He watched his friends die in Vietnam. 50 years later, this judge returned to that same spot with their families.
May 25, 2018.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:13
The judge arrived nervously, sitting alone on a train with no idea what would happen when he walked outside the station.
He told them he would be wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants.
Would they want to hear his story? All of it? Even the parts that had haunted him for almost 50 years? Would they accept him? Would they resent him for bringing up something so uncomfortable? Or would they embrace him?
Would they cry with him?
The judge walked out of the train station not knowing how he would recognize the man he was looking for.
It was 2013. San Francisco. The judge was 66 years old then, thin, athletic, looking younger than his age. It was a fit appearance that hid the fact that the prostate cancer had come back. He had traveled there because, along with the anger and the sadness and the WHY ME? that comes with cancer, there was a hole inside him, and he had to fill it by connecting with the sons and daughters, the brothers and sisters of the men who died on that horrible day on Hill 494 near that dusty rock quarry in Vietnam.
He felt like he had to do it. So, in 2013, Rick King launched this quest to meet all of them. One by one. San Francisco was only his first stop. There would be other visits in Atlanta, in Salt Lake City, in Mission Viejo.
He had figured out a way to honor the dead men from Detail Echo. He wanted to invite all their families to travel to Vietnam and stand with him at the spot where they died on the 50th anniversary of that precise moment.
“What the hell is this going to be like?” King remembers thinking. As an Orange County Superior Court judge for all these years, dealing with uncertain outcomes had always been his strength.
Not this time.
On the street outside the BART station, a monster truck revved its engine. The driver looked like a weightlifter. A woman in the passenger seat said, “Are you Rick?”
The khakied judge gave a furtive nod.
That’s when the driver said, “Well, get in.”
The monster truck’s driver was Ken Retzloff, a semi-retired trailer salesman from the Bay Area. He took King to an Italian restaurant in Walnut Creek.
“I didn’t know a lot,” Retzloff said of his brother’s death. “I’m not even sure my parents knew very much. They didn’t want to talk about it.”
So King started talking.
“I’m here to tell you I saw the last couple of minutes of your brother’s life,” King said.
“I want to hear it,” Retzloff said.
By the time he finished, they would be calling Rick King a saint.
The names of Detail Echo’s dead are seared in King’s mind: James Galati of Philadelphia; Allan Mair of Park City, Utah; George DeShurley of Roswell, New Mexico; Mark Hodel of Lodi; John Peek of Pontiac, Michigan; and James Retzloff of Redding. All of them were Seabees, the U.S. Navy’s construction battalion, assigned to widen a small stretch of Vietnam’s Highway 1 between the cities of Da Nang and Hue.
King was a power shovel operator and rock blaster with the crew.
They died March 31, 1968. The official story released to the families was shy of details. Their camp just north of Phu Loc was attacked twice by Viet Cong on the same morning. Basically, the relatives were told there was enemy mortar fire and death.
King saw it all from atop a berm about 50 yards away from the pit where his friends died.
“I see the mortar rounds getting closer and closer,” King said. “I’m yelling GET OUT … They could have bailed, but they didn’t. They kept on returning fire.
“Then suddenly there was only smoke. I couldn’t see them anymore.”
Eighty-five Seabees were killed in the Vietnam War – six on that day.
Two of them were Rick King’s friends.
The families, King thought, needed to know the details.
King always loved heavy machinery.
His father, Altie, had sold road-building vehicles and equipment while King was growing up. At Belleville Township High School in Illinois, King’s academic record was ranked 800th out of 900 students. But after school … that’s when he shined. In 1965, he was an industrious 18-year-old kid, making $4.40 per hour (the equivalent of almost $30 per hour today) in the driver’s seat of a bulldozer..
“I had every intention of operating a bulldozer the rest of my life,” King said.
One night he was hanging out with a buddy when they decided, out of the blue, to join the Navy. When his mother found out, she was devastated.
“It was a seven-second decision drinking Blitz Beer,” King said.
