War Story of a Wall Volunteer
By Anthony Wallace
I was drafted during the winter of 1968 just before the draft was put aside. Here in New York City when you received a letter from the Selective Service to come for a physical or meeting, they would send you two Transit Authority tokens to make your way to and from their location. When the actual draft notice was received, you received one token! In those days, I believe the fare was about twenty cents. Today it is $2.25.
Based on the draft notice I was to report to Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, N.Y. on Jan. 20, 1969; my mother’s birthday. On that morning I bumped into a high school classmate, Willard D. Kelly, who had also been drafted. Willard and I also attended the same church in Brooklyn. Until that morning neither one of us was aware that the other had been drafted.
We arrived at the induction center approximately 0700 and shortly thereafter were sworn into the United States Army.
We spent the remainder of the day with many others, filling out paperwork. At 1700 hours we were loaded on buses and taken to La Guardia Airport, boarded a United Airlines flight, 737 and taken down to Fort Jackson, S.C. We arrived late that night and were taken to a building where we completed more paperwork late into the night and early hours of the next day.
Next, haircuts, uniforms, a little breakfast and policing up around the military base. After a few days of switching from civilian to GI property, we were shipped to Basic Training installations.
Willard and I along with others were shipped to Fort Gordon, Ga. In 1969, the World War II barracks were still used; coal was used to heat the water and heat the barracks. One soldier a night had to stand Fire Watch.
In basic, very quickly I was appointed an assistant squad leader; I was given a black arm band with stripes which gave me the authority to lead other recruits during the eight weeks of basic.
During those weeks of training, very quickly we were told about Vietnam by our drill sergeants. We were trained to be soldiers and very quickly taught how to use weapons.
After basic, we were sent to Fort McClellan, Ala. where we went through 12 weeks of Advanced Individual Training or as we called it, Advanced Infantry Training. Once again, I was appointed an acting squad leader.
During this time, most of us had already been chosen for the Military Occupational Status (MOS) of “11 Bravo: Infantry.” During these 12 weeks, the military personnel are looking for potential officers and flight school candidates for helicopters. In each case, I qualified; however, you were required to sign up for another year to your already obligated two years. I refused. Then I was offered the opportunity to sign up for Non Commissioned Officer. With this particular school, you were not required to sign up for another year, however, by signing up; you accepted the fact that you were going to Vietnam. My reasoning at that time was if I go to Nam, I might as well go with some rank.
NCO School took place at Fort Benning, Ga. Twelve weeks of intensive training in squad leader tactics, weapons, land navigation, calling in artillery, communications, first aid, escape and evasion – you name it, they gave it to us. In a class of 150 men, I graduated in the top five. They kept the top five to help push the next class through. I graduated Sept. 9, 1969. So, literally in nine months, I was a sergeant in the United States Army.
I arrived in Vietnam the first part of January 1970 and was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, 2nd of the 7th Cavalry, B Company. Now, this historic unit that has roots that go all the way back to General George Armstrong Custer, engaged in the first major battle for American forces in the Ia Drang Valley. That is what “We Were Soldiers…” was all about.
I was flown by helicopter to a firebase called “Jamie” and met my Company Commander, Capt. John Morgan. He assigned me to my squad and I met young men that had been in country longer that I had. Generally new guys were not liked because that had to be taught how to survive.
I met my squad, in particular, Thurman Wolfe, Bill Di Santis, Peppy (Joseph Di Gregorio), Blue, Washington, Lopez, Evans and Wyss.
Very quickly I adapted to the heat, firefights and combat assaults via the helicopters. I believe the squad accepted me once they determined that I knew what to do.
When out in the bush, you literally had to live from one day to the next. You did not think too far ahead. You would simply count the days. Just about everyone kept a short timer’s calendar. I would send my mother one card from a deck of cards each week. I told her, by the time she received the entire deck, I should be walking through the door. She never did receive the entire deck of cards.
