USS GONZALEZ


Namesake

Medal of Honor Citation

Medal of HonorFor conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as platoon commander, 3rd Platoon, Company A. On 31 January 1968, during the initial phase of Operation Hue City, Sgt. Gonzalez' unit was formed as a reaction force and deployed to Hue to relieve the pressure on the beleaguered city. While moving by truck convoy along Route No. 1, near the village of Lang Van Lrong, the marines received a heavy volume of enemy fire. Sgt. Gonzalez aggressively maneuvered the marines in his platoon, and directed their fire until the area was cleared of snipers. Immediately after crossing a river south of Hue, the column was again hit by intense enemy fire. One of the marines on top of a tank was wounded and fell to the ground in an exposed position. With complete disregard for his safety, Sgt. Gonzalez ran through the fire swept area to the assistance of his injured comrade. He lifted him up and though receiving fragmentation wounds during the rescue, he carried the wounded marine to a covered position for treatment. Due to the increased volume and accuracy of enemy fire from a fortified machine gun bunker on the side of the road, the company was temporarily halted. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Sgt. Gonzalez exposed himself to the enemy fire and moved his platoon along the east side of a bordering rice paddy to a dike directly across from the bunker. Though fully aware of the danger involved, he moved to the fire-swept road and destroyed the hostile position with hand grenades. Although seriously wounded again on 3 February, he steadfastly refused medical treatment and continued to supervise his men and lead the attack. On 4 February, the enemy had again pinned the company down, inflicting heavy casualties with automatic weapons and rocket fire. Sgt. Gonzalez, utilizing a number of light antitank assault weapons, fearlessly moved from position to position firing numerous rounds at the heavily fortified enemy emplacements. He successfully knocked out a rocket position and suppressed much of the enemy fire before falling mortally wounded. The heroism, courage, and dynamic leadership displayed by Sgt. Gonzalez reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps, and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

The Ballad of Freddy Gonzalez

The Navy names a battleship for a Hispanic Marine 28 years after his death in Vietnam
By John Flores
Hispanic Magazine, November, 1996

Freddy GonzalezThe Vietnam War, the longest in United States history, was also the most integrated. Hispanics were among the first Americans to arrive in Vietnam and among the last to leave. Thirteen Hispanics were awarded the Medal of Honor for their service in this conflict that altered forever the way the U.S. thinks of war.

One of the heroes of the Vietnam War, Medal of Honor recipient Alfredo Gonzalez, has been making the news this year. Nearly three decades after his death in Hue City, Vietnam, Marine Sergeant Alfredo "Freddy" Gonzalez resumed his battle watch October 12 at Naval Station Ingleside, near Corpus Christi, Texas. On that day, the Navy commissioned the U.S.S. Gonzalez, a guided-missile destroyer. It is the Navy's most advanced warship and the first modern destroyer named for a Mexican American.

Surviving members of his platoon in Vietnam still refer to Freddy as "Sergeant G." Their memories of him have not dimmed over the years. They came from cities and towns across the country to honor their friend and leader at both the February 1995 launch in Bath, Maine, and at the commissioning ceremony at Ingleside.

No less in the spotlight than the ship itself, with her buoyancy and charisma, is Freddy's mother, Dolia Gonzalez, 67. Dolia raised her son alone in Edinburg, Texas, on the modest salary of a waitress during the fifties and early sixties. It was a time when Mexican Americans were regarded as second-class citizens.

But things have changed for Dolia and many like her, whose parents came to the U.S. to find a better future. "We have what we have in this country today not just material things but better equality, because of people men and women who had the guts to forget about themselves and think of somebody else, something else, that has lasting meaning this country. Our freedom," Dolia says. "Vietnam was a tragedy, and I lost my only child. But he died with the same spirit that people did in World War II, in defeating Hitler and the Japanese," she says. "We have to have people like him to keep this country alive."

Born May 23, 1946, in Edinburg, Texas, Freddy enlisted in the Marine Corps soon after his graduation from high school in May 1965. He was killed February 4, 1968, at the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Hue City, Vietnam, while serving his second tour of duty. The next year, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew awarded the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Gonzalez for the actions in Hue City that saved many of his fellow Marines. Dolia was there to receive the medal for her son, who was buried in Edinburg's Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery the day after the Hue City fighting ended in a Marine victory. He was the only Marine in the Tet Offensive combat to receive the award.

The Navy contacted Dolia a few months before the launching ceremony in Maine to ask her to be the ship's sponsor. She gladly accepted, and since that time she has been visited several times at her home in Edinburg by members of the ship's crew.

