Big John's 2004 Reunion Speech

Platoon Reunion – Washington, D.C. 2004

Why are we here today?

The purpose of this reunion is to honor every member of the second platoon that served in 1968-1969. We are here to honor both the living and those that have passed before us. We are here to reestablish an unbreakable brotherhood among the infantrymen that served in the Wolfhounds 2/27 C Company 2nd Platoon. Thirty-six years ago we came from all over the United States and Puerto Rico to serve our country with Courage and Honor.

Our platoon’s history, although similar to the many others that were in Vietnam at the same time, is a unique portrait unlike any other. The men in the second platoon shared experiences that would forever affect their futures. Our mission was to seek out the enemy and disrupt the North Vietnamese Army while securing the peace for the South Vietnamese people. We were called “Grunts.” That is not a pretty name but it describes what we were all about. Our job was a 24-hour, 7 day a week occupation that consisted of working, sweating, and grunting. Believe it or not we are kind of proud of the name “Grunt.”

At the end of any given day, we would never have been chosen for honor guard based on our appearance alone. Because of the work, our hair was mussed up, our faces were grimy from mud and dust and our uniforms were usually dirty, wrinkled and torn. On any given day we would walk out of a rock hard latterite pit to get a chopper, just to be dropped off in a rice paddy which was filled with hot leech-infested water. From there we would slosh through knee-deep mud, crawl through hedgerows and undergrowth alive with biting ants or bloodthirsty stinging mosquitoes. Sometimes those bugs proved to more of challenge than even the enemy. Certainly they were more plentiful. When we got a chance we would stop, take a C-ration out of our pocket and hoped we had gotten beans and ham instead of pork or turkey loaf. We prayed there would be a chunk of chocolate in the rations to take the taste of warm canteen water out of our mouths. We always reflected on home, a wife or a girlfriend, or flying home in that big “freedom bird” to the land where times were better. After a day’s work we would return to the Fire Support Base to prepare for out evening’s ambush patrol.

Before going out on an AP we had a rare spare moment to clean our weapons and grease them up with greasy stuff we called LSA. We took a minute to scrawl an answer to a letter that had been getting soggy in our breast pocket. There were many hours of lost sleep and bodies aching for rest. We learned to catch Z’s whenever we could. Very rarely we would sleep so deep that only those who’ve worked to near exhaustion can understand that feeling. Just before dark we would meet with the platoon leader for a briefing before leaving the wire to set up our ambush patrol for the night.

Ambush Patrols were always a dangerous proposition. We prayed we would get to out position without being ambushed by VC or NVA. When we popped an ambush or engaged in a firefight we displayed both guts and courage. Sure we were scared, like any other human being, but we had no time to think of being scared once the shit hit the fan. We had to exercise self-control. We knew what to do and did it. Many times we did much more than what was expected of us and were called a Hero. Perhaps later we would say, “Man, I never thought I’d do some of the things I did today.” But we did them because it meant our life or the life or our buddy.

We depended on each other and counted on each other to do our jobs. Each man in the second platoon was and is a special kind of man. We lived in a way that most people can neither comprehend nor imagine. Movie-makers have attempted but never captured on film the “real” Grunt experience. Some movies have depicted parts of what we experienced, but never captured the entire essence of our “tour of duty.” The CIB, that blue and silver symbol, identifies us as men that have lived in hell, who have known that glorious feeling of coming out of a situation alive when we could have been killed, and who has died a little each time a buddy was wounded or killed. Yes, we call ourselves “Grunts” and we are proud of it because it’s more than a name – it’s a title.

We were proud to be Wolfhounds in the “Tropic Lightning.” Our motto is Nec Aspera Terrent, No Fear On Earth. I’m not sure what kept us going long after the ordinary man would have dropped. Perhaps the simple answer is Wolfhounds were not ordinary human beings. We performed great acts of endurance and personal courage. None of our buddies were left behind. We performed such acts in barely known places like Trang Bang, Michelin Rubber Plantation, the Hobo Woods, Iron Triangle, The Sugar Factory, Cambodia, Cu Chi, Tay Ninh, Fu Cong, Hoc Mon, Crocket FSB, Reed FSB, Jackson, FSB, Diamond FSB and many other places. We served in “Nam” and dreamed of someday returning to “The World.”

Working in Nam was a difficult task. We very rarely saw our enemy face to face. More times than not we didn’t know who the real enemy was. Danger appeared in many different ways. Women and children would become suicide bombers and women approaching a Fire Support Base might be Sappers. One thing we knew for sure, every day someone was trying to kill or cripple us. Through it all we kept our sense of decency and honor. We befriended villagers and were quick to share C-rations and candy with the Vietnamese kids. We were not trying to win a war, we were trying to win the hearts of the people as well. Today the media is focused on certain anti-war comments a certain Senator is spouting about Vietnam Vets being murderers and baby killers. He must have served in a different unit that we did. We did, however, witness the horrors brought upon the villagers by NVA soldiers when they cooperated with us in any way.