We hit a number of firebases during those early months of my time in country. On April 13, 1970 we arrived at a firebase called Atkinson, which had been named after a soldier previously KIA. It was a new base and my squad was assigned one of line bunkers.
On the evening of April 15, 1970, just before dark, we heard movement in the tree line. The four of us that were near the bunker looked at each other and instantly entered the position and began firing our weapons. Wolfe, Peppy, Di Santis and myself were firing until we saw nothing but smoke in the air. When we began firing, the enemy began to fire. The battle was on! I looked over at Wolfe firing the machine gun and saw that his ammo was running out. I turned to reach for more ammo and my back was facing the aperture of the bunker. Then a RPG (rocket propelled grenade) hit right in front of our position, destroying our bunker. The bunker caved in and I was trapped under sandbags and corrugated metal. At this point, I thought that I was going to die due to secondary explosions. In my mind, my life did pass before me. I was ready to go from this earthly life to a heavenly existence.
The explosions did not come, but shortly two soldiers came over to the bunker and began digging through the sandbags. They reached my left arm first and began to dig me out. They dragged me over to the chopper pad and just dropped me there. The battle was still going on. At this point, I felt that if I was alive, that my three comrades wee ok. I was not aware of the extensive wounds that I had received at this point. As a matter of fact, I felt no pain.
A chopper came in and I was thrown into it along with another soldier that had been wounded. I do not know who he was. As the chopper attempted to rise out of the area, the enemy was attempting to shoot it down. It made it to the 24th Evacuation Hospital. They wheeled me in and indicated that they were going to take care of me. They cut off my remaining jungle fatigues, asked me my name, rank, and mother’s name. The next thing, I was out.
When I awoke, I was covered in bandages over my entire body. Basically, shrapnel had hit me from the top of my shoulders all the way down to my calves, but the rear part of my body. My left lung had been pierced and the doctors later told me that I was drowning in my own blood. They had operated and attempted to repair some of the damage.
Later in the morning, fellow NCOs came to visit me and I asked what happened to Wolfe, Peppy and Di Santis. No one said anything. I knew what had happened.
I remained at the 24th for about a month, more surgery, then sent to Japan, stayed about a month with more surgery, then sent back to the World, more surgery. I did not get out of the hospital until about October of 1970.
Now, during the summer at the hospital I sat down and wrote President Nixon telling who I was and requested the address of those three young men. Eventually, the information came. I then sat down and wrote each of those men’s families.
I later had the opportunity to speak with the mother of Bill Di Santis, she asked me, “Did my son suffer when he died?” I asked her, “What did the Army tell you?” She said they explained that he was in a bunker that took a direct hit by a rocket or mortar. I was able to tell her that I was in that bunker and there was no way that he suffered because it was too fast.
I then spoke to sisters of Peppy. This past Veterans Day, I had the chance to meet his sister and brother in person as they read the names at The Wall. We had dinner together and tears and laughter were shared at the same time.
In these 40 plus years, I do not believe there is a day that goes by that I do not think of those three men that perished that night. Then I must tell you that Willard Kelly did not make it either. I found out the he died Feb. 12, 1970 after doing almost eight months in country. He had decided against going to NCO School.
In General Hal Moore’s book, “We Are Soldiers Still,” he says: “There is no such thing as closure for soldiers who have survived a war. They have an obligation, a sacred duty, to remember those who fell in battle beside them all their days and bear witness to the in sanity of war.”
In essence, this is why I must serve at The Wall. When The Wall was dedicated in 1982, I was there and just about every year since then. After attending the NCO Reunion in the fall of 2011, one of my fellow Shake N Bake Sergeants said to me, “Tony, why don’t you volunteer at The Wall”?
Therefore, at this point I feel I have gone full circle…civilian, grunt, wounded in action , healed of survivors guilt, able to share and volunteer at The Wall. God, what else do you want me to do?