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The War That Never Ended

By Megan Woolhouse

The War That Never Ended"Day after day of stalking an enemy rarely seen but always present. Endless hours of incredible heat, dust and humidity or sucking mud and chilling rain. Brain-numbing monotony of endlessly putting one foot in front of another under the weight of a pack, rifle and ammunition and four or five canteens of precious water. Then suddenly an explosion and the shrieks of those who are still able to scream out. A weary foot has found a hidden land mine."
- Retired Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, USMC, '51, reviewing the film Platoon for The New York Times

Twenty-four years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam is still a raw wound on the American psyche. The mere mention of the conflict can trigger heated arguments and painful memories. In this, Holy Cross is a microcosm of the national sentiment. Among alumni, opinions regarding the war are both divided and intensely emotional. In our classrooms, students born years after the last serviceman came home struggle to understand the war from an academic viewpoint. For the veterans profiled below, their experiences in the war were anything but academic.

Jim MacDougald '51, will never forget the day he left Vietnam on emergency leave to visit his sick brother. Aboard a C-151 cargo plane, he and two other passengers sat among the bodies of war dead piled high in metal canisters. MacDougald, now a retired Air Force colonel, says he never made a retreat as intense as that 18-hour flight. 

"It's a long ride from Da Nang to Dover, Delaware," MacDougald says. "I was only going home for a week and then I was coming back."

MacDougald went back to Vietnam in 1969. He went back to constant nighttime rocket and mortar attacks. He went back and watched a villager throw a grenade into the back of a pick-up truck carrying unarmed American soldiers. He went back to a place nicknamed "Rocket City." Vietnam was another world. There were no front lines. The military owned the place in the daytime and the Viet Cong owned it at night, he says. Commander of a detachment of fighter aircraft, MacDougald says there was no time for fear. He had a job to do.

The Vietnam War took the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen. Eighteen of them were Holy Cross graduates and undergraduates. Almost 30 years later, the war still raises raw emotions. Some veterans won't talk about the experience. Others acknowledge camouflaging their feelings with gallows humor. One veteran describes how he "compartmentalized" his feelings about Vietnam until rage seeped through years later.  Outrage at the politics and protests of the era continues to swell, but it is often blunted by the memories of the war itself.

For some, Vietnam was a calling, an unspoken obligation to follow in the footsteps of fathers and grandfathers who had served. For others it was a rite of passage and a test of manhood. Yet as the Vietnam War dragged on, many veterans were left to sort out often confusing contrasts.

"The war wasn't worth leaving my wife, and five kids without a father, but we had a job to do and we did it," MacDougald says. "On every mission, I prayed for those that we were about to attack."

In 1969, Ed Petrazzolo was about to graduate from Holy Cross. He had been accepted to law school when he received draft number 65. A basketball player who had never served in the reserves, he had heard horror stories about the war from men who had returned. One of his best friends at Holy Cross protested the war in a very public move to Canada. Petrazzolo and two other college buddies chose to enlist.

"I was not going to run away," he says. "I had made that decision, although I wasn't John Wayne, either."

By May of 1971, Petrazzolo was an infantry platoon leader in Da Nang, and Vietnam soon became "more than an article in Time magazine," he says. On his first mission, he set out to prove to his men that he was neither a reckless leader who would endanger them, nor a wimp. Petrazzolo summoned helicopters and got onboard the first one in a gesture to the men in his platoon. Choppers routinely landed 15 minutes after artillery from Cobra gunships had cleared landing zones for them in the jungle. Often the noise caused by the clear-cutting alerted the enemy and drew fire. Men jumping out of the chopper would hope they weren't landing in the middle of gunfire, or what was called a "hot LZ."

"You pray," Petrazzolo says. "Then you find a place to hide and get on your belly."

Petrazzolo ran out of the chopper into a conflict with a small band of Viet Cong soldiers armed with grenade launchers. The fight was over in 20 minutes, he says, just long enough to give him an acute awareness of the life and death stakes he faced. It was only the first of many 30-day missions in the jungle.

"I really took it personally to take care of people in the platoon and myself," he says. "Some men were angry and there were idiot officers. I had a reputation for being good in the field. I also never asked them to do anything I wouldn't do."

The average life expectancy of a Marine Corps lieutenant in Vietnam was two months. In this lethal environment, soldiers died in predictable and unpredictable ways. Officers were "fragged" by their own. Standing on a cliff one day overlooking a picture-postcard beach, Petrazzolo recalls seeing a soldier's leg severed instantly when an aluminum-racing raft cut across his path accidentally.