He started as a “deck ape” on the USS Sierra, a destroyer tender (repair ship). He swabbed the deck and painted the deck and hated the deck.
“I thought what in the hell did I get myself into?” he said.
In 1966, he played softball on a Navy team with the personnel director of the USS Sierra. King requested assignment with the Seabees. Construction is what he thought he was born to do. In October 1966, King started training to become a Seabee. He found himself operating a power shovel, stripping the earth and dumping rocks in a Mack truck.
“It’s the first time I felt like I accomplished anything,” King said.
Breaking the news
In early April 1968, 14-year-old Ken Retzloff was getting off the school bus in Sattley, a town of 60 residents in Northern California. A family friend approached him somberly and said the Navy had sent representatives to his house.
He knew immediately that his brother was gone.
“I threw everything down and ran to my house,” he said.
Around the same time thousands of miles away, Rob DeShurley was visiting his mother, who was in the hospital in Roswell, New Mexico, when the Navy men showed up in a blue sedan. They talked to his grandfather in the hospital lobby.
“My grandfather sat me down and said my dad would not be coming home,” DeShurley said.
I looked at the young one and said, ‘You killed my daddy.’ The look on his face was pure heartbreak.”
— Laura Rempher, daughter of John Peek, who was killed in Vietnam.
The same scene was playing across America. A dark sedan pulled into the driveway of the Peek house in Pontiac, Michigan. Laura Rempher, who was just about to turn 5, saw two men, one much older than the other, get out and go into the house. They asked if the children should leave the room. Her mother allowed her to stay.
“I remember the white Navy uniforms,” said Rempher, who is now 55. “I thought they were going to let my daddy come home early. Then the old one says, ‘We regret to inform you … your husband has been killed in action.’ I was sure they were lying. They’re wrong. I looked at the young one and said, ‘You killed my daddy.’ The look on his face was pure heartbreak.”
John Hodel, who was raised in Lodi, was 7 years old when his brother died. He was riding his bike when his mother called him inside.
“All I knew was a mortar shell hit him, and we couldn’t view the body because it wasn’t intact,” Hodel said.
They had to learn to live without their fathers, their brothers. Trunks of trinkets from their lost lives were put away in the garage. Bedrooms were left untouched for so many years.
Over pasta, Rick King continued his story, careful to hold the most horrible details until the end. Ken Retzloff listened intently, tears rolling down his face.
King’s memories took them back to early 1968.
King knew he was in hell when he saw a Vietnamese child shot in the head and left by the side of the road. He hasn’t been able to shake that image.
He rolled into the South Vietnamese region of Phu Loc during the Tet Offensive, when the North Vietnamese began attacking U.S.-supported areas. His job was to scoop rocks from the quarry and get them to the crusher, where they could be used to make the asphalt and road rock that widened Highway 1.
In one stretch, it rained for 28 straight days.
“It was mud and mud and mud,” King said. “Everything that was good in the world became bad.”
He lived in a hooch (hut) in a camp of 180 men. King remembers he and his campmates, shirts off, laying rows and rows of razor wire around the camp, cutting themselves silly in the spring humidity. Their only fun came in the form of Twinkies, cigarettes and the occasional beer, King said. As they were trying to stay alive, the U.S. military was trying to clear the brush around their camp by spraying Agent Orange, a poison that killed foliage.
As if the danger from the Viet Cong wasn’t enough.
King made friends with a couple of guys. One was Jim “J.R.” Retzloff, who had played on the softball team with King a few months earlier. Another was John Peek, who was a quirky guy from Michigan with, despite the fact that he was only 27, a receding hairline.
“I busted his chops,” King said. Years later, King said Peek looked a little like the actor Paul Giamatti, who was in “Sideways” and “Cinderella Man.”
As war buddies do, they talked about the future, envisioning a day when they would not be caked in mud.
Peek said he was moving to California to do construction.
“I told him I was going to work driving a bulldozer for a coal company,” King said. “No more than that.”
