by Joe Di Lacqua
So often we hear stories about war that are funny, sad, frightening, heroic, adventurous, mysterious, curious and most of the time, believable. We are fascinated with feats of heroism and extraordinary courage that have the tendency to glorify war rather than portray the true horrors of death and destruction. The Vietnam War was one such conflict that evoked controversy worldwide. The American people criticized the U.S. Government for its participation in what was considered a losing effort right from the opening bell. Try convincing the 57,000 families of the American serviceman who gave their lives to this so-called political war otherwise.
But my story is not about the moral justification of war and its consequences; this is about an act of human kindness and a pair of G.I. socks. That's right, a pair of socks!!!! In the spring of 1968 I was sent to Vietnam. Like so many other men going off to war, I wondered if I would be returning home with all my movable parts still in working condition. I arrived in Vietnam May 28, 1968 and was immediately sent to an infantry outfit with the 3rd Marine Division. After just 12 days in Vietnam, and much to my surprise, I was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. My feet barely hit the ground it seemed; I now had the responsibility to lead a platoon of men mostly my age in combat. It was just a couple of years earlier that I finally passed my drivers test after three tries and worrying if the Philly's were really serious about trading my favorite baseball player, Richie Allen.
It seemed like only yesterday, and in actuality it nearly was, that one of the instructors at Camp Pendleton was telling us that no matter how hard we try we cannot control the weather. Being a Vietnam veteran himself he explicitly gave us a blow-by-blow account of what life was like during the annual monsoon season. I had first hand experience with the rainy season having been stationed in the Philippines for 18 months in 1966-67. I went through two rainy seasons already and was not looking forward to a repeat engagement. I had an advantage over most of my comrades in this respect. My recollections of the monsoon season were images of "RAIN, RAIN, and MORE RAIN".
At least then I was living in a barracks. Unless you were one of those people who didn't have the good sense to get out of the rain, it was somewhat bearable. However in Vietnam, since I was in the infantry, the only roof over my head the majority of the time was the clear blue skies. About the only advantage we had during the monsoon season was a slow down of ground fighting. I can only guess the North Vietnamese Army didn't carry umbrellas either.
One important piece of information that I retained during my pre-war training days in sunny California was to keep your feet dry, warm, powdered, and always have a spare pair of dry socks in your pack. The corpsman provided us with excellent training including how to be sanitary in the field. I paid particular attention to this since I realized we were not going on a weekend camping trip. They warned us about something called "Immersion foot". Immersion foot could also be labeled as jungle rot of the foot. This condition is caused when the feet are constantly wet. The skin becomes soft and tender, especially when those feet are inside of a pair of socks that you haven't changed in a couple of weeks. After a while, your feet resemble a pair of scaled fish.
As if the North Vietnamese Army was not enough, we had to endure the hot weather, insects of every size shape and form, breakfast, lunch, and dinner out of a can, baths in the river just to name a few. Now on top of all that, we had to look forward to a damp and rainy forecast for the next three months.
I never understood until years later why it rained so much in so little of time. Some great information I got watching the discovery channel on cable television. It had to do with the ecological system of the tropical regions that allows for the vegetation to grow providing food for the animal population.
Like that would have been a comforting thought as we paraded around soaked to the skin. About the only advantage the rainy season had for us was that it rained on both sides of the playing field as well. To bad we couldn't call off the war on account of rain like they do for the baseball players.
During the monsoon season, my outfit was involved in one combat operation that lasted about 3 weeks. During this time we were constantly jumping out of one frying pan into another. Unfortunately, the only mode of transportation was to walk. Or in the vernacular of the military, hump. Our most common method of getting from one hot spot to another was the helicopter. Unfortunately, the choppers don't fly in bad weather.
The helicopter pilots in Vietnam were some of the bravest creatures I ever seen, but even they couldn't do the impossible. It didn't take me long to realize that keeping your feet dry and warm in the rainy season is little like eating soup with a fork. As the operation continued, I suddenly realized why those medical guys were trying to explain to a bunch of gung ho marines to keep your feet warm, dry, powered and change your socks daily. The only trouble was, my feet were wet, I didn't have any powder left, and the only pair of socks I had were on my feet. I could only think of one thing that would have gotten me out of there, "MOMMY", even that didn't help.
I was one of many marines that developed the dreaded, immersion foot. Each day it became harder to take my boots off because of the searing pain. With my socks constantly wet the only good thing I can say is that it kept my feet clean. The only problem was that the skin was beginning to peal off and rub against my boot making it all that more difficult to walk. I always remembered what my Father used to say to me when he was in WWII, smile, things can't get any worse, so he used to smile and things got worse. So needles to say, smiling was out of the question.
