“Commotion, confusion and constant screaming blend together in the darkness. Badly wounded men, their merciful numbing shock gone now, replaced by throbbing, excruciating pain are dragged over mud. Tailbones ram against tree roots. Ribs crack against rocks. Corpsmen are out of morphine. Bright, colorful fireworks, the rocket’s red glare of pain pops in their brains, explodes and burns their bodies.
We’re carrying traumatic amputations, sucking chest wounds, blood-spurting arterials, oozing flesh wounds and hundreds of hidden internal wounds where bullets have shattered bones, shredded muscles, internal organs and skin.”
These are the words of Fred Tomasello Jr. from his book.
Good day. I am Peter Hymans, an honorably discharged (1970) veteran of the U.S. Naval Reserve. Recently on Facebook I was blown away, when I saw that a Facebook friend had journeyed back to Asia to throw-back to Vietnam, a bullet which had lodged in him in battle. The video footage he posted on Facebook showed him encounter high ranking Vietnamese military persons at the Ho Chi Minh Memorial. They were aged soldiers, who – 50 years ago – had been trying to kill Fred, while he was equally engaged in attempting to blow them to Kingdom-come. The journey itself was plenty to pique my interest. And the video clips of former enemies hugging, putting and gazing respectfully into one another’s eyes launched me into action – to create this interview. Fred Tomasello, Jr. is a good voice for MDI men to hear, ponder and, hopefully, get a lesson or add a milestone on their trajectory of a well-lived life leading to their ultimate legacy.
Good Day, Fred. I am so grateful we might share your story with others. What is your full name; please tell us about the man, Fred, Senior, after whom you are named.
My full name is Fred Tomasello, Jr. My father’s original name was Onofrio Tomasello, and he was in the Army during World War II, serving on Iwo Jima as a radar technician. He met my mom in Tampa, got married and he learned to cut hair and became a barber when he was in the Army. I was born in 1944 while he was overseas. He later became a beautician and changed his name to Fred. His father was in the Italian army and fought the Turks from 1911 to 1912. He was discharged in 1913 and immigrated to the US from Sicily, joined the US Army and returned to Europe to fight the Germans. A Tomasello has been in every war since World War I. My dad was frugal, strict and strong, raising five children and sending us to Catholic school during our elementary years.
H: What is the backstory of your life around how you grew from a neonate through school and then to the point where you entered the military?
T: In the 6th grade, I switched from Catholic school to public school and lost a lot of fistfights until I learned to box and began to win a few. I was skinny and enjoyed sports, especially baseball. Started going steady with the girl who became my first wife in the 11th grade but yearned to travel, see the world and prove myself a man by facing battle like my father and grandfather did. At the time, I strongly felt that facing death was the ultimate challenge in life. So, I joined the Marine Corps while in college, passed OCS and became a 2nd Lieutenant in 1967. I volunteered for the Infantry and also for Vietnam because I felt that was my ultimate test of manhood and my path to equal or excel my father, grandfather and uncles.
H: What did being a “warrior” look like before you went to ‘Nam?
T: Overcoming fear and facing death is a sign of “manhood” and whenever challenged, I always accepted whether it was to fight, jump off a high diving board, drive a car more than 100 miles an hour.
H: How did your image of “the warrior” change from boot camp to when you took your uniform off upon separation from the military?
T: In Marine Corps OCS (Officer Candidate School) and at the Basic School, the challenges were extreme in every way, both physically and mentally. I wasn’t first in my class but I did well enough to gain an Infantry MOS (Military Operational Specialty), get sent to Vietnam and take over a reinforced infantry platoon in late October 1967. Then I started listening to my troops and realizing that many of the tactics and procedures that we were taught back in the states did not apply in Vietnam. The enemy’s tactics were guerrilla in nature; while we were taught “conventional” warfare tactics. Also, the Marine Corps had the worst supplies and equipment of all the services, especially the M-16, the helicopters, and the support in the field.
Our first firefight on November 30, 1967 was pure chaos in every way, and I’m certain we shot each other as the enemy waited until they were right in the middle of our battalion when they started the battle. When we returned fire, we were shooting over and among each other. Our company was cut off from the rest of the battalion, and we had to carry our dead and wounded at night, in a driving rain, back to their perimeter.
