Stayin' Alive: Most of marine's Vietnam tour of duty spent near DMZ
The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.
Joel Sofranko was almost certain he was going to be drafted upon graduating from Olyphant High School in the summer of 1967.
So, he and his closest friends decided they'd get a jump on Uncle Sam before he got to them.
"It was five of us from our senior class. We all enlisted together," he said. "I had no plans after high school as far as going to school or anything like that. I didn't want them to tell me what I was going to do."
"I wanted to go to the Marine Corps," he continued. "I thought the Marine Corps was the best, and I wanted to go to the best."
The Marines made him a soldier, and made him a man. And he needed to be both to withstand the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Mr. Sofranko served 13 months in Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. For a good part of his tour, he was stationed along the DMZ, participating in a long list of operations, among them Oceola, Lancaster, High Rise and Thor.
He came back with seven medals, including the Combat Action Ribbon, Vietnam Gallantry Cross and Vietnam Service Medal, plus too many bad memories to count.
Still, the 63-year-old Peckville resident considers himself lucky.
"I had it easy compared to some guys," said Mr. Sofranko, a former corrections officer at SCI Waymart who now serves as commandant of the Northeastern Detachment Marine Corps League and Museum. "How I came home without a scratch on me, I'll never know. A lot of people around me, some of them didn't make it."
As a kid, Mr. Sofranko had a fondness for toy soldiers and other military-related things. But they hardly prepared him for the shock to the system he got on July 22, 1967, the day he and his buddies arrived at Parris Island, S.C., for boot camp.
Within the first 24 hours, he and his fellow recruits all had their hair buzzed, their civilian clothes had been taken from them and shipped home, and they had endured a torrent of insults and obscenities from the camp's notoriously hard-edged drill instructors.
"It was just friggin' mayhem. You were so scared. You're thinking, 'What did I get myself into?'" Mr. Sofranko said.
The head games went hand-in-hand with the nonstop physical activity - "exercises until you die," as they were called there, he said. Hours of running and rifle target practice and drownproofing in the pool. And, of course, there was the gas chamber, where recruits were forced to take off their masks and attempt to sing the Marines' Hymn while being assaulted with tear gas.
"Guys are puking. Snots are coming out of your nose," Mr. Sofranko said.
After boot camp, Mr. Sofranko was sent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for infantry maneuvers, then to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for artillery training. There, he learned how to use a M102 105mm howitzer.
He got to Vietnam in January 1968, "just in time for the Tet Offensive," he said.
At Da Nang Air Base, he learned he wouldn't be assigned to artillery, but instead to the 1st Searchlight Battery, the Marines' only infrared unit. Part of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's Electronic Wall of Defense along the DMZ, the unit was charged with coordinating nighttime assaults on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
First, he was sent to its headquarters at Dong Ha. He remembers landing there in a C-130 transport plane, in terrible monsoon rains. His first step off the plane was into mud that went halfway up his boot. His first thought: "I'll never see Olyphant again."
From Dong Ha, Mr. Sofranko was sent to Con Thien. Days in, while traveling from there to Cam Lo, he got his first up-close look at death along the side of the road.
"I'll never forget it. It was a village elder," he said. "He was wearing these white pajamas, like they always wore. And he was just riddled with bullets. He was just red.
"You grow up fast."
As a member of the 1st Searchlight Battery, Mr. Sofranko, a corporal and section leader, served with several grunt units in and around Con Thien, Cam Lo and Cua Viet. A few times, he was with allied South Vietnamese troops, and, for two memorable weeks, some South Korean marines, who were "nuts," he said.
"We never knew where we were going. They never told you where you were going," he said.
Members of the 1st Searchlight would go out into the field at night with a large device that resembled a TV set and shot streams of infrared light out into pitch-black jungle. From there, Mr. Sofranko and the other guys in his platoon would use binoculars to search for enemy movement. Once enemy soldiers were located, they'd either call in a fire mission, or engage on their own.
