VIETNAM VETERANS … Gathered at the farm of Gene Kunkle near Harrison Lake in Northwest Ohio, this group of men enjoyed a reunion of their U.S. Army A Company, the Alpha Gators. From left to right in the back row are Rich Hopkins, Wayne Davidson, Gary Sampsel, Terry Clark, Marvin Weber, Gene Kunkle holding their flag and Woody Finzer. Front row are John Shafer, Gary McLaughlin, Gary Zandstra (his first year to attend the reunion), Dennis Baldauf, Roger Ward and John Gifford. Not present for the photo but there for the weekend was Gary Monohan) (PHOTOS BY REBECCA MILLER, STAFF)
By: Rebecca Miller
Reading about the Vietnam War in a History book or watching news reels or movies about it are important as we do not want to forget the past. Meeting and talking with men who went through it together is even better.
Walking history was seen in a barn near Harrison Lake in northwest Ohio, on Saturday, June 4, 2022, when fourteen of the 180 enlisted men in Company A, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, or as they call themselves, the Alpha Gators, met for brotherhood, along with their lovely wives.
“This getting together means a lot for each of us,” host Gene Kunkle said softly. It was obvious that he was right, as these men who went through hell together in Vietnam shared peaceful happy moments on a quiet Ohio farm, laughing, catching up and reminiscing.
Their life together began as 19 and 20 year-olds, pretty much straight out of high school, many having just gotten married and many with wives carrying their first child.
Two of these men, who are now in their 70’s, spoke of how they didn’t get to meet their first sons until they were 5 ½ months old. (They recently celebrated their 55th birthdays.)
One gentleman shared that he was drafted two weeks after he got married. Their entire unit came from the northeast portion of the U.S., hailing from Indiana eastward and north of Virginia. They were all draftees except for two young men.
When they all rolled into training camp in Ft. Louis, Washington, in January of 1966, they had no idea how being together for the next 21 months would bind them in brotherhood and change their lives forever.
After nine months of Train and Retain, they were part of 3000 enlisted men who boarded a ship in September and headed for Vietnam.
Standing around a large framed picture of the ship that carried them to war, they spoke of how they spent 28 days on that ship, drifting for two of them as the engines went down.
A few of them mentioned the experience they had in Okinawa when the ship pulled into port to refuel – “We were hoping for some R&R on land, but apparently the guys in the ship before us didn’t all return to their ship when it was time to leave, so they were afraid they would lose some of us.”
“Instead of letting us relax and enjoy Okinawa, they marched us off the ship and took us on a run all around the town and right back onto the ship! So much for R&R!”
That picture has a number of signatures from Alpha Gators, who began meeting together in 2002.
Over the past twenty years these men and their wives have reconnected, and tried to contact as many of A Company as possible.
They have met in a number of different places for this very special reunion, including Georgia, Kentucky, and Arlington Cemetery.
Gary McLaughlin, company clerk, was deferred to by most of the men as the one who would know answers and who could be their spokesman.
He explained that this group got started when some of them attended a larger reunion in Georgia back in 2002, and found themselves gravitating toward each other for fellowship and camaraderie.
“We actually left the larger reunion as we weren’t too impressed with the way it was going, and had some time alone together,” Gene Kunkle said.
They met again in 2010 and have continued to do so each year ever since.
There were pictures, albums, and other memorabilia spread out on a few tables for perusal during the reunion. A book of 65 drawings done by a member of their company, along with two of his framed drawings were there, prompting the story of how they got their name, Alpha Gators.
“We were out in the rice paddies for nine months together and there were all kinds of animals there. One day near the beginning of our time in Vietnam, this guy who liked to draw drew an alligator that he saw. ”
“Since we were A Company, or Alpha, we took that picture to represent us and became known as the Alpha Gators,” McLaughlin explained.
They even had a patch made with their alpha gator symbol, with a sampan (canoe broken in half) in his mouth, a hat on his head and carrying an M-16.
There were many stories that day, of memories these men share, but the number one memory of their time in Vietnam occurred in March of 1967 and was such a big event that it made TIME magazine.
Suoi Tre is now known as the “largest one day kill of the entire war,” and these men were right in the middle of that horrible operation. The article in TIME can be read online, dated Friday, March 31, 1967, entitled “World: A Terrible Price.”
The article tells the whole story of how around 450 young draftees were dropped by helicopter onto a spot of land, not knowing they were surrounded by approximately 2000 Viet Cong, and what transpired that day.
The men of Alpha Company shared sporadic thoughts about that horrific moment in time…first time ever that U.S. used Beehive rounds, lost five of our men that day, our commander Captain George Shuemaker went with us that day – he was a great commander, it had to be God that we made it out alive, “I got saved in Vietnam”, somehow we won that battle.
