As was the other gentle soul of the outfit, David Earl Johnson. "A kind, lovable person," recalls his sister, Audrey Wrightsell. Growing up in their little Arkansas community, David played most sports. His junior high coach Leo Collins says that David was good at just about everything and best at basketball and track. "One of the best athletes you could ever wish for in a small school," says Collins. "He was so easy to manage, a coach's dream."
Like Kalsu, Johnson did not take the easy way out of the war. He was paying his way through Philander Smith College in Little Rock, majoring in business administration, when he decided not to apply for another student deferment. "I'm tired of this," he told Audrey. "I'm gonna serve my time."
So it was that Johnson landed on Ripcord with Kalsu, in the middle of the most unpopular war in U.S. history. In May 1970, during a protest against the war at Kent State in Ohio, National Guardsmen had fired on student protesters, killing four. Criticism of the war had become so strong that as the NVA massed to attack Ripcord, the U.S. command in Vietnam decided not to meet force with more force, which would have put even more body bags on the evening news. So Ripcord was left twisting in the boonies.
The men made the most of their fate. Kalsu tried to make a game of the darkest moments. He and Big John, as Johnson was known, "were always laughing and joking," says former sergeant Martin. "For [them], everything was a challenge." When the sling-loads of ammunition would arrive by chopper, Kalsu would call out, "Let's get that ammo off the pads!" He and Johnson would take three of those 97-pound shells apiece and hump them up the hill together. The contest was to see who could carry the most. " Johnson was the biggest man we'd seen until Kalsu came along," says Martin.
They died together at five o'clock that summer afternoon. Fotias rolled Kalsu off him and saw the flowing wound behind the lieutenant's left ear. Kalsu was pulled out of the bunker, not far from where Johnson lay dead, and Doc Harris came running over. He looked down at Kalsu and knew that he was gone.
Renner, dazed from the concussion, saw that Kalsu was dead and picked up Beals, wounded in the blast, and started to carry him to the aid station. "Lieutenant Kalsu has been killed," Renner said. "I don't know what the hell we're gonna do now."
In a hospital where he had been flown after taking shrapnel, Martin got word that Kalsu and Big John were dead. "I sat there and cried," he says.
That evening, the battalion commander on Ripcord, Lieut. Col. Andre Lucas, learned of Kalsu's death. Lucas would die two days later, as the firebase was being evacuated, and for his pair in defending it, he would win the Congressional Medal of Honor. As battled-hardened as he was, he seemed stunned by the news about Kalsu. "The tone went out of the muscles on his face, and his jaw dropped," Harris says.
On July 21, 1970, James Robert Kalsu thus became the only American professional athlete to die in combat in Vietnam.
At 12:45 a.m. on July 23, at St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City, Jan Kalsu gave birth to an eight-pound, 15�-ounce boy, Robert Todd Kalsu. When Leah Kalsu visited her that morning, Jan fairly shouted, "Bob is going to jump off that mountain when he finds he has a boy!"