Several more men died that night because helicopters could not come in and take them out. Soon my mission became to do everything in my power to keep my men alive rather than obey crazy orders and follow insane “rules of engagement.”
On December 8, 1967, I – along with my radioman and a couple of other Marines – were wounded by two mortars that exploded among us. One of my men, Gardiner, had both his legs blown off at the thighs; yet he remained cogent and responsive for some time until the shock wore off and our corpsman gave him morphine. In April, I volunteered and was accepted as a Forward Air Controller and flew in the back seat of a small, single-engine Piper Cub aircraft, calling in close air support, artillery and naval gunfire.
On my first day in “action” one of our jets bombed our own Marines so the rest of my five months were harrowing and stress-filled every day. On August 4, 1968, I was wounded while flying in North Vietnam – waiting for a flight of fixed wing aircraft to bomb four artillery positions that were shelling Con Thien. I had surgery in Dong Ha, where doctors removed the bullet and gave it to me. Then I was sent to an Army hospital in Japan where the top excision wound was closed. I was then sent to the hospital at the Naval Air station in Jacksonville, Florida where the entrance wound was finally closed and healed.
I was persuaded to stay in Jacksonville for the remainder of my 15 months in service and promptly notified that my duty would be to go on casualty calls – to notify spouses and families of Marines’ wounds and/or deaths in action. This was an experience that, again, brought me face-to-face with death and the effects on the families.
When I got out of the Corps and took off my uniform, I stuffed everything into my sea bag and stored it in our ceiling, ready to engage with the civilian world, get a job and become a success in life – like my dad and other warriors had done before me. But anger problems, drinking problems, survivor’s guilt, and feelings of being duped by my country began to plague me and continue to this day.
H: After you were “baptized in battle” what kept you going in the face of the horrors?
T: As an officer, I was dedicated to keeping my men alive and countering the crazy orders we were often given. As soon as my men realized I was looking out for their welfare, they looked out for mine and we worked well together.
H: What about the REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers)?
T: Many, especially higher ranking officers and NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers), used their jobs to further their personal careers, rather than take care of the men in the field. We referred to them as “lifers” instead of career Marines, and I detested them in almost every way. Those who really cared about us in the field were admired.
H: How did you feel about stateside protestors?
T: I hoped they would somehow persuade our government to get us out of that crazy war. We were also fighting for their right to express their opinion and – on many issues – I agreed with them.
H: The early version M-16 rifle was very controversial. Were you in combat early enough to deal with the brass hulls jamming because of ball powder, un-chromed receiver, faulty extractor and weak recharging spring?
T: The M-16 in 1967 and 68 was a piece of crap with failure to extract being the main malfunction. Many Marines had cleaning rods assembled together and taped to the side of their rifles to clear jams. The frequent failure, causing the use of the ram-rod took the falsely praised “modern combat weapon” and its soldier – back to Civil War, single-fire musket, days. In ’67 and ’68, being infantry and on the front lines, we were just told to keep the weapons and the ammo clean and that if they jammed it was probably because we weren’t cleaning them properly. We didn’t know much about the different types of powder problems. The same situation for the firing chambers. We had to change rifles at least twice for the whole battalion, once because the three-pronged flash suppressor “snagged in the bushes” we were told and realized that was complete bullshit.
They were covering for the manufacturing and supply deficiencies in that early M-16. Many men had jams in battle and none of us were confident in the M-16. Some bureaucrat or REMF decided to switch out the powder from IMR stick powder to a BALL type powder, which caused the rifle to work in excess if the design speed and cause hulls to jam in the chamber. The only spring issues was with the small extractor on the bolt. Often the casing swelled into the firing chamber, and the extractor ripped off the small portion of brass surrounding the rear of the casing. Despite knowing of the need, we were given rifles without a chromed chamber; this increased the number of jams tremendously. Again, we were told to “keep them clean and they won’t jam.” Bullshit!
H: How did you deal with fear; prayer, drugs, camaraderie, or what?
