EDINBURG — About a dozen Vietnam veterans from across the country traveled to South Texas this week to pay tribute to their fearless leader, Sgt. Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzalez.

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of his untimely death.

Members of the 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment traveled thousands of miles to attend a ceremony in his honor at Freddy Gonzalez Elementary School Friday morning.

“It’s a very special occasion,” California-native Tim Wong said. “Quite a few of us made this trip. And you know what, he was a brother. We loved him to death.”

Gonzalez, a decorated war hero and beloved son of Edinburg, died 50 years ago protecting his men at the Battle of Hue City, where he selflessly led the charge against enemy lines.

“When he made a decision, he stuck to it,” Vietnam veteran Jack Rushing of Nacogdoches, Texas, said.

“He always led by example,” Wong said. “If he wanted you to do something, he did it also, and that’s the best you can say about a Marine.”

The tight-knit group of men, who meet every other year for a larger battalion reunion, shared their fondest memories of their brother in arms.

Gene Wright, of Arizona, remembers the reaction Gonzalez had to news of a casualty caused by friendly fire.

“I just remember he and the lieutenant walking around and just trying to comfort us because we suffered from that, and still to this day, a lot of guys have nightmares about that,” he said. “It’s just sad.”

A vast majority of them were very young at the time.

“You have to understand, we were 18- or 19-years old, and Freddy was a couple years older, and he’s the big kid on the block,” Wright said. “Everybody looks up to the big kid, especially a sergeant for crying out loud. We’re just peons compared to a sergeant. So we admired him. We were proud of him.”

Terry Strassburg fought hard to suppress tears when describing Gonzalez. Nearby, a few others clutched tissue boxes.

“He was my platoon sergeant, and as we went into,” he said, pausing to compose himself “as we went into Hue City, he was our leader and we had a lot of us that were wounded and he just kept us calm. He was a true, calm leader.”

Their deeply rooted respect for Gonzalez also extends to his mother, Dolia Gonzalez, who was also present at Friday’s event.

“We all love her,” Wright said. “So, she’s like mom to us now.”

“She deserves all the credit for raising a young gentleman that grew up to be a great person,” Wong added.

Most of the men were pleasantly surprised at all the honors that have been bestowed on Gonzalez, including the naming of a roadway, a park and a school.

“I’m so proud of Edinburg for doing what they’ve done,” Rushing said.

“When I came to town, I noticed everything said Freddy Gonzalez and Freddy Gonzalez,” Strassburg said. “And I’m going, I wonder if that’s Sergeant Gonzalez — cause there’s nobody here that would have the courage to call him Freddy. It was Sergeant Gonzalez and that was it — and we knew that.”

nlopez@themonitor.com