Joe Barrera: Remembering the Mini-Tet Offensive

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Memorial Day is about memories. With this in mind, I visited Joe Berg, the director of the 4th Infantry Division Museum at Fort Carson. There is a soft spot in my heart for the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Division, with whom I served in Vietnam. I asked Joe about Mini-Tet and the 4th Division. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet Offensive, Phase One, of January and February 1968, is well-known. Not so the Tet Offensive, Phase Two, in May 1968. We called Phase Two Mini-Tet, because it had all the ferocity of Big Tet. The 4th Infantry Division whose Area of Operations (AO) was the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was particularly hard hit. In late May 1968 I was with 1/8th Infantry in the mountainous tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I asked Joe Berg what the historical record says about 1/8th Infantry and the 4th Division in the battles we fought there.

I knew the answer already but I wanted confirmation. The record is very skimpy. The 4th Division is a good outfit. In WWI, the division distinguished itself during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Pershing’s sledgehammer attacks on the Hindenburg Line. In WWII, the 8th Regiment, my old unit, spearheaded the 4th Division’s D-Day landings and was the first to secure its beach head, Utah Beach. But in Vietnam we never got the credit we deserved. The battle cry of the division is “Steadfast and Loyal,” and that it has always been. But in the Nam it was other units–the 1st Cavalry, the 173rd Airborne, the Marines at Khe Sanh–who got all the attention. Joe Berg showed me Erik B. Villard’s book, Staying the Course: October 1967 to September 1968–the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Villard devotes about two pages to the 4th Division’s battles in the tri-border area. There is a brief mention of 1/8th Infantry’s fight with the North Vietnamese (NVA) 95C and 101D regiments at Firebase 29 on Hill 824 and other nearby firebases near the Montagnard village of Ben Het. Villard has a lot of ground to cover, so the brevity is understandable. But I wish it wasn’t so.

I was on one of those hilltop firebases whose name I do not remember. At first we were glad to be on the firebase, relieved from humping the 75lb rucksacks we carried. But that didn’t last long.The enemy kept up a constant mortar and artillery barrage. Day and night mortar rounds fell like rain. We were a shooting gallery for 75mm recoilless rifles from adjacent hilltops. Then the two-week-long barrage by Russian-supplied 152mm NVA artillery out of Laos just five clicks (kilometers) away. Those were big rounds, coming in with a horrible shriek. The NVA gunners aimed for the U.S. artillery batteries on the hilltop. We lived like moles in trenches and deep bunkers. We couldn’t patrol outside the wire. They had us surrounded and to venture out was to risk a deadly ambush. Resupply helicopters came in at their own peril. We suffered like the Marines besieged at Khe Sanh. Not as long, but the same kind of thing.

The spirit words on the 8th Regiment’s coat-of-arms are Patriae Fidelitas–Faithfulness to Country. I ran by the  tactical operations center, the TOC, one night and tripped on something. It was the battalion placard, blown down by one of those huge 152 artillery rounds. In the glare of an explosion I saw the Latin, Patriae Fidelitas. The sentiment is powerful. Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall, guarding the empire’s remotest frontier, must have felt it too. Now the 8th Infantry held a 20th-century frontier. I propped up the sign against the sandbags and ran to the safety of my own deep bunker.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

John & Carol Stansfield Present The Almagre Review’s Second Literary Event: April 20 @ Hooked On Books

Come join us for our second literary salon in anticipation of Earth Day. Thursday afternoon (5:30 pm to 7:30 pm), John and Carol Stansfield will read authors Edward Abbey and Enos Mills, downtown @ Hooked On Books. Admission is FREE!

Issue 2: “Leadership” has Arrived!

It’s official, announcing the arrival of Issue Two.

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The Almagre Review/La Revista Almagre is excited to share the publication of our second issue. We have wonderful local contributors, writers from up and down the front range, from the prairie, all the way to Wisconsin. To purchase a copy online, click HERE ($12 plus shipping). Copies are also available at the downtown locations of Hooked On Books and Poor Richards.

The Almagre Review will be at the Manitou Art Center on December 16th for their art opening. Copies of issues one and two will be available for purchase. Stay tuned for additional dates and events.

Warm Regards,

The Almagre Staff

Contemporary Heroes; Hooked On Books

Yes, in the spirit of leadership, the theme of issue two, we’d like to honor bookstores and especially their proprietors.

The Almagre Review wants to take a minute to thank Hooked On Books for their enduring dedication to Colorado Springs’s local authors. One might not realize this, but Jim and Mary Ciletti devote a tremendous amount of time and resource to writers who publish and sell their work locally.

