Lieutenant Cecil H. Van Diver
1st Platoon, C Company, 1st Infantry Regiment, 11th Light Infantry, Americal Division
Cecil H. Vandiver was born on 6 December 1946 to a father who had been to hell and back. His dad, Cecil R., served as a cook in D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion, also known as the infamous “Harrodsburg Tankers” and was captured by the Japanese during the fall of the Bataan. Barely surviving the march and spending another four years tortured, beaten, abused, and destroyed by the Japanese, Cecil’s father came home a different man suffering psychologically and physically from the damage the Japanese had inflicted upon him. Growing up Cecil was bright but quiet, excelling at school amongst a thriving family life. Even so, he was consistently reminded of his father’s pain although he knew very little about it. His compassion for his father’s suffering led him to become heavily involved in his church and instilled a life-long love for the poor, needy, suffering, or generally less fortunate.
By the time he reached high school Cecil became a real breadwinner for the family and in 1965 received a scholarship to attend Eastern Kentucky University as a member of their ROTC program. At EKU Cecil hit his strive and really outperformed many of his classmates both in the classroom and in the field, even given the honor of becoming a “Counter-Guerilla Raider,” a special designation at certain ROTC schools signifying a candidate who had performed so well that they were chosen for extensive direct training with Army personnel on guerilla tactics utilized by North Vietnamese forces in preparation for potential combat action following graduation.
In 1969 Cecil graduated from EKU with a degree in Communications and Industrial Technology, managing to narrowly avoid immediate Vietnam service, instead spending many months traveling around the country with his new wife, the love of his life, serving at bases from Fort Bliss to Fort Benning and Fort Knox. He was a quiet but determined man, “simply good” as his wife recalled. His quiet but solemn repose earned the respect of every person he came in contact with including the many generals he served under as a staff officer at the various forts. In the summer of 1970, however, Cecil struggled over what to do next. As the war heated up he felt guilty to remain stateside and desired to serve and do his bit overseas. His wife desired him to stay in the cushy, pencil-pushing jobs which had managed to keep him out of combat, but Cecil’s sense of patriotism and duty got the best of him. He soon volunteered for active duty in Vietnam.
With only 7 months remaining on his commission, Cecil was assigned as the infantry platoon leader for 1st Platoon, C Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 11th Light Infantry Brigade, 23rd 'Americal' Division, and was stationed at Firebase 4-11 in Quang Ngai province. Upon arrival, Cecil found many of the men in his company had personal situations quite different from his own at home. While Cecil had managed to do well for himself, at this point in the war most of the army was full of draftees, many of whom were racial minorities or from low-income households who could not afford the various methods of avoiding the draft. Some of his men had been released from prison and chose service to commute their sentences. Cecil saw his father’s personal struggle in these men and made it his personal mission to ensure they went home in one piece.
Quang Ngai is a very flat province near the sea, the firebase stood west of the main city in the middle of a very large flatland surrounded by hills. The area had been occupied by the North Vietnamese for a long time and as such, the land was full of booby traps, mines, and tunnels. For most patrols, Cecil and his men were transported by helicopter into the brush of their Area of Operations. On one particular mission, they were moving through a dense brush path when all of the sudden his radioman, whom he was very close with, struck a very light wire attached to a booby-trapped 105mm howitzer shell rigged by North Vietnamese guerillas. The proceeding explosion tore the man into pieces and wounded several other men in Cecil’s platoon, all in front of his very own eyes. Other missions were full of midnight ambushes by Viet Cong forces, surprise mortar strikes, tunnel searches, and many other dangers where the GIs rarely got to meet their enemy face to face.
On every mission Cecil made sure his men were treated equally, sharing dangerous duties and receiving fair breaks. Every lost man was a personal blow that Cecil never forgot. During their time together he also sought to instill good habits into his men, teaching them valuable skills learned from his time in Kentucky and trying to make sure they stayed out of destructive ones common to the army at that time, such as taking drugs. His passion for serving others was well respected as a platoon leader and for his valorous leadership over the course of his tour, he was awarded the Bronze Star. An award of which he would never really tell anyone about, for he was too humble, quiet, and servant-minded.
Cecil passed away about two years ago and while I was unfortunately never able to meet him, I have learned from his wife and friends that he was truly a happy, simple, quiet, and honorable man. He only did what he saw as his duty and sought to help anyone in need for the rest of his life. When he returned from Vietnam he suffered from PTSD but coped in his own silent way, never really seeking anyone out, but his wife stated that this was fine for a man like him. He went on to spend the rest of his career at Kentucky Utilities as a Results Coordinator and founded both the Christian Academy of Carrollton as well as the Carroll County Ambulance Service. Later on, he was named a Kentucky Colonel for his service to his country and state. His valorous service, selfless sacrifice, and passion for the Lord and his people will never be forgotten.