The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June/July 2002
 
   
 

Celebrating A Band Of Brothers

BY JIM BELSHAW

I would like to locate 1st Cav. Troopers who served in Cos. B and C, 5/7 Cav., Jan. 1966 to Aug. 67. Please write Bernie Grady.  --Locator Ad, The VVA Veteran, July 1991

They met in the fall of 1965 - a handful of Army officers, non-coms and nearly 800 draftees stepping from buses at Fort Carson, Colorado. The draftees knew little about the Army except that they were in it. They began their basic training as members of the 1st Battalion (Mechanized) 11th Infantry. But the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) had deployed to Vietnam with eight maneuver battalions instead of the standard nine. The Cav was authorized another battalion. In April 1966, the draftees at Fort Carson became the 5th Battalion of the 7th Cavalry. 

They trained together until the summer of 1966. Initially bound for Germany when they first came to Fort Carson, they left for Vietnam in July as a unit. They had lived and worked together for nine months, forging a bond that would prove to be a double-edged sword - they knew each other's strengths and capabilities, they knew what to expect of one another; but many would suffer and die in the combat that awaited them. Friendship and familiarity removed anonymity. They would have no emotional anesthetic to dull the pain of loss.

Twenty-four years after they came home and went their separate ways, one of their officers, Bernie Grady, who lived in Pennsylvania, put a Locator ad in The VVA Veteran. Unbeknownst to him, another 5/7 trooper - Jasper Catanzaro - had done the same thing in the same edition of the paper.

Catanzaro lived in Detroit, where he was an official with the United Auto Workers union. He had thought about trying to contact members of the 5/7 in previous years and knew a number of them lived in the Detroit area. He saw some of them at a wedding in 1969, two years after he came home from Vietnam. He remembered three of them had lost legs in the war. 

After the ads ran, Catanzaro got a call from one of the 5/7's NCOs, George Porod, who lived in northern Michigan. The sergeant called Grady, too. 

"That was the spark," Catanzaro said. 

Not long after the phone calls, Catanzaro traveled to Washington for a Labor Day union parade. He made a side trip to visit Grady in Pennsylvania. (Grady died last year.) Grady, who in 1994 published a book about the 5/7 in Vietnam - "On the Tiger's Back" - said he would track down the officers; Catanzaro would try to find enlisted men. 

"Then we just started looking up people," Catanzaro said.

He went to the library to check out-of-town phone books. He read his old letters written when he was Vietnam. A self-described "pack rat," he had kept them all - 270 letters to his girlfriend and 140 letters to his parents. Some spoke of feeling alone. He wrote that his friends had been wounded and killed. He didn't think he was going to make it home alive.

Another contained an eerily prescient note. In 1966, he wrote to his mother: "This war is going to end the same way the Korean War did - 50,000 dead and we don't gain anything." 

Every time he stopped moving in Vietnam, he pulled out a pad and wrote, creating a virtual diary of his time in the war. In some of the letters, he included sets of orders, which now contained exactly what he was looking for - names. 

"From the orders, I started building a list of people in the battalion," he said. "As we heard from the other guys, they started sending in orders with lists of names. Bill Purdy from Ohio is with the steelworkers union and he moves around the country the way I move around the country. Bill was finding all kinds of guys, too. Pretty soon we started compiling a database." Today the database stands at around 4,000 names with approximately 1,400 active names and addresses.

They decided to hold a reunion in Detroit in 1992. Catanzaro and Purdy signed the $7,500 hotel contract with some trepidation. They didn't have a clue about how many people would show up. "We had about 120 guys come from around the country," Catanzaro, now the association's treasurer, said. "It was the 25th anniversary of the original group. Most of us came back in ' 67 some time. Severely wounded guys might have come home in ' 66. So 120 guys came, including the battalion commander, Col. Swett." 

The contract wasn't the only source of nerves for Catanzaro. He had worked for months to make the reunion a reality, but as it drew closer, he wondered what might happen when he saw so many faces from the distant past. 

"I guess I was nervous to see these guys after all the years," he said. "I don't really know what it was but a few days before I really didn't think I would go. But as soon as the guys started coming in, it was a fantastic feeling. We had gone to Vietnam as a battalion, came home, and we had a great reunion. From that we decided to include all members of the 5th Battalion 7th Cavalry in future reunions. We opened it up to those who were our replacements during our time there and those who came after us." 

The unit was deactivated in 1971. In the years it served in Vietnam, 302 men were killed in action; five were listed as MIA. Four 5/7 troopers won the Medal of Honor, three posthumously. Seven members of its officer corps went on to become Army generals; around 30 of its non-commissioned officers retired as Command Sergeant Majors. 

In the introduction to Bernie Grady's book about the 5/7, former battalion commander Col. Trevor (Ted) Swett wrote: "I had the privilege of getting to know these fine young citizen soldiers, many of them draftees, practically from the moment they entered the service. I was fortunate to be designated the first commander of the 5/7 Cav."

At their first reunion, he found his good fortune still holding. 

"None of us had an idea of what would happen," he said. "And what happened was a tremendous bonding. Like me, the troopers who attended it probably had some misgivings. Will there be bitterness somehow? Soldiers weren't very much appreciated when they got home from Vietnam. There were a lot of questions going into the reunion, but from the minute we got there, those questions evaporated." 

