Just over fifty years ago on April 23, ten young men from Calumet County got on a bus headed for Milwaukee to embark on a very challenging chapter in each of their lives as new members of the United States military.
The life-changing experiences that separated them from their families back home served to create a bond for them that lasts to this day. After they returned, eight of those young men were determined to stay in touch, and they’ve been getting back together at Klinkner Park in Chilton every year since their discharge in 1970.
Originally from Kiel, Jim Mangan said all the guys had Calumet County in common, but came from Kiel, New Holstein, Chilton, Stockbridge and Hilbert. He said at the time they were drafted, there was no lottery or anything, so when your date came up, you went in and did your service. He said he and two of the other guys, Bill Sabel and Don Pfister, actually went on a plane together to Vietnam before being separated. “But were together for the first four months in the military. One was sleeping above us in the bunk, and we played sheepshead when we had the chance, and we all talked about Redwood and the bars we drank at.”
Mangan said that while seven of the original ten from Calumet County who met that day ended up going to Vietnam, their friend Paul Schaefer, who was originally from Stockbridge, served in Germany and then lived in Hilbert after he returned stateside. Sadly he died in August 2015. Bill Sabel, from Chilton, was also not available at the time of the interviews, but Mangan said he received a couple purple hearts while in Vietnam.
Mangan said they were all pretty much E-5 Sergeants when they got out, adding, “You got ranked pretty quick when you’re in a war zone. I got an early out to go back to school.” After school, Mangan took a job with Kohler Company. Now retired, he lives in Osmund, near School Hill. He said, “It’s amazing that we still get together. It’s unique, being from Chilton, from a small community. I mean if you got drafted in Milwaukee, you didn’t know anybody else. But we stuck together.”

Met at post office
Also from Kiel, Gary Konen remembered the day they all met at the post office in Chilton saying, “Sure, everybody, when you were drafted, you met at the post office. And my parents dropped me off and everybody else’s parents, the place was crowded. Everybody got on a bus and went to Milwaukee.” After his basic training in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Konen said he was selected to go to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for heavy equipment repairman training. He said he then spent 16 months in Korea.
At one point, Konen said he was 10 miles from the DMZ in Korea where border incidents sometimes took place. He said, “There’d be snipers out there and all of a sudden they’d kill a whole jeep full of people, GIs you know, just totally unprovoked. You couldn’t predict it, and I was so close over there and there were all kinds of things going on.”
Konen said he extended his stay over there so he could get an early out, adding, “Because they had too many people already in the military, they were sizing down, so if you came back with 5 months or less, you could muster out right when you got back to the U.S.” He said after he got back to Fort Lewis in Washington, he mustered out and flew right back home. Here he was self-employed as a landscaper with his father, and later he drove semi for Piggly Wiggly for 26 years.
Reflecting on his time in the military, Konen said, “I think it’s always a positive experience for any person to be in the military, as long as you’re not necessarily going right to a war zone. It was an experience that I would never have had on my own. I think a lot more people should do their civic duty and spend some time in the military. I think it’s a learning experience for everybody.”
Konen admitted he finally realized what his parents had gone through while he was in the service after his son Jerrod was activated from the National Guard and ended up in Iraq for a year as a squad leader looking for IEDs. Konen said, “You know when you’ve got a son or daughter in the military, you’re sitting there sweating it out every day, hoping the worst doesn’t happen.” Recalling his time away from home, Konen stated, “Yeah, my mother took up smoking while I was gone, she was so nervous.”
Paul Boehnlein was 20 when he went in to the service. From basic training in Kentucky, he went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was in riot control for about eight months before being sent over to Vietnam. He said, “I was in searchlights and when I got to Vietnam they put me into radar.” After a year over there, Boehnlein said he came back stateside and with only 40-some days left in his enlistment and there wasn’t enough time for him to be sent back.
Ranked Specialist 4 when he came out, Boehnlein returned to his hometown of Chilton and worked for Tecumseh as an expediter out at the warehouse where he said his job was to keep things working smoothly.

Cold and rainy when left on bus
Stockbridge native Bill Keuler was 19 when he was drafted. He already knew Schaeffer and Boehnlein when they all caught the bus to Milwaukee fifty years ago, and remembered April 23 as a “really cold, black, rainy morning.” Keuler recalled leaving Milwaukee for Fort Campbell where the guys were given their haircuts, vaccinations, uniforms, and a battery of tests to see what their aptitudes were.
Keuler said after twelve weeks of basic training and a short time at home on leave, he ended up going to Fort Leonard Wood for nine months, and then to Vietnam for a year. He said, “I actually got taken hostage my first week by another vet from a Marine Corps unit. I was only there like a week. I was in training and we got a call. I was in a security police detachment, and this guy, he had mental problems so he wanted to join the Viet Cong. He stole a bunch of weapons, and took one of the guys in our unit hostage and made him make up this story that somebody was injured down in this staging area.”
Keuler continued, “My sergeant thought that this guy was on drugs or something you know, and so he was yelling at him. Here he was being held hostage by this guy and he made us all throw down our weapons and get out of the jeep and threatened to kill us all. I don’t even know how long we were there, maybe 10 minutes. So one minute this guy would be friendly and ‘We’re all in this together and I don’t want to hurt you guys,’ and the next minute he’d be just raging crazy and threatening. And he had all kinds of weapons on him, our weapons. He could hardly move he had so much weapons and ammunition. Then he decided he wanted to go join the Viet Cong.”
“And in the middle of all of this there was a rocket attack, so there was a blackout. After about two hours of this ordeal, one of the guards there knew who he was and so he got shot and killed. So that’s how it started for me, and I only had 51 more weeks to go.”