T: Fear and adrenaline was so prevalent that we became used to functioning in it especially if something could be done about it, like fire back, call a fire mission, stay awake, clean weapons, etc. The most fearsome of threats were the mortars because you don’t know where they’ll land or when. We counted the “thunk” sounds of the tubes and then counted the explosions before getting up and moving around. But for the time the rounds were in the air, I hugged Mother Earth and prayed to God making promises like, “God, get me out of this and I swear I’ll go to church every Sunday!” Looking into each other’s eyes and smiling was also reassuring because facing fear with others is much easier than facing fear alone. After, telling funny stories and laughing about how I had to be lifted out of a narrow foxhole because I dived in head first and could not get myself out also lifted the mood and alleviated the after-effects of fear like the trembling, stuttering and crying. When we had to manage with wounded comrades, the job of getting them aid and medevacked was a noble and brave way to overcome fear.
H: How did you feel having a series of Commanders in Chief who never served in the military?
T: The military must always be an arm of and under the control of the American people. What matters to me is getting us out of wasteful and unnecessary wars. Yet history has proven that no matter who the president is, we keep getting into these types of wars. And the rules of engagement are so ridiculous that our troops are in peril as well as innocent civilian women and children. What matters to me are good decisions that look out for the welfare of all concerned, especially for our front-line military.
H: Tell us about your wound, and your souvenir.
T: While I was the viewer in the 2-man reconnaissance plane a round hit me from ground fire. The bullet went up through the bottom of the plane, pierced a heavy canvas bag filled with maps, entered my lower calf and lodged up near the knee of my right leg. When the doctors in Dong Ha deadened the lower half of my body and were trying to yank the bullet out of the incision, they were almost dragging me off the operating room table. Since I was awake, I asked them for the bullet and they wrapped it in gauze and put it into my plastic bag containing my flight suit and wallet. Years later, I wrapped wire around the slug and made a necklace, but I hardly ever wore it because it was heavy and had sharp edges, a great symbol of war. I clung to that bullet because it represented war and death to me in every way and reminded me of how lucky I was when millions weren’t. Others were impressed and felt privileged to touch that bullet that could have easily killed me but didn’t.
H: How did that “energy-charged” token become an amulet of completion for you?
T: The Buddha teaches that “clinging” to what we treasure the most is a source of suffering so I decided to give the bullet back to the country of its source. Another of the Buddha’s teachings are “oneness” and “impermanence” so realizing that we and our enemy are both the same and that everything changes prepared me for the trip back to Vietnam, dropping my favorite possession and meeting our former enemies.
H: Please honor our readers by telling us what went through your mind the second time on the bridge?
T: I remembered, and called-out, the names of my men who were killed and wounded at that – and other battles – to bring present and honor their spirits and their sacrifices as well as to keep their memories alive. Each person is more than just a number and a name. Everyone had parents, siblings, children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. As long as we speak their names we keep them alive.
H: What was it like to look into the eyes your blood-enemies from about a half a century ago? Was there a cleansing moment or an epiphany?
T: My first impression was; “Damn, these guys are short!” Then I realized; it doesn’t take much physical strength to pull a trigger. And after fighting them – 10 months for me and many years for them – I realized that they have defeated several countries who have tried to keep them under the bondage of colonization. My admiration for their wits, courage, hard work, sacrifices and huge losses of men, women and children grew immensely during the years after the war. Again, the teaching of “oneness” holds true. They are just like us. We bled the same color blood, mourned the losses of loved ones the same way, executed our orders and missions to the best of our abilities and some of us survived while millions didn’t. My impression was that the North was glad we got out of the war because we were killing so many of them, and they recognized our willingness to die for our country just as they were dedicated to their country. We have a lot in common and, like after a fistfight or boxing match, when two warrior survivors shake hands and declare the war is over, we can live in peace with each other even though we may believe in different forms of government.
H: How did you filter out your anger and pain, later on when you were charged with delivering devastating news of injury, or death, to next of kin?
T: Respect for the family and for the loss they experienced kept the anger and pain in check during the face-to-face part of the call. On my way home, I would stop at a drive through store and pick up a 6-pack of beer to help me sleep that night. As the years have passed, I have come to realize that the casualty call experiences are part of what I prayed for as a kid when I asked God to face death in war so I could prove to myself and everyone else that I was a “man.” Casualty calls, caskets, open and closed, 21-gun salutes, folding flags and presenting them was all a part of death in war. God answered my prayers and instead of thanking Him, I cursed Him. My attitude finally changed when I asked myself the question; “Who could have been a better man to make those calls?” Perhaps if I had been trained in more depth at the time, the job would not have been as devastating. As I have said many times I’d rather get shot anytime rather than knock on a door.
