Thanksgivings -- or lack thereof -- loom large in Vietnam veteran's service

By TOM DAVIDSON | Beaver County Times, Pa. | Published: May 16, 2017

BELL ACRES, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — William Russo's service in the Vietnam War was book-ended by Thanksgivings.

Russo, now 72, of Bell Acres, left for Vietnam on Thanksgiving Day 1967 and returned a year later on Thanksgiving Day 1968 after a year in-country under near-constant fire during the height of the war in Vietnam.

He served as a crew chief on a C-47 in the U.S. Air Force, based in Pleiku, and lived to tell his story, unlike several of the men and women with whom he served.

The horror of war is something he'll never forget.

"It was an experience for a guy that had never been involved in anything like that before. It was very distressing to see people killed and being responsible for people that were killed. It was an eye-opening experience for me," Russo said.

As a hometown "momma's boy" who grew up in the Sewickley area, fighting in the war was "eye-opening" to Russo and made him grow up fast.

Returning home was just as distressing, however, Russo said.

"When I came home, that was terrible," he said.

He flew into the Pittsburgh airport at 3 a.m. that Thanksgiving and was greeted by anything but the sentiment of the holiday.

"I was spit on by people and that was no joke. And called baby-killer," Russo said. "That was bad."

It's something that elicits powerful emotions in Russo nearly 50 years after it happened.

"We were subject to things that were terrible," he said, referencing his homecoming.

He was shunned by people he thought of as friends and neighbors for his service.

"People from my own town. I cut their grass, I delivered their newspaper," Russo said. "When people asked me, I told them I didn't go, I was ashamed of it."

But for Russo, serving in Vietnam was something that couldn't be avoided. His draft number was 4, and he was told to by people at the local draft board to pack his bags. He decided to enlist so he'd have some choice about how he served and he signed up for the Air Force, "because I wanted to do something that I wanted to do."

During basic training, he was awarded airman of the month for the first two months of his training and he was ultimately assigned to be on a B-58 flight crew based in Arkansas, and at first it didn't appear as if Russo would be sent to Vietnam.

He was engaged to an Ambridge girl, Mary Kay Fezar, and two days before her bridal shower, Russo got his orders to go to Vietnam.

"We didn't know what to do. I didn't want to leave my wife a widow," Russo said.

They decided to marry despite Russo's deployment, which they did on Aug. 12, 1967, at SS. Peter and Paul's Church in Ambridge.

"I really wasn't happy about going over there (to Vietnam), but I also knew that this was my country," Russo said.

His parents were Italian immigrants and they were patriotic Americans who instilled a sense of service in Russo.

Still, "it was not a happy time," he said.

He left for Vietnam on Thanksgiving Day 1967 -- arriving at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam two days later. He was met at the airport by an officer who told him "you're going to the worst place in Vietnam."

That place was Pleiku, in Vietnam's central highlands at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

"There wasn't a day the whole time I was there that we weren't under attack," Russo said. "That was one of the worst places to be."

They fought the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) that was supplied and trained by the Chinese and they were a force that had the armament and wherewithal to fight a war, Russo said.

They lived in 10-man tents fortified with sandbags to protect them from the ground fire, he said, and they could watch the NVA setting up mortars each day. They didn't wear their ranks or salute officers so as not to tip off snipers, Russo said.

"It was terrible. I was fortunate because I didn't get hurt," he said.

As crew chief on a C-47, Russo was tasked with maintenance of the plane, and they flew missions as needed during the war -- sometimes two or three times a week -- when he was there.

Russo's plane transported Bob Hope to a performance in Pleiku, something he remembered fondly.

"He was a wonderful man," Russo said.

As the plane came in to the base they came under ground fire.

"He said to me, 'You know there's holes in the plane?'" Russo said.

He explained to the famous comedian that they were being shot at -- something that surprised Hope.

"There were snipers everywhere," Russo said, and spies.

The base employed Vietnamese women and they caught three of them who were spying for the North Vietnamese and had diagrams of where the armaments and outposts on the base were.

"Things happened over there that you couldn't control," Russo said.

During the Tet Offensive -- a surprise attack by the North Vietnamese that started Jan. 30, 1968, Russo remembered how everyone on the base was pressed into action.

"Whatever you were, you were out on perimeter, protecting the base," Russo said.

He's thankful he survived the war, and thankful he was able to return and adjust to civilian life.

"I had somebody the other day ask me, 'How did you survive all that and become a useful citizen?'" Russo said.

His family was supportive and Russo said he "adjusted right away."

The hard part was adjusting to being around people who opposed the war and Americans' service in it, he said.

"It was hard sometimes to look at the people you knew your whole life and they said ... things about you," Russo said.

It hurts him to this day.

"But you've got to get over it. You can't spend your whole life hating," Russo said. "I came home to Sewickley and made a life."

He and his wife raised three children and Russo worked as a police officer in Edgeworth.

The increased support that Americans now have of those who serve in the military hurts Russo, because "I wanted that but I wasn't given it," he said.

But allowing opposing viewpoints is part of being free.

"Because that was part of being an American. I thought that's why we were fighting over there and I believe that," Russo said. "I love this country. I love America and that's it."

He has better memories of recent experiences he's had when he's out and about wearing a Vietnam Veteran hat.

At a restaurant in Center Township, a woman approached him and gave him a card thanking him for his service with a gift certificate in it.

Russo also had what he called "the most thrilling experience" while vacationing in Camp May, N.J.

"Two little boys, just the cutest things, said 'Excuse me, mister, is there any way we could shake your hand?'," Russo said as he choked up telling the story.

He asked them why and they told him, "we saw you were in Vietnam."

"Those kids were in tears" as they shook Russo's hand, he said.

"That meant a lot to me," Russo said. They asked him for a hug and "I said 'You can hug me, that's OK,'" Russo said.

His hope is the country doesn't go through another Vietnam.

"No war is any good. Somebody dies. Just think of all the people that we lost ... in wars. What they could have accomplished by doing things for our country (if they wouldn't have been killed)," Russo said. "We didn't know any better. We were young kids, that's what we were."

©2017 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.)
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