Guardian angel left
Keuler remembered that when he went to Fort Leonard Wood he was supposed to be an electrician, but they made him a clerk when they found out he could type. He said he worked with the civilians there as the post engineer and had to write the work orders to have things fixed in the housing section. Then after about six months, he said his sergeant called him one day with some bad news.
Keuler recalled, “I said, ‘Oh I got orders for Nam, and he said, ‘No, I’ve got orders for Nam. He said, ‘I’ve already been over there twice and I’m not going back again.’ He said, ‘I know a few people in some high places, and I called in all my favors and I got my orders changed. I’m going to Germany. I got three years and then I’ve got my 20 years in and I’m gonna get out.’ He said, ‘The bad news is, ever since you been here, every time your name came up to go to Vietnam, I scratched it off because you made me look good. I never had to worry about the work here. But your guardian angel is going away.’”
Keuler said it wasn’t a week later and he got his orders for Vietnam. But instead of an electrician MOS or a clerk MOS, they gave him something thing called the duty soldier, which he said was a ‘garbage can’ MOS that meant they could make him do anything.
Keuler said after he got to Vietnam, he was flown up to Da Nang, and during that first week every morning they asked for volunteers for the security police detachment, and nobody would volunteer. He said when it got down to the last day to volunteer, he asked the guy in charge, “Well, if I don’t sign up, where am I going? and he said, ‘You’re going to be assigned to the US mortuary here in Da Nang, and you’re going to be part of the graves registration detail up on the DMZ.’” Keuler said that detail amounted to picking up bodies and body parts and sending them back to the mortuary, so he volunteered for the police detachment instead. Keuler said, “The very last words my dad told me before I got on the plane, he said, ‘Bill, don’t volunteer for anything.’ The very first thing I did when I got there was volunteer, and then I got taken hostage the first week.”
In addition to the tougher times, Keuler said he took a three-credit college English course through the University of Maryland - Far East Campus. He had been in country about seven months or so when he decided to go back to college and fix up all the mistakes he made the first time he went. He said, “It was really such a wonderful, enlightening experience for me to be able to have done that. I never really had an appreciation for literature like I did after I had gone through what I went through.”
Keuler said the A he got for the course the second time around gave him confidence and was something positive to bring back with him. He said he got out of the service after two years as an E-5 Sergeant, adding, “I figure all’s well that ends well. You know, I made it through.”
Donald Pfister, who grew up on a farm in the New Holstein area, remembers the bus ride on that dreary day in April, too. He said, “In fact, I remember at the airport in Milwaukee some of these guys were married at that time, and one guy was saying goodbye to his wife and we were all on the bus kinda hootin’.”
Pfister also went to Fort Campbell and then to Fort Lewis. After training to be a foot soldier, he went to Vietnam where he said, “We got split up and I went to the Mekong Delta. I think I was the only one that went down there, and Jim went up north and we wouldn’t see each other again until we got out basically.”
Pfister described the area he was stationed as kind of out in the sticks. “It was an area where they grow rice and it was pretty much flooded, so we never drove on a truck. We always flew on a helicopter when we went out in the field, and they would drop you off and they would pick you up later in the day or the next day. And you’d sweep an area, but it was all water, pretty much.”

Came back when shot
Pfister said he was there two months, until he got shot and came back. He said, “If you were shot and it wasn’t too bad they would send you to Japan and then they’d send you back. But in my case, I went to Japan for a week and a half and then I got flown back to the States and then I spent the next five months in the hospital, until I was released. And after that I went to Fort Carson, Colorado, and became a company clerk and that’s what I did my last 11 months.”
Pfister completed his service as an E-5 Sergeant. He then attended college, graduated with a degree in economics, and returned home to farming. Even though he remembered waking up his first morning in the military and thinking to himself, ‘This is all a bad dream,’ Pfister said it got better the longer he was in.
Hilbert native Dennis Halbach remembers getting on the bus with nine other guys from Calumet County that day and heading down to Milwaukee. There they had their physicals before flying down to Fort Campbell for eight weeks of basic training. Halbach said then he went to Georgia for military police training. He said, “After I graduated from training, I stayed stateside because my older brother Nick was in Vietnam, and they couldn’t send two brothers. So I always thank him for the fact that I didn’t have to go over there.”
After spending thirteen months in Texas as an MP guarding missiles at a military site, Halbach spent his last six months in Detroit. There he had to send AWOL soldiers back to their units for reprocessing after the police brought them in.
Leaving the service as an E-5 Sergeant, Halbach briefly worked for Tecumseh when he got back home before taking a job with the power company where he worked as a lineman and trouble shooter for 42 years.
Halbach said while some of the guys see each other around now and then and they have attended each other’s family weddings over the years, the summer visit at Klinkner is the time they make sure to gather as a group. He said, “It’s just that part of your life, you know. For me at 18, anyway, it was the first time away from home and you leave all of that and you gotta cling to something. At the time you don’t know what’s all happening in that respect, but now when you look back, they’re like family. And it meant a lot to us, so we stayed together.”

After all, how do you define the value of friendships that last a lifetime?