We came to the platoon with names like John, Ray, Conrad, Larry, Steve, Enrico, Paul, Willy, Lee, Ed, Russell, Jack, Buck, Tommie, Robert, Dennis, Jose, Percy, Joel, William, Donald, LeRoy, Rudy, Gary, Freddy, Michael, Greg, George, Herbert, Lanny, Dale, Sylvester, Charles, Arthur, Ronald, DeWayne, Clement, and Forrest. Soon we were known by such names as Smokes, Big John, Rick o shay, Kid, MF, Nase, Sly, Hedgy, Teach, Rabbi, Big Joe, Mom and Dad, Rick, Doc, Claymore, Poncho, Glove, Bobby, Alabama, Moose, Sugarbear, Little Willy, Opey, Baby, Rambo, Crab and Flat Dick.

We came from all over the United States and Puerto Rico. Our educational backgrounds ranged from high school dropouts to college graduates. Some of us joined the Army as an alternative to going to jail. We had hard NCO’s and Instant NCO’s. OCS officers and Direct Commission officers as well as a National Guard officer. Most of us felt a sense of patriotism, and believed we were helping to stop communism in Southeast Asia. Weather conditions in Vietnam changed from hour to hour. During the monsoon season it could be 120 degrees in the day and rain buckets at night. If we were out on an ambush patrol during such a rain we would sit shivering from the intense cold of evaporation off our hot bodies. I remember sitting on my steel pot one night during a heavy rain and I got so discouraged from shaking that I broke down in tears and thought to myself, “What in the hell are we doing here? No NVA in their right mind would come out in this crap!”

Life in the platoon wasn’t without its moments of humor and fun. Most of us became experts at playing hearts and spades and lived for the day we would shoot the moon on our unsuspecting buddies. We always seemed to have animals around for our amusement. We had several puppies, monkeys and even had a tamed rat we fed at Reed FSB. When we weren’t filling sandbags (that by the way if we were given a nickel for every one we filled we could have retired years ago) we might pose in humorous “Ham-bone” positions and snap a few Polaroid’s to send home. If we were lucky and the mailroom didn’t mis-deliver them, a monthly Playboy magazine would allow us to fantasize about round-eyed girls that would surely be waiting for us with open arms upon our return to the world. Every once in awhile we would get a copy of the Tropic Lightning news or the Stars and Stripes newspaper. Some of us read books sent to us from friends and family and we even had a sci-fi expert Larry Lamere!

We always looked forward to “Weapons check day” when we would line up outside the FSB and unload a few magazines of ammo just for the hell of it. Russ Bruns always entertained us with a few rounds from his 90mm shoulder fired howitzer. The guys carrying the M-79 Grenade launchers would try to blow holes in the hedgerow in front of us. The deafening sound of a couple of M-60 machine guns working out would amaze the new guys that had recently joined the platoon.

Packages from home were always welcome. The guys from New York would get sausage and pepperoni sticks and the rest of us would stand around and beg for a slice or two. Cans of Nally’s chili, Vienna sausages, corned beef hash and homemade chocolate chip cookies, which were reduced down to their orginal ingredients by the time they got to us in the field, all tasted better than the C-rations and green meat and multi-colored eggs we use to eat in the chow line.

Sleeping in the Hobo Woods and the Iron Triangle were experiences we will never forget. We didn’t realize we were sleeping in jungles that were sprayed with Agent Orange just a month or two before we were there. The mosquitoes were the largest I have ever seen with wing spans that allowed them to lift a towel from a soldier’s face. We were bug bitten unmercifully and broke out in rashes of unknown origin. Keeping our feet from breaking out in jungle rot was a challenge every day. Keeping a dry pair of socks was next to impossible. Most guys learned early you didn’t eat peanuts or watermelons from the farmer’s field. Guys from the south probably knew that raw peanuts are bitter as hell and the guys from the west coast figured out early what the Vietnamese farmers were using to fertilize their melons!

If one of us was able to survive the field for 6 months we were considered “old guys” even though most of us were only 19 or 20 years old. An old guy started keeping a “Short timers calendar” and marked off the days till he would ETS back home. The company first sergeant tried to get old timers with 11 months in the field off line. They would be assigned duties in Cu Chi where their chances of making their ETS date was improved. Speaking of CU Chi, we would have Company 3 day stand downs in Cu Chi. The purpose of these stand downs was to get re-supplied with new boots, replace worn out fatigues, get a haircut from some Vietnamese barber that you wondered what they did for a living at night! I always felt funny when the barber shaved my throat with a straight razor! It was good to take a break from the rigors of war. Many times however, these stand downs turned into drunken fist fights with other companies sharing the same NCO club or bar. We did get entertained in Cu Chi on occasion by Asian bands that would come and play all the latest stateside hits. We didn’t care that they couldn’t pronounce half the lyrics. We saw the movie “Barbarella” on one such stand down and never dreamed Jane Fonda, who tickled so many of our imaginations that night, would later become “Hanoi Jane”! Bob Hope came to Cu Chi and at the last minute our company was informed we would be attending the show. I always loved Bob Hope after that show.

Our tour of duty was filled with much uncertainty. There was one point that a rumor started about the Chinese touching off a nuclear device in Nam. That kind of rumor can wreak havoc on a guy’s psyche.

The men in this room have earned a special “right” of brotherhood that cannot be changed by time or absence away from one another. We all shared a unique experience. Our lives were changed forever. Many of us returned home as casualties of war. Many suffered life-long disabilities. Some suffered from depression and haunting nightmares that have continued to this day. Why have we come to this reunion? We come to honor all that served in our platoon, the living and those that have passed before us. We are a brotherhood, we are Wolfhounds, we were the first ones in and the last ones out and we never left anyone behind.