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Big John’s 2006 Reunion Speech
We were called “Grunts.” That is not a pretty name but it describes what we were all about. Our job was a 24-hour, 7 day a week occupation that consisted of working, sweating, struggling and grunting. Believe it or not we are all kind of proud of the name “Grunt”. At the end of the day, we would never have been chosen for honor guard based on our appearance. Because of our daily activities, our hair was usually messed up and dirty, our faces were grimy from mud and dust and our uniforms were usually filthy, wrinkled and torn. It wasn’t uncommon for us to start the day out walking a mile on hard dry ground only to be picked up by choppers and dropped off in a rice paddy that was filled with hot, leech-infested water. Picking leeches off our bodies became a normal routine.
It was common for us to slosh around through knee-deep mud, crawl through hedgerows filled with biting ants, or bitten by bloodthirsty mosquitoes. In the Iron Triangle those bugs were proved to be more of a challenge than even the enemy. Certainly they were more plentiful. When we got a chance we would stop, take a C-ration out of our pocket and hope we had gotten beans and ham instead of pork or turkey loaf. The green eggs and ham were absolutely insufferable. We always felt better when we saw the foil covered chocolate disc, and the crackers and cheese were always good for a snack on the run.
We would reflect on home, a wife, a girlfriend, or of flying home some day on that “Freedom Bird” where times would surely be better. We would take a minute to scrawl an answer to a letter that had been getting soggy in our breast pocket.
After a day on the “hump” we would return to the Fire Support to prepare for that night’s ambush patrol. We would clean our weapons and make sure there was plenty of LSA on the bolts. There were many hours of lost sleep and our bodies ached for rest. We got good at catching a few “Z’s” whenever we could, but we always seemed to be tired. Very rarely were we afforded the luxury of a deep sleep. Some guys took “Bennys” to help them stay awake on guard duty; the pills only made you nervous and irritable.
Just before dark we would have a platoon briefing before leaving the wire to set up our ambush patrol. Emotions always ran high as we left the Fire Support Base to venture out to our ambush site. Ambush patrols were always a dangerous proposition. We prayed the NVA or VC would not open up on us on our way to our ambush site. Our survival depended on each man knowing what to do if a firefight ensued. Each man had to dig deep inside himself to find the guts and courage to perform his job. Sure we were scared, like any other human being, but we had no time to think about being scared when the shit hit the fan. We knew what to do and we did it. Some of us were driven by fear, some by anger and rage; others seemed extremely cool under fire. We all wanted to survive and many times we did much more than what was expected of us and they called us heroes. We never thought of ourselves as heroes, we were simply fighting for our lives and the lives of our buddies.
Every man in the second platoon was a special kind of man. We lived in a way that most people can neither comprehend nor imagine. Moviemakers have attempted but never captured on film the “real” infantryman experience. Some movies have depicted parts of what we experienced, but never told the entire story of our tour of duty. Each man in our platoon proudly wore the Combat Infantry Badge; that blue and silver symbol that identified us as men that have lived in hell, who have known that glorious feeling of coming out of a perilous situation alive, when we knew we could have been killed. Each of us died a little each time a buddy was wounded or killed in action. Yes, we call ourselves “Grunts” and we are proud of it because it’s more than a name — it’s a title.
We were proud to be Wolfhounds in the “Tropic Lightning”. Our motto was Nec Aspera Terrent, “No Fear On Earth“. I’m not sure what kept us going long after the ordinary man would have dropped. Perhaps the simple answer is Wolfhounds were not ordinary human beings. We performed great acts of endurance and personal courage. The Wolfhounds were well known in areas like Trang Bang, Michelin Rubber Plantation, the Sugar Factory, the Hobo Woods, Iron Triangle, the Cambodian border, Cu Chi, Tay Ninh, Fu Cong, Hoc Mon, Crocket, Shamrock, Jackson, Reed, Diamond, and many other places.
In the book “The Tunnels of Cu Chi” several NVA and Viet Cong officers chronicled their most troubling adversary; The Wolfhounds! In 1968 a $500 bounty was placed on any Wolfhound killed in the province of Gia Dinh. We did not know at the time that the Viet Cong had miles of underground tunnels in the Iron Triangle and Cu Chi area. We were constantly exposed to snipers popping up in camouflaged spider holes. Booby traps were hidden everywhere. Working in Nam was a difficult task. We rarely saw our enemy face to face. More times than not we didn’t know who the enemy was. Women and children were used by the Viet Cong as suicide bombers also known as sappers. One thing we were sure of, every day someone was trying to kill or cripple us. We befriended villagers, and were quick to share C-rations and candy with the Vietnamese kids. We spent many MPC (military issued currency) on bootlegged sodas from the “coke kids” that followed us from time to time. Yes, we served in a place called Nam, but we always dreamed of someday returning to “The World.”