H: Did your war experiences make you a man or did it shape a pre-existing man?
T: My combat experiences peeled away the myth of war making men and impressed me with how barbaric and devastating war is to the actual participants. A better way to prove manhood is to learn how to work together for the common good of our planet rather than to hold others in bondage or take advantage of them through colonization.
H: How are Veterans treated by their nation in response to what they have given?
T: Much has changed since the 70’s, and the treatment we received when we came home. Back then, even the American Legion and the VA scorned us as “drug-addled baby killers who lost our country’s first war.” Today, the nationalism and patriotism evident everywhere has finally separated the warrior from the politicians who send us to war. But the attention paid to vets is superficial and is largely designed for recruiting. The backlog in claims processing and many of the problems with treatment of mental and physical wounds at the V.A. – especially for Agent Orange and chemical problems related to burn pits in recent wars – proves that vets have to fight to obtain disability claims and necessary treatment. Yet the Pentagon’s war budget remains the highest on the planet. So, “our nation” still does not treat veterans anywhere near equal to what they have given.
H: How do you reconcile “patriotism” versus “capitulation,” serving a cause or serving business?
T: As much as I have tried, I cannot reconcile the two. I feel very betrayed by “patriotism” and the way it is marketed to young people through movies, TV shows, pledging allegiance to giant flags, military displays and flyovers during sporting events. I also feel even more guilt that I let myself be used to kill people and destroy their homes and farms for a cause that is antithetical to democracy – the enslavement of other as a colony and a source of profit for big business.
H: How do you react to hearing Homeland Security say that it sees veterans as a major threat of terrorism?
T: As Timothy McVeigh proved in Oklahoma City, veterans can cause a devastating amount of damage, especially those who have been trained in explosives. And there are many veterans who have become angry at our government that bear closer scrutiny. That is another reason why the VA must provide all types of care for veterans, especially those with Psychological, Emotion and Moral injuries, or PEM as my friend, professor and fellow Marine Camilo “Mac” Bica writes about on this subject. I am a strong proponent of ongoing care for veterans who return from combat – or combat support roles – to be sure they are free from dangerous levels of P.T.S.D. and who might become a threat to our republic and its citizens because of conditions caused by their service in the military. The vast majority of veterans should be seen as citizens who did their duty; they should not be treated as suspects in pre-crime, as illustrated in the film “Minority Report.”
H: Your thoughts on the second amendment, gun control and “assault rifles”?
T: No one is better trained in the nomenclature, operation and function of highly specialized military weapons than the military, itself. The rifles they carry are more sophisticated than the ones the public may legally own or possess. When military personnel are on base and off-duty, those special weapons are locked up and accounted for in an armory. No one in the military while on military property, is allowed to open carry weapons for safety reasons. And troops are not allowed to carry U.S. Government issued weapons off base unless on duty.
Civilians have almost no access to fully-automatic, true assault, rifles. Many legal owners of semi-automatic civilian rifles have insufficient training, lack competence and – in rare cases – are mentally unstable – often as a result of medication. The entertainment media shows guns to be the answer to nearly every problem; yet I know that guns will contribute to more accidental deaths than solutions. The illusion of pervasive violence foisted on us by the media causes unnatural fear; scared, marginally-oriented people with guns may be prone to adversely affect our population. On the other hand, the disarmed and unprotected become easy victims. Had our forebears been unarmed, England would still rule this colony. Citizens may have the right to own firearms but our society has the duty to insure that our place of residence is safe, secure and free. The balance between “Anything Goes,” and “Reasonable Restrictions” is a conundrum. “Outright Confiscation” is a dangerous extreme.
H: In MDI we have “Earn and Honor Rank” as an element of our code of honor. Related to that; how do you feel about high ranking rear echeloners being in charge of the lives of troops thousands of miles distant?
T: Front line troops have bitched about this since the history of war – and rightfully so – especially when those in the rear do not believe what is being reported and instead base their decisions on “intelligence” or their own logic. Duty and experience from the bottom up is always more valuable than someone being in charge of people who has never gone through what they are tasked to do. My advice, coming from life-or-death experience is: If anyone finds themselves in a situation like this, listen to your experienced people and make informed decisions.
