Vietnam Stories: I can still hear him call to me in the chow line

For the Monitor
Thursday, September 28, 2017

I graduated from college in May 1965 and was married in July, followed by a pre-induction physical in September, draft notice in December and a U.S. Army Reserve Unit on 10 December 1965. This program ceased 31 December 1965.

Due to the buildup of troops for Vietnam, my basic training was delayed to 26 July 1967. I arrived at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., as an overweight 24-year-old private.

It was an interesting mix with the vast majority of the other trainees being under 20. I was older than a lot of the NCO’s providing verbal abuse. The younger guys were most helpful in assisting the “old man” with the physical training. I witnessed a “blanket party” for a victim a few bunks down and declined to participate. The victim was held down by several soldiers, covered with a blanket, and severely beaten. I could never understand the victim’s infractions. He cried most of the night and was AWOL in the morning.

After basic, I moved across the fort for AIT combat engineering training.

Almost immediately, I bonded with 19-year-old bunkmate Nicholas Fritz from Brentwood, N.Y. The troop situation was so desperate that the cooks were from the stockade and under guard. We would often be served a tasteless white item wrapped in paper that was considered ice cream. Nick was often ahead of me in the chow line, and I still can hear him holler, “Hey, Joe, it’s tutti frutti again!”

Drug use was rampant during AIT. Marijuana joints were available from the supply sergeant for 50 cents. Many instructors had done a tour in Nam and were filling out the last few months of service. I witnessed one instructor so stoned that he fell out of his chair during rifle practice. Others were so stoned they could not issue coherent verbal instructions.

The combat engineering training was grueling.

On 24 November 1967, I was discharged. I wrote to Nick’s APO address in December and advised him that we were looking to rent or purchase a home and provided the address. Nick responded to this new address before we actually took occupancy. The local postman was able to direct this first letter to our house that we have occupied close to 50 years.

In his letter, Nick indicated proudly that he was promoted to PFC but was unable to obtain chevrons in Vietnam. He was also in need of blousing garters for his fatigues. A package was sent in early March of 1968 with the items requested, including toothpaste, washcloths and Tang. I was thrilled to be able to assist Nick.

At the end of March, the package was returned with “VERIFIED DECEASED” stamped in large red letters. Nick was killed on 1 March 1968 in Thua Thein Province during the TET Offensive (Panel 42E, Row 16 on the Memorial Wall).

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Nick and hear, “It’s tutti frutti again, Joe!”

I still grieve 50 years later.

(Joe McKeever lives in Northfield.)