Encounter with a hero

Writer: 
August 11, 2017

Each of us on the “Staff Ride” to Vietnam had a job to do. We were studying the Vietnam War, especially the pivotal Tet Offensive (1968), from the perspective of historical actors—both American and Vietnamese. Each participant on the ride, organized by the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy this past winter, studied a specific historical participant, educating each other about the perspectives of the individuals we portrayed.

My assignment was Marine Sergeant Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzales, whose heroism during the Tet Offensive won him the Congressional Medal of Honor—posthumously. As it happened, he and I both had been Marines serving in Vietnam at that same time and place. He was on his second tour, a twenty-one-year-old infantry platoon sergeant in the First Marine Division. I was a second lieutenant serving with the Third Medical Battalion at the same division headquarters.

When communist forces launched a surprise offensive during the Tet holiday, Sergeant Gonzales rode to nearby Hue with his platoon to aid his beleaguered comrades. He was wounded on the trip to Hue and again after arriving there, refusing medical evacuation both times. On the fourth day of fighting, he led his platoon into a building held by enemy forces who had barricaded themselves in the upper floors, throwing grenades down on the Marines attempting to dislodge them. Sergeant Gonzales mounted the stairs alone, firing antitank weapons. The enemy fired an antitank weapon in return, fatally wounding him. 

As I read his story in preparation for explaining to my fellow staff riders what the war must have looked like to him, I found myself saddened that I previously had known nothing of him or his heroism. But suddenly, I realized that in fact I had encountered Sergeant Gonzalez once before. Reading the account of the corpsman who came to his aid and then sat praying with him as he bled out in the stairwell of a war-torn Catholic school 9,000 miles from his native Edinburgh, Texas, I read a description of wounds I had seen once before.

The day he died, my Marines and I were moving casualties from the airstrip in front of the Third Medical Battalion hospital into the triage area, where the most seriously wounded would be selected for urgent care. When we had cleared one helicopter of the wounded, we were left to remove the bodies of those who were dead on arrival. The last body was a Marine so horribly mutilated that we could not—for a long moment—decide how to pick up his remains. His trunk now ended around the middle of his pelvis in a grotesque tangle of blood, skin, organs, and bones. We stood paralyzed, embarrassed by our own sensibilities, humbled by the sacrifice of this nameless Marine, and seemingly powerless to handle his remains with the dignity he deserved. Finally, one of the Marines stepped forward and grasped the belt that was still clinging tenuously to his trunk and helped lift him onto a stretcher.

A year in the Third Medical Battalion left me with many gruesome, poignant memories. But none has haunted me so often and so powerfully as this one. Now I know this victim’s name, and I know that his sacrifice received the recognition it deserved. It makes the horror of that moment in the helicopter easier to recall. Still, composure escaped me when I tried to tell my fellow staff riders what the Vietnam War looked like to Marine Sergeant Alfredo Gonzales. Then and now, it was his mutilation, even more than his death, that preyed upon me. I found some inexplicable comfort in learning he was a hero.

Roland Ph.D. ’74 is professor emeritus of history.