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Smokejumper Awarded Medal of Honor

by Chuck Sheley (CJ '59) |

I've always wanted to know more about Ken Sisler (NCSB-57). He was a smokejumper who posthumously was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after being killed in Vietnam—the sort of background that gets a person's attention. Getting information, however, proved to be very difficult. I was stonewalled, until I came across "SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam" (Onyx Books, 1998) and its companion volume, "SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars" (Paladin Press, 2000). Both are by John L. Plaster and recount the history of the Studies and Observations Group, a top-secret, covert-operations unit of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Ken Sisler, it turns out, was one of its most prominent members.

Formed in 1964, SOG was steeped in secrecy; its members—an elite group of warriors that included Green Berets, Navy SEALS, and Air Force Air Commandos—answered directly to the Pentagon. SOG forces saw combat, took part in hundreds of rescue missions, and handled cross-border reconnaissance deep in enemy territory. More than 150 SOG members died in the war, and 80 more were reported MIA.

Bill Moody (NSCB-57) rookied with Ken and was able to make contact with Jack McKay (NSCB-57), who was probably closer to Ken than anyone else during that first fire season. Jack's remembrances provide key insight into Ken as a young man.

"He Was a Tough SOB"
Says Jack: "During our junior and senior years in high school, the North Bend Ranger District employed Ken and me on a suppression crew. Ken was from Dexter, MO. We became close friends while on a fire on the Mount Baker National Forest. Along with ten others, we hiked up this mountainside to the fire. It took us a day to get to the fire from the creek. When we got there, it was pretty well-contained. We were all exhausted from the hike and were not in any shape to do much firefighting, anyway.

"After we had spent all this time and energy getting to the fire, we discovered that there were about ten smokejumpers already there. They were having what seemed like a picnic on a mountaintop. They were a real nice bunch of guys who told us about smokejumping and how to apply. These guys were like gods to Ken and [me]. About that time, a helicopter showed up and took the jumpers. What a deal! They fly off, and we are working a fire that is going out. Then it starts to rain, and we are soaked and still have to spend a couple days on the mountain before hiking out. That convinced us that there was a better way to spend a summer. Back at school, Ken and I applied for smokejumpers, and the next summer, we were off to Winthrop and a new adventure.

"Ken and I were partners on our first fire jump. I remember the fire was on Strawberry Mountain near John Day, OR. It was a hot, bumpy ride to the fire, and I got airsick and barfed into my hard hat. It seemed like we flew around for hours trying to find that fire. I was ready to get out of that plane. It was a small fire and probably nearly out when we jumped it. On another fire later that season, Ken put one of his climbing spurs into his calf while retrieving his chute. We bandaged him up and took off for the five-mile hike to the road. He was hurt but held his own on the packout. He was a tough SOB.

"Ken was a friend who enjoyed a good time and was always looking for a new adventure. He always had a grin and could come up with a joke. Of course, he always joined us bucking bales on the local farms, going to the dances on Saturday nights, and tasting the local brew. He loved life and was on his way to fulfilling his dreams of being on the leading edge of adventure.

"It is interesting how you recall certain things in life. The last time I saw Ken was on a weekend in late August in 1957. We were playing poker, and he was about to leave for Missouri. To this day, I recall that he lost a hand and said that he was ready to head home. He got up, went to his car and took off. I still regret that I didn't walk out to the car with him to say a more personal good-bye. It is one of those things that sticks in your mind over the years. Whenever I'm at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., I always look at his name."

SOG's First Medal of Honor
In 1967, Ken was a 29-year-old lieutenant with what Plaster calls a "reputation for innovation and daring". In Laos as part of a SOG mission to gather cross-border intelligence, he was a reconnaissance-team leader and on February 7 volunteered to help a platoon conduct damage assessment after a B-52 strike.

Writes Plaster: "...[A] half-dozen Kingbee helicopters landed the platoon on a heavily cratered Laotian [landing zone]. Minutes later, they were mass-assaulted by more than 100 [North Vietnamese Army] soldiers and almost overrun. Lt. Sisler realized that two of his [men] had been wounded and left behind. Racing back alone into the jungle, Sisler picked up one man and was running with him when the NVA launched a second assault, headed directly for him. Sisler…pulled a grenade, attacked and destroyed a machine gun, and then killed three more enemy assailants trying to slip into the platoon perimeter. He went back after the second [man] and just got him out when another NVA attacked. All alone, Lt. Sisler counterattacked, firing his CAR-15 and throwing grenades.

"With all the SOG men around him killed or wounded, Sisler almost single-handedly had repulsed the NVA attack. Meanwhile, Sergeant First Class [Leonard] Tilley organized the rest of the platoon and brought A-1 Skyraiders within 50 feet of its position. But there was no place for extraction helicopters to land, so the SOG men had to move. A rocket-propelled grenade detonated near [Capt. Edward] Lesesne, and instantly he was almost bleeding to death. Tilley's expertly directed air strikes at last forced the NVA force back, and the Kingbees and several helicopter gunships arrived. Ken Sisler stood to direct the gunships when a lone sniper's shot cut him down. He died there.

"A year later, the young lieutenant's widow, Jane Sisler, and her two sons, David and James, traveled to Washington to accept his posthumous Medal of Honor, the first awarded to a military intelligence officer."

Plaster writes that while most Americans don't know about SOG and the men who were killed among its ranks, these heroes are still remembered—Ken Sisler among them. "The largest memorial by far," Plaster notes, "is the USNS Sisler, a mammoth ship large enough to transport an entire armored brigade, and launched in February 1998."