After graduating from Batavia High in 1966, I was encouraged to go to Bryant and Stratton by my parents to qualify for a deferment from the military. In 1968, I graduated from Bryant and Stratton and my father said that I should find another college to go to and maybe the war will be over. It was very hard but I told my parents that I had enough of college and I would roll the dice. While at Bryant and Stratton, I met my wife Betty and we were engaged. Betty was sad everyday knowing that I would get that dreaded letter.
No one would hire you when you have a 1A draft classification, but my father got me into Doehler Jarvis as an inspector and I worked there for three months and knew that wasn’t for me.
About three weeks before Christmas (1968), I was drafted into the U.S. Army and was to report to Fort Dix New Jersey on January 21, 1969. Christmas came and went, but it wasn’t as festive as all my previous holidays.
Before I left, my father said to me, “Please don’t shoot real good when they take you to the range.”
After finishing eight weeks of basic training and eight more weeks of advanced infantry training, I knew I would be a light weapons infantryman. During my 14th week, there was in announcement that our whole battalion was having a competition on the range and the top two shooters would get a four-day pass.
I just happened to finish first and when I unexpectedly showed up in Batavia, my father was very suspicious. I could not lie to him, so I told him that I just shot the best that I could.
I received my orders for the Republic of South Vietnam and I was to leave in 21 days to a country I knew nothing about. The days before I left were very stressful with everyone from my parents to my fiancé wondering if I’ll ever return to the city that I loved and felt so safe in.
LEAVING FOR WAR
The day at the airport was horrible and I just wanted to get on the plane and not think about everyone that I cared about. I kept thinking about all the terrible stories that I heard about this country and tried to convince myself that it wasn’t really like that. After a stop in Hawaii, I can remember the pilot saying that we were about 15 minutes from the Republic of South Vietnam and how much I hated those words. The pilot then came across the intercom again and said that if we should receive rocket or mortar fire upon landing, do not run, but lie flat on your stomach.
I can remember turning to my friend next to me and telling him that I never hated anything more in my life than this moment. I thought that at least I was with a few good friends, but my hopes were soon dashed when we were all split up and sent to different locations. I can see how that was planned and probably for the better. I can still vividly remember the smell and intense heat as we exited the American Airline Jet and longed to be back in Batavia where I was safe and secure.
NO TO A GREDNADE LAUNCHER
Upon landing in Ben Hoa Airbase we were transported to a large base called Cu Chi where we received a week of in country training. I was then airlifted to another base called Tay Ninh which was to be my main base camp. Both Cu Chi and Tay Ninh were very large and I felt safe there but I missed my friends.
A clerk came to my bunker and told me to go to the arsenal and get my issued weapon. When I went in, another clerk tried to hand me an M-79 grenade launcher to which I refused and returned to my bunker. It wasn’t long and I was to report to the Captain’s office. When I entered his office, I was determined to stand my ground and he asked me why I refused the grenade launcher. I told him that they should give the grenade launcher to someone who can’t shoot and I would be better with an M-16 rifle. The Captain went into the back room and came out with a box with a brand new M-16 rifle in it and told me he wanted it back in a year. I thanked him and figured I won my first battle in Vietnam.
The next day I was airlifted to a small fire support base only three kilometers from Cambodia. I sure didn’t feel very safe there compared to the large base camps I had made stops at. This fire base was called Crook and I wondered how we would survive there with it being so small.
I can remember that I was there three months and still hadn’t encountered the enemy. I was thankful and prayed that another nine months would be as quiet as the first three and I would be home. Even the seasoned veterans couldn’t believe how quiet things were. Things soon changed and three days before Thanksgiving, I experienced my first fire fight. I remember how difficult it was to see the enemy, but they were there and never would you believe how good they could hide while firing so many rounds at us. We lost eighteen men that day either killed or wounded and you couldn’t help wondering if you were next. I tried to learn as much as I could from the men with most experience and I met a lot of new friends.
DECIDING TO STAY
When I had six months in country, we were all called into a formation and the commanding officer said he had two jobs in radar to offer which meant not having to go into the field anymore. Just think, no more ambush patrols, sleeping in four inches of water, out for four, five or six days and nights and not to mention the horrendous mosquitoes. When I heard the names “Marabella and Rodriguez” I couldn’t believe my ears. He said he had to have an answer right away and Rodriguez said yes and I hesitated and said pick someone else. My buddies thought I was crazy but I said that I started with you guys and I hope to finish with all of you.
