Big Johns 2008 Reunion Speech

Platoon Reunion

June 23-24-25 2008

Branson, Missouri

 

 

 

It could have been any month in 1967-68-69 that the veterans in this room were sitting at home contemplating their futures. Some of us were in college, some working regular jobs, and some of us were just surfing the waves in southern California. Most of us were single, some married, some were playing married and we all had high hopes for our future. It would only be a few years and we would be running the country. Not many of us had paid much attention to the “Vietnam War”. A few of us knew a high school buddy who had joined the Army or Marines and went to Vietnam. Some of us even knew somebody or someone’s family that had lost a loved one in Vietnam.

 

 Vietnam seemed so distant to most of us; many thousands of miles away from home. Some of us had graduated college; some of us had dropped out in favor of chasing girls and making money! A few of us had been ROTC and contemplated being an officer in the Army. Some of us were thinking of joining the military to avoid the ever threatening “Draft”. It seemed better to join and get the choice of career occupations or so we thought. Some of us waited and took our chances; others had a judge make that decision for us! We came from all over United States, and Puerto Rico, and the only thing we had in common was that we would eventually end up in Vietnam in the 25th Infantry Division, 2nd and 27th Wolfhounds Charlie Company, 2nd Platoon.

 

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 Some of us volunteered, some of us went kicking

and screaming but all of us went with a great deal of apprehension.

 

We took basic training and advanced training at places like Ft Ord, Ft Lewis, Ft Leonard Wood, Ft. Campbell, Ft Dix New Jersey and Ft. Benning. We would soon find out these places specialized in training Infantrymen. Some guys said troops were being sent to Germany, but our drill instructors assured us there was only one place we would be going; Vietnam!

 

When our planes touched down in Southeast Asia the country seemed to whisper “Welcome to Vietnam GI”. None of us had a clue where we would be assigned. Some were ready to get into the fight; most of us had this funny feeling that it wasn’t going to be any picnic. We all sat nervously in the bleachers waiting to be told where we would be assigned. When the sergeant called our name and looked at our orders he said “I feel sorry for you, you’re going to the wolfhounds”. We all had a bad feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Some of us asked “Who are the Wolfhounds”? The answer was always the same; “They are bad asses and always get sent into the worst crap”. What we would soon find out was that the Wolfhounds were also the best infantry unit in the 25th Infantry Division. Somewhere in our minds we heard that whisper again: “Welcome to Vietnam GI”.

 

 When we arrived in Cu Chi we were dropped off in front of Charlie Companies area and someone came out and said “welcome to the wolfhounds. Most of you guys will be killed or wounded before your 6th month, keep your head down and try not to get your buddies killed”. All of us remember those haunting words “Welcome to the Wolfhounds and Good Luck”.

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 When we arrived in the field we found ourselves at places like Fire Support Crocket, Jackson, Reed, Trang Bang, and Tay Ninh. Some of us were dropped off at hard spots called Shamrock, Waterloo, Harris, Kotric, and many other out of the way places.

 

We all thought of our Drill Instructor’s admonition about getting close to an “Old Guy” when we got to our platoon. An old guy in the Wolfhounds was anybody that had survived in the field for 3 or more months. Sometimes the old guys were not anxious to have us get too close. Old guys had a lot of superstitions and good luck charms and they had a funny look in their eyes

 

Within a few months we would become familiar with the wolfhounds areas of operations like the Hobo Woods, the Iron Triangle, Trang Bang, Boi Loi Woods, Filhol Plantation, Michelin Rubber Plantation, Phu Cuong, Duc Hoa, Tay Ninh, The Sugar Mill, Dau Tieng, Nui Ba Dinh Angels Wing, Parrots Beak and The Vam Co Dong River.

 

Most of us were disoriented when we arrived in the platoon. Every where we looked was flat except for Nui Ba Dinh; the virgin mountain. When we arrived in the platoon we were loaded down with 20 lbs. of supplies and 14 lbs. of ammunition. Some of us carried radios, machine guns, M-16 automatic assault rifles, grenade launchers and grenades: both fragmentation and smoke.

 

 Each man carried letters from home along with pictures of his girlfriend, fiancé or wife. The letters and pictures weighed about 10 ounces.

 

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 Of course there were some necessities we carried. They included a P-38 can opener, pocket knives, heat tabs,  wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellant, LSA grease, chewing gum, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, matches or a Zippo lighter, packets of kool aid, water purification tabs, sewing kits, C-ration meals (the number depended on how long we would be away from re-supply), and 2 or three canteens of water. Together these items weighed between 15 and 20 lbs. depending on a man’s habits and rate of metabolism.

