Vietnam: A Personal Story
by Anthony Nazzaro
The new guy: twenty, broke and drunk
I landed at night somewhat tipsy with only 5 dollars in my pocket in December of 1969.
I had lost the three hundred dollars playing poker to two “lifer” sergeants that I had won at Fort Lewis, Washington two days before while waiting for our flights to Alaska, the Philippines, and then Vietnam. They felt sorry for me, probably because they cheated, and gave me what was left of their bottle of Scotch. The hundred or so guys waited their turn anxious but quiet while the portable staircase was rolled up to the plane. The troop carrying commercial planes always landed at night for safety reasons we were told. When it came my turn to depart I paused at the top of the steps when I received my first reality check. I got the Army’s point, for there stretched across the top of a fence in front of the small terminal was a gigantic sign which read: STAY ALERT, STAY ALIVE.
I immediately sobered up. The next morning we received our individual orders there in Cam Ranh Bay and I proceeded by C-130 (airplane,) Huey helicopter and truck up the eastern coast of South Vietnam: Nha Trang, Chu Lai, Da Nang, Phu Bai, Hue, then west to my base camp.
Evens was Charlie company’s home of about ten wooden barracks with separate areas for the four other companies that made up the 1st battalion, (roughly 1,000 men), of the 101st Airborne Division. It had been there since 1965 when they took over the AO, (area of operation,) from Marine units. I arrived by jeep with two other grunts. (What they called infantrymen at that time because of the noise they made carrying their 50-60lb ruck sacks.) Mine contained 200 rounds of M-16 ammo, a 25lb. radio, a case of C-rations, 8 qts. of water, a claymore mine, 2 hand grenades and personal items.
We must have looked befuddled because other than the supply sergeant and a couple of in-processing personal, the place seemed deserted. “The company is in the field where they mostly are and where you’ll be going tomorrow,” the sergeant said. “You only come back here for four reasons: a Stan-Down about every three months,” (to take a shower with soap and brush your teeth if you think there’s a need to, and have a steak and beer.) “When it’s your turn to go on R&R,” (to rest and recuperate at a couple of locations- one being Hawaii.) “If you get sick or get wounded. And I don’t think I have to tell you the fourth.”
The three of us arrived in the re-supply chopper the next day on an LZ (landing zone,) in the A-Shau Valley. We met the Captain who assigned me to the third platoon. The platoon sergeant told me to get ready for I’d be walking point the next day on our normal mission of search and destroy. I said OK somewhat wholeheartedly wanting to show him I was ready to do my part. After all I had asked for this, first by joining the Army, (RA) being the designation on my dog tags instead of (US)- drafted, then by volunteering for Vietnam duty. My answer (yes) to the question “would you every consider going tiger hunting” on an army test, sealed my fate. I hadn’t realized exactly what I was in for- walking point: to walk down a jungle trail which could be booby trapped, have a VC (Viet-Cong) or NVA (North Vietnamese Army) sniper pick off the first American soldier he saw, or worse lead my squad into an ambush! After only two days I realized this wasn’t for me. You needed quick reflexes, good vision, and the hunting experience that most of the southern boys were grown up with. I had slow reflexes, wore glasses since the third grade which fogged up in the jungle from the heat and humidity, and was from New York City having never hunted in my life. Walking point would make my life expectancy about two weeks at best.
After we dug our foxholes one evening at our NDP, (night defensive position) I heard Terrible Tom from Kentucky, who got his nickname because he supposedly threw a dead gook off a hillside, complaining about having to carry the PRC 25 radio which weighed about 25lbs with batteries. Now I’m slow but not stupid so I asked the obvious question. Does the RTO (radio/telegraph operator) ever have to walk point?
From then on I was the third platoon’s RTO. And not to brag, but I was pretty good at it. I quickly moved up to the Lieutenant’s RTO, then the Captain’s. I always had a mouth which got me in trouble when I was young on the street or in school, was good at “short need to know only” communication, and was good with numbers, directions and maps.
