Soldiers who saw hell are reuniting here

bmorem@thetribunenews.comSeptember 19, 2012 

If war is hell, as Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, then a group of soldiers came face to face with Hades on the morning of March 21, 1967, at Fire Support Base Gold in Vietnam.

The battle of Suoi Tre, which lasted roughly from 6:30 to 10:45 a.m., would turn out to be the most intensely sustained fighting of the Vietnam War.

And although some 450 soldiers — with about 200 of those troops comprising Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion/22nd Infantry — were outnumbered 5-to-1 by an elite group of highly trained Viet Cong soldiers, the outcome belied the odds.

Firebases were artillery-fortified forward positions from which Army infantry would fan out in search-and-destroy missions.

As it was later learned, a spy had wormed its way into the inner circles of Gen. William Westmoreland and had learned of the Army’s plans for its firebase at Suoi Tre. Some 2,500 VC were dug in and waiting to ambush the Americans as they set up perimeter defenses.

The fighting was so intense as wave after wave of VC stormed the compound that howitzers were leveled to horizontal, loaded with canisters filled with thousands of pieces of metal and fired point blank at the hordes of Viet Cong, who ultimately breached the defenses of two sides of the compound.

Mario Salazar was a member of 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, a mechanized unit made up of armor and artillery. As his outfit raced to reinforce the soldiers at Suoi Tre, he’s written: “As we reached the clearing (around 9 a.m.), the scene that we witnessed was worthy of an outrageous Hollywood set.” (Indeed, the movie “Platoon” is based on a composite of battles of the firebase at Suoi Tre and, a year later, the battle of firebase Burt. The film’s director, Oliver Stone, was a member of Bravo Company.)

“There was gun and artillery fire everywhere,” Salazar recounted. “The middle of the compromised perimeter was on one edge of the clearing and appeared to be a light show: Artillery rounds, including white phosphorous and flares, grenades, smoke signal grenades and, of all things beer cans, were exploding all around.”

As those who were there have written, because of the intensity and length of the battle, Bravo Company was running on fumes with ammunition depleted. So when Salazar’s tanks and personnel carriers showed up, it was like a Western where a wagon train was under attack and the cavalry rides to the rescue.

In the final tally, 647 Viet Cong died; 31 Americans were killed and 109 wounded. Members of Bravo Company and the other military battalions that fought at Soui Tre were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest honor a unit can receive, comparable to a collective Medal of Honor.

I offer this background in honor of those who fought and died in Vietnam, and to let you know that some 105 members of Bravo Company who served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1971 are holding a reunion in Pismo Beach. It began Wednesday and continues through Sunday.

Grover Beach resident Max Torres and Santa Maria resident Richard Villarreal fought shoulder-to-shoulder at Suoi Tre, and are co-hosts of this year’s reunion. The survivors, now known as Bravo Regulars, a nonprofit, 600-member association, meet every two years at various locations around the country. This is the first time the Central Coast will play host to the group.

For five days these once battle-hardened men and their families will eat, catch up, have a casino night and party to local bands at the Pismo Beach Veterans Hall. A trip to Hearst Castle and touring all that the county has to offer is also part of the schedule.

A memorial service for their fallen comrades, “Honoring Our Fallen Heroes,” will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at New Life Community Church, 990 James Way in Pismo Beach. State Sen. Sam Blakeslee is expected to attend, as is Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, AmpSurf co-founder Dana Cummings and Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham. Stone was invited, but didn’t respond. The public is welcome to attend.

Torres, and thousands of other young men who came back from their tour “in country,” found themselves fundamentally changed. As a sergeant who led his squad through a never-ending smorgasbord of continuous fighting in dense jungle, rain, heat and humidity, snakes, ringworms and jungle rot, Torres says he and his brothers-in-arms shut down emotionally through self-preservation. When a close friend died, someone who covered their backs, the men simply didn’t talk about him anymore, like the guy never existed.

For 30 years, while working for Pacific Bell, Torres remained a wary man; he didn’t get into fights, but he says he didn’t take any guff from anyone, either. He’s healed tremendously in the last few years through counseling and can now talk about some of his experiences, although he wept in our conversation when recalling the bravery and sense of mission his band of brothers exhibited.

Post traumatic stress disorder may have been what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was getting at in his Jan. 10, 1946, speech: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity.”

Welcome to the Central Coast, Bravo Regulars. Thank you for your service to our country. Welcome home.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.

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