Peek was shocked. King was a smart kid who didn’t seem to fit a bulldozer lifestyle.
“He said, ‘Don’t turn out like me,’ ” King remembers. “He said, ‘You should think about going to school. You could do something with your life.’ “
Retzloff overhead the conversation and joined in. He agreed school, not bulldozers, should be in the future for Rick King.
As their time on Hill 494 crept on, Peek and Retzloff kept repeating their message to King.
Go to school. Make your life into something bigger.
Camp under attack
The battle that killed six Seabees was for the bridge at the Truoi River.
Two American tanks had pulled into the construction camp on Hill 494 north of Phu Loc. The tanks aimed 8-inch shells at the north side of the bridge, which was occupied by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Fifteen Marines, one corpsman and 64 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the fight.
King knew those tanks would become targets. It didn’t make King feel any better when he considered this: His battle station position was alongside the two tanks.
“I was thinking, how do I stay alive?” King said.
On March 31, 1968, shells started flying into the Detail Echo encampment around 2 a.m.
James Galati was asleep in his hut when the mortar hit.
He suffered massive head injuries.
The attack prompted the camp’s corpsman to ask for volunteers to help the wounded in the Battle Aid station, which was built in a bunker beneath the camp.
King said he was the first to raise his hand. He would have done anything to get away from those tanks.
King was assigned to comfort Galati.
“I could see part of his brain,” King said. “He would go into convulsions. I would hug him. I changed his bandages.”
He told Galati to hang on. A medevac helicopter was on the way.
Galati was the first Seabee to die that day.
What happened next
Rick King remembers the whistling sound.
Incoming mortar fire. It was the second enemy attack of the day.
King saw six Seabees, including his buddies John Peek and J.R. Retzloff, in their battle station near the middle of camp. In the early morning darkness, they began firing back at the Viet Cong with 81-millimeter mortars, destroying two enemy mortars that were firing at Hill 494.
As sunlight appeared over Phu Loc, the Seabees appeared to have weathered the barrage. It was March 31, 1968.
It is impossible to determine how many lives those fighting Seabees saved in the first few hours of that horrible morning. It is impossible to know if they felt a sense of accomplishment. They had done what they had been trained to do. Did they have a cigarette to celebrate?
"I was thinking, how do I stay alive?” Rick King
What happened next would never be forgotten by the families of the men or by King, who, after he found out he had cancer in 2012, decided to track down the family members of all the Seabees who died that day and invite them to travel with him to Vietnam to mark the 50th anniversary.
On that morning, King was helping the wounded in the underground battle aid station, changing the bandages of a Seabee with massive head wounds, telling him and the rest of the wounded to hang on. The helicopter was coming to rescue them.
His patient, James Galati, wouldn’t make it, and neither would the helicopter.
Suddenly, at 7 a.m., the medevac crashed on the hillside next to the camp. Two more men died – Daniel Pesimer of Salt Rock, West Virginia, and Ken Yantis of Philadelphia. There would be no escape route for the wounded.
Just before 8 a.m., King left the relative safety of the underground. He climbed a tall berm and surveyed the camp. He saw his buddies, Peek and Retzloff, surrounded by a circle of sandbags. The whistling of incoming mortars was intensifying now.
King saw an explosion from an enemy round. Then another. Then another. From his position on the berm, he could see the explosions getting closer and closer to the pit where his buddies were fighting.
He started yelling, imploring them to run for their lives.
They didn’t run. They kept firing back.
And then King saw an explosion in their pit. Suddenly, the smoke from explosions in the camp was as thick as shaving cream.
King ran toward the pit. One man, Tuska Terrell of Louisiana, survived the mortar blast. Terrell was screaming, covered in blood.
“He’s walking like a zombie,” King said.
King asked another soldier to lead Terrell to the battle aid station. King kept moving forward through the haze to find his friends.
That’s when King entered the pit.
Getting into college
Rick King served two tours of duty in Vietnam with most of his time spent scooping, breaking and moving rocks for Highway 1. He separated from the Navy in July 1969. He earned the Navy Achievement Medal with a combat V for his efforts.