I later designed a way of changing codes with the other RTO’s without having to wait until we were all together. I could call in artillery, medi-vacs and supplies with the best of them. I had found my niche, and if I didn’t get a hernia from the extra weight or have someone pick me off by seeing my radio antenna sticking up in the air, I could really be an asset.
When I became the Captain’s RTO, traditionally I was in charge of nicknames. I named Charlie from Mechanic-Street in Boston “Gabby” because he had no front teeth. There was this big regal looking guy named Kasprzyk and short stocky Possley, cherries (new guys) who I immediately re-named Kingsley and Pugsley. You should have seen the look on their faces. And black Sgt. Muse who requested his nickname be “Moose.” Why we wouldn’t think of calling you anything else, I said. He didn’t know that’s what we called blacks back in my neighborhood in the Bronx. He and I eventually became good friends. Later I got the call sign Sandy from the fact that I actually wore a sandbag tightened with rope on my foot for a few days when my boot wore out and we couldn’t get re-supplied.
January 1970, Making E-4
My first action with my new squad, (about 7-10 men,) was being pinned down by four gooks with AK-47 assault rifles on a trail. They were about 100 meters from us and we were separated by some trees. The LT (Lieutenant) wanted to call in attack helicopters but we needed colored smoke grenades to mark our position so the pilots could tell us from them. Our rear guy had some, but we needed someone to get them and bring them up front. Still nobody was moving, so out of pure frustration and being a little bit of a gambler I got up and did it. I figured they’d have to be extremely good shots or lucky to hit a moving soldier through the trees and I was right. The LT liked that I had acted, saving him the unpleasant job of ordering someone to do it and I was promoted to Spec 4 soon after. Then it was the Cobra and Huey gun ships job to engage the enemy.
In February we called in Navy Phantom jets to drop 2 - 250lb bombs on the other side of a mountain that we were climbing up. But someone had got the coordinates wrong and the bombs dropped on our side spraying big boulders, rocks and trees down on us. I felt like digging a hole to China I was so scared. Unbelievably nobody was hurt this time.
Late March - Fire Base Granite
One day we CA’d (combat assaulted by helicopter) upon this small mountaintop about 5 miles east of the Laos border and the Ho Chi Minh trail. The higher ups should have realized that this location was too close to the enemies major supply line into South Vietnam. Clearing a hilltop and building a firebase would make us a target for the NVA. But there we were feeling our oats with an infantry company of about 88 men plus an artillery battery of 3 - 105’s and some mortars. We even had almost finished a fence that would surround us, except my platoon hadn’t gotten around to completing their section. And we’d never get too. We were attacked by a NVA sapper company (a large group of soldiers trained to sneak into an American position undetected) on the fourth day of constant rain, at night about 12:00 am. The Captain spotted them first in the moonlight trying to surround our perimeter. He opened fire and all hell broke loose. I was awakened to find that our position guard had fallen asleep and as I emerged from our low covering and jumped into the foxhole I could see bullets coming from the back of us where the 1st platoon was suppose to be. This didn’t seem right and could mean that the gooks were inside the perimeter. On the radio our LP, (listening post of 3 men who are stationed outside the perimeter at night to detect enemy infiltration into the fire base,) called to say they had got hit with a satchel charge (hand made explosive) and Terrible Tom’s friend (Spec 4 Poole) had his legs badly injured and couldn’t move. I had spoken to Poole some days before because I heard that he was already in the army for a year and a half.
