Marines with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment got caught in an ambush by Viet Cong soldiers in 1968. At the end of the fight, only two Marines remained standing. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps)
Aulton Kohn was 18 years old when he stepped off on a patrol that would change his life forever. In the blink of an eye Viet Cong ambushed his platoon, and he found himself fighting for survival in a foreign land. Surrounded by enemy combatants and with limited supplies, Kohn survived off what the jungle provided him. His time with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, also known as the “Walking Dead,” would be an experience he wouldn’t soon forget.
Kohn enlisted in the Marine Corps in August 1968. He found himself heading off to Da Nang, Vietnam by December. As a private first class fresh out of boot camp, he maintained a low profile and did as he was ordered. Two months into his tour, his platoon was sent on a patrol. Kohn was just learning the ropes.
On the fifth day of the patrol through the Vietnamese countryside, Kohn’s platoon ran into a Viet Cong ambush. Through the chaos of the firefight, Kohn reverted back to the training he went through just four months prior.
“Going through recruit training, we were told, if you get caught in ambush, fight back, listen for your squad leaders and team leaders, and that’s what we did,” Kohn said. “During all the commotion you try to listen out for what you’re ordered and trained to do,” Kohn said.
“It seemed like it was forever, but I don’t think it was no more than ten minutes,” Kohn said. “We just fought back until everything was quiet,” Kohn said.
When the dust settled and an eerie silence enveloped the sky, Kohn got up and found that 34 of his 36-man platoon were killed. The only other survivor was Lance Cpl. Alanzo Campbell. The two young men, neither old enough to consume alcohol legally, found themselves in the middle of the Vietnam jungle with minimal supplies and surrounded by an enemy that was very familiar with the terrain.
Kohn says he escaped certain death “by the grace of God.”
“The first thing we did was to check if anyone else made it, then we decided to try and make it back to the rear,” Kohn said.
“We told each other, we gonna survive this ordeal and make it back,” Kohn said.
After gathering some supplies from the bodies of their fallen comrades, the two made their way into the jungle, attempting to make it back to the base they left five days earlier. Little did they know, it would be 58 days before they made it back.
From that first day in the jungle, Kohn’s survival instincts kicked in.
“We never thought about not making it — we told ourselves, take our time, we’re gonna make it back,“ Kohn said.
Kohn used the knowledge he was taught at a young age in the Boy Scouts.
“My scoutmaster told us if you ever get lost, don’t ever give up ‘cause sooner or later somebody’s gonna find you so don’t give up,” Kohn said.
The two devised a system; when one slept, the other stood watch and silent movement was adhered to at all times. When fire was necessary to cook food, they only used it for the exact time needed, then ensured they vacated the area and put out the flame. There were many dangers on their minds; chief among them was finding food.
“Getting enough food to survive was always on our mind,” Kohn said. “Finding food was the number one priority.”
Their diet consisted of berries, tree roots, bugs and anything else they thought was edible. One day Kohn recalls Campbell shooting a monkey out of a tree.
“Well it don’t taste like chicken I’ll tell you that much,” Kohn recalled, “It is a taste I will never forget.”
As they wandered through the woods, they were on high alert of the many threats surrounding them.
“We were very scared; we could have been captured at any time, or walked into another ambush,” Kohn said, “A lot of things could have happened; we just took our time and were very careful.”
They encountered Viet Cong militia but managed to evade detection.
“I was glad we saw them before they saw us,” Kohn said.
On the 58th day of their journey through the jungle, Kohn turned 19 years old. An unexpected birthday present awaited him — the two spotted a group of people on a hill. The men turned out to be a unit of U.S. Army Special Forces.
“We didn’t know if they were going to shoot us, when we made contact,” Khon said “I guess when they saw two black Marines, they figured out we weren’t the enemy.”
They spent the night with the unit and the next morning were evacuated by helicopter to base.
“It was an outstanding feeling,” Khon said. “Number one, you didn’t have to be on high alert at all times. I was happy to be back.”
The first meal Kohn ate after getting out of the jungle was a canned field ration, or C ration, from one of the soldiers. While most service members would tell you a C ration is not something to be excited about, Kohn was grateful for the meal.
“I would eat those C rations any day compared to that monkey meat,” Kohn said.
The two men were evacuated back to camp then sent right back into battle a few short days later.
“When we got back to the rear we were debriefed. The second day we got a steak dinner, and the third day we were back out there in the bush again.”
Surviving off the land and wandering through the jungle for two months stuck with Kohn for the rest of his life.
“It made me appreciate life,” Kohn said.
“As I moved up in the Marine Corps I relayed my story to Marines … and was able to help them grow through my experiences,” Kohn said.
Kohn completed his tour of duty in Vietnam after getting shot in the leg. He later switched his occupational specialty from infantry to military police and retired from the Marine Corps as a gunnery sergeant.
Kohn and Campbell remained close friends, calling each other often and visiting one another during the summer, until Campbell’s death in 2011.