I graduated from Sacramento High School on June 11, 1964. Life’s possibilities seemed limitless. I enrolled for two summer classes at Sacramento City College the next week. My adult life had begun in earnest. Then something happened that summer which changed my life and the lives of all the Janey Way gang forever.
On Aug. 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats engaged the destroyer USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam. The Maddox sustained some moderate damage. The story made the network news that night. Two days later another attack supposedly occurred on the same ship. Then, the next day, Aug. 7, the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which authorized the President to do whatever necessary to assist the government of South Vietnam. This didn’t seem like such a big deal to us.
Little did we know.
That fall, my friend Mike Gilson joined the U.S. Marines and went off to train at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. After eight months of training, Mike came home on leave at the beginning of summer, 1965. He swam with us at the river, went to movies and generally had a great time. After his leave, Mike shipped out for Vietnam.
We would never see Mike again.
He lost his life in a fire fight in February of the next year. When that happened, we grieved and also realized how serious the war in Vietnam was. More Janey Way kids would soon follow Mike into battle.
Jim Ducray volunteered for the Army in late 1966. He trained at Fort Ord and then received his orders for Vietnam. As he prepared to leave, his older brother Bill told him, “when you get there, tell them you can type.”
Of course, Jim couldn’t type, but when he arrived in Vietnam, he set out in search of the administrative company. He found an officer there and asked if they needed a typist. Fortunately, the officer said they did, and Jim got reassigned from his infantry unit to the typing pool. Jim did most of his Vietnam service behind the lines and returned home unscathed.
Dick Kinzel wasn’t as lucky. He was drafted in 1967 and soon followed Jim over to Vietnam. Dick served in an artillery battery which supported the infantrymen on maneuvers in the field. He lived through the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968 when the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong attacked U.S. bases throughout South Vietnam. It was a horrible battle and many U.S. lives were lost.
Dick told me, “It got so bad, we lowered our cannons to ground level and fired them directly at oncoming Vietnamese attackers. I was lucky to survive.”
Some of his buddies were not so lucky. Fortunately, Dick returned home in 1968.
That year my brother Terry volunteered for the U.S. Army, and soon after our neighbor Roger Thomsen received his draft notice.
Terry trained as a military policeman and shipped out to serve in Saigon.
Roger was not so lucky. He trained as an infantryman and when he reached Vietnam in mid-1969, shipped directly out to the field. Three months later he sustained serious wounds in a fire fight.
When Terry heard of Roger’s condition, he visited Roger at the hospital. There, he arranged for Roger to call his parents back home and the whole neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief. The Army soon sent Roger home to recuperate, ending his assignment to Vietnam.
Meanwhile, I received my draft notice, in April of 1969. As I was training at Fort Lewis, Washington, my brother shipped out for Vietnam. So when I finished my training, in accordance with U.S. military policy, the Army could not station me in the same combat zone with my brother.
Consequently, I received my orders to serve in West Germany along with the 80,000 other U.S. soldiers serving there. I spent the rest of my two-year army career as a member of the 510th Ordinance Battalion in Southern Germany. There I learned how to destroy my ordinance base, using C-4 plastic explosive and detonating cord in the event of a Russian attack on our base. Fortunately, that never happened. I returned home to the U.S. in the fall of 1971.
When I returned home, Sacramento seemed a much different place. Its borders stretched out to Rancho Cordova on the east, to near Elk Grove on the south and toward Roseville on the north.
Janey Way had changed too. Most of the kids of my generation had moved out of the neighborhood. I would soon follow. By this time, the war in Vietnam was winding down. Others like Denis and John Tomassetti would get the call, but they too soon returned home uninjured.
The war had changed us all.
We had to grow up quickly. We had all served our county honorably. After all was said and done, we had lost a dear friend, others sustained life-changing injuries, both physical and mental, and on Janey Way life would never be the same again.