Just six months to go for you huh, I asked. “Not for me,” he replied. Why not? “I don’t know what happened. I told them I didn’t believe in fighting because I had been studying to be a Pastor before I got drafted. But the army misinterpreted my re-up request and instead of changing my MOS, (job title) I ended up right back in the infantry with 4 more years added to my time.” I thought to myself, this poor sad sack got screwed. As bullets were flying everywhere Tom heroically went outside the perimeter to retrieve his buddy. When he got back to us carrying him in his arms, I saw how serious his injuries were with his shredded blood soaked pant legs hanging down and almost nothing inside them. Tom and I put him on the Medi-vac, (medical evacuation helicopter) when it came in, first to take our wounded, then to take our dead. As I covered Poole’s legs the blanket instantly got wet from his blood. The next day we heard from Charlie-Med. (our mash unit) where our wounded went that Poole didn’t make it. We were defeated that night with 11 killed and 33 wounded. The Stars and Strips Army newspaper had reported lower American casualties for the sensitivities of the people back home, but as an RTO I had our company roster, I had their names.
When the shooting stopped as the sunlight came I could clearly see how naïve we were to think we were too strong to be attacked. There were American and NVA bodies everywhere. We got credit for 12 enemy kills that night.
The Captain came over to me at the top of the hill looking troubled. “I’m going to hear it for this. The whole first platoon of 30 men and part of the second platoon were killed or wounded.” Then he chuckled for a moment, which I thought strange. “It’s not over. We have to notify their families. Do you know who Furgeson is?” I answered yes. Furgie was telling me yesterday that he was suppose to go out on the next chopper for R&R once the rain stopped to meet his wife who was already in Hawaii waiting for him. He even showed me a picture of her, your typical southern bell- long blond hair and blue eyes. “Well we’re probably going to have to send two Consolation Officers to meet with her on this one. He got the top of his head shot off last night.” I turned away from him disgusted by the situation, and not wanting to look at someone who would think this funny.
Later on, I would realize his brief laugh was probably more from nervousness than humor.
One very honorable mention had to go to Doc Banks a black Spec 4 from Detroit. The night Granite was hit he alone rushed around trying to stop men from bleeding, patched the open wounds from explosives, gave morphine injections and bandaged gunshot wounds. He also triaged the wounded and labeled the dead amongst the 40 or more soldiers. When it was all over at daybreak and he had finished his job as head medic,
I saw him go over to the perimeter fence and throw-up. He got a fully deserved permanent transfer back to Camp Evens after that.
Zippo Takes Over
We heard that our captain was being replaced because we had lost so many men at Granite. We were to get this gung ho Captain who was on his third tour (one year each) to Vietnam. His call-sign was Zippo, as in the lighter, and he had supposedly burned down a Vietnamese village because they were helping the Viet Cong kill our soldiers. After his chopper landed and when all the swirling dirt and dust cleared we saw our new leader standing there, only 5’8,” from a small town somewhere in California. On his uniform were subdued Captain bars, a Jungle Expert patch, a CIB patch (combat infantry badge,) a First Calvary Division patch (his previous unit,) on his right shoulder, the 101st Screaming Eagle patch on his left and an Airborne Ranger patch. The Airborne distinction that curiously not many of us had having never gone to jump school. We just repelled 100 feet from helicopters during our infantry jungle training. I did feel more confident that we’d be somewhat safer with him with all his experience.
Granite wasn’t finished with us just yet. It had to add insult to injury. A few nights later while on radio-watch I was calling for sit-reps, (situation reports,) to our listening posts. Two answered, one three man team didn’t. I tried for hours. Could they have fallen asleep on guard? It happens. Could their radio be malfunctioning? Could they have been overtaken and captured? Eventually I would realize that just before we lost contact, we had our artillery unit fire a recon by fire, (dropping high explosives onto suspected enemy near our position.) If our FO, (forward observer) or someone in the artillery unit plotted them on the map wrong, we could have bombed our own troops. I notified the Captain and he despondently agreed with me. As soon as the sun broke he sent a squad to their position. They found one dead, one wounded and the third American soldier had wondered off into the jungle, probably in shock from the high explosive blast, never to be found. The next night our company left Granite and retreated to a safer location because we were warned by Intelligence that a whole NVA division was headed our way. The American Army surrendered their fortified position like a big beaten dog that had bit off more than it could chew.