"It's all horror," says Petrazzolo, now 52, and president of a technology company in Phoenix. "Everything is new. Nothing is the same."

Dave Judd '59 thought it was a practice drill when the B40 rockets started landing in Da Nang in January of 1968.  As a Marine captain in and around Da Nang during the Tet Offensive, Judd quickly learned the fight was for real.

One month later, 2,000 American and 4,000 South Vietnamese soldiers had died, and an estimated 50,000 in enemy troops had been killed. One of the most somber moments of the war for Judd was the memorial service for a lieutenant and four enlisted men in his unit who were killed.

"To this day, anytime there's a loud bang, a car backfiring or they start firing dynamite at a construction site, I jump and cringe," Judd says. "(Seeing friends die) kind of made me impersonal to relationships with people."

Vietnam was all about surprises, Judd says. Men watched their brothers fall onto pungee sticks and step on mines. One of his most terrifying experiences was trying to disarm a soldier who snapped and began firing his rifle wildly inside the compound. The soldier was eventually straightjacketed, but tranquilizers couldn't knock him out.

Now 61 and retired from the military and the restaurant business, Judd says he has no regrets. As a Marine, he was taught to be "a fighting man" sent to Vietnam to do a job. As the sense of futility and confusion about what America was fighting for grew, however, he says he learned an important lesson: "If you're going to fight a war, you had better win."

Charles Buchta '63, a former co-captain of the Holy Cross track team, served as a Marine in Da Nang from 1965 to 1966 as the head of a motor transport unit. Bored with the monotony of the job, one day he grabbed "the biggest, ugliest Marine" he could find and handed the man an automatic weapon. They left the base to go exploring.

"I was looking for some action," says Buchta. "I felt like I'm going to be in a war and never be in a war. It was really a dumb thing, but a bug got in me one day."

Buchta, a co-founder of the alpha gamma chapter of the Semper Fidelis Society at Holy Cross, says he was angry with U.S. politicians who did not seem to be fighting the war to win.

"I think we went in with the right intent and right concerns and somewhere it got off track," he says. "When you live through it, you don't see the point it changes. It didn't change overnight. It evolves and that's the complexity of it."

Boredom wasn't an issue for Jim McManus '70. "All I could think about was I'd like to get some rest," McManus says. "And I don't ever want to do this again. This is the worst, the absolute worst experience of my life, and I wasn 't even in the infantry."

He recalls a stint aboard the Newport News as the ship cruised into the Bay of Vinh. Navigators went to great lengths to maneuver around the Vietnamese fishermen in the harbor, he says. Then the enemy fired shells at the Newport News from the shore. In return, the ship, with its massive gun power, "laid waste to Vinh," he says.

McManus writes about the experience of watching the fishermen see their homes destroyed in a poem, "The Raid Upon Vinh."

...With age you should fail to remember what it was that was long in the past: the men in their boats, the shock and despair in their eyes as they watched us and the smoldering City of Vinh, their smoldering City of Vinh.

McManus says he's proud to have served. Communism has failed to thrive, he says, and America has learned that it should only go to war if it has the support of citizens.

"The protests didn't mean as much to me as Mike Quinn '68 getting killed," he says. "He's somebody I played hockey with (at Holy Cross) ... a big, quiet, happy guy. The next thing you know, his mother is in some cemetery getting a flag instead of her son. It's easy to talk grandly about saving Vietnam. When people start dying, it's not so great."

In 1969, David Barth lived in upstate New York and watched anti-war protests unfold on television. He had graduated from Holy Cross in 1962, finished basic training in 1963 and served as a Marine at Red Beach and later at the Quang Tri combat base until 1969.

Student protesters didn't want to sacrifice themselves for a cause that didn't seem to threaten anyone's immediate future, Barth says. He still remembers the anger he felt after receiving a copy of a Holy Cross literary magazine that included photos of longhaired students in "Ho Chi Minh sandals." He demanded to be removed from the mailing list.

"I just thought they were jerks, pot heads, and people afraid to serve," he says. "Later on ...  I thought some are truly against the war and think it's morally wrong. And they're entitled to their opinion, but I didn't agree with them."

After the war, he spent 24 years in the FBI and didn't look back at Vietnam. "My time overseas ... has taught me that this country is head-and-shoulders above anyplace there is. It's worth fighting for. I think it would do people a lot of good to go to Korea, Vietnam, or Mexico and see the freedom we have that other people don't."

Yet public support for the war had dropped by the late '60s and anti-war sentiment devastated reserve officer programs on college campuses. Enrollment fell from more than 200,000 in 1968 to some 75,000 by 1973, according to Stanley Karnow's book Vietnam: A History.

