By Megan Woolhouse
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
- 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,
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
For everyone who served, MacDougald says, coming to
terms with the chaos and
violence of Vietnam is a very personal
"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