We came to the platoon with names like John, Ray, Dave, Conrad, Maurice, Larry, Mack, Steve, Enrico, Sylvester, Paul, Willy, Lee, Ed, Russell, Jack, Tommie, Robert, Dennis, Jose, Percy, Jim, Joel, William, Donald, LeRoy, Rudy, Charles, Gary, Freddy, Michael, Jamie, Greg, George, Herbert, Lanny, Dale, Arthur, Ronald, De Wayne, Clement, Herb, Fred, and Forrest. After being in the platoon for a short while we were simply known as Nye, Smokes, Big John, Rick, The Kid, Rick o shay, MF, Nase, Sly, Hedgy, Teach, Rabbi, Grimm Reaper, Claymore Al, Doc, Little Joe, Mom and Dad, Poncho, Glove, Little Willy, Opey, Rambo, Crab, and of course Flat Dick! Our backrounds were very different. We had high school dropouts to college graduates. Some of us joined the Army to avoid going to prison. Some of us wound up in prison! We had hard NCOs and instant NCOs. OCS officers and Direct Commission officers as well as National Guard officers. Most of us felt a strong sense of patriotism and we believed we were helping to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
Weather conditions in Vietnam changed from season to season, day to day and sometimes hour to hour. During the monsoon season it could be 120 degrees in the day and rain buckets at night. If we were out on an ambush patrol during such a rain we would sit shivering from the intense cold caused by the evaporation off our hot bodies. I remember one night sitting on my steel pot in such a rain and I became so discouraged from the shivering that I broke down and thought to myself, “What in the hell are we doing here? No self respecting Viet Cong or NVA would come out in this crap”. One night we were acting as a blocking force for the 101st Airborne and we were forced to lie in rice paddy water up to our necks. There were rounds going over our heads from the village and we couldn’t take a chance exposing ourselves. The next morning we all looked like dried prunes. I’m sure many cases of jungle rot were spawned that night.
Life in the platoon wasn’t without it’s lighthearted moments. Most of us became experts at playing hearts and spades and lived for the day we would shoot the moon on our unsuspecting buddies. We had a game called “Stretch” which challenged the accuracy of the players throwing knives at each other’s feet. We always seemed to have animals around for our entertainment. We had puppies, a monkey and a trained Rat at FSB Reed.
When we weren’t filling sandbags, we would pose in hambone positions and snap a few Polaroids to send home. We had one camera as I recall, and we would have Polaroid film sent from stateside and share the camera. All in all the Polaroid’s served their purpose. Our field photo skills were greatly enhanced when Big Joe Waskom used his 35 mm camera. Bob Noel and Danny Deitz also took a boatload of good pictures that chronicled life in the platoon. Thousands of pictures unfortunately were lost when guys were wounded and sent back to the world without their personal belongings.
If we were lucky and the mailroom didn’t mis-deliver them, someone would get a Playboy magazine sent to them. The magazine would be passed around and guys would fantasize about round-eyed girls that would be waiting for us when we returned to the world. Every once in a while we would get a copy of the Tropic Lightning news or the Stars and Stripes newspaper. Some of us read books sent to us by friends and family back home. We even had our own Sci-Fi expert, Larry Lamere!
We always looked forward to “weapons check day”. We would all line up outside the FSB and at the command “Fire” we would unload a few magazines of ammo at some targets we set up. This ritual was better than an amusement park shooting gallery. Hearing the distant thump of the M-79 dupers and the automatic fire from the M-60 machine gun always got the adrenaline pumping. There was always a showstopper when Russ Bruns would let loose with a few rounds from his 90mm shoulder fired howitzer. The new guys always were amazed at the show of firepower.
Care packages from home were always welcome. The guys from New York would always get great sausages and pepperoni sticks and the rest of us would stand around and beg for a slice or two. Cans of Nally’s chili, Vienna sausages, corned beef has, and homemade cookies all tasted better than the C-rations, multi-colored meat and green scrambled eggs the chow hall served.
Sleeping in the Hobo Woods and the Iron Triangle were experiences we will never forget. At the time, we didn’t realize we were lying in jungles that had been sprayed with Agent Orange defoliant. The mosquitoes were the largest I have ever seen. They had the ability to lift the towel from a soldier’s face and bite you through your fatigues with ease. We were bug-bitten unmercifully and broke out in rashes of unknown origin. Our feet broke out in jungle rot and trying to keep a dry pair of socks on was impossible. Most of us learned early not to eat peanuts or watermelons from a farmer’s field. The peanuts were bitter as hell and it didn’t take long to figure out what papa sahn was fertilizing his melons with!
