For the past 33 years, a select group of American soldiers have been living, in different extremes, with the severity of the Vietnam War.
But for a brief weekend, that came for some just in time, the men regrouped to reminisce, celebrate and get questions answered about a time when most were boys of 17 – 20 years-old.
Former members of the 1st Infantry Division in the Vietnam War 1968-69 met at the Carson Valley Inn Aug. 3-5 for their first reunion ever.
Organized for more than a year by former soldiers Terry Hassett of Pembrooke, Mass., and Francois Doucette of Gardnerville, the reunion hosted nearly 100 former solders, their wives and children.
They came from all over the United States: boroughs of New York, plains of Texas, and mountains of North Dakota, to name a few.
“We were a lean, mean, fighting machine in 68-69 fighting in America’s longest war,” said Hassett. “This time we are not so lean and not so mean.”
Part of an institution, the men were The Big Red One – the first infantry division to fight the war. Elements of the Big Red One arrived “in country” June 23, 1965 (the first U.S. Army combat infantry troops to set foot in Vietnam).
On 12 July 1965, the 2nd Brigade of the Big Red One
landed at Cam Ranh Bay and Vung Tau, making it the first element of an Infantry Division to arrive in Vietnam. As the rest of the Division arrived, it was separated into five base areas: Division Headquarters and the Support Command were at DiAn; the 1st Brigade, at Phuoc Vinh; the 2nd Brigade at Bien Hoa; the 3rd Brigade at Lai Khe; and
Division Artillery at Phu Loi.
Initial combat operations
were devoted to securing the immediate area of the
base camps and establishing the 1st Infantry Division’s area of influence.
Although most of the attendees were in the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Division, all have dealt with their personal struggles with their experience as boys fighting a man’s war.
“The voices are different, and people have changed,” said Hassett. “There is a renewed sense of camaraderie with people we haven’t seen in awhile.
“It is the memory of the magic of the moment.”
On 31 January 1968 during the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year (Tet), the Viet Cong launched a series of simultaneous ground and mortar attacks against most of South Vietnam’s major cities and allied military installations. In response to the attacks, the Division was summoned to help secure the sprawling Tan Son Nhut Air
Base. By 13 February, units of the Big Red One had engaged and defeated numerous Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. On March 11, the Division entered into a multi-division operation called Quyet Thang (Resolve to Win. On 7 April 1968,the Division embarked on the largest operation of the Vietnam War: Operation Toan Thang (Certain Victory), which involved all allied troops throughout the III Corps Tactical Zone. One of the primary missions of this two-part operation was to stop the infiltration of the enemy into the Saigon area.
In the 5 years the Division was in Vietnam they fought many vicious battles against a persistent enemy.
Alpha Company conducted many combat operations in Vietnam. They regularly went on Search and Destroy missions, night time ambushes, reconnaissance in-force operations, road clearing and security operations, combat helicopter assault operations, village seals etc.
Hassett said they encountered the enemy on many occasions and engaged them at times in firefights that ranged from light to moderate to fierce. In addition to regular combat missions and operations, Alpha Company played a key role in some major battles fought by United States and allied forces in Vietnam. The Battle of An My for example, which took place in February, 1968 during the well publicized TET offensive raged for two days and accounted for 372 enemy dead.
Another major battle that Alpha Company played a key role in was the Battle of Loc Ninh IV near the Cambodian border where U. S. forces killed 217 North Vietnamese Army soldiers
During the early days of September, Loc Ninh again became the focal point of Big Red One operations. Hard fighting broke out on 11 September when a Special Forces compound was hit by a heavy barrage of mortar fire. In the next three days units of the Division and cavalrymen of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment engaged and defeated many North Vietnamese Army regulars.
Hassett said the reunion brought together army buddies who spent 24 hours a day together sharing some of the most significant, and at times, intense moments of their lives during a very defining period in this nation’s history.
“We were able to remember things we forgot,” said Doucette. “We were very, very close brothers who fought together to stay alive.
The reunion “was such a healing process. Some men came in very stiff and not sure what to say, but by the third day, they were all smiles, very animated.
“One man told me how grateful he was. Now he can begin to heal.”
On 12 January 1970 it was announced the Big Red One colors would soon be returning to Ft. Riley. The reason, as stated by Division Commander M.G. Milloy, was “We have worked ourselves out of a job!”
Two former company commanders, two former executive officers and several platoon leaders along with all the former enlisted men celebrated at the reunion with that same special relationship combat infantry officers and enlisted men enjoy in wartime. Many wives were also included in the festivities, which helped bring some understanding from their side of the spectrum.
Marie Rossi of Rhode Island was 18-years-old when she married Jerry Rossi. Two weeks later, he shipped off to Vietnam, and she spent the next two years writing letters every day to her far-away soldier.
“This reunion was part of his healing,” she said. “Some stuff he just kept hidden. He never shared, and now, we can understand each other.”
David B. and Barbara Kampwerth of Highland, Ill. said the reunion was something they had to do.
“I haven’t heard from them in nearly 35 years,” said David Kampwerth. “We just had to do it. I was a nervous wreck and I didn’t know which ones had made it or not.
“I’m amazed that six out of 8 people in our squadron made it.”
The Big Red One returned to Ft. Riley in April 1970. For nearly five years, the First Infantry Division soldiers battled against an aggressive enemy who made expert use of the dense jungles and inaccessible countryside. During this conflict, the First Infantry Division had mastered the use of helicopters as one of the best means of countering the jungle and the lack of roads; gained significant experience in resupply operations, medical evacuation and the tactics of the air mobile assault; instituted numerous other tactical innovations; and provided extensive civic action support to the South Vietnamese people. The Division suffered 20,770 casualties during this war. Eleven Big Red One soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions. Eleven Campaign Streamers and two Decorations were added to the Big Red One colors.
During the reunion, the men were thrilled to see one soldier who had made it back: Charlie Caldera who has been in a wheelchair since Vietnam when his right leg was blown off nearly at the hip, when he stepped on a booby-trapped U.S. Claymore mine.
Col. Sam Mathews, Ret. witnessed the assault when two explosions wounded three men, including Caldera.
“When I saw Charlie, I knew he was going to die,” he said at the reunion. “It was the worst wound I’d ever seen.”
Mathews said one of the other men wounded in the explosion had the “thousand yard stare of a man that had given up,” but Caldera was “cursing and yelling all the way” to the Medevac helicopter that took him to a M.A.S.H. unit for treatment.
Caldera lived to tell the tale and the men at the reunion took up a collection to buy him a laptop computer and prepaid Internet service so he can better stay in touch with his comrades.
Despite his injuries, Doucette said he “stands extremely erect, (on his crutches), his one shoe is black spit shine perfect. He is such an inspiration. He was supposed to be dead.”
Because the Vietnam War was such an unpopular one, many of the men returned home to scorn and disgrace. But most of the soldiers of The Big Red One were supported by friends and neighbors.
“It was unpopular in terms of the country but there was a significant number of the population that supported it,” said Hassett.
But some wounds are still healing.
“I was surprised how many men and their families are affected so emotionally,” said Doucette, who added that a lot of Vietnam-era soldiers are still being treated for depression, Agent Orange effects and living with the memories.
“These Vets are unsung heroes,” said Marianne Bruno of New York who attended the reunion with her husband, Anthony Bruno.
“This weekend, they have been able to laugh, and to cry together.”