Vietnam gold was vital asset for ‘Klondike’ Mike

The value of gold is well known. The financial rewards are the main reason that prospectors labor so many hours in unpleasant climates to find the elusive yellow metal. For miner “Klondike” Mike LaBox, however, one particular gold discovery turned out to be priceless.

LaBox, 59, who lived in Salem, Ore., has been searching for gold most of his life and, like all GPAA and LDMA members, enjoys recreational prospecting. He and his wife Kathy frequently volunteer their time at numerous Gold Shows and both enjoy meeting fellow miners while traveling to various locations – but life wasn’t always this carefree.

While serving as an Army patrol boat skipper during the Vietnam War, Mike LaBox learned quickly how precious gold really could be.

His discovery of the precious metal near a remote Vietnamese village played a key role in ensuring the safety of his comrades. The gold, and the location of the site, was exchanged for information and safe passage. It’s something LaBox had been reluctant to discuss in detail because of his concern for the villagers who helped him.

“I never told that story because I was always afraid of getting them (villagers) in trouble,” he said.

In 1971, LaBox was a coxswain vessel master for Company 1098 in Vietnam. The mission for the skipper and his four crewmen was to support other units as patrol while transporting equipment and soldiers as needed.

When time permitted, LaBox would look for places to prospect.

“You look at the rivers and small tributaries (in search for gold). That’s what you look for in prospecting,” he said. “You look for signs. Rivers afforded me more chances to keep looking. I had my eye on a creek off the river I patrolled. The temples over there have gold statues so, in my mind, that gold was coming from somewhere – more than likely locally.”

Long before Vietnam, LaBox was a seasoned miner. He earned the nickname “Klondike” from a relative.

“I’ve been known as that for over 50 years,” LaBox said. “An uncle from Alaska was visiting in 1957. As I was walking through the house with a backpack and gold pan, he said ‘Well there goes your Klondike Mike’ and it stuck ever since.”

Upon knowing the origin of LaBox’s nickname, the next question became obvious.

“Yes, I have been on the Klondike many times now,” LaBox said. “I couldn’t see having the nickname and having it default, so I had to live up to the moniker.”

LaBox had a variety of influences as a child when it came to his love for gold.

“My interests came from reading and television – from the old westerns where they had the gold,” he said. “A friend’s parents knew a miner who dazzled us with stories of gold fields. And I was an avid reader. That was the allure. I knew I was going to be a gold miner.

“I found gold on my own. It was one of the things I did before I went into service,” LaBox added. “My friends had fishing poles. I had a gold pan.”

LaBox couldn’t have anticipated that his love for gold as a child would be critical during his time in Vietnam from 1970-72. One day while on patrol, he finally found what he was looking for. Using a pan he had modified from a wok, LaBox found a remote location and began prospecting.

“I believe it was south of Da Nang, a village called Chu Lai, in ’71. I stopped by where it was shady, grabbed my pan and my military trenching tool,” LaBox recalled. “A couple of members of the crew followed me up. They said ‘skipper, we know that you’re crazy, but what are you doing?’ By my third or fourth pan, I showed them the color. I proved to my crew that there was gold there.”

LaBox found a pennyweight of fine gold that day. Knowing that it could be used as a negotiating tool, he did the next logical thing.

“I took (the gold) up to the village about a kilometer away. I found an elder, showed him, took him and the others back and gave the village a source of income,” LaBox said. “They (villagers) became my friends after that and they showed me the area where enemies were. They deliberately let us know what was happening. I passed that info along to the powers that be. I’m sure it went a long way toward our war effort.”

Despite the successful negotiation, LaBox doesn’t consider his actions heroic.

“No, not at all. I don’t know how I really felt at the time,” recalled LaBox, who was only 19-years-old in 1971. “I felt good in the fact that I was able to help.”

Soon after the war, Mike returned home – and met Kathy. The two married in 1973 and have two children: Tina, 39, and Michael, 34. They also have nine grandchildren. Michael is an LDMA member.

Mike LaBox’s love for prospecting wasn’t initially shared by Kathy.

“She would have nothing to do with it for a lot of years. Mining was my thing, not hers,” he said. “I went to Alaska and she wouldn’t go.”

It took a little deception to get Kathy involved.

“I trapped her into going to Scott Bar about eight years ago,” LaBox said. “I worked out a deal with the caretaker, picked her up at her sister’s in Redding, and worked out a deal to stop back by the camp to see the caretaker.”

The outdoor lifestyle quickly grew on Kathy.

“She liked the camp. Then she said she wouldn’t mind spending a weekend,” he said. “I brought her to an outing and she said ‘do you always have this much fun at an outing?’ She was hooked after that.”

“Klondike” Mike admits his love for gold has nothing to do with making money. It didn’t during his days in Vietnam and it doesn’t today. He has none of the gold he found during the war.

“I gave it all to the (villagers) and the crewman had no interest,” he said. “My curiosity had been satisfied.”

Sometimes the search exceeds the thrill of the discovery.

“My gold fever is only in the hunt,” LaBox said.

And there’s no doubt “Klondike” Mike will always keep searching. Whether it’s Vietnam or Scott Bar, there’s always gold to be found.