John Drislan '55 went to Vietnam in 1971. He flew gunships on 112 combat missions out of Da Nang and Bien Hoa. Overall the experience taught him he could be scared, he says.

"Nobody wants to go to war," says Drislan. "It was just something that you had to do and you did it and you're glad you came home. I think your POWs - every one of them - is a hero. These protesters, I'd like to see them spend one day as a POW."

Steve Bowen '65, says he has worked hard to bury many Vietnam memories. He joined the Marines shortly after graduation, he says, because he was 22 and didn't know what else to do.  "I wasn't ready to see the rest of my life measured out in station wagons," he says. "I was affected by the legacy of Kennedy ... and there was (also) this feeling of  'I'm the toughest guy on the block' and what better way to prove it. "

Stationed just south of Da Nang, he became a forward observer in a small unit that baited larger enemy battalions. "My dominant memory is the contrast of it all," Bowen says. "It was unbelievably boring and mundane and tedious interrupted by these staccato moments of blind terror. That pattern would just keep repeating itself."

He remembers walking into an ambush. Everything got quiet, he says, and suddenly the North Vietnamese Army, armed with two 50-caliber machine guns, had him and his men pinned down. Lying in the mud, screaming, shooting and trying not to get shot, Bowen scrambled to convince headquarters that they needed support. Such situations were not uncommon.

"To ask people to get up and go forward when they're being shot at is not an easy thing," he says. "The human will is a phenomenal thing to see."

Bowen says the protesters seemed shallow to him, after a year of dealing with clear-cut life and death situations. He remembers arriving back in Los Angeles and seeing a woman in a miniskirt. He says he was feeling tan, fit and tough in his uniform with his shooting badges and medals. She gave him a smile and he approached her. When he got close, she spit on the front of his shirt, he says.

"She was so good looking, I just laughed," he says.

Bowen went on to become president of the New York ad agency that held the Marine Corps account. He also met the man who created the "We're looking for a few good men" slogan. Bowen says he told the ad-man it was effective advertising.

"I told him, 'You almost got me killed.'"

Robert K. Wright Jr. '68 was assigned to a history unit located between Saigon and the Cambodian border. From 1970 to 1971, he interviewed soldiers and wrote official military accounts of the war for the National Archives. Wright's mission in Vietnam, which later became his life's work, was to learn more about soldiering. The purpose of history, he says, is to learn from it "so fewer kids die."

Some days, Wright would interview as many as 150 men. In one report, he chronicled a platoon of men that had been pushed into a bomb crater in an attack. Out of ammunition, they threw rocks at the enemy pretending they were grenades. A helicopter finally came and pulled the survivors out. Then the helicopter, weighed down with 17 men, crashed. It's one of countless stories.

"I was usually the first person to talk with them, which makes you a lightning rod," Wright says. "I've had guys break down sobbing as they give you their stories."

After Vietnam, Wright earned his Ph.D. in history from William and Mary College. A combat historian for the Army, he has written five books and followed soldiers to wars in Panama, Somalia and the Persian Gulf.  Last year he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He says he compartmentalized some of his more intense feelings about war. Some feelings now erupt in rage, he says. Wright says he's done travelling to wars. He's ready to retire and receive treatment for stress.

One important lesson from Vietnam came after a study of how soldiers coped after the war, Wright says. Vietnam veterans who sat down with a chaplain or participated in a transition group before returning to civilian life fared better emotionally after the war, he says. Today, because of Vietnam, transition meetings are a requirement for soldiers returning from the Persian Gulf.

"We tended to try not to talk about it," says Wright. "You didn't want to open the box because you didn't want it to come out."

For Jim MacDougald, who traveled not once but twice from Delaware to Da Nang, who served in Korea and then Vietnam, and who was spit on when he returned from the war, every veteran must find his own way. Surviving the war is not the final chapter.

Today World War II veterans are finally beginning to come forward and share their stories, he says. Movies, books and documentaries try to untangle the war. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., draws more visitors each year than any other national monument.

For everyone who served, MacDougald says, coming to terms with the chaos and violence of Vietnam is a very personal process.

"Talking about it and arguing about it are things that really rile your emotions," he says. "In the long run, anger only hurts the person who is angry. So you have to let go."

 

John Donovan '65 Sidebar >

John "Jack" Farley '64 Sidebar >

Robert Maslowski '68 Sidebar >

Frank Scarpa, M.D., '63 Sidebar >

Tim Sullivan '65 Sidebar >

Bernard Trainor '51 Sidebar >

 

Megan Woolhouse is a journalist living in Louisiana. 

 

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