By Staff Sgt. Ray Simmons
Originally printed in the February 2000 Plains Guardian
On Aug. 19, 1969, Kansas Army National Guard Capt. Jose Llamas, known as Joe to his friends and “Pep” to his parents, was killed by hostile fire at Cai Doi Hamlet near the Cambodian border in the Republic of Vietnam. Llamas was serving as an advisor to a Republic of Vietnam Army battalion reaction force. Today, nestled among Kansas’ prairie elm and cedar, surrounded by a green carpet of trimmed prairie grass in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Newton, Kansas, rests Joe’s gray Army headstone, which reads, in Spartan style:
CPT ADVISORY TEAM 85
VIETNAM BSM & 2 OLC PH
NOV 8 1925 – AUG 19 1969
Two miles west, three simple bronze plaques hang in the foyer of the Newton Armory in memory of Llamas, Spc. 4 George F. Martinez and Pfc. Robert L. Boese, also killed in Vietnam in 1969.
On May 13, 1968, the 69th Brigade, Kansas Army National Guard, was activated for federal service in Vietnam. At the time, Llamas was the commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 137th Infantry. Although he was 42 years old, had served in Europe in World War II, had enough service years to retire, had a good job as a machinist with the Coleman Company in Wichita and had a young wife and four grade school children, Llamas accepted the call to duty without complaint.
“I have to go with my men,” he told his wife, Mary.
The brigade went to Fort Carson, Colo., for training. Llamas’ anticipation, to serve with his men, was short lived. From Fort Carson, approximately 65 percent of the enlisted men and 97 percent of the officers of the brigade were sent to Vietnam. Then 2nd Lt. Lloyd “Gene” Krase assumed command of Company C and Llamas was “on the first levy out” to Vietnam. Krase, retired major general and formerly the 35th Division commander, and other Kansas Guardsmen followed shortly. Llamas initially served with the 1st Infantry Division. In March 1969, he was assigned as Senior Advisor, Mobile Advisory Team TV-62, Advisory Team 85, Delta Military Assistance Command, United States Army Advisory Group, IV Corps Tactical Zone, United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). The last months of Llamas’ life are chronicled in his letters home and the citations to three Bronze Star Medals awarded posthumously.
On June 1, 1969, in a letter to Mary, Joe wrote: “Haven’t been able to write lately but as I have told you this ARVN Battalion that I am working with is the Reaction Force for this province so whenever anything comes up we are flown in. We’ve been constantly on the go for the past weeks so I really haven’t had time to write. I’m glad to be here at base camp. I’m tired and filthy. You can probably smell me clear from home if you try real hard. Had three letters from you when I got here and you really don’t know how much a letter from home means not just to me but everybody over here.
“…. It’s so hot and humid and now everywhere we go, we waist high in water. Early this morning we made an airborne assault and when I jumped off the chopper I caught my foot on something and fell Hat on my face in three feet of water. The VN Commander got a big bang out [of] it, but I got even with him when we were sweeping the area and he stepped in a foxhole which you can’t see because of the water and went completely out of sight. I’m getting to get pretty fond of some of them. They are always looking out for me. I don’t worry too much in the field because I blend in with them pretty well from a distance, but my three NCO’s (American) stick out like a sore thumb. They stand about 2-3 foot above the Vietnamese.
“I received your letter where you sent a copy of the services for (Maj. Robert E.) Turner, (a Kansas Guardsman, from McPherson, also assigned to MACV). I was certainly shocked when I heard it, but you get used to having old and new friends going to their Maker, not really used to it, rather resigned I guess is a better word. All of us over here think well it can’t happen to me but I guess when the Good Lord decides to call you home, you go…”
Fifty-seven days later, on July 27: “… at approximately 2245 hours (10:45 p.m.) an estimated Viet Cong platoon attacked the village of Cai Doi and the 858 Regional Forces Company Compound. Capt. Llamas immediately deployed the team members to predetermined positions. When it was learned that a reaction element had suffered severe casualties, he immediately organized litter teams with a reaction element and, under intense automatic weapons fire, led these elements into the area of contact. He then deployed the reaction element to provide security and directed the evacuation of the casualties. After the evacuation was completed and while still under heavy automatic fire from the enemy weapons, Llamas assessed the situation and personally adjusted mortar fire on the enemy positions. After the hostile positions were neutralized he directed a sweep of the area of contact under adverse conditions,” according to General Orders, No. 5146, Posthumous Award of Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device, 28 August 1969.
Nineteen days later and four days before his death, on Aug. 15, from Moc Hoa, “about 1,500 yards from the Cambodian border,” Joe wrote to Mary:
“It’s raining cats and dogs outside right now and I’ve just finished taking a shower under pure rain water! I took all my clothes off and enjoyed it. Lately it’s been raining so much that the rivers and canals are extremely muddy and a lot of debris in them. We just got back from an operation and although it was pretty much a success it cost me a very good friend. Maj. Hamrick who was the Forward Air Controller was with us and was killed by a B-40 Rocket. He helped us out a lot by giving us many of the things we needed as well as doing a good job getting us air support when we needed it. He was a lot of fun and now it leaves us all sad to see one more familiar face gone forever. I realize that this is going to happen but it never makes it feel any better.”
