There were no parades for them. There were no fancy awards ceremonies. They just came back to the communities they had left and tried to fit back in with those who had stayed behind.
That may change for some of the veterans on May 11 when organizers hold their Parade That Never Was for Vietnam veterans and for all the other veterans who have served their country, including those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Over the years, the Vietnam veterans have changed on the outside. All are grayer. They are a little thicker in the middle. They walk a little slower and, today, their children are grown, and they dote over grandsons and granddaughters.
But inside they are still the men who fought and often bled in the Vietnam War.
Many of them still live right here in Beeville, where they grew up, went to school, married their sweethearts and worked most of their lives. Many of them are retired now, but they have little time for remembering the war that ended their childhood and made them grow up in a matter of months.
For some reason, the Marine Corps has always held a special fascination for South Texans.
Jesse Castillo, Erwin Massengale, Tomas Gonzales and Eloy Rodriguez were among those who wore the eagle, anchor and globe of the corps.
They came back in different ways, but in almost every case, they came back to a community that, for the most part, had not changed the way the veterans had. And they found that few of their friends and neighbors had much to say about the time they had sacrificed when they answered their country’s call.
Tomas Gonzales came back in one of those gray, metal caskets that were stacked up on military flight lines across Southeast Asia.
Rodriguez, who grew up a couple of blocks from his friend, said he played with Gonzales often when they were growing up in Beeville.
The 22-year-old Marine lance corporal, whose nickname was El Gato, was serving as a rifleman in G Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines when he was killed along with 24 other Marines when his unit took heavy fire from a North Vietnamese Army attack.
Today, Chapter 929 of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Beeville bears the name “The Tomas Gonzales Chapter.”
Like many other Marines during the Vietnam War, what would have been a yearlong tour of duty ended much sooner.
“I was only in Vietnam seven months,” said Jesse Castillo. Serious wounds to both legs ended his military career earlier than he had planned.
Castillo was a native of Riviera who had left there not long after graduating from high school in 1964. He was studying to be a physical therapist when he joined the Marine Corps in March 1968.
By August, he was carrying an M-60 machine gun with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines as part of the 3rd Marine Division.
“They asked me if I wanted to be a sniper, but I didn’t want to stay two more weeks,” Castillo said of his training.
About a year after enlisting, Castillo was with his unit on Hill 484 when his legs were shot out from under him.
He ended up on the U.S. Navy hospital ship Repose. Before he returned to Texas in a C-130 military aircraft, he had made stops in hospitals in Da Nang (Vietnam), Japan and Guam.
Erwin Massengale had spent his entire life in Beeville when he joined the Corps.
He ended up in Vietnam in 1967 as a commander on an M48-A3 tank called “The Lonely Bull.”
Massengale said when he was given the option of joining a tank crew he accepted it because “it beat walking.”
In Vietnam, Massengale found out that tanks were not often used in battle because of the terrain.
But when the North Vietnamese Army surrounded the Marine base at Khe Sanh, the Beeville man and his tank crew ended up on “Hill 28 or 29” near that base.
The Battle of Khe Sanh was one of the bloodiest and longest engagements in that war. The base effectively was cut off from anything but air support and resupply from Jan. 21 through July 9, 1968, and 250 Marines were killed. Hundreds of others were wounded.
Unofficial reports suggest that as many as 500 military lives were lost as a result of the six-month siege.
Massengale was immediately given the nickname “Tex” by the men on his crew, and the vehicle sported a set of water buffalo horns.
One day, Massengale looked out of his tank to see a wounded Marine writhing in pain about 100 yards from his position.
So he ordered his crew to drive to the area where the Marine was. When they got to the wounded man, Massengale jumped out of the vehicle, turned the Marine over and tried to stop the bleeding as his crew members covered the two men with machine gun fire.
When the young Marine opened his eyes in astonishment to see a fellow American helping him, Massengale said, “Good morning, darlin’. I’m Tex Massengale from Beeville, Texas, and we need to get the hell out of here.”
More than 40 years later, Massengale got a phone call from the Marine he pulled off the battlefield that day.
Ironically, veterans like Castillo and Massengale said they do not plan to participate in the Parade That Never Was.
Massengale said his thanks came in 1969 when he was “pulled out of my bedroom so they could pin a medal on me.”
Massengale said his grandchildren are all the thanks he needs for his service. Knowing that they have questions about the war and are interested in what happened all those years ago is enough thanks for him.
Massengale said he was treated badly by one person when he got to South Texas on a civilian airliner. His response was rapid and physical. But the security personnel at the airport saw no reason to carry the issue further.
Castillo was brought back on a stretcher. He never encountered an anti-war protester when he returned to South Texas.
Planners of the Parade That Never Was are expecting more than 1,000 veterans and parade watchers to be in downtown Beeville for the event.
Veterans from numerous Texas communities are expected to take part.
Those who are in the procession will either walk or ride vehicles. Organizers are asking businesses and organizations to participate by entering patriotic-themed floats.
B.J. Rodriguez, who is in charge of organizing the event, said he expects to see veterans from WWII, Korea and the first Gulf War in the parade, along with the more recent veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Michelle Wright, manager of Beeville’s Main Street Program, said an artist, Dwayne Webb, will paint patriotic themes on the windows of downtown buildings in preparation for the parade.
Wright and the Bee County Chamber of Commerce are asking that businesses tie gold bows on their doors to help honor the vets.
The parade is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. at the College North Shopping Center and proceed down North Washington Street through downtown.
Organizers are hoping for a large crowd to be along the parade route to express their appreciation for the sacrifices the veterans have made for their country and communities.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.