New Hampshire National Guard, words

Vietnam: Forty Years Later

Warrior Spring 2005He thought that he was going to die. Deep in the jungle of Vietnam, with his position being overrun by Viet Cong and mortar rounds falling, David Copson called for an airstrike.

In the darkness of night, the Concord native radioed the coordinates to a soldier with a New England accent. It turned out the voice hailed from his New Hampshire home. Minutes later, the N.H. National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery, fired a round at the intended target.

It was a direct hit.

In the moments that followed, the men of the 197th sent up an illumination round. By the light, Copson could see the enemy collecting bodies. He ordered another round and within 20 minutes, the situation had been neutralized.

Forty years later, as Copson stood up to tell his story to a panel of 197th Vietnam veterans inside Concord’s Assembly Hall, his voice shook with emotion.

“You guys were unbelievable. Right on the money all the time,” he said, holding the map from that battle, the coordinates still marked with grease pencil. “I owe my existence to the 197th.”

In the time that has passed since their year-long tour, which left seven of their fellow soldiers dead, the men of the 197th have moved on with their lives. They are retired fire chiefs, construction workers, lieutenant colonels and computer specialists. But their memories of the days in the jungle remain.

They took an evening to share some of those memories in front of friends, family and fellow Guardsmen. Organized by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Thomas Graham, N.H. Army Guard historian, the panel wove stories about their activation, war, loss and coming home. Now in their late fifties, sixties and seventies, the men are a little grayer than they were in 1969, but their camaraderie, their laughter and their sorrow still hold the timelessness of youth.

Notification over the airwaves

It was the spring of 1968, the men of the 197th were going about life as usual. The situation in Vietnam was volatile, but the country had not yet turned to the National Guard for support. The men of the 3rd Battalion were in various life stages. Eighty percent were married. Most were in their late 20s with 10 years of service already under their belts.

Medic Bill Toland was working at the fire station in Exeter when the news that the 197th was activated came over the radio. He went home for lunch that day to his young son, a pregnant wife, and a bill from Sears and Roebuck that he wasn’t going to be able to pay.

Intelligence Specialist Ed Scully got his notification as a 34th birthday present.

Bob Reeves found out while working a job he hated as a laborer. When he got the news, he thought, “Hell, Vietnam’s got to be better than (this).”

Eighteen-year-old Spc. Frank Derocchi was just a typical high school kid, living large with a new set of wheels.

The battalion’s executive officer, John Sullivan, was sitting in his office at the Portsmouth armory when his wife came in and said, “You’ve been activated.” He called a superior officer who said he would call him back. A few minutes later, the phone rang. “Congratulations,” the general said, “you’re now on active duty.”

These men, as well as 500 of their fellow N.H. soldiers, gathered their gear, said their goodbyes and headed to Fort Bragg, N.C. They were the first N.H. Guard unit to deploy to Vietnam and one of only eight Guard units across the United States to be sent to the conflict.

They were a community of New Hampshire families, fathers, brothers and neighbors from all walks of life. Many had known each other for years. Some were related, others were woven together by neighborhoods and children, schools and work – all were tied by their connection to the Guard.

Sullivan recalled that the leadership at Fort Bragg asked the unit, “How many weeks of training do you need (before you can deploy)?” They answered, “Ten.”

When the 197th arrived in North Carolina,10 weeks is what they got.

Going to war

The airplane ride lasted 27 hours. As they began their descent into Vietnam, Derocchi looked out window and saw smoke billowing from the earth below.

“Holy —-!” he thought in a panic. “All that smoke from the rockets coming in?”

For the first five minutes, he was alarmed. Finally someone told him the smoke was from the burning of human waste from the latrines.

“You see a lot of war movies but the one thing that’s missing is the stench,” said Taylor.

As the back door to the plane opened, the men were given their initial taste of the ever-present odor and their first round of ammunition.

“They cautioned us … if anything moves, shoot it,” said Toland of his first drive up Highway 13, known as Thunder Road.

“I thought it was a joke – but no one laughed.” Along the way, the glass in his windshield shattered from sniper fire.

“I was shaking all over,” Toland said. “If that would have been a real job, I would have quit right then.”

Barnevik remembers drainage ditches covered in slime and the hugest rats the soldiers had ever seen. Tucked into the jungle, the circular fire support stations that the soldiers manned were in 24-hour-a-day danger and needed  360-degree defense.

“We didn’t know who the friends were and who the enemies were,” said Sullivan.