 

 Most of us were fond of canned peaches, fruit cocktail, pound cake and any canned goods or sausages or salami sent to us from the world. We would hoard these items along with cans of beer, cokes and candy bars.

 

 We all wore steel helmets that weighed 5 lbs. including Helmut liner and camouflage cover. We wore military issue fatigue pants and jackets. Very few of us wore underwear. On our feet we wore jungle boots that weighed 2 lbs. Some guys carried extra socks and Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Each man carried one large compress bandage to be used on himself or his buddy in case of injury.

 

Because the nights could be so cold in the monsoon rain, each man carried a green poncho that could be used as a rain coat, ground sheet, makeshift tent or litter to carry dead or wounded comrades to an awaiting medi-vac chopper. Our favorite item however, was our poncho liner. It weighed less than a pound and was worth every ounce.

We carried an entrenching tool that weighed 2.5 lbs.

 

 

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 We were called legs or grunts. To carry something was to “hump” To hump was to walk or march. We humped in 120 degree heat with 90 percent humidity. We humped in swamps and we humped with leeches, bugs, mosquitoes, cobra snakes, boa constrictors and creatures we had never seen before or since. We humped in rice paddy’s, we humped across rivers and canals that were over our heads. We humped during the day and we humped during the night.

 

 What we carried was in part a function of the job we were assigned to do in the platoon. In addition to the aforementioned items, Lieutenant’s carried an M-16 assault rifle with 10-15 clips of ammunition, compass, maps, books, binoculars, and sometimes a 45 cal pistol that weighed 2.9 lbs. fully loaded. He also carried a strobe light and most importantly he carried the responsibility for the lives of his men. Our RTO’s carried the PRC-25 radio which weighed 26 lbs with battery as well as their M-16 assault rifle with 10 to 15 clips of ammunition. Add another 10 lbs for fragmentation grenades, smoke grenades and anything else that could be attached to the radio operators ruck frame. Our medics carried a canvas medical satchel filled with morphine, plasma, scissors, hemostats, malaria tablets, salt tabs, and all the things a medic had to carry to attend to his men. Our medics never hesitated to come to the aid of a wounded soldier, even at the expense of their own safety. Total weight of a medic’s bag was about 20 lbs. The medics also carried an M-16 assault rifle and 10-15 clips of ammunition. Our machine gunners carried an M-60 machine gun that weighed 23 lbs. unloaded. Add an additional 10 to 15 lbs of ammunition draped in belts across their chest and shoulders.

 

 

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The PFC’s and Spec. 4’s were our riflemen and ammo bearers.  Some were assigned to carry the M-79 grenade launcher. Our sergeants were generally squad leaders and platoon sergeants. The M-16 assault rifle weighed 7.5 lbs. unloaded, 8.2 lbs. with its fully loaded 20 round magazine. The average rifleman carried 12 to 20 extra magazines usually in cloth bandoliers or claymore bags adding another 8.4 lbs minimum to 14 lbs maximum.

 

The M-79 grenade launcher weighed 5.9 lbs. unloaded. This is a reasonably light weapon except for the ammunition. Each round weighed 10 ounces. A grenadier typically carried between45 and 60 rounds of high explosive ammunition. This did not include smoke grenades, parachute flares, grappling hooks, and buck shot rounds. Every 2 or 3 men carried a claymore anti-personnel mine that weighed 3.5 lbs with its firing device. Many men carried fragmentation grenades, white phosphorous grenades and smoke grenades that weighed 14 oz. each. Some carried parachute flares that weighed 15 oz. each.

 

 We carried all we could bear, and then some. We even had an unusually energetic man that carried the M-67. Many of us knew this weapon as the 90mm recoilless rifle. The man that humped it was known simply as Bruns.The 90 mm recoilless weighed 37.5 lbs unloaded with sight. Each cartridge weighed 6.79 lbs. Two ammo bearers carried 3 rounds each. The 90mm recoilless operator also carried an M-16 assault rifle and 12 to 20 magazines of ammunition. Some of us carried LAWS anti tank rocket launchers. We all carried with us the awe for the terrible power of the things we carried.

 

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Some of the things we carried were due in part to superstition. Some of us wore good luck charms, religious medals, and M-16 projectiles on a leather necklace. One of the most popular good luck charms was the “Wolfhound Head” that was obtained from a C-4 block binding cord. Some carried stationery, pens, pencils, magazines, pictures, MPC currency and a few piasters. Some carried bottles of “Bennies” to stay awake on ambush patrols while others carried packs of Zig Zag Papers. Some carried towels around their necks to wipe the sweat off their faces or use the towel as padding against the weight of the weapons and ammunition that we carried on our shoulders.