By the time he landed back in the United States, he had made a life-changing decision.
He was going to college, just like his buddies Peek and Retzloff had implored him to do.
“I thought if I don’t try, I’ll be letting a couple of guys down,” King said.
King went to Santa Monica City College and made his living working as a gardener, then at a liquor store and then as a paperboy. He transferred to UCLA. He graduated cum laude with a degree in sociology. And he kept going. He went to law school at the University of San Diego and graduated in 1977, nine years after he was given advice by his friends.
His career took off.
His first job out of law school, as it should have been, was working as an attorney for the Veteran’s Administration in Washington, D.C. Then he worked in construction litigation with an office in Irvine.
In 1981, King applied for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Public Defender at the same time.
“The D.A. called first,” he said.
By 1984, King was working as a prosecutor in the prestigious homicide division. He got a conviction in the case of Thomas Maniscalco, the attorney/biker who killed three people in a Westminster home. He got a conviction in the case of William Clinton Clark, who not only killed a woman in a Fountain Valley computer store, but who also convinced his girlfriend to kill a witness to the murder while he was in custody.
King worked in homicide for 15 years, the last eight as supervisor of the division.
He was placed in charge of the District Attorney’s Sexual Assault Division.
In 2000, he was appointed a Superior Court judge, and rose quickly in that position, too. At one point, he supervised all 24 judges in the Orange County judicial system. When he was sworn in, he invited Robert DeShurley, the son of deceased Seabee George DeShurley, to attend.
“I was honored to be there,” DeShurley said.
King’s chambers are filled with law books, family photos (he has four children) and medals, maps and memories from Vietnam.
He talked about the oath that is given at the start of every jury trial. The jurors are told to rise and pledge “to almighty God that I will give a true verdict.”
“While that is happening,” King said. “I look at the flag. In every case, I’m thinking about those guys.”
His “guys” are the Seabees who didn’t come home from Vietnam.
The cancer diagnosis came in February 2012. Rick King was 65 years old. He didn’t feel sick. He wasn’t in pain.
His exam showed high levels of Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA). One in 41 American men will die of prostate cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer death, behind lung cancer. King didn’t know, at the time, about the studies that showed a link between Agent Orange exposure and cancer.
He was given three choices: Do nothing. Radiation treatments. Or surgery.
He chose surgery, which was completed on April 30, 2012.
Six months later, he got more bad news.
“They didn’t get it all,” King said.
So he chose option 2: Radiation.
Even after those treatments, cancer came back.
It’s enough to make a man start to think. King said he went through the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
That’s when he got an idea.
“All of a sudden, I thought of those guys,” King said. “They didn’t get to do any of the stuff I did. These guys didn’t get 50 years of life like I did. I owe them something. I had to pay them back.”
Not only would he reach out to the families of all the guys whose deaths he witnessed in Vietnam, but he would also invite them to join him on a trip back to Phu Loc on the 50th anniversary of that horrible day.
Meetings with families of the dead
King wrote letters to the families of five men – Retzloff, Hodel, Mair, Galati and Peek. He already knew the DeShurley family. Galati’s family didn’t want to be involved.
The others were wary.
At first, all they knew was they had received correspondence from a man saying he wanted to talk with them about Vietnam.
“The very first time, I thought it could be a scam,” Retzloff said. “But Rick had so much information. He knew what was going on.”
Laura Rempher, the daughter of King’s buddy John Peek, said a man had contacted her 10 years earlier saying he was a friend of her father’s. The man told her he had been with his father when he died. He was lying. Wary, she checked out Rick King’s credentials. When she found he was a Superior Court judge, she felt more at ease.
All of them wanted to know more details.
“I wanted to know everything,” said Hodel, who now lives in Laguna Niguel. “He (King) stitched the story together for me. The quilt became something I could recognize. It brought me closer together with my brother. That gave me real peace.”
