirmish in which more than 600 Marines were killed in the process of beating back a division of some 10,000 North Vietnamese enemy combatants.
Many of Levenduski’s memories of his Vietnam experience are tied to food. He and fellow Marines would often stash away C-rations, and he ate more rice than he would ever have cared for.
“It took decades before I’d eat rice when I came back,” he said.
He tried foods he had never dreamed of eating before, reporting that monkey “was pretty tasty,” but raw shark meat “was like chewing a piece of rubber.”
One thing he and others learned to avoid was the dried apricots that would periodically arrive with supply deliveries.
“Whenever we ate the apricots we always got incoming (fire), and we finally figured out it was a bad omen,” he said.
Some 30 years later, he was visiting with some Marines at Camp Pendleton and learned that they still didn’t eat apricots.
“That started with our platoon, and I guess it’s still going on to this day,” he said.
When Levenduski returned to Utah in the summer of 1968, he was one of many who didn’t get the hero’s welcome they might have expected.
“We got treated like crap,” he said. “People wouldn’t say ‘welcome home,’ or sometimes would throw rocks or spit at you. It took a long time to settle down.”
He said general attitudes toward Vietnam veterans have thankfully changed since then.
He bought a brand new 1968 GTO, the first of dozens of cars he would own over the next several decades. One of his first jobs after coming home was at a copper mine in New Mexico, where he and his crew would detonate large bundles of dynamite to extract the precious ore.
After a strike at the mine resulted in most workers being laid off, he returned to Tremonton, working numerous odd jobs until being hired on at Thiokol in 1971. He worked there primarily as a machinist and millwright for 27 years. After receiving disability for non-combated-related back problems, he retired at age 52.
In addition to his cars, Levenduski took up the hobby of skydiving, something he said helped bring peace and quiet. He resumed hunting, and loved spending time in the local foothills, listening to the sounds of nature.
In the meantime, he also joined the National Guard.
“A friend of mine kept harping me about it, and I said ‘I’ll try it for a month,’” he said. “I ended up staying in it for 21 and a half years.”
He eventually started thinking more and more about the men he served with, and started the long process of tracking people down. He eventually had enough success finding others that they were able to organize a reunion of their platoon, something they have done nearly every other year since. Their first reunion was at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., and they’ve since had reunions in various places where they scattered after coming home — Michigan, North Dakota and Arizona, to name a few.
“A lot of stuff happened that I still don’t talk about to this day — just me and a couple of the guys talk about it,” he said.
Levenduski also had three sons, the oldest of whom enlisted in the military and was sent to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, before the U.S. “officially” became involved in the conflict there.
“It scared the crap out of me and made me think ‘how the heck did my mother survive me being in Vietnam, especially with it being on TV every night?’” he said.
His oldest and youngest eventually joined the National Guard, and all three were able to serve together in the same battalion for two or three years.
He is also an active member of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1695, attending military funerals and other events with fellow veterans, many of whom also served in Vietnam.
While he escaped his tour in Vietnam without major bodily injury, Levenduski bears some emotional scars beneath his friendly, outgoing exterior. He said sometimes the sound of a jet flying overhead still gives him the urge to “hit the deck,” and years after coming home he started having dreams in which he would die by various means, including sometimes in combat.
“The first one I got electrocuted in Deweyville,” he said. “I’ve been shot and bayoneted in World War I, been stabbed, fell off a cliff. The last one I had, I died in a plane crash.”
Despite the violent nature of the dreams, he said the feeling they brought of leaving his own body was peaceful, and even pleasant.
“I haven’t had a dream like that for 10 years,” he said. “I miss them.”
His war experience taught him how to survive, and freed him from the fear of death.
“I look forward to dying,” he said. “Anytime’s fine with me, but I appreciate every day I’m alive, too. I’ve seen life and death, and I’m not afraid of either one.”
One surprise, a previously unknown physical scar, revealed itself when he went in for knee replacement surgery several years ago and doctors discovered a piece of shrapnel lodged in his right knee.
“If I would have known that I could’ve got a Purple Heart,” he said with a laugh.
Levenduski and his platoon did receive recognition for their wartime efforts. He said he found out just several years ago that his was “the most decorated support platoon of the Vietnam War,” with five presidential unit citations and several Navy citations and commendations.
“Being the only one in our platoon from Utah, I thought that was pretty impressive,” he said.
Levenduski and his wife of 15 years, Sandy, currently live on 80 peaceful acres in Snowville where John has been for more than 20 years now, but are looking at moving to Deweyville in the near future so she can be closer to the Brigham City LDS Temple and they can have easier access to medical facilities and other services.
The move will bring him full-circle to the place where he grew up, learned to shoot and work hard — qualities that served him well in Vietnam, a place that gave him experience and perspective he couldn’t have gained anywhere else.
He plans to keep attending the biennial reunions with his platoon mates, reminiscing about the times they had while serving and paying homage to those who didn’t make it home alive.
For Levenduski, life today is mainly about “taking it one day at a time.” He’s still got his health for the most part, and the VA hospital in Salt Lake City has been a boon whenever he needs medical attention.
“I used to worry about what’s gonna happen tomorrow, but everything works out for a reason,” he said. “You’ve gotta enjoy all the life you got, ‘cause you never know when it’s gonna end.”