By Jackie Lee | Sonoma Valley Sun
For this year’s 100th anniversary of the first Veterans Day commemorating the end of World War I, Sonoma has an opportunity to recognize the bravery of those who protected us. Services begin at 10 a.m. on Sunday, November 11 at the Veterans Building in Sonoma, with Mayor Agrimonti and other local dignitaries in attendance. Guest of Honor is Colonel Warren Jaycox, Educational Consultant for the U.S. Marine Corps, Quantico, Virginia from 1974 to 1984.
Looking back in time, it defies belief that while World War II veterans returning home were greeted as heroes, Vietnam veterans were spat upon and ridiculed. Nobody ever said thank you when they returned stateside. There was precious little acknowledgement of the physical and emotional distress they endured.
There are many such veterans living in Sonoma. To the survivors, the horror of war is both long ago and here and now. Three of them generously agreed to share their experiences.
(Wilda Vaughn was instrumental in setting up participants for these possibly sensitive interviews. Willi is the first woman in history to be installed as Commander of the American Legion and would have been a great interview all by herself, but she graciously deferred to these other veterans.)
Gene Campagna grew up in an Italian Catholic family with inherent values of loving and caring for people. In 1966 at the age of 19, he was drafted into the Army 9th Infantry Division, A Company, Second of 39th Infantry, and trained at Fort Riley, Kansas for nine months. He says basic training in those days was in the style of the tough John Wayne era—to kick ass and come home. He had to learn to do things against his own values. By December 1966 he was on a troop ship from Oakland to Vietnam and a base called Bear Cat.
Gene’s unit engaged for 12 months in what he described as essentially a search and destroy mission. As soldiers were lost or killed in action, he felt the horror begin to engulf him. One buddy lost his leg, he says, and another buddy was blown up. The memory floods back as he lets his guard down momentarily. Many stories are just too painful to tell.
In December 1967 he returned home to San Francisco via Travis AFB, where he realized he had changed within; his new life was now full of obstacles. Nobody understood the war’s massive destruction of life and the grueling pace of surviving through harrowing conditions with little sleep. Eventually he shut down, mostly holed up at home, self-medicating to an alarming degree. Unsurprisingly, he and his wife divorced, and his turmoil continued until many years later when he knew he needed help. He couldn’t do it alone.
A psychiatrist at the VA empathized with Gene’s brokenness, helped to instill self-worth into the shell he had become, gave him a symbolic toolbox to work with, and within weeks Gene felt better. Anger management classes were invaluable in restoring his dignity, he says, along with meditation, mindfulness, and belonging to a group called Here and Now, an appropriate name for 30 men enjoying the present, not reliving the past. He believes it was, and still is, an unequalled comfort to be in closed circles with other servicemen with similar issues. Gene says they all had to do a 180º against moral values; society was critical without really knowing the real deal. Many veterans still harbor hurt feelings from the treatment they received when they came home. It takes years to heal the wounds, and the supportive social life is a major part of the process; together, they are all hands-down, fully there for each other.
Asked what he thinks about most often about those days when he came home, he says, “Not being able to climb the stairs and tell my Mom all about it.” It is a visibly painful memory. He adds, “In this stage in my life I can finally talk about my experiences, which in turn helps the healing process. I’m no longer keeping feelings inside.”
Today Gene is a dedicated volunteer worker for his church, a proud Vietnam veteran and a stalwart American. He is in a good place now, he has reconciled with the past and is in charge of his life, but his journey toward inner peace continues. He’s right on course.
David E. Donnelley graduated from Dartmouth College in 1964 with a BA in History. He received a deferment from active duty to go on a National Geographic expedition behind the Iron curtain in Eastern Europe, then reported to Quantico, Virginia in January 1965 to attend officer training school, commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps in June 1965. He reported to Camp Pendleton in July 1965. His orders were changed only 24 hours after arrival and he was assigned to active duty to Vietnam.