Four days later, on Aug. 19, a month before his tour in Vietnam was to end, at Cai Doi Hamlet, Llamas’ unit:
“…suddenly came under intense enemy mortar fire. At the same time the enemy launched a three pronged ground attack bringing the team under intense small arms and machine gun fire. Llamas immediately rallied the members of the team and had them establish defensive positions within the team house. Under his direction the team began to repulse the attack. While thus engaged the team house received a direct hit from an enemy mortar round resulting in the death of Llamas.” Taken from General Orders, No. 5147, Posthumous Award of Bronze Star Medal (First Oak Leaf Cluster) with “V” Device, Aug. 28, 1969.
In addition, Llamas was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for his sacrifice and a third Bronze Star Medal, Second Oak Leaf Cluster, for his service with MACV.
In the days that followed, Joe’s wife and family were personally notified of his death. Joe’s sister. Carmen Sauceda, received the Western Union Telegram delivered by compassionate Army personnel; together they informed Mary. At the request of the Llamas family, his friend, Maj. Bill Krehbiel, a retired Kansas Army National Guardsman from Halstead, escorted Joe’s body home. Krehbiel was also serving with MACV.
On Saturday, Aug. 30, Joe’s funeral was held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, in Newton, and military services were conducted at his gravesite at St. Mary’s Cemetery. Newton’s mayor, the VFW and American Legion post commanders and the local G.I. Forum chairman jointly proclaimed that Saturday as “Capt. Jose Llamas Day.” Mary Llamas received written condolences from President Richard Nixon and from Senator Bob Dole.
The details of Llamas’ Vietnam service only partly describe him. Although diminutive in stature, Joe was a giant among men. Three words more aptly depict him: “God, country and family.”
Llamas was born in Grants, N.M., to Pablo and Maria Llamas, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. The Llamas family eventually moved to the Walton, Kan., area, where Pablo Llamas worked for the railroad. There, in the heart of America, Joe, his sister and seven brothers were raised devout Catholics, to love each other and to love this country.
In February 1944, three months after his 17th birthday, Joe dropped out of Walton High School to enlist in the Army. After basic infantry training, he became a heavy mortar crew-man. Llamas served with the 272d Infantry Regiment and the 541st, 861st, 914th and 994th Ordinance Companies in France, Belgium and Germany. He was promoted to technician fifth grade as a small arms weapons mechanic and light truck driver. In 1946, upon his separation from service in WWII, Llamas was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, the American Defense Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the American Theater Ribbon, Victory Ribbon and the EAMET Ribbon.
After serving in the Reserve Component for a short time, in 1947 Llamas enlisted in the Kansas Army National Guard as a master sergeant. He was assigned as a Mortar Section Leader in Company C in Newton. He distinguished himself as a 60mm expert gunner, was promoted to weapons platoon sergeant and, after completing Army Extension Courses, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned as the weapons platoon leader. Llamas continued to serve in Company C, eventually becoming the company commander.
Llamas loved the Guard and the friendships he developed in it. Krehbiel recently remembered Joe, saying, “He was a good citizen, a good soldier and a good buddy.” Other Guard officers, now retired, including Chief Warrant Officer Wally Bacon, remember Llamas in equally kind expressions. Retired Col. Robert Baker said, “Llamas was an outstanding leader; he was a ‘people guy’ who cared about his troops; he was well liked by the men in his unit; he never asked anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.”
In his civilian trade, Joe first worked as an electrician in Newton and eventually began a career at the Coleman Company in Wichita, first as a welder, then as a machinist. Llamas’ wife said “Joe’s friends were in the Guard,” and that he didn’t associate very much with his civilian co-workers.
Others in Llamas’ family followed his example. His brother, Guadalupe Llamas, retired from the Kansas Air National Guard. One nephew, Robert Llamas served as a squad leader in Company C, 1st Battalion, 137th Infantry, before the battalion was retired from service. Another nephew, Mike Llamas, retired from Battery F, 1st Battalion, 161st Field Artillery.
Aside from the Guard, Joe was devoted to his family and to his church. Joe was married to Mary Sauceda in 1954, and with her had four children, Stephen, Patricia, Elizabeth, and Richard. With his several siblings, his family and his extended family in Newton, family gatherings were large in number. Although quite serious and shy by nature, at family gatherings, Joe was the prankster.
“Joe was normally introverted, except for the military,” said his wife Mary, but he had a humorous side. “Sometimes he would get up early in the morning and wake up all of us, playing military band marches on the phonograph,” she said.
Joe was also a devoted fan of the Newton High School Railroaders football team. “I would see him at all the home games,” said Guillermo “Willie” Monares, of Newton. “Jose was a very nice, very likeable, loving person.”
In life, Joe was devoted to God. He was a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Newton. Through education from the Diocese of Wichita, in 1961 Joe became a qualified instructor of Christian Doctrine and taught catechism in the church. He was active in church organizations and was vitally interested in the youth of the community, supervising various groups and sports programs.
In each of Joe’s letters home to Mary, he expressed his deepest love for her and his children. Joe’s Aug. 15 letter home to Mary arrived after word of his death. It read, in part:
“When you see Mom and Dad tell them I’m fine and in the best of health. Tell my kids I love them and that I will be home soon. My darling I miss you very much and soon I hope I will be able to hold you in my arms again. I love you my Darling and I’ll write whenever I can.”