Buffalo Bob Kalsu – Gentle & Mighty Giant

January 25, 2019

101st Airborne Division artillery commander Bob Kalsu handles the ordnance at Fire Support Base Ripcord during the Vietnam War.

Long before “Buffalo Bob” Kalsu became a starting lineman and rookie of the year for the Buffalo Bills, the nickname reflected his thundering stride and symbolized the six-foot-three, two-hundred-fifty pounder’s determined character.

 

A beloved “gentle giant” in his native Del City, he became one of the greatest offensive linemen in OU football history. In 1967, he led the Sooners to a 10-1 record, Orange Bowl victory, and No. 2 national ranking. A cadet colonel and leader in the school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as well, he gave his word to serve on active duty should that call come. In late 1968, it did.

All-American OU offensive tackle Bob Kalsu, #77 on the bottom of the pile, clears the way for Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens’ touchdown in the Sooners’ thrilling 1968 Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee.

By then, Vietnam War casualties were soaring and public support had faltered. Nearly everyone he knew—teammates, family members, the Bills’ organization itself—urged him to serve in the much safer reserves like other professional athletes, as well as future politicians. But the devoutly Catholic Bob Kalsu had never been like others.

 

“I gave ‘em my word,” he told one teammate, referencing his promise to the OU ROTC to serve on active duty.“ I’m gonna do it.”

Buffalo Bills rookie star Bob Kalsu, #61 at far right, helps lead a blocking convoy for a Bills’ running back.

 

A few weeks before he left for Vietnam, his beloved wife Jan knelt with him before the altar of Oklahoma City’s St. James Catholic Church, where the two had wed. “If you need him more than I do,” she silently prayed to the Lord, “please give me a son to carry on his name.”

           

Buffalo Bob Kalsu was commissioned an artillery officer in the U.S. Army’s legendary 101st Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles.” His letters to Jan and their baby daughter Jill from Vietnam were cheerful and loving. She realized that they did not convey the whole story, however, during a week of R & R in Hawaii with Bob in May 1970. He slept much of the time. During one afternoon nap, fireworks erupted near the hotel pool.

 

“He tore out of that bed, frantic, looking for cover,” Jan recalled, “terror and fear on his face. I got a glimpse of what he was living through.”

Lieutenant Robert Kalsu, 101th Airborne Division, U.S. Army, holds his daughter Jill.

Hell on Earth

 

Kalsu returned to a hell on earth in Vietnam. The U.S. government had once more sent thousands of brave, trusting men on a suicide mission. It was America’s last big ground battle of the war. U.S. troops were already streaming home from Vietnam when the 101st went on the offensive against major North Vietnamese and Viet Cong operations around the Ashau Valley in South Vietnam.

 

Airborne infantry scoured the nearby jungle to cut off enemy infiltration of Vietnam through the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Lt. Bob Kalsu and the supporting 101st artillery units, meanwhile, based hundreds of feet above at the mountain top redoubt named Fire Support Base Ripcord, wreaked havoc on Communist troops and supply lines as far as thirteen miles away. Shaken enemy forces zeroed in on and gradually surrounded them. The deeply entrenched Reds bombarded the Yanks day and night. Kalsu took command of an entire battery when his superior officer was gravely wounded.

Lt. Bob Kalsu, without shirt, on enemy-besieged Fire Support Base Ripcord, South Vietnam, 1970.

Journalist William Nack mournfully recounted what happened next:

 

As the NVA massed to attack Ripcord, the U.S. command in Vietnam decided not to meet force with more force, which would have put even more body bags on the evening news. So Ripcord was left twisting in the boonies.

 

In other words, Kalsu and his comrades were on their own. Numerous soldiers recalled that the Oklahoman was unlike any other officer they ever met, even as the massed Communist forces moved in for the kill. Cpl. Mike Renner, a gunner, recalled:

 

He could have holed up in his bunker, (but)…He was out there in the open with everybody else. He was always checking the men out, finding out how we were, seeing if we were doing what needed to be done. I got wounded on Ripcord, and he came down into the bunker. My hands were bandaged, and he asked me, “You want to catch a chopper out of here?” I saw the (bloody) bandage on him (Kalsu had been hit in the shoulder) and saw he was staying. I said, “No, I'm gonna stay.”

Vietnam War era shoulder patch of the 101st Airborne Division where Bob Kalsu served as an artillery officer during the Vietnam War.

Other soldiers remembered Kalsu alone among the officers shouldering 100-pound shells—three at a time—up shrapnel-shrieking hills to his guns. The defenders’ language and behavior deteriorated to that of “junkyard dogs” due to the relentless horror, Renner remembered, “But I never heard Lieutenant Kalsu cuss. Not once."

 

At five o’clock on the afternoon of July 21, 1970, Bob Kalsu stood in the doorway of his bunker with another soldier. His face beaming with joy, he read aloud a letter from his wife: “My wife’s having our baby today.”

Front cover of the 2001 Sports Illustrated edition containing William Nack’s famed “A Name on the Wall” article.

At that instant, an incoming mortar exploded, killing Kalsu and nearby soldiers. Only two days later, orders came to evacuate Ripcord. Surrounded, outnumbered nearly ten to one, and weathering a hail of small arms, mortar, and anti-aircraft fire, Airborne evacuated. The enemy commander himself later admitted that the 101st had destroyed eight of his nine battalions.

Banner of the 1st Lt. J. Robert Kalsu Replacement Company, U.S. Army, deployed during the Iraq War, 2003.

Why, God?

 

Two days later, a weeping army lieutenant informed hospitalized Jan of her husband’s death as she held their newborn son Bob Jr. in her arms. Her strong Christian faith has sustained her through all the years since. She remarried in 1988. Jill and Bob Jr., meanwhile, grew into honorable, respected adults with many of their own children.

 

No one felt Buffalo Bob’s missing presence and words of love more keenly than his son, however. He penned a heartbreaking poem as a teenager entitled, “Why, God?”

 

Why my father, God?

What did he ever do?

You didn’t even give him time

To tell his own son, “I love you.”

The love he showed for others

Could have been for me, too

Why him, God?

Was he just for You?

 

Years later, Jan found a long-forgotten cassette tape Bob had mailed her from Vietnam, shortly before his death. The gentle but manly Oklahoma drawl expressed his love for her and Jill. It concluded: “And now for you, Baby K (Bob Jr.), Daddy loves you, and pretty soon I’ll be home to hold you.”

Bob Kalsu’s family recite the Pledge of Allegiance during the 2016 ceremony renaming the Del City post office after the Vietnam War hero. Left to right, son James Robert Kalsu Jr. in suit, widow Jan Kalsu McLauchlin, and daughter Jill Kalsu-Horning. Former U.S. Congressman and Iraq War veteran Steve Russell, also a Del City native, authored the Congressional bill to honor Kalsu. Photo Chris Landsberger. Courtesy The Oklahoman newspaper.

 

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