Ramon Eloy Rodriguez and Albert White were both pretty small in stature for Marines.
In Rodriguez’s case, that proved to be a handicap because he was a radio operator and had to carry more weight than some of the others in his unit.
White’s stature got him selected for the job of “tunnel rat.” It seemed that the officers always picked on the little guys to crawl down into the often dangerous passageways carrying just a Colt .45 and a GI flashlight. It was one of the most dangerous jobs an infantryman could be assigned.
Rodriguez had to tote a 25-pound radio and a spare battery on his back, along with his rifle, his C-rations, canteens, ammunition and everything else the men in his unit were required to carry.
Also, because of the unit he was in, Rodriguez had to carry at least one really heavy 81mm mortar round.
“My first patrol, I went out with a pistol,” Rodriguez said, “and we got shot up that night. Next time out I looked like Pancho Villa.”
White was a San Antonio native who spent six years as a rifleman in the Marine Corps before finishing a career in the Navy.
He joined the corps in 1966 and in November of that year he found himself humping it with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines, 3rd Marine Division.
As a member of the Fleet Marine Force, White ended up traveling from one end of I Corps to the other. “My unit was sent to the hot spots,” White said.
He finally was able to get out of going down into the tunnels after being buried twice. That was the rule. Twice buried and it was your ticket out of tunnel work.
“My guys knew where I was both times,” White said, and they were able to get him out of the ground before it was too late.
Still, life in Vietnam was hard on a boy from Texas.
“I went over weighing 172 pounds and came back weighing 79,” White said.
The trip back was in December 1967 and he was warned during a stop in Okinawa that if he landed in a civilian airport on the way back home to expect to be spat upon and called names by civilian protesters.
“They told us we needed to control ourselves,” White said. In fact, when he landed at the airport in Los Angeles, he had to do just that and control himself to overcome the urge to fight the protesters.
Rodriguez did not mention encountering any protesters when he returned.
But the Marine from Beeville brought back plenty of internal scars from his year in a combat zone.
He said he had two weeks left in the country when his unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 26th Marines Infantry Regiment, was engaged by the North Vietnamese in their position on Hill 558 near the embattled Marine outpost at Khe Sanh.
He was at Landing Zone Margo when the unit was hit and lost a couple of dozen men in short order.
“I remember praying in Spanish, things I learned when I was five years old,” Rodriguez said.
He managed to survive that scrape without a scratch. But his psyche was not unscathed.
White and Rodriguez took different roads when they returned home. White got out of the corps and 13 months later signed up for the Navy. He retired as an aviation storekeeper at NAS Chase Field in 1986 and he and his wife, Beeville native Pauline Rodriguez White, settled down in her hometown.
Rodriguez came back to Beeville and worked at a teacher and administrator for the Beeville Independent School District before taking a job with the Windham Independent School District overseeing the education of Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates.
Today, he is a member of the Bee County Commissioners Court. His office on the first floor of the courthouse is adorned with memorabilia and photos from Vietnam and the corps.
When the Parade that Never Was begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, Rodriguez plans to be atop his motorcycle with the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.
White said he will join the Vietnam veterans, probably toward the rear of the procession.
“I think it’s fantastic,” White said of the parade. “I thank God that they’re finally having a parade like that for the vets.”
“I feel sorry for the folks who think this (the parade) is a wasted effort,” White said. “This is something that should’ve happened long ago.
“If you see a vet, pat him on the back,” White continued. He said it makes no difference in what branch of the service or in what way a veteran served. Whether it was Germany or Korea or any other place, those folks deserve respect.
Rodriguez agreed, saying anyone who sacrificed a part of his or her life to serve in the military gave up something for the country.
As one of the original organizers of Saturday’s event, Rodriguez said the parade was patterned after the first such processions in Victoria in October 2012.
In Beeville’s parade those who come to watch will find veterans and veterans organizations from all over Texas taking part in the event.
Rodriguez said those veterans who served in World War II and the Korean War will be riding in their own groups.
Also, veterans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be in the parade.
The event could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people in South Texas. They might discover friends and neighbors whom they did not know had served in wartime.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.