Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

July 7, 2014

Amtrac Marine platoon from Vietnam War has 3rd annual reunion in St. Louis

PRINCETON — Sgt. William “Bill” Gearhart, survived some of the most intense combat of the Vietnam War during his tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps from February 1968 until the fall of 1969 when he got an early out, but his reception when he got back home wasn’t what he expected.

“It was a rough time. I know that,” Gearhart said. “I felt like I did the best job I could and I’ve always been proud of my service in Vietnam. I didn’t expect anything when I got back, but I couldn’t even get a job.”

Gearhart, now 64, quit school during his senior year at Princeton Senior High School and joined the Marines. “At boot camp, somebody told me to approach it like it is mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter. The recruiter told me all of the interesting jobs I would be able to train for if I signed up, but six months to the day after I signed up, I was in Vietnam.”

Gearhart was assigned to the 1st Amtrac Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. “One of the most decorated battalions in Vietnam,” he said with pride. “There’s never been a day I was ashamed of what I did over there. I was a believer. The Marines made a believer out of me.

“They called us Am-grunts,” he said. “We were in amtracs, but we still did all of the patrols ourselves. We lived through the Tet Offensive (that started at the end of January 1968) and both battles at Ocean View, Vietnam (Aug. 2, 1968, and Feb. 22, 1969). They were within 300 yards of the Demilitarized Zone. In 1969, after President Johnson stopped the bombing, the North Vietnamese were close enough that I could see the flashes from the muzzles of their rifles.”

After he got back home, he eventually got a job in sheet metal work for Allied Refrigeration. He finished his high school work and even got a job as a deputy sheriff in 1977, and moved quickly through the ranks during the next 10 years when he earned the rank of major. He ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 1987, and worked as a court security officer at U.S. District Court in Bluefield.

A little over three years ago, one of his buddies in the 4th Platoon, Bravo Company, Vito Parisi, started organizing reunions for the platoon. Two years ago, they gathered in Memphis, Tenn., last year they met in San Diego, Calif., and this year, from May 27-June 1, the group met in St. Louis.

“It was great,” Gearhart said of the most recent reunion. “We stayed at a motel with a casino. The first night, we went to a really nice restaurant, but when I saw the prices, I just had a Coke. When we were done with our meal, the waitress came over and said another gentleman who was in the restaurant had picked up the tab, paid for our meals and left. It made me wish that I had ordered steak.

“The next night, we went to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball screen, and they gave us a big welcome on the Jumbotron in the outfield,” Gearhart said. “Parisi has been a policeman in St. Louis for several years. Some of them brought their wives. Parisi brought a flag that we all signed before we left Vietnam. We have all signed it again every reunion we have been to.

“I was 18 years old when I was over there in Vietnam,” Gearhart said. “I had a hard time just like everybody, but the hardest part was never knowing what happened to the guys I was with over there. We didn’t all leave at the same time, and we came back to different parts of the country.

“This has helped a lot, and the people out in St. Louis were really nice to us,” he said.

Armondo Fernandez gave Gearhart his nickname of “Frag” because he liked to dismantle grenades, and once strapped about five pounds of C-4 explosive to a grenade and threw it in a mud hole to kill the snakes so the platoon could bathe in it.

Daniel Maldonado was nicknamed “PR” because he was from Puerto Rico; Floyd Morrison was nicknamed “Chief” because of his First Nations heritage; Armando Fernandez was nicknamed “Poncho” because he was from New Mexico.

“It was good to get with those guys again,” Gearhart said.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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