I was born four years after World War Two ended and grew up in the 50’s in a small Midwestern community and lived just outside the city limits with my parents and six brothers and five sisters. It was a time when we didn’t lock our doors and we opened windows and cooled ourselves on hot summer nights with fans because we didn’t have air conditioning. People, including my father, left their keys in their cars. There was very little crime, and virtually no violent crime, so people felt safe. Looking back, it was a rather idyllic time.
I recall watching parades on Main St., in the 50’s and vividly remember veterans participating and proudly walking in their uniforms on Memorial Day. At that time, veterans were respected very much. In fact, for those people running for local offices, they proudly proclaimed their veteran service in their campaign literature and on billboards. I can’t recall politicians or people running for office who were not veterans at that time. It stands to reason that was the case because we weren’t that many years removed from World War Two, but it didn’t dawn on me at the time. The point I’m making is that I grew up when military service was revered and I made a mental note of that fact. I had a mild interest in politics at that time and it was increasingly evident to me that you had to be a veteran to even run for a political office.
I attended high school locally and I made a decision in my senior year that I was going to go into the military. My boyhood friend Bill Lageman, a few years older than me, joined the Navy and when he came home on leave, he sparkled in his uniform. I immediately noticed that he was no longer the kid I knew from the neighborhood. He had transformed himself and I was intrigued enough to seriously pursue military service. I visited the navy recruiter and decided I didn’t want to spend long periods aboard a ship so I changed my mind and joined the army. I enlisted and chose a career in the medical field (medical aid man) because the genial recruiter told me I could serve in Hawaii and Germany.
When I graduated from high school, I entered the Army and completed basic training at Ft. Campbell, KY and advanced individual training at Ft. Sam Houston, TX. I received orders for Vietnam and I was initially assigned to serve as a medical aid man (medic) with an engineering outfit at Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam affectionately known as the “country club of Vietnam”. I arrived there and served for three days when I was told to gather my belongings and head to the helicopter pad because medics were needed in infantry units up north.
The helicopter landed in Chu Lai and I was assigned to HHC 1/6th 198th Light Infantry Brigade in the American Division. I spent a few days at LZ Bayonet and was then helicoptered out to the jungle where I hooked up with members of the second platoon of Charlie Company. The first guy I saw when I departed the helicopter was Al Torsiello and he almost immediately introduced me to a very colorful guy named Gene “Bean” Lynch. Shortly thereafter I met Sergeant Leroy Ferguson who would be my immediate supervisor and he introduced me to Lt. Ernie Carrier and then Captain Hurtado. Within a few minutes, I was then introduced to the rest of the thirty or so guys in the second platoon. They were all happy to see me because their medic Walter Pratt had been killed in battle a few weeks earlier and they had been without a medic.
I served day and night with these guys and members of the first and third platoon and the mortar platoon for eight months. We ate together, smoked cigarettes together, pulled guard duty together, dug fox holes together and marched and fought together for months on end. We really got to know one another because we had no choice as we were stuck together in the middle of a jungle and had to rely on one another to survive. We knew where everybody was from, the names of the guy’s wives and girlfriends and we single guys always joked that we were going to steal the guy’s wives. We knew the strengths and weaknesses of all of the guys. The vast majority of us were just 18 and 19 year old immature kids. One guy in our unit, Don Pinckney was 24 years old, and his nickname, that we gave him, was grandpa. We became a very close unit.
Throughout my eight months in the field, eight miserable months, several of the guys in my platoon were wounded or killed. On one hill, Hill 352, in May 1968, we went up the hill with 120 guys and came off of it with 29 guys. We had a stretch from April 5, 1968 to June 5, 1968 that we were engaged with the enemy, in some way, every day. Losing guys as rapidly as we did really lowered our morale and we had a tendency to gravitate towards the older more experienced guys as opposed to the new replacements that were filling our ranks.
Serving with the infantry in Vietnam in 1968 was hell. It was the worst time of the war in terms of casualties and some of us were lucky enough to survive it. But, without a doubt, the war took a heavy toll on all of the members of my unit and many, probably most of us, have suffered in various ways, for many years because of what we experienced when we were 18 and 19 years old. However, as things turned out, despite our suffering, those of us who survived were actually the lucky ones because we have had fifty years plus of life that was denied to many of our comrades.
Every last Monday in May, those of us who survived the Vietnam war don’t celebrate Memorial Day with get togethers and barbecues. Many of us are more withdrawn and solemn because that is one day among many that we recall the times when several of those names on the black granite wall were vibrant young men, eating with us, joking around and carrying on trying to make it through another day in the war. I remember the names and the faces of those who died in battle and consistent with my blog entitled Viewing the War through Music, I have a song I wrote about how some of us combat vets view this solemn day. It’s called “On Memorial Day” and it was performed by Jon Statham. It can be heard at: www.SoundCloud.com/Jim-Purtell/on-memorial-day