PITTSFIELD -- The memories of 27 Berkshire County residents who gave their lives in the Vietnam War were honored on Saturday at Park Square in Pittsfield on the 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial wars in the nation's history.
Fifty years after Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson authority to conduct a military offensive in Vietnam without declaring war, about 100 local veterans, their families and others filled up the park to salute the fallen.
While the nation's memories of the war are stilled in news reels of helicopters and the wounded being rushed onto them, protests back home and movies like "Apocalypse Now" and "Platoon," local soldiers who were on the ground fighting in the hills and jungles of Vietnam still have vivid memories to share.
In a war where an estimated 58,220 Americans died, local Vietnam War veteran Francis Trembley summed up his experience in one word -- "chaos."
Trembley served with the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968-69. "I was in the jungle the full time I was over there for 13 months," he said.
He was a point man in the Third Marine Division, whose job was to cut through thick jungle forests at night searching for enemies.
"We learned not to follow trails," Trembley said. Many of the trails had been booby-trapped, he said. "We drank water out of bomb craters."
Every other day or every week "we hit an ambush or mortar rounds," Trembley said. "Ten minutes seemed like four hours.
Trombley recalled meeting up with his Pittsfield cousin, Edward Rochelo, who was in the Army, on a joint mission. Rochelo's squad had been decimated by land mines. Trembley saw a lot of soldiers lose their lives. "It's not easy," he said.
Willard Losaw, a retired Army Master Sgt., served multiple tours in Vietnam, beginning in 1967 in a combat aviation batallion and brigade. He would spend the rest of his career with the military.
"The majority of returning troops were met with criticism and hostility," he said. "Back then, those that opposed the war didn't support the troops like they do today."
During a speech on Saturday, he asked those present to think about the families of the soldiers who died and those who "never had the opportunity to have a family." Vietnam veterans, he said, are "aging quickly and in the near future we will all be gone. ... Please remember what was done by us."
One of the day's highlights was a soaring rendition of the national anthem by Tony Pastore, a World War II veteran who served in the Battle of the Bulge. His bellowing voice echoed throughout the shade of the trees during a brief appearance by the sun on the damp spring day.
Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi spoke, calling the war tragic for the "lack of political will or political courage and leadership." The troops deserved more support, he said.
Bianchi said it was "fitting that we come together as a community to remember those who sacrificed their young lives for people in a far off land, a land that was not terribly familiar."
No country, he said, "should ever send young men and women into harm's way without a strong sense of purpose and without a clear military and political objective. ... All wars are tragic.
"For those of you who went and served in Vietnam, a grateful, honest public recognizes the nobility of your action," Bianchi said.
Thomas Dawley, who served three combat tours as a reconnaissance solder with the U.S. Army from 1965-68 before spending 35 years working with Berkshire Gas Company said it was important to him for Vietnam veterans to be remembered. "This is something we deserve to have," he said.
When he returned back to the United States, he took a cab from New York to Pittsfield and walked home alone. "There was no parade," he said.
John Harding, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam in 1964-65, became a musician and music teacher at Pittsfield elementary schools afterwards. "It's an honor to honor them," Harding said of the war victims.
When he was in Vietnam, Harding's job was to protect villages in South Vietnam from being taken over by enemy forces, so they couldn't be used as bases to attack American forces.
"It was complete jungle warfare," Harding said. "It was just hell. You never knew who your enemy was."
Trembley said he was proud that those who served are being recognized better.
"The Vietnam veterans are starting to get their due now," Trembley said. "It's a long time coming."
To reach Nathan Mayberg:
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