A cowboy in blue jeans and a hat, Bob Jessen intended to spend his years farming along side his dad in Knox County. Instead, the 20-year-old traded his rope for an M-60.
But the1966 Bloomfield graduate never made it home from Vietnam and was killed near the village of Ha Tay Republic of South Vietnam on October 24, 1967.
Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of Bob’s death, and his family and community have made sure his sacrifice is remembered.
“It’s emotional,” admitted Gary Jessen, who was two years younger than his brother. “But we aren’t forgetting about him.”
Five decades after a fatal search and destroy operation, Bob Jessen remains a fixture in the Bloomfield community. After all, Freedom Hall bears his name — right beside another local hero, David Meirose, who was also killed in Vietnam.
Proud To Serve
The son of Herbert and Violet Jessen, Bob was drafted into the U.S. Army right out of high school and was shipped to Vietnam six months later. Gary said his brother was proud to serve his country.
With Bob, Gary, Les and Euince, the four siblings were close. But none closer than Bob and Gary, and it was hard for Gary not to have his big brother at his side. Where you would see one, the other was likely near by. They worked hard, played hard and even double-dated. They were always together, especially if horses were involved.
Bob was a member of the Bloomfield FFA and local saddle club. The Jessen boys didn’t play football or basketball because “my dad always said, ‘If you need exercise, get your (expletive) home and I’ll give you all you need,’ ” Gary said with a chuckle.
But they did rope and ride horses often for enjoyment. Sometimes they met friends for a horse ride or roped calves. Bob was given a two-week leave to see his family before deploying to Vietnam. Gary and Bob spent much of the time on their horses.
“We were doing what we always did — roping calves and riding horses. That’s what we enjoyed,” Gary remembered.
Three days before Bob gave the ultimate sacrifice, he penned a final letter to his family. He wrote of the previous day when his platoon ran into a wall of Viet Cong and had to be airlifted out. His M-60 broke down during a fire fight, but he made it out.
“I was damn luck to have some good men around, so I could get it working again. One good thing about being here by the DMZ, the Charlies shoot at you from about 300 to 400 meters out. At that range, he can’t hit too much with his weapons,” the letter reads.
With more emphasis on his Army brothers than himself, it reads as almost an after thought telling of a recent promotion to specialist fourth class in the 7th Division 1st Cavalry.
The last lines of the letter were the most important, though. “Love, Bob.”
Another letter followed, but this one came from George D. Lenhart, CTP, Infantry Commanding. It was the letter every parent of a soldier fears. Dated Nov. 4, it informed the Jessen family of Bob’s death.
“On the night of Oct 24th, Robert and his platoon were members of a search and destroy operation near the village of Ha Tay Republic of South Vietnam when he was mortally wounded by enemy small arms fire. It may afford you some comfort to know that death came quickly, and he was not subject to any unnecessary suffering,” Lenhart wrote.
The letter went on to tell the family of Bob’s work ethic and dedication that made him an exemplary soldier and one of honor. He was respected.
“Robert’s enthusiasm and devotion to duty, no matter how difficult the mission was, identified him as an outstanding solider,” the letter stated. “As a machine gunner, he commanded the respect of his superiors as well as his subordinates. He displayed the finest example of soldierly bearing, discipline and conduct. I am proud to have served with him and proud he was a member of this unit.”
50 Years Later
During the first part of September — with the 50th anniversary of Bob’s death nearing — the local American Legion Riders, along with Legion and Auxiliary members gathered in Bob’s honor. Also there was Lee Freeman, who personally escorted Bob home after his death.
Friends and family barbecued and shared memories about Bob. Fifty years later, the memories remain as strong as ever. But it’s not just those who knew him who continue to honor Bob. Westlake High School in Texas created a video in memory of him as part of a class project.
The teacher randomly selected Vietnam soldiers to honor, and Bob was chosen. After much prodding and watching other tributes, the family eventually consented and allowed the video to be produced.
The video remains close to the family’s heart, especially Gary. The brothers were side by side for two decades, and five decades after Bob’s death, Gary still gets choked up talking about their bond.
But one thing he doesn’t waver about is the pride he feels for his brother.
“I’m proud my brother served,” Gary said. “Sure, it makes you sad, but it makes me proud, too.”