Cu Chi is where the 25th Infantry Division headquarters was located. Every so often we would go to Cu Chi for a 3-day standdown. We would get to re-supplied with new boots, fatigues; have access to an indoor shower and toilet and best of all an Army issue cot to sleep on. Having access to a Vietnamese Barber that used warm shaving cream and did a pretty good job on your hair was considered a treat. I always felt kind of weird though when he would shave my throat with that straight razor! After the war, Viet Cong military records showed that 90% of the barbers in Cu Chi were VC and that they passed information to their commanders when they went home at night. (Source: Tunnels of Cu Chi).
Unfortunately, the standdowns would sometimes turn into drunken fights with other companies. On one such occasion we had an altercation with Delta Company and destroyed the enlisted men’s club. We were banned from Cu Chi for 4 months, but it seemed worth it at the time. The entertainment in Cu Chi included Asian bands that would play all the latest stateside hits. We didn’t care if they couldn’t pronounce half the lyrics. Once we saw the movie Barbarella starring Jane Fonda. No one up to that time fully appreciated the intrinsic value of saran wrap! Who would have guessed Jane, who tickled so many of our imaginations that night, would become “Hanoi Jane”, a title she still holds to this day. On one occasion we saw the USO show featuring Bob Hope. It meant so much to us that they brought that show to Cu Chi. Thanks for the memories Bob.
Our tour was filled with much uncertainty. Rumors were circulating at one time that the Communist Chinese were threatening to detonate a nuclear bomb in Vietnam to end the war. It sounds outrageous today but at the same time it weighed heavy on our minds.
If a guy survived 6 months in the field he was considered an “old guy” even though most of us were only 18 or 19 years old. An old guy was looked upon as an experienced grunt and new guys would try to attach themselves to them to learn the ropes. AN “old guy” was recognized by 2 characteristics: he was superstitious and hyper-vigilant. He started recording his remaining days in Nam on a short timer’s calendar, counting the days till his ETS back to the world. When someone would say “How you doing?” the response would be “93 days and a wake up, it don’t mean nothing.” When a guy got down to 30 days the company first sergeant would try to find him a job in Cu Chi and get him off line.
Most people don’t realize that a Combat Veteran goes through several distinct emotional changes during their tour of duty. When a guy first gets to the field he feels alone and scared. After a few months and several firefights he begins to feel more confident and has established friendships within the platoon. After 4-5 months and after witnessing death and dismemberment first hand, he becomes a battle worthy soldier. After 6-9 months a guy has witnessed the loss of a close buddy and becomes angry. The anger mixed with a sense of invulnerability make this soldier a dangerous weapon. He performs acts of heroism beyond the call of duty, volunteers to walk point or other dangerous duties. In the last two months in the field a man goes through a transformation. He becomes keenly aware that he has survived hell for 10 months and cheated death more times than he can remember.
Memories of hard spots, being overrun, close combat, a buddy dying in his arms, the haunting sound of someone screaming “Medic”, the sound of a chopper coming in the dark to “dust off” a buddy, the shattering concussion of an artillery shell booby trap that caused unending ringing in his ears. It all starts closing in on him. He begins to withdraw from most of the other platoon members especially the “new guys;, who he is convinced will be the ultimate cause of his demise. His confidence is waning. He keeps obsessing on the sergeant that got killed with only 3 weeks to ETS. The cycle completes itself; he is scared and feels alone.
The men in this room have earned a special “right of passage” that qualify then for membership in the “Wolfhound Brotherhood”. The bond that we share was galvanized by our unique experiences that changed our lives forever. That bond cannot be broken by time or distance. Many of us returned home as casualties of war, some suffered life-long disabilities. Others have suffered from PTSD, most of us did not receive a warrior’s welcome; all were affected in some way.
Many have questioned why we waited so long to reunite with each other. The simple answer is we did not go to Vietnam together and we did not return home together. Many of the guys were known only by a nickname, some weren’t there long enough to establish connections with other platoon members. Through the miracle of Internet technology, the memories of the guys in the platoon, and the copies of individual orders, most of the guys have been identified and a good number located. It is our goal to find every man that served in the platoon in the next two years. We won’t quit looking until every man is found.
Why have we come to this reunion? We come to honor every man that served in the platoon and remember our brothers that died in battle. We also come for healing that only we can provide for each other. We seek redemption for a time in our lives that was at best a bit of insanity. We seek to forgive those that sent us into battle and those that rejected us when we returned home after the battle. We also seek forgiveness for what we did in battle. We need to come to grips that “War is horrible, but the Warrior is never horrible”. We must continue to commit ourselves to each other and our families with the same promise we made 38 years ago; “no one gets left behind”. We are brothers, we are survivors, and we are Wolfhounds.