The next six months were nothing like the previous six.
I was wounded on January 10, 1970 and decorated twice in fire fights in February and March. That radar job kept popping into my head, but I made a choice. As time went on, I became more knowledgeable and was even looked up to in times of crisis. I was proud of myself for what I learned and was more at ease with different missions. The medals I received while in combat never really seemed that important to me at the time until I look back and say, I just might have saved some lives.
DECISION NOT TO KILL
I could go on and on about different encounters which I experienced throughout Vietnam, but I wish to tell about one in particular.
It was about 2 a.m. and I took a squad of men down a trail to check out a village for enemy activity. We were rounding a bend in the trail and we noticed about 20 Vietcong heading straight in our direction. At that very moment, I realized that I hadn’t brought a machine gunner with us and cursed at myself for making such a stupid mistake that could be devastating. I told my men that I would return in less than two minutes and not engage the enemy unless they were discovered. I moved along the trail we had just passed by and out of nowhere stepped a Vietcong and we were face to face. I had my weapon on him and he was caught off guard. To this day, I can’t figure out why he turned away from me and looked back and I never made and attempt to stop him.
This encounter happened with a mere 10 feet separating us. I guess maybe we were both tired of the fighting and killing and decided to let soldiers be soldiers.
I wonder if he realized how close he came to being killed.
PRAYING FOR SUNRISE
Everyone in Vietnam would count the days until they would be going home and some like me kept track on our helmets. So many times I could remember bullets hitting so close to me and wondering why I wasn’t getting hit. We all dreaded the nighttime because that was when the enemy moved and we were always out there trying to stop them. I tried to stay up all night and prayed for sunrise. Sleeping in three inches of water or on ant hills was a common occurrence and that made me pray a lot because I hated Vietnam so much.
I had 45 days left in Vietnam and thought to myself, I could see light at the end of the tunnel. Then, in May (1970) President Nixon ordered ground troops into Cambodia and my division was one of the two selected for that mission. I pleaded with my commanding officer to let me stay back but he said they needed every available soldier for this mission. All I could think of is that I made it through Vietnam and now I going to get killed in Cambodia. There were so many enemy troops in Cambodia that we fought every day for 30 days and couldn’t wait to get back to Vietnam.
Well, I had my 12 in and it was my turn to go home. What beautiful sounding words but I couldn’t help but to feel sorry for the new replacements that were arriving daily but I did my time and I was going home. My fiancé and sisters later told me that my father would sit in his empty garden every day and cry worrying about me. Everyone would watch the 6 o’clock news to see where the major fighting was and how many American casualties there was that day. My wife put it perfectly. She said, “You have a lot of friends of Batavia, but your real friends are the guys you fought with in the rice patties, jungles and rubber plantations of Vietnam and Cambodia.”
We meet every two years in Kokomo, Indiana for a reunion with some of the guys from our tight knit platoon. This past August was an off year so we all met in Appleton, Wisconsin and always have a great time. We also have a moment of silence for those who didn’t make it back and those who have passed since returning.
I went to Vietnam one person and came back another.
I lived through hell; I was one of the LUCKY ones. I’ve been married to my wife for 46 years. I have two sons and one grandson. My family is my life; they mean everything to me. I worked in corrections and retired 15 years ago. I still live in Batavia; home is a very special place for me. I am in good health; my glass has always been half full.
Vietnam was a nightmare; Vietnam taught me about what really matters and to be grateful every single day and not take one moment for granted.
I love to hunt, play cards, work in my garden, plant my flowers, decorate for Halloween, color eggs for Easter, travel, spend time with friends and family; none of this would be possible had I not made it back.
Whenever there is anything on TV about Vietnam, my wife and I always watch; I don’t ever want to forget how blessed I am that God brought me home.
I’m 69 years old now and that’s the way it has been for a 19-year-old Italian kid from the south side of Batavia.
I truly am, one of the lucky ones.
(For more stories from John Marabella, see his video interview in the Daily News studios at thedailynewsonline.com)