COMMENTARY: Remembering Freddy Gonzalez 50 years after his death in Vietnam saving others

Commander Stefan Walch and several crew members of the USS Gonzalez attended the Veteran's festivites at Freddy Gonzalez Elementary School in Edinburg on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

JOHN W. FLORES | GUEST CONTRIBUTOR

Below are excerpts on U.S. Marine Sgt. Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzalez, of Edinburg, who is remembered in two biographies that I wrote about his life. It was 50 years ago today that Gonzalez gave his life defending his platoon during the Battle of Hue City in Vietnam. My books have been sold on board the USS Missouri and at Marine Base Hawaii where in 2007 I was invited to hold a book signing.

On Sunday morning, Feb. 4, 1968, U.S. Marine Sgt. Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzalez and his buddies were striding uneasily through Hue City as the Tet Offensive raged like a forest fire all across the Vietnamese countryside. The offensive took U.S. military commanders by total surprised because it was a holiday for the Vietnamese — their New Year.

Gonzalez was a member of Alpha Company when roughly 100 men arrived from nearby Phu Bai to check things out and to find out if intelligence reports of an enemy buildup were accurate. They were joined by Australian troops, totaling over 200 men in the ancient imperial city of Hue.

Gonzalez was killed defending his 3rd Platoon, AKA “Third Herd,” after being ordered by his company commander through combat veteran Gunnery Sgt. John Canly, to evacuate for medical treatment. He did not give up his post and Gonzalez was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. By interviewing survivors here is their recount of how Gonzalez gave his life to save others:

When the platoon of 30 men reached the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Hue, they were hit hard on all sides by enemy forces. To help distract enemy fire away from his pinned-down platoon, Gonzalez grabbed a dozen or so LAWs rockets from his men, climbed a stairway of the church/school and ran into an open school room door.

Gonzalez fired all of his rockets, suppressing enemy fire long enough to save the platoon from total annihilation. Then the North Vietnamese Army fired back and hit him in the mid-section, blowing his body into two pieces — the legs were on one side of the small room and his torso and head on the other — as Navy Corpsman Jim O’Konski arrived on scene to assess the damages.

“He was still breathing, and his eyes were open, but he tried to say something and he knew he was a goner, and while he was still alive I administered morphine and then more enemy rounds were hitting all round the doorway so I ran out to get away. I’ve always been haunted by that moment, leaving him while he was not yet gone,” O’Konski said during an October 2006 meeting with Dolia Gonzalez, Gonzalez’ mother, in her hometown of Edinburg. He cried and hugged Ms. Gonzalez and said later it seemed like she absolved him of all guilt.

Ms. Gonzalez, 88, only had one child and the father was married with a family so she raised him alone on the wages of a waitress and farm worker. They were very close.

“I was 16 when he was born,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “I almost died after the delivery, and so did he.” But her boy would grow up to be fearless and strong. He was “the soul of our football team,” said former Edinburg High School coach Fred Akers, who went on to be a legendary coach at the University of Texas at Austin.

“He wasn’t fast, or big, but he gave 100 percent on every play,” Akers said. “He was the best player I ever coached because of his heart and he gave his all and so the team rallied around him when times were bad.”

Sgt. Canly, 80, who also has been named a Medal of honor winner, gave this account of the actions he saw up close beginning on Jan. 31, 1968:

“Company A was assigned the mission as a reaction force. On that day, Sgt. Gonzalez was acting platoon commander of the 3rd Platoon. The company moved by truck but because of enemy activity (in Phu Bai) the company was forced to move by foot. Sgt. Gonzalez’ platoon was assigned the mission of searching and clearing the east side of Highway 1 North. On many occasions, I observed Sgt. Gonzalez move throughout his platoon sector under sniper fire to direct and control the platoon, showing no regard for safety of his life. The company mounted up on tanks to cross the south river (Perfume River) in Hue. Thirty meters on the north side of the river, the company was surprised by enemy rocket and automatic (machine gun) fire. A Marine was hit with automatic fire in the leg. I observed Sgt. Gonzalez go out in an open area under fire to retrieve the same Marine to cover. In doing so, Sgt. Gonzalez was hit with shrapnel from a rocket. He refused treatment in order to keep his platoon moving. The next mission for the 3rd Platoon was to take the point for the company. Company A was held up on Highway 1, west of the radar station, when the lead tank commander and the company commander was hit with sniper fire. There were snipers in the houses on the east and west side of the road. There was a bunker on the west side of the road with an automatic weapon in it firing south down the road,” Canly wrote.

“I observed Sgt. Gonzalez move his platoon up on the east side in the rice field to a dike across from the bunker. Sgt. Gonzalez moved from the dike to the road and knocked out the bunker with four hand grenades. In moving to the dike, one Marine was killed by a sniper from their rear. On 3 February 1968, Sgt. Gonzalez was wounded by shrapnel from enemy 60 mm mortar fire in both arms and his left leg, but still kept on going. On 4 February, the company came under heavy automatic and rocket fire. Sgt. Gonzalez exposed himself several times to fire, eight or 10 LAW’s, while under automatic enemy fire.”

On Jan. 24, 1968, Gonzalez wrote to his mother after learning that a friend of his from Texas had died in combat and he wanted to try and somehow prepare her for his own death — he felt it coming.

“Mother, I was shocked to hear that Victor got killed, but it’s things that will happen in war. Mom please don’t worry about me, cause I’ll come out of this just fine. Remember what I told you before I left, that I would come back all right. I hope all the people back home remember Victor, cause he didn’t give his life for nothing. It was in the line of duty. His life was given willingly, rather than taken. That’s the way I want you to think. …”

Her letters in reply were sent back marked “return to sender” in blood red letters. She was terribly alarmed, and while at work one day, waitressing at the City Café, a Marine in dress uniform walked in, and she knew. He approached her with a local law enforcement escort.

“I saw him and just collapsed,” she said. “(Freddy) was my whole world. But when the Navy commissioned a warship named for him, it gave me a lot of sons and daughters. They look after me and I try to take care of them. The Navy and Marines have been very good to me.”

Ms. Gonzalez has a marker at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery, just outside downtown Edinburg, and it is right beside her boy’s grave. She visits it often, even in her old age. She was proud to hear about Sgt. Canly getting the nod for a Medal of Honor, finally. She considers him one of her boys and she has seen him and other survivors of Hue City in annual reunions over the past five decades.

“We’re not promised happiness in this life, only in the next,” she said, quoting St. Bernadette, as she wiped away tears at her Edinburg home where a photo of her young son, in military dress uniform, hangs on the living room wall. It’s the same home she bought in 1969 with the $10,000 in death benefits from the Veterans Administration.

“I still miss him and it seems like he’s just been away for a long time. I will see my boy again,” she said.

John W. Flores is a disabled veteran and author of the 2014 revised book “Marine Sergeant Freddy Gonzalez, Vietnam War Hero.” In 2009, he was presented the U.S. Navy Meritorious Public Service Away.

He is a former investigative reporter from the Rio Grande Valley who now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.