 

We carried the smell of fungus and decay. We carried the filth and stench of Vietnam on our boots, and fatigues, on our skin and in our hair. We carried the smell of cordite and napalm and burning barrels of human waste in our noses. We carried the thoughts of snipers during the day and being hit with rockets and mortars at night. This is just part of the story. Most days were filled with the endless march. Sweeping through village after village nothing won, nothing lost. We blew up tunnels, searched hamlets, questioned villagers and gave candy to the village kids. We spent our money on cokes that the Vietnamese kids sold us from black market suppliers. The pressure was enormous and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the abiding certainty; that we would never be at a loss for things to carry.

 

Some days we were used as a blocking force. Some days we were used as bait; like the tiny mouse, trying to see how close to the cat we could get before it pounced!

 

 

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The Diamond Fire support bases were examples of this baiting strategy.

The diamonds were strategically placed in the middle of NVA supply routes just a thousand meters from the Cambodia border. We were there to dare the NVA to come across the border and try to overrun us. The Army’s command echelon decided that an acceptable number of US Casualties justified the enemy “Body Count”.

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The second platoon was used as Charlie Co’s point element. It was rumored that Col. Odie used us because he could always count on us to “get the job done”. This position came with a high price. Our platoon took many casualties and wounded as a result of booby traps, RPG’s, Rockets and Mortars along with being ambushed by friendly fire.

 

The relationships between the guys weren’t unlike any other group of 19 to 24 yr. old men. There were distinct personalities; some competitive, some loners, some outgoing, some mavericks. There were some grudges that prevailed, but through it all we forged deep friendships. We trusted our lives to one another and felt a deep loss when one of us was wounded or killed. We were blood brothers, baptized in blood and ordained in fire and steel. The men in the second platoon witnessed more death and destruction than any man should.

 

 We came into the platoon alone; some more scared than others, all of us wondering, what would happen next. Would we survive the next 365 days in Vietnam?

 

 

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 We all came home alone. Some of us in caskets, some on medical transport planes, and some of us were lucky enough to return to the world on the “Freedom Bird”.

 

Nonetheless we came home alone. Some of us came home with broken minds and broken bodies. None of us escaped the trauma of being in combat in Vietnam.

 

 The men of the second platoon proved to be survivors at home as well as in combat. We got past the stigma of “Baby Killers” and put our Vietnam experience behind us, locking it in a chamber deep within our souls. Most of us got out of the Army and never mentioned we were Vietnam Veterans. We kept humping through life and became the men we are today.

Some of us returned to our wives, others to the girls we left behind. Some of us were anxious to look up that guy Jody that had stolen our sweetheart while we were in the bush.

 

 Some of us went back to school, some of us became teachers, truck drivers, stock brokers, doctors, chiropractors, heavy equipment operators, nurses, contractors, tradesmen, law enforcement officers, landscapers, salesmen, photographers, architects, engineers,welders,electricians,and insurance agents. Others became corporate officers, manufacturers and self employed entrepreneurs. We all contributed to the society we gave so much to defend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We all came home with some demons, but we also came home with memories of great camaraderie. When we left Vietnam we left behind heroes that would have an impact on our lives forever.

 

Five years ago we began a journey to find each platoon member. 34 yrs. of wondering what had happened to the guys was long enough. For those 34 years we continued to think of each other even with so much time behind us. We had forged a bond that only combat veterans share. We wanted to know if everyone had made it home. Did they marry their sweetheart? Did they heal from their terrible wounds?

 

 Just like we did 40 yrs ago, today we can help each other in any way we can. Our group can be a resource to help brothers with VA benefits, records retrieval, finding lost buddies and honoring our brothers that have passed before us. For some of us, today will be the first time we have celebrated our Vietnam service. We endured the worst of life together, now we can renew our commitment to each other that “No man will be left behind”. Remember, there is no such thing as a “Former Wolfhound”. Greg Mannarelli called me recently and said “After the reunion in Washington DC I walked a little taller”. After the Las Vegas reunion Dave Duininck came up to me and said,” I wasn’t sure I wanted to come to the reunion, now I don’t want it to end”. That’s what it’s all about. We are here to recognize every mans contribution to our platoons history. We are here to lift them up, encourage them and make sure they know they are not alone. We honor their courage and determination. We are grateful for their service.

Why do we have platoon reunions? The next few days will answer that question.

 

 

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