As luck would have it, we received word that we were being sent back to the rear area to recoup and relax for a couple days. The unit was pretty well beat up by now and the cases of immersion foot increased to at least half the outfit. The weather miraculously cleared for about an hour, just enough to set the helicopters in motion. We were to move to a landing zone about 1,500 meters from our present position to be air lifted back to Camp Carroll.
There was only one problem I was facing I couldn't walk. The pain was unbearable, my feet were rubbing against my boots and my legs were cramping. I sat there thinking, how was I ever going to get to the landing zone in this condition. Lets see, I could crawl, I could flap my wings and fly, I could even click my heels three times, I even pleaded for Scotty to beam me up. One thing I knew for sure, it was going to be no stroll in the park.
In war, more often than not, you have to rely on the unexpected to get through the day. Two other Marines noticed my dilemma, which at the time was not to difficult since I was the only one prone on the wet ground wincing in pain, and quickly surmised that I'll need help to walk. Time was precious, and tied directly to the weather.
We had to move and move fast. I had a marine under each arm holding me up while another Marine walked in front of me with a small shovel we called an entrenching tool, and dug holes along the path so I could walk. The scene looked like something out of the movie " The Sands of Iwo Jima". The only problem was this was happening to me and it was no movie script. After about 45 minutes and a lot of silent screaming, we reached the landing zone. I knew how to spell relief on this journey "Helicopter"!
Along with my new found friends we waited for the sweet sound of the rotor blades of those magnificent men in the flying machines to take us away, away. Since the only luck I had since I awoke that day was bad, why did I think it was going to be any different now?
It started to rain again and much to my dismay, our company commander, Captain B.J. Williamson, who looked more like the starting tackle for the Green Bay Packers instead of a battle hardened Audie Murphy, ordered everybody back to our original position.
So off we went again with my two buddies impersonating a pair of human crutches along with my personal landscaper, back down the yellow brick road to wait for clearer skies. If I thought the trek to the landing zone was bad, the trip back was even worse.
By now I convinced myself that whoever was responsible for all that Ra-Ra football talk about pain being a product of the mind never had to deal with immersion foot.
We finally did get back to our starting point in this whole fun filled adventure and began to settle in for what was guaranteed to be a very long night. I started singing to myself, "These boots are made for walking" and silently cursed Nancy Sinatra for such a ridiculous gesture. So now the fun part was about to begin. After careful thought, I made a very important decision, these boots had to come off, and come off now. I looked down at these two sorry appendages masked behind a battered pair of jungle boots and soggy rain soaked socks, and began the very slow and painful process of removing the source of my pain and suffering. This was going to be even more fun than I thought.
As I bent over to untie the laces, I would get a cramp in my leg that made me shoot up straighter than a 60mm mortar round that was just fired from the tube. I was bound and determined to get these boots off, and no matter what sinister forces this side of HO Chi Minh I had to deal with, I was going to accomplish my mission with the zeal and enthusiasm of a Paris Island recruit completing his first 3 mile run in less than an hour. As I sat there excavating myself from each boot, the pain was somewhere between a third degree sunburn and childbirth. With the boots finally off, the next mountain to climb was to get out of those wet socks. This chore was slightly less painful than the boots but ever as much laborious.
For reasons that were obvious, we always slept with our boots on in the field. If we came under attack during the night, the last thing we wanted to be looking for when we had to get out of Dodge quickly, was our boots. I knew that the only relief I would get would be to let my poor aching dogs air out. I knew that there was no way that I was going to get back into those boots anytime in the near future. As long as I stayed relatively still, and kept them covered, I might be able to get through the night. As this point, I didn't care if the whole North Vietnamese Army was coming over the hill; I wasn't putting those boots back on until the next morning.
Our heavenly Father must have been looking down and said, "that's enough". Before I could say, " Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz", the rain stopped. I thought to myself, Nah, they wouldn't come for us now, it's to late in the day. Not five minutes later, a Lance Corporal came running through the area as if he were Paul Revere warning the countryside that the British were coming, was yelling that the helicopters are in the air and on the way to pick us up.
I looked down at that soggy pair of socks and thought to myself "how in hell was I going to get back into these boots?" All the time I was sitting there suffering in silence, I didn't take notice to the fellow marine who was sitting not 10 feet away from me. He was a handsome, big strapping guy, with a calm disposition for somebody fighting a war 11,000 miles from home.
He took one look at me, reached into his pack pulling out a pair of socks and said, "Here Sarge, put these on". Without hesitation I took the socks as if he just handed me a plane ticket for the next flight home. Warm dry socks are much easier to put on than wet ones. Its hard to remember some 30 years later what was going through my mind at the time he gave me those socks but one thing was certain, the image of his face was burned into my brain. He may even have been one of the marines who helped me back and forth to the landing zone, but handing those pair of socks to me in that situation was like throwing a life preserver to a drowning person.
