Tom Kilduff: A different kind of Renaissance Man

Part 1 of 2

By Doc Watson
Special to the Herald Times
MEEKER | The term “Renaissance Man” has been used for centuries to refer to those who sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge: physical development, social activities and the arts. The most famous Renaissance Man, of course, was Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), who was not only an artist, but also a chemist, musician, architect, anatomist, botanist and mechanical engineer. His accomplishments still stagger the mind 500 years later.
Well, Meeker’s Tom Kilduff is a different kind of Renaissance man. While not gifted in all the areas of Leonardo, his abilities and accomplishments are deeply significant to his local community and wider country.
Among the most significant periods of Kilduff’s life, one that molded him in many ways, was his membership in the 237 person fraternity from Rio Blanco County who served in Vietnam. As a Force Recon Marine, he earned 16 awards, including two bronze stars and three purple hearts during his 35 months in country.
Kilduff also explained one of the legends behind the term “leatherneck”: a leather neckband was worn in the late 1700s to protect Marines from the slash of the cutlass. Another legend, however (according to the Marine Corps Association and Foundation), says that the leather-lined collar was designed for discipline to keep the Marine’s heads high and straight. Although neither explanation has been definitively verified, the name stuck and the legacy continues with the distinctive dress blue uniform blouse today.
When he first arrived in Vietnam, Kilduff was assigned to Headquarters Company manning an M40 106mm Recoilless Rifle, which could be used in both anti-tank and anti-personnel roles.
“But I was always in the rear,” Kilduff said. “I wanted to be out in the war.”
So he made a deal with Captain Dick Murphy, who made Kilduff his radio man so he could stay out of the rear area. Murphy was actually a third cousin of the legendary Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, including the Medal of Honor.
“My goal was to stay close to Captain Murphy, where I’d be safe,” Kilduff said. With a laugh he added, “But he was Audie Murphy’s third cousin! I had to follow him as he was running around at the front of the battle! I thought to myself, ‘What have I done?’”
It was during that time that Corporal Kilduff earned his most notable bronze star. According to the official report as verified by two eyewitnesses—2nd Lt. G. B. Rogers and Lance Corporal J. R. Donnelly—on 11 December 1968, he volunteered to leave the relatively secure position as radio operator to rescue Marines wounded during an ongoing firefight. He then volunteered again to take ammunition to those still pinned down.
It was actually as a result of this event, and others, that Kilduff made “Sergeant after only two and a half years in the Marines, which is almost unheard of,” he said.
After that battle, he volunteered for the 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company and was sent to Okinawa for training. Similar to the Navy SEALs, Force Recon has an 80 percent washout rate. It is responsible for operating independently behind enemy lines, gathering intelligence, performing unconventional special operations and supporting conventional warfare.
Upon his return to Vietnam, Kilduff spent most of his time among the Montagnards, the primitive tribal people of the Central Highlands. “They’re the original ‘Indians’ of Vietnam,” Kilduff said.
“Montagnard” is a French word that means “mountaineer,” but the Vietnamese people preferred to use “Mi” or “Moi,” derogatory terms that mean “savages.” The hatred of these two peoples is infamous.
While the Army Green Berets are well-known for their involvement with and training of the Montagnards to fight the Viet Cong, Kilduff said that this was also true of Force Recon Marines, as well as Navy SEALs and Army Rangers.
“Sometimes when we crossed the border on a mission into Laos we were in a group as Marines, but usually it was just a group of Montagnards and me, or other Force Recon Marines,” he said. “They took very good care of us.”
Kilduff had actually intended on making the Marines a career, but his most devastating wound ended that would-be calling. Already wounded in the leg by small arms fire during a mission, a B-40 rocket, the Vietnamese variant of the Russian RPG (rocket–powered grenade), hit the landing zone while he awaited transport. Shrapnel struck him on the left side of his head causing severe concussion and brain swelling.
After coming out of a nine day coma, “I was paralyzed from the neck down for 11 months,” Kilduff said. “They turned me every two and half hours (on my Stryker frame bed). I read westerns when I was face down and could turn the pages with a pencil in my mouth.”
It was more than two years later, after endless therapy rebuilding his motor skills and teaching himself to walk again, that Kilduff left the hospital.
As reported in the Herald Times back in June 2009, Tom Kilduff is now all about veterans and present military people. “No matter what your politics are, you need to be behind your troops or get out in front of them. They are the reason for our free society today,” he said.
In Part 2, we will conclude our story of this different kind of Renaissance man by looking at what happened after Kilduff “got back to the world,” as Vietnam veterans commonly called it.