During their time in Vietnam, the men fired over 150,000 rounds from their Howitzers. They became so proficient that once during a firefight they were able to load and fire a round before the last one hit the ground.

Derocchi remembers being young and thirsty for adventure. He volunteered early on to go on a mission up Thunder Road.

The Army had taken the tops off the vehicles for travel, with the idea that it would be easier to launch grenades at the enemy. Unfortunately, it also made it harder for the windshield wipers to be effective during the rain, as the inside of he car’s windshield was being drenched, Derocchi recalled.

The day Derocchi volunteered, while traveling up the road, a land mine killed seven men in a vehicle ahead. “Those moments,” he said, “will last forever.”

Not all the stories were sad, though.

Barnevik recounted the story of Alpha Battery’s “prized possession” – a toilet seat. Using a shipping carton, a 55-gallon barrel and a piece of plywood, the men fashioned a quality jungle latrine.

“This was our pride and joy,” said Barnevik.

One day as a soldier was sitting inside, they heard the distinctive “thump-thump” of incoming fire. Soldiers began screaming, “Incoming Rounds.” The man dove out of the latrine, his pants around his ankles, just in time to avoid a mortar round to the crapper. The soldier ended up “face down on the ground, covered in you-know-what,” said Barnevik.

Coming home

After a harrowing year of sweltering heat, overpowering stench and the constant boom of the Howitzers, it was time for the men to come home. Up to that point, they had lost only two men – Capt. Roland Labonte, killed in action, and another non-combat-related death.

The unit was gathering in the south waiting for everyone to arrive so they could travel home together. They wanted to leave Vietnam as they had arrived, a community of N.H. soldiers.

Less than two weeks before they were scheduled to fly home, Guy Blanchette, Gaetan Beaudoin, Richard Genest, Richard Raymond and Robert Robichaud were traveling south along Thunder Road when their vehicle hit a land mine.

The five men, all from Manchester, were killed.

The battery, Thunder III, where they were located more than half their time in Vietnam, was renamed “Hampshire Field,” and a plaque was placed in their honor. Barnevik said that some day before he dies he wants to go back to that field. “I could find my way in the dark,” he said. “I want to see if that plaque is still there.”

Readjusting to New Hampshire

The soldiers flew into Pease and the arms of their families and children, but they also returned to a climate of disdain. They were told not to wear their uniforms because it wasn’t safe.

Toland remembers that when he came home, the mailman, himself a World War II veteran, said, “Hey, the baby killer is home.”

“I didn’t want anyone to know I had anything to do with Vietnam,” said Toland.

In the year they were gone, their lives had changed. Some divorced. Some had a hard time readjusting to work. Some lost jobs. Even in the smallest of ways, their basic responses had been altered by the war.

Derocchi remembers the day he opened his duffel bag on his mother’s living room floor and saw a “white thing” go by. Thinking that it was a rat, he gave it a “touchdown” kick across the room. It was his mother’s cat.

“She was not impressed,” he said.

Most of the men stayed in the Guard.

“It’s hard for people to understand,” said Barnevik. “Nobody wanted to listen.”

It took years before Barnevik began speaking about his tour in Vietnam to anyone other than the men in his unit.

“I kept it to myself for a long time,” he said. Their shared experiences forged a bond that still exists today.

The group has kept in touch throughout the years, holding reunions and socializing. At one reunion, Toland recalled a visit by the late Dick Genest’s son.

Genest had been well-liked by his fellow soldiers and his death, mere days before leaving Vietnam, had hit them hard. During their tour together, Genest would show Toland pictures of his small son back home.

Toland wasn’t sure how he would feel seeing that boy all grown up.

When Genest’s son walked in the room, Toland said, “ He looked just like his father,” an identical twin. “Even his teeth were the same.” And there, years later, Toland found great pleasure in telling him about his father, about the photos and about the love that the young soldier had for his son.

The men had returned without recognition or gratitude, and closure for many of them was hard in coming. Richard Lavoie kept a journal, which he kept closed for 40 years. He opened it for the first time before the panel discussion.

For some of the men there was a shame that they found hard to let go of. It took Barnevik 20 years after the war to be able to begin to acknowledge and honor his service to the country. At the start of the first Gulf War, he agreed to march in a parade representing N.H. Vietnam veterans. Along the way, Barnevik remembers the crowd rising to give them a standing ovation. It was a recognition the 197th had never received.

“It was the first time I felt like I was coming home.”