Willmar man's 'Messages from Vietnam' a way to stay connected with family in difficult time
Dan Kleven and his parents exchanged audiotapes while he served as an infantryman in the jungles of Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. Minnesota Public Radio has been airing excerpts from the tapes since 2007 and Kleven has been hearing comments on them every since.
WILLMAR — Dan Kleven was a farm kid from Willmar when he arrived in Vietnam in 1969 as a 19-year-old infantryman.
“I was a young man that was not very worldly and not very political,” he said. “When I came home, I had gained perspective.”
While serving in Vietnam, Kleven and his parents exchanged cassette audiotapes. MPR has been broadcasting excerpts of the tapes as part of its American RadioWorks’ “approach to give voice to ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances,” stated Sasha Aliason, an MPR producer, in an article she wrote about the tapes.
Kleven and his sisters had come across the tapes while cleaning up their parents' home back in 2007. One of his sisters, Lisa, contacted MPR about them, and Aliason and then-MPR host Gary Eichten paid a visit.
“Initially, I talked a little bit about combat because it was new to me,” said Kleven, now 72, of the content of those tapes. A letter from a close friend put an end to that: He advised the grunt in Vietnam that his missives were more than his parents could handle.
“The thing you got to understand about the tapes is they were a bit facetious,” Kleven said.
They were a way to communicate and stay connected with family, and not intended to offer anything like a war correspondent’s perspective on the war, he explained.
“It wasn’t meant to be a dialogue of what was transpiring in the country militarily or politically,” he said.
He usually recorded his tapes when he was at a fire support base. He would bop from bunker to bunker, and invite his buddies to comment.
“Friends and family, we’re now at Dizzy’s bunker. Dizzy, say a few words to the folks back home,” he said, describing one audiotape.
The sound of artillery and helicopters are often in the background. He purposely recorded the deafening roar as everyone on the firebase started shooting for a nighttime “Mad Minute.” The roar of 50-caliber machine gunfire and M16s blasting away during the night was designed to send a message to any enemy soldiers who might be looking to infiltrate the concertina wire surrounding the base.
He said some of the tapes he sent home were just plain drab, and most of that was edited out by MPR.
“It’s been raining. We had something to eat,” he said of their content.
Yet other tapes clearly offer a look at history in the making. Kleven served with the 3rd Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. Later in his deployment, his unit crossed into Cambodia and captured a support cache for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
“We found way more stuff than what was thought to be there,” said Kleven.
They found an underground hospital with surgical equipment and generators, surgery rooms, teletype communications equipment and even a mess hall.
All during his deployment, his parents, Nellie and Wallace, kept him abreast of the news from the home front. Their tapes to him kept him in the know on when Dad was baling hay or Grandma was making meatballs, when his sisters were in the school musical, or who was visiting for a holiday.
Kleven believes his parents wanted to give him “some connection to normalcy. ... I think, primarily my mom, (wanted) to keep me hooked in emotionally to everyday life,” he said.
It was a good connection to have: His duty in Vietnam put him in the jungle for days on end conducting search and destroy missions.
“Miserable. Mosquitoes. Rain,” he said of the drudgery that comprised much of his time in the jungle.
They would be dropped in by helicopter and make their way for days until helicopters would pick them up again. On some occasions, they were ferried by armored riverboats.
By his own volition, he always walked point for his unit. He said he had confidence in his own ability.
“Thought I’d rather have myself to blame than some idiot who wasn’t paying attention,” he said.
He had the nickname of Rabbit. He was the guy who crawled into the enemy tunnels they discovered.
“You got to understand. Combat is an unusual thing,” Kleven said. “You might go three weeks and not see anything and then all of a sudden go a week and three nights of the week you’re blowing ambushes.”
He served for 11 months in combat until an injury sent him to the rear. A bullet ricocheted and tore a small wound in his leg during a firefight with the enemy. He completed his service in Vietnam as a driver for an officer who transported codes. They were shot at, but the risks were far less than combat in the jungle and without much of the misery.
“All we wanted to do was get out of there and survive,” said Kleven.
Mostly, it was 19-year-old Americans and similar-aged Vietnamese battling in the jungle, neither really wanting to run into one another. Peasants and farmers trying to make a living were caught up in the middle of it all, and victims of it all too, he said.
Kleven returned home having achieved the rank of sergeant and with medals, a Purple Heart among them. He dismisses any hero talk about his service. He said they were put in situations where they had to fight their way out to survive, and did.
Kleven came home in February to weather of minus 20 degrees. He said he spent a few quiet weeks at home. He took his earnings and enjoyed a summer-long adventure in Europe before going to college at Mankato State.
A four-year degree had been his intention before the draft notice had arrived that landed him in Vietnam. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees and met his wife, Deb, while in college. They raised three sons. He operated the family dairy farm south of Willmar and worked 27 years with Pioneer research.
He continues to hear comments about the tapes as MPR airs them. The comments are generally positive, he said.
“Each person hears them and interprets them differently,” he said.
Some people read into them, as if they are deciphering the message of an artwork or song. He said he sometimes wonders what the hell they’re talking about.
“Everybody hears something different. (They) want to hear what their imagination allows them to,” he said.
He emphasizes that the tapes were just about communicating with family, and self-censored at that.
As for all that he witnessed in war, Kleven said he has compartmentalized his experience and looks forward, not backward.
“If you’re worried about what happened yesterday, you’re losing out on tomorrow,” he said.
His tapes home became less frequent as combat hardened him. After the foray into Cambodia, he was quiet for 40 days straight.
Kleven has donated his uniform and much of his memorabilia to Jon Lindstrand for his display on military service. The display is a regular feature of the Veterans Day observance in Willmar. This year the display is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 11-13 at the War Memorial Auditorium , with a program at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11.
“I go there, it’s emotional for me,” said Kleven, adding that he generally goes to the display alone “because I can think about things and get out.
“It gives you perspective from the standpoint you are not alone,” said Kleven. “Lots of people there who have gone through bad experiences in American history. I am just a part of it.”