King flew to Utah to meet with Juanita Woolman – Allan Mair’s sister.
“I was curious what he had to say,” Woolman said.
He flew to Atlanta to meet with Peek’s children, Laura Rempher and her brothers, Ricky and Randy.
King told Rempher that her father had helped change his life.
“My first thought was, ‘Way to go, Dad,’ ” Rempher said. “It was so wonderful to hear since I never got to hear those words myself
Revealing the truth
King met each family member with two messages.
First, the men who died were heroes. They not only took out two enemy mortars, they stayed in the fight even when they could have run for cover. They died protecting the rest of the camp.
“I felt proud to hear Rick say that,” Woolman said.
And second … they were not ready for the second message.
King told them that he had volunteered to handle the bodies.
He had walked through the smoke, past the sandbags and into a pit of human remains. And he felt the responsibility to clean it up. He didn’t want some nameless Seabee to do it. Those were his guys.
“I picked up John Peek’s flak jacket,” King said. He had to pause to maintain his composure.
Another Seabee gave him plastic bags with zippers. Carefully, they hoisted what was left of those men into those bags and zipped them shut.
Then King threw up. He remembers smoking a cigarette when it was over.
“I took a shower and washed off all the blood,” King said.
Within two weeks, the Seabees built a cross and planted it in the pit.
Almost 50 years later, he recounted those moments for each family because he wanted them to know that their loved ones were treated with respect. He felt compelled to tell them that.
“It was moving,” Ken Retzloff said. “I had a hard time speaking.”
John Hodel, who met King at a sushi restaurant in Mission Viejo, said in one minute he was listening to the story, and then he was floored by the presence of the man who was telling it.
“The man I’m shaking hands with at the end of dinner is a different man than the man I was shaking hands with at the beginning of dinner,” Hodel said. “Those were the last hands that touched my brother.”
Rempher said hearing that King handled her father’s remains gave her such peace.
“A good friend made sure he was taken care of,” she said. “It was gut-wrenching and surreal to hear him say it. But I’m glad I did. I think of him (King) as a great man.”
Four families flew to Vietnam with King.
The irony was not lost on anyone when they checked into the Vedana Lagoon Resort and Spa, a luxury property less than a mile from the spot of the tragedy.
To a person, they said they had partially come for their fallen loved one, but also they had come for King. They knew he needed them to be there. They knew about his battles with prostate cancer. He is in the midst of a trial of a new drug, and he has high hopes.
But his future may be murky.
They followed him through the vegetation to the spot where the Seabees had once planted a cross. They burned incense and piled up Twinkies and packs of cigarettes. They left a can of beer.
At precisely 8 a.m., they stood together.
“It was 50 years ago that I had the honor of coming to this mortar pit and putting five people, two of whom I knew very well, into body bags,” King said as the family members wiped their eyes. King paused to catch his breath and hold back his emotions. “It was truly an honor for me to do that. We are here to honor their death. We are here because, in about 2012, I was diagnosed with cancer caused by Agent Orange, and I went through a period of time where I was sorry. I felt sorry for myself. I had anger. Then I remembered, as I did every day, these guys …”
They read a letter that George DeShurley’s mother had written 50 years ago. John Hodel quoted the Bible (John 15:13) “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
They also visited the bridge where 16 other Americans died that day.
King flew home knowing he had done something good for his guys.
“There were chills in me,” King said. “I felt as if it was a mission accomplished. The families got their peace, and that gave me my peace. I feel better for them, and I feel better for myself.”
He said he thought about two things as he stood in that pit.
Death can be so random, he said. If he had been with his buddies, instead of where he was …
“It could have been me,” King said.
And he thought about how those guys, his guys, never knew the impact they would have on their families.
“Fifty years later, you can see the emotion,” he said. “You can see how that war impacted everyone.”
When the short ceremony was over, King was approached by Woolman.
“I never knew how they treated those bodies,” she said later. “Now I know the type of person Rick is. I know he treated them with respect.”
She thanked him.