I know that his feet had to be in the same sad shape as mine. One thing I learned that day, the bond between fighting men in the field knows no prejudices. Everybody helps everyone as much as possible.
I did finally mange to get my boots on in record time. With the help of my comrades I made it to the landing zone in a little better shape than the last trip. We were air lifted back to the rear area where I was attended to by competent medical personnel. The only thing they could do for me was to put bandages on both of my feet. They wrapped so much gauze on them that I looked like tweety bird. A couple of days back in the rear and I was pronounced fit for duty. Then it was back to the bush for our next nervous breakdown.
When you look back at your life experiences, especially one as significant as combat duty, you seem to remember events, places and persons that others in the same situation long have forgotten. I guess the brain is a funny instrument like that. That single act of kindness is something that to this day, I have never forgotten. When reminiscing about the lighter side of war, if that was possible, I always seem to tell this story. But like anything else that time has the tendency to erode, I may have forgotten the name of the Marine who helped me, but never his face. It was not until just recently that we managed to find our way back together again.
As time went on and the war became a distant memory, it became more difficult to remember the names and the faces that meant so much to you then. I must have told that story about the socks and the kind gesture of that fellow marine a thousand times. I was angry with myself for not remembering his name or where he lived. But one thing was certain, if I ever saw him again, I would find a way to repay him for that heroic gesture. So over and over the next 30 years I kept asking myself the same question, " WHO WAS THAT GUY WHO GAVE ME THAT PAIR OF SOCKS".
About 2 years ago, out of the clear blue I received a call from one of my comrades who I served with in Vietnam. A baby faced, pint size machine gunner from New York named Rick Bartholomew. After 30 years you forget most of the faces or the names of the buddies you served with, but there is always a handful of guys you never will forget. Rick certainly was one those guys. He barely looked 14 years old, blond hair, and carried a M-60 machine gun that was nearly the same size as him. We reminisced about old times as if they were yesterday. I suggested that perhaps we should try to get in touch with some of the other guys from the east coast and put together a reunion. We thought Atlantic City would be an ideal spot because of the casinos and hotels.
After a few hundred phone calls, Rick turned this reunion into a battalion size operation. Before we knew it we had over fifty responses to our event. We finally decided on Ocean City N.J. for the site of the reunion for mid September. I couldn't wait to see these guys after all these years. There were about a dozen guys that I still remembered that I knew were planning on attending.
My closest friend during the war was Ted Conlon. Ted was from upper state New York. After searching for his whereabouts for 30 years, it wasn't until I was introduced to the wonderful world of the Internet that I finally managed to locate him. Ted and I decided to drive to the reunion together which gave us a great opportunity to stroll down memory lane and discover what path our lives have taken since we departed in 1969. I told Ted the story about the socks and how I been wondering all these years the identity of the person who gave them to me on that day.
The more I thought about this over the years, the more determined I was to discover who it was that gave me that pair of socks. I never imagined for a moment that I would even be able to recognize him now, let alone the possibility he would be at this reunion. One thing I knew for sure, his face was permanently etched in my brain.
The closer it got to the reunion, the more excited I became. I was finally going to reunite with all these former warriors. This wasn't going to be like some giddy high school reunion where you couldn't stand half the schmucks then and even less now, this was going to be guys you went through hell with and lived to tell about it. A lot has changed over the course of 30 years for all of us particularly on how we handled the post -war experiences both good and bad.
Finally, the big day had arrived. I have to tell you, if you were ever in a situation like this where you were thousands of miles from home in a strange land, fighting in a war that at that time the only reason you were there is because the powers to be in Washington sent you there, you couldn't wait to see all of your comrades again. Ted and I checked into the Biscayne Hotel, the site of our celebration, and the first person we met as we were checking in was our company commander, Captain B.J. Williamson.
Captain Williamson was from the Deep South as his accent indicated, and was always an imposing figure, even now. He was a well-liked commander by all his troops. Not only was he an intelligent leader, he was there day after day with us in the field sharing the same misery and field conditions as the rest of us.
We were given a hospitality suite as a perk by the hotel management, who truly were a most gracious host for an event of this importance. We ran to the room like we were running for a helicopter on a hot Landing Zone. There were about twenty guys already there. Everybody was chatting, laughing, drinking beer, eating pizza; you would never believe these guys haven't seen each other in over 30 years. The waistlines were a little more expanded, the hair, for those who still possessed any appreciable amount, was grayer, the mood was one of joy and celebration, happiness for us who were fortunate to come back, sadness for our buddies who didn't, and relief that the big day had finally came.
People change over the years, but your memories will live on forever. The guys I have been in touch with over the past months were all there waiting. Bob Reitter from the 60 mm Motor platoon, Rick Bartholomew who organized the whole affair along with "Doc Kelly, "Doc Hoppy", TJ Kelly, John Stronach, Tom Kenny just to name of few.
