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A soldier remembered

August 2, 2009
Story and photos by Fritz Busch

Small at birth, Henry Clarence Polzin grew into a handsome, strong young man who loved to fish and hunt, Cleo Polzin wrote about her son in "The Faces Behind the Names."

Henry especially loved deer hunting each fall with his dad.

A good student and excellent typist, he earned gold pins for speed typing.

Article Photos

Henry Polzin’s Army portrait photo.

Polzin attended school in St. George before going to Cathedral High School, then New Ulm High School for his junior and senior years, graduating in 1968.

He worked in the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing (3M) Electro Products Division after high school.

His draft number close, Polzin decided to enlist in the Army in New Ulm rather than be drafted.

Fact Box

On July 31, 1969, U.S. Army Corporal Henry Clarence Polzin, the son of Cleo and the late Clarence Polzin was New Ulm's first serviceman to die in the Vietnam War.

Just prior to the 40th anniversary of his wartime death, surviving members of his family recently got together to reflect on Henry, a young man who won many honors during his brief time in the Army.

With gripping detail, Cleo Polzin told her son's story in "The Faces Behind the Names," accounts of servicemen and women who died in the Vietnam War.

Following training at Fort Campbell, Ky., he was assigned to drive half-tracks for Amercal Division, 1st Cavalry, 11th Infantry Brigade.

The 1st Cavalry "First Team" is one of the Army's most famous and most decorated combat divisions.

The First Team more recently participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a heavy-armored division.

Henry came home on Christmas leave in 1968 but spent much of his time here in the hospital with pneumonia.

He came home again briefly in April 1969.

"...It was hard to say good-bye at the airport, everybody tried to hard to be brave...," Cleo said.

The night before Mother's Day, on May 10, 1969, Henry called home and said he was deploying to Vietnam early the next morning.

The last to say good bye, Cleo's last words to her son were "I love you and take God with you."

After a long period without hearing anything from Henry, the family started getting letters from him.

"His letters were very short, telling us about the terror of running for bunkers in the middle of the night because of enemy fire," Cleo said.

Henry described Vietnam as a place with "terrible heat and humidity and going without showers for weeks."

His Vietnam experience featured "endless bloodshed, mutilated bodies and death from land mines," according to Cleo's account.

"Driving a half-track, he said he never felt safe and more than once, witnessed his buddies blown apart right in front of him," Cleo added. "Knowing how sensitive he was, we could only pray that God would give him strength to cope with this nightmare."

Polzin's letters would always end with the number of days until his year of active duty was over.

"He never failed to ask me about his little brother and sister and if he had become an uncle yet, because his sister (older by 14 months) was expecting her first baby," Cleo said. "He couldn't wait to be called uncle for the first time."

On July 31, 1969, the day before Henry was to go on a much-needed R&R (rest and relaxation break), he died while driving an armored cavalry assault vehicle that provided security for a mine sweep team near An Hoi in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam.

A memorial service for Polzin was held by his unit.

Two days later, Henry became an uncle to the niece he would never see.

At 5:30 a.m. the next day, Aug. 3, 1969, two soldiers went to the Polzin home and said Henry's half track hit a mine and that he died quickly.

Cleo recalled her eight-year-old son, grabbing her hand and asking with tears and disbelief, "Mom, were those people Christians that planted that mine?"

Polzin said her son had just had his first communion and had heard a lot about Christian life.

"I told him I didn't know, but that in war, soldiers do what they are ordered," Cleo said. "He and his nine-year-old sister never did accept his death...and always thought he would return."

Polzin said she was not able to every see her son's body again because most of it was so mutilated by the mine. His bandaged head and uncovered eyes were used to identify him.

"I realized this fact one day several years later when I came upon them watching the return of war prisoners on TV," she added. "They were telling each other to watch closely and 'maybe we'll see Henry."

His younger brother, still looking for answers, took his own life in 1988," Cleo wrote in her account of Henry.

His sister Connie, also looking for answers, joined the Army and became a Captain in the Nurse Corps.

Henry's good friend, Bob Tietel of New Ulm, stationed on a U.S Navy ship when Henry died, was not allowed to come home for the funeral.

"I remember exactly where I was on the ship when I got a letter from the Army about his death," Tietel said.

He decorates Polzin's grave with flowers each Memorial Day.

Stereotypes of Vietnam veterans haunted the family.

"Our youngest daughter remembers being told by people while she was growing up that her brother must have died in a war where the soldiers were 'all on drugs and killed babies."

In less than one year of military service including 2 1/2 months in Vietnam, Henry was awarded the Purple Heart, Army Commendation, Good Conduct and Vietnam Service Medals.

His other awards included the Vietnam Campaign Ribbon, Combat Infantryman Badge, Expert Badge with machine gun and rifle bars, Military Merit Medal and Gallantry Cross with Palm.

Cleo added that through it all, the family has become closer and are able to express love and appreciation for each other more.



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