The men from Company A who lost their lives on March 21, 1967, in that battle, were Mike Balzer, Jim Brewer, Joe Dilandro, Everette Harding and Thomas Peterkin.
They are memorialized by this group on the back of a shirt, along with five others who lost their lives in Vietnam or are listed as POWs.
As they talked, it sounded much like the “Battle of the Bulge” which was fought in WWII and is remembered as one of the worst of that war.
By the end of the day at Soui Tre, only 31 Americans had died and 109 were wounded, a “comparatively moderate” number as the Viet Cong “left 617 bodies on the field of Suoi Tre, having carried away as many other dead as they could. It was one of their worst single defeats of the war.”
These men, sitting around together again, were there! To have survived that dreadful day, and to be still alive and able to be together – what a precious gift.
REMEMBERING … Gathered at the table of memorabilia and pictures, Gene Kunkle, Dennis Baldauf, Rich Hopkins and Gary McLaughlin spoke of the days they spend in Vietnam together in 1966-67. They all were wearing clear drops with a fire ant inside, a reminder of the ants that helped make life hard during their time there.
The atmosphere was gentle, despite the manliness and strength of these men. Laughter was a big part of their reunion, despite what they spoke about and why they were there.
This group came from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, Michigan and South Carolina, stayed at Heritage Inn in Archbold, and gathered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 3-5, 2022, just to “be together.” “It really does mean so much to us to be together,” was the sentiment of all.
Besides Suoi Tre, their biggest battle, these men lived in the rice paddies of Vietnam for eleven months, fighting in many other Operations, staying out all but one day each month.
On that one day, they could take a bath in a muddy creek to get cleaner than they were, change into fresh clothing and get a haircut and shave.
During the month that they were out in the fighting, they never got to change their clothes or get clean. “Our clothes literally rotted on us,” Kunkle remembered.
“But the food was great!” one of them recalled. “We had good cooks and they fed us well. And if we were lucky we got a cold beer.” Sleeping was another crazy thing while out on a mission.
As the tide came in and out continually, you had to climb up and sleep in the trees. They remembered the terrible mosquitoes and how big they were, that one guy got attacked by a monkey while he was sleeping in a tree, and that often during the night you would hear a splash and someone cussing and know that they had fallen out of the tree while trying to get some sleep.
A gift they were each given by Gene Kunkle this year was a pendent with a Vietnamese Fire Ant in it! The size of those ants was ridiculous!
They talked about how it was like a wasp sting when one of these ants bit you and how they would do anything to steer clear of them.
“We would be hiking stealthily as a unit, and the word would come quietly back ‘Viet Cong on the right!’ so we would veer left. Then ‘Fire Ants on the left!’ and we would veer off to the right. They were equally bad!!”
While sharing their thoughts on who and when they could shoot, some of them spoke of how they couldn’t tell who was the enemy and who was not.
“One morning we found the dead body of the man who had cut our hair and shaved our beards the day before. He was an enemy soldier!”
“Another day we all bought sunglasses from a guy who came right into camp to sell them and the next day we killed him in a battle.”
“We were never allowed to shoot first,” one man recalled. “We had to wait till they fired first and then we could fight back.” “There was a curfew for the locals, 10 p.m., and after that time we shot anyone we saw, because if they were out after 10 they were the enemy.”
“There was a large triangle of land, called the Iron Triangle, in which you shot to kill, anyone no matter what time it was, and Soui Tre was in that triangle.”
Wayne Davidson shared the account, along with John Shafer, of how they both got wounded at the same time. “I have never gotten over the fact that you got to go home and I had to stay,” he said with a laugh which was joined by all seated in the circle.
“That’s a true story,” he added. “We were walking into a Michelin Rubber plantation, happy to get back to base camp, and a Claymore mine (made of nuts and bolts and put above ground) exploded. There were ten of us in the group. Curly Simon was killed, seven of us were wounded.”
Gary Sampsell who was also in the circle added, “I was one of the two that did not get hit. We tried to cover everything till the rest of the guys could get there.”
The mine was the kind that needed a person to touch two wires to a battery to make it explode. The enemy soldier had stayed hidden, waiting till they got close before blowing it up, then took off.
“He disappeared into the nearby village and got away,” Davidson said. “I remember a Viet Cong guy rode by on a bike and looked down at us laying there on the ground. That has been stuck in my head all these years.”
From the sadness as they recalled Terry Grube, the first of their company to be killed (on October 27, 1966) to the laughter around their potluck lunch, this group of men and their wives soaked up every minute together.
As they go through the years, may they always know that they are appreciated and that we honor them as Veterans who fought bravely for their country in the fields of Vietnam, far away from home.
Rebecca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org