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Sgt. Pepper's band of combat engineers had to dodge shells in Vietnam

Kenneth T. Pepper achieved the rank of sergeant after he was drafted into the Army in 1967, and months after he entered the service, the Beatles released the album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

So it was natural that Sgt. Kenneth Pepper's name was a topic among fellow soldiers in Vietnam.

"They'd walk by me and start singing the words to 'Sgt. Pepper's.' They were joking around. I was with a lot of good guys over there in Vietnam," Pepper said.

What they didn't know about Pepper was that he was born in the same country as the Beatles – England – and moved to the United States when he was 7 years old.

He says his parents moved to Buffalo for the weather. Yes, the weather.

"I had a touch of polio in my left leg, and it rained a lot where we were in Newcastle. My family had an aunt and uncle here, and they sponsored us. They thought the weather here would be better for me, and it was," Pepper said.

After graduating from Iroquois High School in Elma, Pepper tried to enlist in the Navy even though he was not an American citizen.

"I viewed America as my home, and I was proud to live here and do my share," he said.

But Uncle Sam disappointed him. He was rejected because of a heart murmur.

"I figured because of my health I would not be serving. So I married and ended up working at Trico."

But in March 1967, Uncle Sam had a change of heart and he was drafted, despite the murmur and a slight limp in his left leg.

"I guess they were taking anybody when they drafted me," he said.

*******

Kenneth T. Pepper, 72

Hometown: Newcastle, England

Residence: Williamsville

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1967 – 1969

Most prominent honors: Vietnam Campaign Medal and Vietnam Service Medal

Specialty: Combat engineer

*******

By that time, though, Pepper had experienced his own change of heart and was no longer eager to serve. He explained that he had good factory job and had married the former Sandra Kasprzyk.

"I could have gotten out of the draft because I wasn't a citizen, but I didn't. They told me that, if I served, I would come out a citizen," he said.

So he entered the Army.

Pepper was something of a minor celebrity because of his last name and rank in Vietnam. But there was little opportunity to sit around and listen to Beatles albums or any albums.

"I was in the combat engineers building roads, airstrips and bridges, and we worked seven days a week," he said. "I drilled holes into boulders and packed them with C-4 and blew them up. We'd take the smaller rocks and run them through the crusher. That was the raw material for air strips and roads."

The enemy took note of the engineers'  efforts.

"At night, they would shell us. It was a form of harassment," he said.

Sgt. Kenneth Pepper built roads, airstrips and bridges to help the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

Whether a direct hit by the shells would have penetrated the bunkers he and other members of the 864th Engineer Battalion called home is something he says went gratefully untested.

"We lived underground. We'd dig out a pit with a bulldozer and stack railroad ties on top of each other for walls and the roof. Then we put three layers of sandbags on top of the roof," he said, recalling the chemicals in the wood. "Inside, all you smelled was creosote from the railroad ties."

Working in the open was not so safe. He recalled several close calls where the enemy was shooting at him and the other other soldiers. One was a narrow escape.

"One morning when we started to move our equipment, there was this big puddle and a South Vietnamese worker started yelling at us to stop," Pepper said. "It turned out the Viet Cong had placed a land mine in the puddle."

In 1969, he returned to the United States and was discharged from Fort Lewis, Wash.

"Nobody really patted us on the back and welcomed us like the guys now who have people waving flags at them. We were classified as 'baby killers' or just ignored," he said of the intense anti-war sentiments surrounding Vietnam.

Pepper left the service the same year John Lennon wrote the song "Give Peace a Chance."

But Pepper says he holds no ill will toward Lennon or the Beatles.

"I love the Beatles, especially since I am from England," he said, adding, "I also like Elvis Presley."

Pepper resumed his job at Trico, where he worked for 38 years before retiring. He and his wife, Sandy, raised two children, Melissa and Christopher.

Pepper says he is proud of his military service, yet frustrated the military failed to keep its end of the bargain in promising to make him an American citizen when he returned home from the war.

Finally on Jan. 26, 2006, he received his U.S. citizenship, but only after he initiated the paperwork.

"I had a resentment toward the government because it cost me $400 to file the paperwork. That's why I waited so long," he said, explaining that he had a green card and didn't necessarily need to be a citizen.

Pepper relented, he said, "because after awhile you have to bury stuff."

That said, his patriotism is always on display:

"I fly the American flag on Sundays and the POW flag every day in front of my house."

Kenneth Pepper died March 3 at the age of 72.

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