Vietnam. The name alone conjures images of jungles, troops, tents and helicopters. The name of the country has become synonymous with war. Although forty-five years have passed since the official end of the Vietnam War, the mention of it in conversation will still bring out strong opinions and even stronger division. This conflict began in 1955 between Communist North Vietnam and the government of South Vietnam. The United States became involved in the war in 1955. The mission was to protect South Vietnam from coming under the Communist Rule of North Vietnam. Sadly, the mission was not accomplished when the U.S. troops were removed in the 1970s. Vietnam was the first televised war. Each night, Americans saw images of the carnage and representation of the body count. By the end of the war, that count totaled 58,193 Americans; 1,181 of these individuals were Alabamians. Two local Vietnam vets were willing to tell their stories.
Perugini recalls gun boat attack
Danny Perugini had a 23-year career as a sailor in the United States Navy. The Galveston, Tex. native worked as a storekeeper/ supply man. His responsibilities included ordering all the supplies for the ship, including ammunition and food. The majority of his work was done on a naval destroyer. However, his most vivid memories of Vietnam are the result of a gun boat.
Naval gun boats are vessels with small, ridged hulls. The fleet of gunboats in Vietnam grew to include 250 of the ships. Often called the “brown water navy” because of their patrol of the Vietnamese rivers, the boats were critical as Vietnam is located on a peninsula that contains many inland waterways. Perugini completed three tours in Vietnam, but admits that he didn’t expect to return from the final one.
The gunboat that Perugini and members of his platoon were on was attacked while patrolling a river in 1967. The U.S. vessel exchanged heavy fire with the North Vietnamese before the ship broke apart. “I ended up in a lily pad,” Perugini recalls. Many of his shipmates were not so fortunate as several were killed or seriously injured.
The U.S. soldiers were in the river for approximately ten minutes, which to Perugini and other survivors “seemed like 10 days”. The men were rescued and recovered by the South Vietnamese, which was fortunate. Perugini remembers the fear of not knowing if they were being rescued by the South Vietnamese or taken as prisoners of war by the North Vietnamese. The men were “relieved” that the latter was not the case.
Perugini returned home to a country much divided over the issue of the war. In spite of several brushes with death, he chose to remain in the Navy as a career. After Vietnam, he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. His last assignment was storekeeper aboard the USS Constellation, a supercarrier based out of San Diego.
Gay Dewitt enrolled in the ROTC program at the University of Alabama. When he finished his business degree, he willingly enlisted in the U.S. Army.He first reported to Fort Sill, Okla. And then went to flight school in Ft. Walters, Texas for the first phase of flight training. The second phase of flight training took place in Fort Rucker. After successfully completing all the requirements of the Alabama base, DeWitt was equipped to fly Huey helicopters in Vietnam.
Dewitt completed a one-year tour in Vietnam as a Huey pilot from 1968-1969. Along with the pilot were three others in each Huey, a co-pilot, a gunner and a crew chief.
DeWitt’s followed in the footsteps of many in his family who from the time of the Revolutionary War, joined the ranks to fight for our nation. Although he had trained and was equipped of itl Leaving home was tough because Dewitt was married and had a young child. There were small blocks of time when he was allowed rest and relaxation time in Hawaii where he could see his family. Although his active military duty was during one of the most divisive conflicts ever entered in by American troops, DeWitt served proudly as his ancestors did, giving 29 years and 9 months to a cause that he believed in. After his tour in Vietnam, DeWitt was in the Tennessee and Texas National Guards before returning home to Alabama where he retired from the Alabama Guard.
DeWitt went to Vietnam as an individual rather than a part of a unit. He was assigned to the 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry (Air), an air cavalry unit. The base camp had basic wooden buildings that kept the rain off the soldiers. Nearby in Bambi Tuit, the soldiers camped in tents. Vietnam is known for its thick jungles and abundance of rains, two things that Hollywood gets right in its depiction of the Vietnam War. The mud was thick and covered the ground. There was no hot water to bathe in. DeWitt states that there are two things that he clearly remembers about stepping off the plane in Vietnam—the heat and the smell. The climate of the nation is hot and humid. There are two seasons. In the rainy season, the mud and water threaten to overtake anything in their paths. In the dry season, red dust covers everything. The smell that DeWitt can so vividly recall is not pleasant. Rather, it is the result of human feces being burned with diesel in the latrines. DeWitt remembers wondering if the smell would ever fade from his clothes after returning to the states.
A country divided
Many soldiers who have fought overseas have returned home with a hero’s welcome—banners, photographs, parades and support. Unfortunately, this did not happen with the majority of Vietnam War vets. DeWitt recalls arriving at a base in Washington D.C. and being told immediately to change into civilian clothing before going to the airport. The American public was could be hostile to soldiers who had already endured atrocities.
A pilot’s mission
A helicopter is not a vehicle known for stealth. It’s noise and visibility would often endanger its crew, but the crew had a mission and assumed the risks. DeWitt’s mission was to insert troops into areas where fighting was anticipated. At times, he would have to function as a medical evacuation pilot to get injured soldiers to care. If this were the case, the area that would be flown into was considered extremely “hot” or dangerous due to the presence of the enemy forces. Without modern GPS tools and accurate maps, DeWitt would take long-range patrol soldiers to assigned areas where they would attempt to gather intelligence. Relying largely on his memory, DeWitt would return to retrieve his fellow soldier. “You don’t leave people. You have a fellow American on the ground. You have to get them out and you do it.”
A sacred duty
Perugini and DeWitt are just two of the many local Vietnam veterans in the local area. While their experiences differ, their resolve and commitment to the protection of our nation is the same. They knew the risks associated with becoming American soldiers, especially during the 1960s, when all eyes were on the war torn country of Vietnam.
Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.