We spent the night playing an updated version of trivial pursuit. Guys were trying to recall all those fabulous C-ration meals, how to play back-alley bridge, where we were when certain battles occurred, where we went on R& R, what feeling we had when we had our first combat experience, what it was like for perfect strangers to be shooting at us, and how we appreciated all those things that we took for granted back in the real world. We were honored to have a Medal of Honor recipient in our unit. We recalled different locations and operations. Half of us remembered some of them; none of us remembered all of them. We had photo albums, old maps, and battalion insignias along with countless stories of the good old days. The flash bulbs from the cameras were popping all night. We all wanted to memorialize this evening forever and have photos of all our buddies to cherish.
By the end of the night, 30 long years seems to have just vanished and replaced by laughter and pleasant memories. We were all pretty well exhausted from all the war stories and trivia so we set out to get some sleep and get ready for another eventful day. Little did I know how significant this day was going to be in my life.
We started the day out with breakfast at one of the local restaurants. As we chatted, we became more familiar with each other's lives since the war. Our families, our occupations, places we been to and people we been in contact with over the years. A lot had certainly changed for all us since Vietnam. It was a cool September day and we decided to take a stroll on the Ocean City boardwalk. There were five of us all together taking in the sounds and sights of the ocean and its beautiful surroundings.
Besides myself, Ted Conlon, Bob Reitter, Tom Kenny and a tall husky fellow from New York wearing a Marine Corps cap and our memorial reunion shirt named Bob Macchio. We noticed how beautiful the beach was this time of the year and recalled the last time we were all together on the beach was an operation in the Qua-Viet sand dunes in 100-degree weather. Times had definitely changed for the better.
As we walked the boards we became more and more self-absorbed in our past experiences and how they affected our lives. As Bob and I became engrossed in conversation, I all of a sudden found myself staring at him oddly. There was something about him that made me take notice. He was a big guy, big like the guy who gave me the socks.
I was trying to visualize what he would have looked like 30 years ago. As we went on, I started to think to myself, could Bob possibly be the fellow that gave me that pair of socks. The more I looked at him the more convinced I was that Bob just might be the mystery man. I couldn't hold it in any longer so I decided to ask him if he remembered that day.
Like any other distant memory, he had no independent recollection of that event. But oddly enough, Bob Reitter listening to me recount the story in its entirety, said, "You know Joe, that's something Bob would have done". After spending time with Bob and seeing what type of human being he was, I believed he was just that type of person. But there was only one way to be certain, I had to see a photo of Bob from the time he was in Vietnam. Then and only then would I be absolutely certain.
We decided to go back to the hospitality suite for some afternoon refreshments and catch up on some more of the old times. A short time later, Bob handed me a stack of photos of himself that were taken when he was in Vietnam. Well, it took about a nanosecond to identify Bob as the one person on this earth I've been eternally grateful to for all of these years.
I sat there paralyzed staring at Bob's photograph as if I were looking at the 8th wonder of the world. The same face that I've seen constantly over the past 30 years was now standing 2 feet away from me.
I felt myself starting to get one of those Kodak moments that could only be caught on camera, a grown man in tears having found a long lost buddy or a relative that you thought was long gone, and found to be alive and well.
I was celebrating as if I just won the New Jersey lottery when my wife called the hotel. She wanted to tell me she just finalized a deal for a new car for us when I broke the good news to her. She had heard this story a few dozen times before and was ecstatic that Bob and I found our way to each other. Bob chatted with my wife Rosemary for a few minutes as if they were old friends.
I started to see what Bob Reitter meant when he said " that's something Bob would have done", Bob was a very special human being, caring and compassionate with a terrific disposition. After spending time with him at that reunion, I realized that he was the only person who could have given me that pair of socks. When I returned home a co-worker of mine, who was an Army Reservist, bought me a half dozen pairs of G.I. socks from his base so I could send them to Bob. I wish I could send him a whole trailer load full of socks to show my gratitude.
The stories you hear about men in battle are often exaggerated as to their roles or participation. We tend to glorify human tragedy for some kind of warped gratification. The truth is, there is nothing about a war that's entertaining. But so often you have events that occur in your experiences, that only you know of their significance. The day Bob handed me that pair of
socks, it was something so important to me that I knew I would never forget it. I was in a desperate situation that cried out for some kind of divine intervention. For Bob, it was probably just another kind gesture that he was responsible for because it's in his nature. They are the people you never forget in the bad times.
The horrors of the Vietnam War will live in our memories forever. We all deal with them in different ways. There are those of us who came back to live relatively normal productive lives. And there are those who are still fighting a war that has been over for 30 years. I think Plato put the whole war experience in perspective when he said, "only the dead have seen the end of war". For me, the human experiences like the one with Bob will live in my memory forever.