The bookstore, we all know, is a diminished institution. This is not because we read less than we used to; that is a misconception. We read more than ever. But, we read differently. Deep attention to long, rich works grows scarcer by the year. We collect information like grains of sand blowing through the air. News by captions! This is the age of trying to form complex world-views out of a chaotic constellation of information. Our contemporary consumption of the written word has conferred all its disadvantages upon the local bookstore.

Companies like Barnes and Noble can manage, but even then, not all the large companies survive–Borders went out of business. And for the mom and pops bookstore? To find one is a treasure, to support them–a public service. There’s a touch of the heroic, born of faithful dedication, to Jim and Mary Ciletti for their labors in sustaining a brick and mortar location for story enthusiasts like us.

As a gesture of friendship, take the time to stop by Hooked On Books, or any bookstore. The Almagre recommends this from a place of deep gratitude. While there, let Mary or Jim know, that it was at the urging of Colorado’s newest literary journal. Most importantly, ask the proprietor, “what book by a local author do you suggest today?”

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Los Dias de los Muertos – The Days of the Dead

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We are in the autumn of the year. Another year falling down to die in December. We roll past All Saints and All Souls, remembering Heaven and Purgatory, the days of the dead, los Dias de los Muertos, as we say in Spanish.

Autumn is like that, bringing remembrances of the dead. But memory is strange. Instead of dying, memories come to life, more real than the people and events from which they spring. My memories are of the Vietnam War, rapidly receding into the distant past, and of the soldiers who populate those memories. Soldiers appear, stand and speak. They come to petition, to ask for my favor.

Sometimes I cannot answer them. They are too insistent, wanting to hold me accountable lest I forget them. The dead of the Vietnam War, like the dead of all wars, wish only to be remembered. But the Vietnam dead have a special poignancy about them. They do not want to be consigned to the gray world of shameful memories, even if their war is often perceived that way.

So I am patient with them. And I am patient with myself. Before I had Vietnam memories, I had other memories, the World War II stories that I heard growing up. I came home from the Vietnam War in 1968, in the autumn of the year. I came home to south Texas. I was a combat veteran, home from the war, but yet not home, unable to return to the civilian world, as combat veterans often cannot.

But it was a good homecoming. My uncle was there to greet me. He was an old soldier. He had landed with the Second Infantry Division on D+1, June 7, 1944. Reynaldo V. Zuniga, that was my uncle’s name. When I think of my war I always think of him. I remember the stories he would tell.

My uncle would sit with his cronies, among them another combat veteran named Ray Hernandez, who had been with the 36th Division, the Texas National Guard outfit savagely mauled by the Germans at the Gari river in Italy and finally at Monte Cassino. There was another man, a small, quiet, dark-skinned man. This man’s name was Jose Lopez. He would come to visit relatives in Brownsville, then stop to visit my uncle before returning to San Antonio. They had been in the same regiment during the war, Jose Lopez in M Company.

In December 1944 he killed 132 Germans in and around the Belgian village of Krinkeldt. He shot them down with his .30 caliber machine gun. He was alone. His comrades had fled in the face of the German onslaught. For that action during the Battle of the Bulge Jose Lopez won the Medal of Honor.

The stories would usually start on D-Day. That was my uncle’s glory. He jumped off the ramp of the LCI, into water that nearly covered his head. “I held up the man next to me,” he would say. “I’m six feet-two, so I saved him from drowning. And the Germans were still shooting at us.”

He was seventeen when he ran away from home in 1940 together with his best friend, Ernesto Vela. The boys hitchhiked to San Antonio and joined the Army’s Second Infantry Division, the famous Indian Head division. The profile of the stoical Indian warrior is the proud insignia of the Second Division, a fitting symbol for the many south Texas Mexican Americans who fought, bled and died in that combat division in World War II.

Ernesto was killed in Normandy. He lies in the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, overlooking Bloody Omaha, the beach where so many men died. My uncle still talked about him many years later, and I would listen, listen so much that I felt that I knew Ernesto, that he was my comrade, too.

He was rapidly promoted and was very soon an NCO, the platoon sergeant, even if he was a hard drinker and a hard brawler, ready with his fists and even more ready with his sarcasm. But he had leadership qualities. I remember that he was a natural leader and I certainly wanted to follow him.

My uncle lasted three months in combat. He was wounded three times. The last wound was almost fatal. It was in September, 1944. The U.S. Second Infantry Division was now part of Patton’s newly activated Third Army, tasked with clearing the Germans out of the Brittany peninsula and liberating the port city of Brest.

Reynaldo Zuniga was a platoon sergeant in I Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. He led from the front, always from the front. He was that kind of man. He ran out in front of his men, and I can hear him shout, “follow me!” It was at the siege of Brest.