Dave shipped out to Vietnam five days after his marriage. Events unfolded quickly. He made an administrative landing at Da Nang. Hours later he was ordered to go on a 48-hour combat patrol with minutes to “rehearse” combat patrol procedures. After that, two-day combat patrols took place every 48 hours—in violation of military policy which required ten-day intervals between combat assignments.
Later, due to bureaucratic miscommunication, Dave was ordered on a patrol route that took him and his men into a known Viet Cong base. They were expecting to receive food and materials by air early in the morning of the second day, but he asked for cancellation as it would announce their position to the enemy. When his request was ignored and his position compromised, he demanded that at least three Huey gun ship helicopters precede the patrol route. After threats of court martial from S-3 headquarters, his battalion executive officer intervened and provided what Dave asked for.
They swept into the village, which was abandoned, picked up three prisoners in underground tunnels, and headed back to base. On the way, they took a premature left turn and encountered six North Vietnamese regular soldiers—it was the first recorded encounter of the war. He lost the first man in the battalion to enemy fire. When the North Vietnamese prisoners were interrogated, they said they had been ready to engage his platoon with overwhelming force until the helicopters showed up; thinking it was a regimental sweep, they dispersed into the jungle. After that, battalion leaders began to consult with companies and platoons before sending out combat patrols.
Dave was shot in October and evacuated to Great Lakes Naval Hospital via Da Nang, and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. He was later assigned to Camp Pendleton and served as a legal officer, company commander of a training company, and commanding officer of Headquarters company.
Asked what he remembers most when he looks back to those days, Dave says, “I saw the best part of human nature and a little bit of the worst and worked with some of the finest people I have known. I learned what true leadership is, and what’s really important in life. I walked away with a ‘can do’ attitude coupled with the incentive to make a positive impact on others.”
Wilson “Bill” Partridge joined the Navy after graduating from college in 1942, one of the “90-day wonders” groups trained for service in World War II as quickly as possible, ready to ship out. He was assigned as an ensign to the USS St. Louis, operating with the 7th Division under Admiral Ainsworth, whose boss was Admiral Chester Nimitz in Honolulu. Just a few months earlier she survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. The fleet comprised three cruisers and ten destroyers patrolling New Hebrides Islands, and later, Guam, Formosa and the Philippines.
Bill was assigned as gunnery officer of the 2nd Division. He and his crew were regularly bombarded in direct hits by torpedoes, shells, bombs, and kamikazes. On one such occasion during the New Hebrides episode, sister ship USS Honolulu was sunk, and Australian cruiser Canberra was hit, but USS St. Louis, with her bow seriously damaged and listing to port but still afloat, was there to pick up survivors, including Admiral Ainsworth. With 15 dead, 21 seriously wounded, and 22 injured, Bill pitched in to help medics during the overload of casualties, along with other courageous fighters doing damage control in the carnage. He quickly learned how to apply tourniquets and push morphine. USS St. Louis earned 11 battle stars during World War II.
All in all, Bill says, the war made him a better person. It was not an unhappy experience, even though traumatic. Recalling those days, he says “Writing to parents of young men who had been killed in action was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, but the saddest part was losing half of my Division.” Four of the survivors were extremely close and maintained enduring bonds until the other three passed away; he is the last living member of the group.
Bill was discharged as a Lieutenant and returned home in time for Christmas 1945. Married to his high school sweetheart Dorothy, he graduated law school and became a lawyer for an oil drover company in Midland, Texas, living next door to George and Barbara Bush—like them, a young couple with children of the same age.
Upon retirement, he and his family moved to Sonoma, and since 1988 he has volunteered as a driver for Meals on Wheels. He stopped driving for them just a few weeks ago because, well, he’s 98 now—even though his driver’s license was just renewed. He still sets up logistics for the day’s deliveries in the Meals on Wheels kitchen early in the morning before the cooks arrive. Belying his age, Bill retains his stately bearing as an officer; he is the perfect example of one who went to war, survived, and is fiercely proud to have served his country.
Many comprehensive programs are available from American Legion, AmVets,
Vet Connect, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Sonoma County Veterans Service Organization.