Sadly that wasn’t the only time of friendly fire. In May on a ridge line named Morrine by the Marines, on a dark and foggy night, the first platoon sent out their LP. They didn’t notify the second platoon to look out for them, for they had already set up theirs along the same trail. Disaster struck as the three men walked past the nervous second platoon’s LP of new guys who didn’t have the experience to call out for a password or ask the dumb but significant question, “who won the world series last year.” They exploded their claymore mine and again a U.S. soldier was mortally wounded for no good reason except carelessness. We heard him murmur and scream for hours during the night. Zippo gave the two platoon Lieutenants responsible hell over the radio but nothing could be done till morning because we were so socked in by fog. I finally found our new medic and told him to give the guy morphine for his pain. He said it wouldn’t do him any good. I insisted it would stop him from suffering. He finally admitted to me that he didn’t expect this accident and to actually need the morphine so he used it to get high. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say to him and never looked at him the same way again. I was glad when he was removed from the field. He probably never got into trouble for that because they have ways of hiding the administering of drugs. Eventually the poor soldier’s murmurs stopped and we all knew what that meant. Being an unforgiving person, I hope that poor excuse for a medic had emotional problems when he got home from guilt. I believe some of the men who couldn’t cope when they returned home were the ones who either had a horrible personal experience or did something shameful over there and couldn’t come to terms with it. I’m no angel but I never lied to myself by justifying something I did that was wrong.
In June I would be medi-vaced myself to Charlie-Med, where a doctor who cut off my boots remarked, “What happened to your feet, I’ve never seen feet so white and shriveled.” It’s a Monsoon out there. I’ve been standing in water for four days, I replied. I was flown all the way to Japan because my sergeant had thrown a grenade too close to our position. I got hit by a small piece of shrapnel (flying metal,) which penetrated the skin and scratched my kneecap, I was told later. It was enough, in a tropical country with warm moist air to cause a bad infection doubling the size of my right leg, and I was operated on aboard the USS Sanctuary. Then I was flown to the 249th General Hospital in Yokohama for recovery. I was taking physical therapy during the day and allowed to go out on the town at night.
As many servicemen did when in a foreign country I got myself a girlfriend after my girl back home and I split up through our letters. Our final argument was over her going on a vacation to Italy with her wild girlfriend at the same time I was wounded and in a state of depression over what I was going through. Some soldiers actually received Dear John letters from their wives.
Juneko who didn’t speak a word of English confirmed the saying that making love is a universal language. She walked with me to my Army barracks the first night as I tried to explain to her to go home because my curfew was about to start. As I was signing in the Sgt.-on-duty said with an authoritative tone, “She can’t stay in here with you.” I looked up surprised by his remark until I turned around, and there she was. Not understanding, she had followed me in. Embarrassed but flattered by her devotion, I escorted her home.
I later found a way of staying out all night by rolling up my thin mattress and putting it in my large locker so when they did bed-check they would think it was an empty bunk. Juneko was only supposed to be my company for my brief stay. But that’s not what she had in mind. I was hopefully going to be her ticket to the States and out of poverty. Juneko not bad to look at but a little older then me, had a sweet personality. I however was not looking for a wife. Dare I bring home a Japanese bar-girl to my father who had been in World War II, in the Navy no less? (Hello- Remember Pearl Harbor!)
Besides I was going back to Vietnam having told the Doctor who wanted to send me to the States that I wanted orders back to my unit. He was shocked at my request and later they wrote an article about it in the Stars and Stripes titled “GI’s War Just Wasn’t Over Yet.” (Sgt. Muse sent me the article after I had left for home.) When I got my orders my plane back to Vietnam was leaving so soon I didn’t have the time to tell Juneko. Not that I wanted to. How could I explain that I was leaving and never coming back to Yokohama? I told a fellow soldier who was my drinking buddy there to tell her for me.
I felt terrible because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, she didn’t deserve that.