War Stories

Bob Tonsetic makes the six months he commanded Charlie Company in Vietnam come alive in his memoir - and in reminiscences with old soldier buddies.

April 07, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

New wars come and go and young men die anew and the warriors who survive recall the battles of their youth. Robert Tonsetic remembers Vietnam.

Bob Tonsetic served 27 years in the Army, in a career that took him from Vietnam to Germany to Alaska to the NATO Defense College in Rome. But he's written his first book about the six months in 1968 when he commanded Charlie Company, Fourth Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 199th Light Infantry Brigade.

The combat infantrymen of the 12th Infantry had been called Warriors since the Indian wars of the 19th century. And that's what Tonsetic calls his book, Warriors: An Infantryman's Memoir of Vietnam.

Combat infantrymen are the day laborers of battle, the grunts who do the heavy lifting, who slog through the jungles, the dust and the dirt and quite often die in a sudden firefight.

As a reporter for The Evening Sun, I spent a day with Charlie Company in April 1968. Tonsetic reminded me of this with an e-mail about a month ago, saying that he'd put me in his book. I was the only reporter he saw during his tour with the Warriors. We weren't "embedded" in those days. We just went out in the field.

It was a day like most days in war. Nothing much happened. The bad days were when something did. We trudged through jungle so thick the point man had to navigate like a sailor in a fog, with a compass, counting his steps to measure how far we'd gone and when to change directions - all the while alert for the slightest shimmer of a leaf that might warn of the enemy.

Tonsetic's point man was often a kid from the Bronx named Nick Schneider. I was always amazed at how guys from the concrete cities became warriors expert at woodcraft in Vietnam.

We forded a stream, climbed up and down hills and circled bamboo groves too thick to chop through with machetes. Elephant grass slashed at the men like long razors. Many had nasty sores that never healed in the heavy, moist, jungle heat. At every rest stop they searched their bodies for leeches.

We found an abandoned Viet Cong base camp where we opened a fresh grave. The dead man's skin looked taut and crisp stretched across his face like yellowed parchment, an anonymous corpse in a long war.

We plodded on. By day's end, we'd traveled perhaps five "klicks," as the grunts used to say, five kilometers, maybe three miles, three very hard miles, even without anybody shooting at you. I left to file my story. Charlie Company would push on and on into the Viet Cong's May offensive at a village called Ben Tri Dong.

After I received Tonsetic's e-mail, we arranged to meet for lunch at John Stevens restaurant in Fells Point, along with his "Top," George Holmes, Charlie Company's first sergeant. Holmes lives about a block away. Tonsetic lives in Easton. He was a square-built redhead in 1968. He's 61 and trim, but the red hair has pretty much given way to gray. Holmes was long and lean and he still is at age 69. He sports a faintly professorial silver beard and mustache.

Back to Vietnam

They're both proud infantrymen. Tonsetic quit a staff job in Germany to return to Vietnam in 1971. He retired as a colonel in 1991. Holmes had already served a tour of duty when Tonsetic arrived. He, too, came back in 1971, for his third tour. Between them, they served in Vietnam about five years.

Holmes had fought in Korea in 1951 with the 45th Division. He was 17 when he joined the Army.

"I joined to get into the war in Korea," he says. "I missed World War II and I was anxious to get going. I was a sergeant when I was 18."

Tonsetic was a 26-year-old captain when he took command of Charlie Company on New Year's Day 1968. He took over a demoralized company. The commander he relieved was badly shaken in a firefight the day after Christmas, and Holmes had to take command.

"I told the battalion commander he had to go," Holmes says in a conversation recounted in Tonsetic's book.

That's one of the refreshing things about Tonsetic's memoir: Not everyone is a hero, and a few are petrified with fear. He's not judgmental either: "Everybody is afraid in battle," he says.

It was with a kind of ironic pride that the combat infantrymen in Vietnam called themselves "grunts."

"Oh yeah," Tonsetic says. "It was a tough, tough, arduous job. There are a lot of myths about it now. Typically, people tend to think of the infantryman as [a] boob. Not true. The opposite was."

"An infantryman has to know how to do everybody else's job," Holmes says. "He has to know how to be a medic. He has to be a communicator. He has to know how to direct artillery and mortar. He has to know how to call in an air strike."

Not all skills highly prized in civilian life, one might note. Holmes has felt out of place when not in an infantry outfit. But in combat the equation for the grunt is simple. "He has to know everybody's duties in order for him to survive," Holmes says.

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