Like most men who go to war, Coal Valley’s John Katherman felt lucky to get out alive. On his first day in Vietnam, he met another soldier who told him, “I’m lucky, no Purple Heart.
“I wasn’t real thrilled to hear that. I then saw the guy I was going to replace, (and) he’d been shot seven times.
“I was very lucky, because the squad I joined was full of experienced guys. They knew what to do.”
One thing the squad did not do was use drugs.
“There was a drug problem in Vietnam, and a lot of guys got shot because they were high. My squad followed the rules: No drugs.”
Katherman's luck continued.
Sitting in the field, reading his hometown newspaper, he encountered a lieutenant who also was from Moline.
“I eventually became his radio guy, which was safer, because I wasn’t at the front of our patrols,” he said.
When the lieutenant took a position farther back at battalion headquarters, he arranged for Katherman to go with him.
“So, I was out of the bush,” he said.
More luck came.
When Katherman returned from a break to Hawaii with his high-school-sweetheart-turned-wife, Darlene, he learned that his lieutenant had died in a non-combat helicopter crash.
“If I had been there instead of in Hawaii, I’d have been with him and died," he said.
Katherman said some of his good fortune had nothing to do with luck, and he “saw tremendous leadership when under fire, and a lot of us are alive today because of those commanders.
“One black night, we were out on patrol, and our pucker factor was high. I had to wake a guy up who was in the middle of a bad dream and woke up screaming. Our cover was blown, so we were told to shoot off all our ammunition, and luckily, no one shot back. We walked back with our hands on the shoulder of the guy in front of us, it was so dark.”
Vietnam changed him.
“I came back much more mature and centered. I grew up a bunch over there, facing life or death. It made me appreciate our freedoms, our Constitution that gives us our great life. The Vietnamese have never had it.”
Like the men who left Vietnam before him, Katherman didn’t want to jinx his last day. As he and the others boarded the plane for the States — the plane that just brought in fresh troops — not a word was spoken. And no one said a word as the plane took off.
Not until the flight leveled off did all the troops break out into a chorus of “Leaving On a Jet Plane.”
Very good article featuring my dad, John Katherman, who was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. There are so many things to say about my dad. He is my hero and words cannot express how proud i am to be his son. While I do believe in incidents of "luck", I also believe in God and the concept of "Actual Grace". I'm eternally thankful for his life which brought life to me and my twin brother, Jeff, and his safe return to a productive and fruitful life post Vietnam. i love you, Dad!