They built the reunion around families. They didn't want it to be a bunch of guys drinking beer and swapping war stories. They didn't want guys just coming to the reunion alone. They wanted something of value to everyone, something that would last and that families could take home when they left. Swett said they found it. 

"It became apparent to me and virtually everyone there that this reunion had become a major healing project," he said. "There were a lot of people who had kept it all inside and much of that 'all' was bitterness, a refusal to talk about it with their families. After that reunion, I got several letters from wives saying 'I think you may have saved my marriage by getting this thing organized because he talks about it now and I understand.' " 

Jasper Catanzaro received letters, too. 

"I got some that made me cry," he said. "Wives would write me letters that thanked us and said they finally understood what all of us had gone through in Vietnam. I swear to God, some of those letters moved me to tears. Over the years, I'll bet I've gotten 20 letters like that. I've had probably 50 wives come up to me during reunions and tell me the same thing." 

The first reunion lasted four days. They held a banquet and barbecue; they had company meetings and battalion meetings. They decided to form an association and named former commander Ted Swett its first president; the former C Company First Sergeant, Command Sergeant Major Haskell (Wes) Westmoreland was named vice president. 

Westmoreland left his native West Virginia at 17 to join the Army. His career spanned 23 years and when the draftees met him in 1965, he was not the most popular man in the outfit. He drove them hard, knowing anything less would compromise their survival. 

"He was a pain in the ass and we all hated him and he saved our lives," Karl Haartz said. 

Westmoreland served three tours of duty in Vietnam, two of them with the 5/7. He said that since he retired in 1977, he hadn't gone near an Army post or anything else connected to the military. He joked about his reunion qualms.

"I got up to that reunion and I didn't know whether I was gonna get whipped or they was going to shake my hand," he said. "All the guys treated me real good. I saw one guy I didn't recognize, and I was standing over by the bar, and he was looking at me, and I was looking at him, and at my age (64) you can tell when somebody's thinking about kicking your butt. I walked over, and I said, 'Do I know you or do you know me?' He said, 'Well, how in the hell could anybody ever forget you?' " 

Having made the decision to form an association, they set about the business of finding people to belong to it. For six years they worked primarily through the telephone - find a name, call information, make cold calls until they tracked someone down. When the Internet blossomed, tracking became easier. E-mail and search engines helped to turn up 4,000 names.

When the 1991 edition of The VVA Veteran arrived in Karl Haartz's New Hampshire home, he followed his habit of reading the Locator ads first. When he saw the 5/7 Cav ad, he sat down to make a list.

"I wrote down 15 to 18 names and hometowns that I had just from memory," he said. "I had them in my head."

Serendipity played a hand in finding people, too. Haartz knew a guy who lived in Crystal Lake, Illinois, but he couldn't get a phone number or address for him. So he wrote a letter with only the man's name and the town on the envelope. 

"It turned out he worked in the post office," Haartz said. "They were getting ready to return the letter to me because it didn't have an address and one of the guys in the post office said to him, 'Hey, we got a letter addressed to you from a guy in New Hampshire. You know anybody in New Hampshire?' He said he did. That's how we found him." 

But not everyone wanted to be found, and in at least one case, family members thought it best that someone be protected. Haartz had located a 5/7 veteran who lived only 35 miles from his home. Haartz called. A relative of the 5/7 vet said the man had died. Last January, Haartz received an e-mail from the "dead" veteran. 

"On the tailgate of my pickup, in 4-inch letters, I've got - "5th Battalion 7th Cav, Vietnam 1966-71" - and our website - www.cav57.org, Haartz said. "He'd seen it at the mall, went to our website and found the e-mail address of a guy in Hawaii he was RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) for in Vietnam. He gave him my e-mail address and now we e-mail back and forth." 

Another Haartz friend remains steadfast in his refusal to have anything to do with the association. 

"He won't go near it," Haartz said. "He doesn't want to talk about it. He was in the 5/7 and I see him once every six months. He lives 12 miles away and he just doesn't want to loosen up. He's still got it wrapped up inside of him. We haven't found the trigger yet to get him to crack. He doesn't want to remember a thing about 'Nam and I think it bothers him a lot."

Wes Westmoreland tells of the other side of the coin, a moment when the group provided a release for what had been bottled up for so long. 

"We had one squad leader who got shot on Thanksgiving Day," Westmoreland said. "Well, when he got out of the Army, he was about the same as me. He didn't go to anything that had anything to do with the military. It took him two and a half days to drive to our first reunion and when he got there and started talking to all these people he knew, it just relieved him of all those bad feelings about what happened in Vietnam. These guys stick together good. They went through a tough time, a very tough time. But we were blessed with good people, good troops, good young Americans from all walks of life." 

They hold a reunion every two years. The next will be in July in St. Louis. They still look for more men to come. "Every time I get together with these guys, I feel better about where I've been and what I've done," Karl Haartz said. "We went through basic training together, infantry training, unit training. We'd been together for 18 months. The camaraderie developed through being an infantry soldier and watching each other's back is a lifelong thing. You don't forget these guys." 

Their former commander, Ted Swett, said he didn't want to overstate the matter, but used the word "family" nonetheless. 

"It's sort of like of having a family kind of relationship," he said. "The main value is that there is a healing to those who need it most. It's the value of getting together and realizing they have something in common and something they can be proud of. It's tinged with sadness because some of them didn't come home, but there is a feeling that we have something special and it comes across in what they say when we're together, not only to me, but to each other."

   

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