Then he was shot. A German soldier hiding behind a wall shot him with a K98 Mauser rifle, the 7.92 mm  slug shattering his pelvis. He lay on the ground, “and the blood was pouring out of me like water from a faucet,” he would say. The platoon medic ran out, oblivious to danger, slapped a pressure bandage on him and pulled him to safety. “The Germans were so close that I could hear them talking, but they didn’t shoot the medic and they didn’t shoot me again.” I can still hear him say that, paying a grudging compliment to the enemy who had nearly killed him but then chose to spare him.

On Veterans’ Day I drank a toast to him. I went to my war because I wanted to be like him. But of course I never could ascend to that lofty height. We old soldiers continue to fight our wars. It’s a type of relief to tell stories, especially among the bands of brothers found in every VFW and American Legion post across the land.  I have done that, and gone on pilgrimages looking for solace.

When I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington – The Wall – I tried to put mine to rest. I touched the names of comrades engraved there. It’s a powerful experience and it’s no accident that the Memorial to the Vietnam War dead is a wall – we, the survivors – are still trying to go through our own wall. We want to finish our war and reunite with our comrades. It’s tragic that so many Vietnam veterans cannot do that.

When I went to the Wall I think that I succeeded, at least to a small degree, in putting my war to rest. Touching their names gave me a fleeting connection to those long-dead comrades.

But there was another bond that I found there. It made me feel another strong emotion. The Wall has one unique feature that I immediately noticed. No where else, on no other American monument, civilian or military, are there so many Spanish surnames. On every panel there are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American names. Thousands of them.

The Vietnam War Memorial is an ironic testament to affirmative action. That Roll of Honor is the only place where our country gives Latinos the recognition we so richly deserve – because it was paid for in blood.

~Joe Barrera,
Publisher/Editor
The Almagre Review

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A Profound Thank You to Our Veterans

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Joe and I would like extend our thanks and gratitude to the men and women who have defended our country.

I have been privileged to share in this venture, our humble publication, with Joe, who served in Vietnam. I think of him as a dear, and unlikely friend, for the fact that we came together over this project from different backgrounds and different generations. It has been an honor to hear some of his stories, and to be exposed to new insights and thoughts that only a veteran can share. I think of Joe as part of the family… and he has joined my family at the dinner table many times.

When we set out to build The Almagre Review, one of the things we wrote into the ethos of our journal is that, “we consider ourselves a friendly home to veterans.”

There are publications out there which are dedicated to soldiers and their tales. There are also mainstream literary journals, and one will occasionally encounter soldiers’ tales in them. At our journal, we’d like to somewhat dissolve those borders, and be a publication for the mainstream public where one commonly finds words penned by America’s military women and men.

And… about those dinners with Joe. Certainly, we talk about literature, about politics, about art. We talk about our journal, our writing. But mostly, he sees to it to talk about my family, the kids, my wife, and to remind me how special they are. This is where we always end up. And it’s the least I can do for him… share a place at the table, with my family, for whom he feels great affection.

It’s an honor, that we at The Almagre Review, can offer our pages to veterans as if it is the family dinner table. We welcome writers of all backgrounds, but we pay particular attention to the words of those who have served.

Again, a profound thank you to our veterans
~The Almagre Staff

Why Readers Matter

image1Our publication’s newest reader. And we’re thankful to the parent of this greatness-in-the-making for sharing such a candid moment!

Writers ask a lot of their readers. It’s more than just time. The solicitation is quite intimate, begging more of a total investment.

We can’t speak for everyone, but here at our humble publication, we know how slippery and temporary ideas are…all ideas, great ones especially. Once committed to paper, an idea finds a quasi-permanence.

So in the age where most stories are told through moving images and sound, the written word in all its static glory must rely on its most powerful quality. That quality is this intimacy…the theater of another’s mind. Here, a poem or novel moves in, like a circus, it sets up camp, unfolds its tents, un-carriages the animals, and builds a show between the ears of another human. Think of this invitation, this opportunity to inhabit each other. It’s a unique dialogue. When the reader shares his time with all those set pieces stored in the attic of his imagination, those wares built from the thread of experience, he gives the writer her reason to be. He also gives her the stage for her ideas. The necessary loop is complete and the current can flow.

We all remember that thing the last exquisite novel provided which a movie cannot produce. The scenes and scents and people moved through our head. We were not passengers, we were not emotional patients strapped to the operating table. We were part of the story. In some ways, it was even about us.

Thank you to our readers who have taken the time to be a part of our journey. We look forward to the big sky horizon of the West and all the future stories waiting to fill our pages.

~John Lewis,
Artist/Editor
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