H: What lives in your heart that you might wish to say to the readers of Legacy Magazine about being a man and how to be on their masculine journey?
T: Don’t buy into the bullshit. Search for the truth through many sources, not just mainstream media, and listen to those who actually fought the war and their stories of truth, not to those who glamorize a movie or appeal to emotions to persuade you to join the service, kill complete strangers and bomb their countries. We are all one; our planet needs unity, cohesion and cooperation much more than competition.
H: You have written a book on your experiences; what do you want the readers to know about that?
T: My book is entitled “WALKING WOUNDED: Memoir of a Combat Veteran.” I did my best to reflect on paper, what I experienced, saw and felt in Vietnam and stateside as a combat marine. Words cannot tell the whole story and I do not wish for those who do not know now, to find out later, what the full truth is.
H: Thank you, Fred – for your service in combat, for your mental and physical suffering and for your courageous and widely impactful gift – to honor your fellow Marines and embrace peace – when you returned to Vietnam to give back the bullet which had impacted and wounded you in so many ways.
Two weeks after the above interview was transcribed and edited, Fred Tomasello sent word to me, of having attended a Bridge 28 reunion and memorial at Quantico. Rumblings among his Marines revealed that someone he had hated for 50 years might be at the reunion. Fred was ready to settle the score publicly. As Tomasello recounts it:
Finally! A face-to-face meeting with Captain Mack – a person I’ve deeply hated, stemming from the needless death of two of my men and wounding of several other Marines all because of Mack’s horrible decisions. Details are unimportant; the hate is – a white-hot rage that I nurtured, stoked and fed for half a century.
While a pounding sense of foreboding festered within me, I fantasized about walking up to him and hitting him in the face as hard as I could – a straight, stiff jab to the nose to make him bleed – like he wastefully drew the blood of my men. He’s bigger than I so I expected him to shake off my jab and beat me to a pulp. (I learned on the streets years ago, the bloodiest is seen as the loser after a fight.)
Even though the rumor mill told me that some horrible things happened to Mack in the war and that he had suffered a lot as a result, I was resolute to inflict the pain and revenge.
There I stood in the buffet line at the event, freshly back from Hano … stomach growling with anticipation. Fellow Marines and their families were there in reverence and solemnity, and I seethed with 50 years of rage.
My spirit goaded me into rethinking: “Should I punch him in the face as planned? Ignore him? Make believe nothing ever happened?”
My stomach begins to flutter. In my mind, anger, fear and cowardice are screaming at me, demanding I do something. I thought about those North Vietnamese generals, hugging them, forgiving them and how that felt.
Hypocrisy shut down my mental chorus, and my feet were walking towards this guy. I stood at his right side and waited until he looked up and made eye contact with me.
“My name is Fred Tomasello and I served with you in 67 and 68,” I began and politely shook the hand he offered me. “I want to tell you that I’ve harbored a lot of animosity towards you ever since. In fact, I hated you. But … if I could shake hands with and hug a north Vietnamese general, I can tell you I’m willing to put my anger towards you behind me.”
He said he remembered my name and asked what caused my anger; if it had been an order or a decision he made, he was sorry. His voice tone, his eye contact and the grasp of his handshake, told me that he was being sincere.
“The details don’t matter anymore,” I said. “That was fifty years ago. Things change. I’m letting my anger go. I had to talk to you before we ate because my stomach felt bad. I feel better now. Thank you for being here.”
After several minutes of chatting, I went back to my table, my mind spinning like a slot machine. When I look myself in the mirror, would I see a winner or a loser? Did I chicken out or do the right thing? These are the kind of issues – important to a boy still trying to be a man.
I closed my eyes. My stomach spoke to me.
“I’m hungry,” it said. “Let’s eat. You done good. I feel peace.”
Wounded, he recovers and joins the Aerial Observer section where he calls in artillery and close air support. Wounded again, he returns to the United States and makes casualty calls notifying families of Marines wounded or killed in action.
Using language that is authentic, raw and brutally honest, Fred Tomasello reveals the adverse effects of war and PTSD on a young man and his family.
Fred’s book Walking Wounded can be purchased here.
A hand written inscription will be placed inside the cover upon request.