At Cua Viet, he was ordered to an underground bunker filled with three-dimensional maps and other sophisticated equipment. There, he gave a presentation on the infrared system to a group of higher-ups.
"I thought I was in 'Star Wars,'" Mr. Sofranko said. "I'm with all these officers. My heart is in my throat. What am I going to tell these guys?"
That night, the infrared came in handy when he and his unit spotted three sampans coming down the river. They turned out to be enemy supply boats. Using M79 grenade launchers and mortars, Mr. Sofranko's unit blew the boats to smithereens.
From time to time, Mr. Sofranko would go out on Navy boats for patrols along the Dong Ha River. It was always a hair-raising experience, from the enemy fire that would come in from either side of the jungle to the mines that occasionally took out other boats.
There was plenty of danger during the day, too, because the enemy was constantly shelling his base camp.
"That's really terrible. Anyone that's been through any artillery barrage or mortar barrage, they'll tell you the same thing," he said. "Because there's nothing you can do. You just gotta hunker down. You don't know where that next shell's going to hit. It's scary."
One of the many pictures Mr. Sofranko brought back with him from the war shows him holding a large piece of shrapnel. It came into his bunker "like a buzz saw" and missed killing him by inches. He kept it as "a souvenir."
Mr. Sofranko has another picture, from Thanksgiving Day of '68. He and some friends are clutching turkey sandwiches and cans of warm Schlitz beer. It's a nice scene, but a bittersweet one for Mr. Sofranko.
"Two of the guys in this picture are dead," he said.
Many others died, too. While most of the 1st Searchlight's missions met their stated objectives, there were always casualties, Mr. Sofranko said.
Nonetheless, he never really questioned why the military was there, other than they were there to do a job, and do it well.
Keeping oneself alive just got to be a normal part of a day-to-day existence that Mr. Sofranko and his fellow Marines eventually grew oddly comfortable with. When not dodging mortars, they'd play pinochle and listen to music. A few months into his tour, he spent several days of much-needed RandR in Bangkok, Thailand.
"Luckily, you still had companions. ... There's a camaraderie (in the military) that's unbelievable," Mr. Sofranko said. "The guys I was with, we were levelheaded people. We got through it the best we could. The best way we knew how."
Mr. Sofranko was always thrilled for a friend who was rotated back to the states.
His time finally arrived in February of '69. Before leaving, he gave his hat to the Marine who took over his section. A month later, the guy was dead.
Back in the states, he was promoted to sergeant. His last assignment was at a Naval prison in Portsmouth, N.H., where he helped oversee 1,400 court-martialed sailors and Marines, many of them there for war crimes.
Upon arriving home in Olyphant, he reunited with friends and family members, most of whom didn't truly understand or appreciate the hell he had been through.
"Even my parents, I don't think they realized what happened to me," he said. "They never asked me about anything."
But Mr. Sofranko persevered and got on with his life. He got married and had a son and went to work at the prison.
Try as he might, though, he could never completely shake the war's nasty residue, and it would manifest itself in periodic bouts of post-traumatic stress. A few years ago, some friends finally talked him into going to the VA for help.
"It comes and goes. Sometimes I'll break down and start crying and stuff," Mr. Sofranko said, noting dates tend to elude him, most likely because he doesn't want to remember them.
He holds no ill will toward the Vietnamese people, though. He's heard about vets who have gone back to visit the country. To him, it sounds like a cleansing thing, a healing thing.
"You talk to some guys today, some Vietnam vets, you know, it's still, 'the gooks.' Put that behind you," Mr. Sofranko said. "If you lost someone, so did (the Vietnamese). And they probably didn't want to be there, either. They were ordered to go. They didn't want to leave their families. Because Vietnamese people are no different than Americans, as far as loving their children and their families. ... And they had it worse than us.
"I try to keep everything in perspective."