Ron Pooler – Vietnam War - Veterans in the St. Croix Region

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At 20 years old, Ron Pooler was acting platoon commander in Vietnam. He is seen here around Christmastime in 1968. Santa Claus came to visit the platoon, bringing 14 oranges to be divided between the 48 men. (Photo courtesy Ron Pooler)

By Lura Jackson

The experiences of being an infantryman during live combat are not for the faint of heart. Some who have lived through them continue to struggle with what they’ve seen, no matter the time that has passed. Others perish from their physical wounds, either on the spot or decades later. For Ron Pooler of Calais, it was his faith that kept him relatively safe and psychologically sound through Vietnam, and it has been a sustaining force for him ever since. 

Pooler’s life began in difficult conditions. Born in Pueblo, Colorado, he lived in a destitute family with an alcoholic and abusive father. He remembers living in a house with a dirt floor and no running water, and begging the neighbors for food. Even from a young age, however, he always wanted to go to church. “I wanted to live a good enough life so I could meet my brother one day,” Pooler said, referring to his twin brother that died two months after they were born. When the local church refused to let him continue coming without any shoes, he borrowed the pink cowboy boots of his eldest brother and would wear them to the service.

In 7th grade, Pooler’s eldest brother was arrested for stealing, and the family was broken up. Pooler was sent to Calais, where he lived with the family of Francis Greenlaw, the former fire chief of Milltown. The Greenlaws and their four children lived in a small residence, and Pooler worked regularly to pay his own way. He made beds at the Triple A motel downtown and walked the largest paper route in the state.

Upon graduating from high school, Pooler immediately signed up for the Marines. “I believed in going to Vietnam and fighting for the freedom of the Vietnamese people,” Pooler said. He went to boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina, and then to basic at Fort Lejeune, North Carolina. By January of 1968, he was in Vietnam.

After arriving in Vietnam, Pooler would advance quickly through the ranks, earning four combat promotions in eight months. The first promotion followed an incident where he witnessed a major berating three radio men for forgetting to bring batteries with them from the last outpost. Pooler, who had excelled at cross country in high school, offered to run back to the last outpost to get the batteries. “He told me I was crazy,” Pooler recalls. When Pooler didn’t relent, the major gave in, providing him with a pistol and a small backpack in which to carry the batteries. Pooler took off running through the jungle, eventually returning exhausted but successful. 

The jungles of Vietnam are far from hospitable under the best of circumstances. Pooler was stricken by malaria in the first year, and he would spend almost a month recovering from the illness. Racked by fever, he remembers waking up one night feeling suddenly warm. He looked down at his chest and a mongoose was curled up on top of him. “It tried to spend the night on top of me,” Pooler said with a laugh.

The conditions for water were often bleak. Most of the mountain streams were dried up. At one point, having been three days without water, the platoon came across a stagnant pool of brown water covered in mosquito larva. The platoon scooped out the larva and filled their canteens, adding halazone tablets to kill any malaria present. 

Rain was a welcome change, giving the platoon the opportunity to wash up and drink their fill of clean water. Half the platoon would wash while the other half guarded, and then they’d switch roles. One time, Pooler remembers that the whole platoon had just gotten clean and everyone was feeling pretty good. Then, someone pointed out what they thought was the blackest rain cloud they’d ever seen. It wasn’t a rain cloud, however, it was a cloud of bees. “Everybody went running everywhere,” Pooler recalled with a chuckle. 

Wildlife was a constant source of wonderment for Pooler. When the platoon was walking along a mountainous ridge lined with trees on one side and a sheer cliff on the other, the point person yelled that the trees were shaking up ahead. Pooler took point and proceeded, stopping abruptly when a massive gorilla leapt out at him. “He was jet black, shiny fur, no white in the eyes,” Pooler said. “It looked almost like a stuffed animal. The fur in the sunlight just glistened.” Pooler didn’t shoot. “I was so awestruck with his beauty.” The gorilla turned and leapt off the cliff. “He jumped off the cliff in the most beautiful swan dive. He looked like a gigantic flying squirrel.” The gorilla made it safely down the ridge, leaving an appreciative Pooler behind. 

Pooler’s platoon was highly successful at winning firefights, and Pooler is proud to say he rarely lost a man. On one fateful occasion, however, he nearly lost his own life. His platoon had been ordered to retake a hill that had enemies present on it to see if four missing marines could be recovered. Despite his wariness, Pooler divvied up the platoon and was proceeding up the hill himself when a cluster of hand grenades came flying down toward him. Struck by shrapnel, he made it behind a tree and began to pray. 

At that point, Pooler recalls seeing a flickering white light flashing near him, not unlike a mirror glinting in the sun. It was a jet. Grabbing a nearby radio man, he found that the jet was loaded with two bombs. He ordered the bombing of the hill that he and his men were on, hoping the bombs would be accurate. They were, and Pooler and his men made it safely off the hill. 

While Pooler refused to be medically evacuated at the time – instead choosing to treat the wounds with copious amounts of hydrogen peroxide – he was sent directly to Camp Pendleton in California when he was discharged in September of 1969. It was a few months before his leg was operated on, but the operation left him with more problems, including gangrene. He was told he would lose his leg, but implored the hospital to save it. After grueling physical therapy, he gradually recovered its limited use.

Once discharged from the hospital, Pooler was left with no money and no job in California. He applied for several jobs, but even those he was able to get he wasn’t able to keep due to his physical issues. He wound up sleeping in his car and living off of handouts at a nearby hamburger stand. 

Pooler’s fortunes changed when his brother took him out to ride the sand dunes. The pair came across a family that had had an accident, and they quickly worked to get them to safety. Pooler would later find out that the family belonged to a well-standing man in Standard Oil; he was sent to school for two years and then worked for another seven maintaining the truck fleet.

 

From that point, Pooler returned to Colorado and entered the gold mining and coal mining business. He did that for 37 years before deciding it was time to return to Calais, where he now resides. After a lifetime of praying for and living in the grace of God, he is very pleased to have been finally baptized in the Catholic church, an occurrence that took place recently in St. Stephen.