Dolia calls Freddy's Marine buddies and the ship crew members her "boys." Most of them call her "Mom." She likes the idea of having such an extended family, having lived so many years without Freddy.

Dolia still works as a waitress and is now employed at the old Echo Hotel in Edinburg. It was where Freddy and his friends had their high school proms and other parties. Today it is the central meeting place for city and county officials and the many Winter Texans who live in the Rio Grande Valley during the cold months.

Even after a long day at work, Dolia seems to defy the laws of age. She smiles easily, sitting in the living room of her modest home in the western part of Edinburg near the University of TexasPan American campus. Resting her tired legs on an ottoman after a six-hour day of walking the floor for her many customers, she smiles as she points to a picture of Freddy in his Marine uniform on the living room TV.

"I never had any problems with him when he was growing up," Dolia says fondly. "I'd even tell him to go out with his friends when he was in high school, but a lot of times he'd say no . . . that he wanted to spend time with me. You know, looking back, I think Freddy knew he wouldn't live a long time, so he wanted to spend time with me while he could."

She recounts stories of Freddy when he was a boy, working in the South Texas fields with her during the summertime. "One time, we were all working in a cotton field. Me, and my sister Jo, and Freddy. He would always carry a hoe and use it to kill snakes. He found a rattlesnake up ahead of Jo, and after he killed it he coiled it up again like it was alive," she says, laughing. "And when Jo saw it, she screamed and jumped up about two feet in the air and tried to run off. We all had a good laugh about that."

Anybody who knew Freddy remembers him, whether it was a classmate, friend, football coach, or commanding officer, and most of them attended the commissioning of the U.S.S. Gonzalez.

Former University of Texas football coach Fred Akers started his coaching career at Edinburg High School, and Freddy played for him during the 1964 season. "Freddy was a guy who didn't know how to quit. He played every second until the whistle blew," Akers says. "He was the kind of guy who, if you picked a fight with him and whipped him, he'd be waiting for you the next day."

Though patriotic, young Freddy wasn't perfect. He liked to party with friends and it got him into trouble a couple of times. Once, Akers recalls, Freddy and a group of football players smuggled beer into a McAllen drive-in, and the coach had to bail the boys out of jail.

Freddy felt so bad about that incident that he didn't eat for a couple of days. Dolia was worried, she says. "He moped around after that for a few days. He felt like a lot of guys looked up to him, and he let them down. I was starting to worry about him. Then one day he came home and asked, 'What's for supper?' That's when I knew everything was okay again," she says.

Robert Vela, now the athletic director for the Edcouch-Elsa School District near Edinburg, was one of Freddy's close friends. "We were in Little League together, and worked together in the fields, picking cotton," he says. "Freddy was the kind of friend who would take the shirt off his back and give it to you if he had to . . . but he didn't like showoffs or people with attitudes. One night we were playing basketball at Westside Park, and a guy we knew, a champion amateur boxer, came walking up with his boxing gloves hanging around his neck. He challenged anyone there to a fight."

Everybody knew the guy's reputation, and they all declined. All but Freddy. Vela continues, "Freddy, just being Freddy, he told the guy, 'Yeah, okay, I'll box you.' But Freddy was not a boxer We were just street fighters. Pretty soon, this guy was taunting Freddy, smacking him in the face with jabs. He called Freddy a mama's boy or something to that effect. Freddy just pulled the gloves off and threw them down. He jumped on the guy and started to pound him. We all had to pull him off the guy, and we never saw that guy around there again looking for a fight," Vela said.

After his first tour in Vietnam was over in February 1967, Freddy, now a corporal, wanted to be stationed with a Marine contingent at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi. His plan was to quietly serve the rest of his time stationed only two hours away from his girlfriend, his buddies, his mother, and the town he loved. But the Marines had other plans. Gonzalez, a trusted leader, was chosen as an instructor to prepare young Marines for guerrilla warfare.

He told friends he would never return to Vietnam. A few months later, Freddy learned of an ambush there in which an entire platoon was killed, including a group of men who had served under him. He felt responsible for the men, and felt the call of duty.

J.J. Avila, a childhood friend and former Edinburg High School teammate, was one of two Edinburg Marines who served as escorts for Dolia at Freddy's posthumous Medal of Honor ceremony. Having already served in the war himself, Avila says he tried to talk Freddy out of returning. "He called me over to his house to talk it over. I told him that he had done his duty, and he didn't need to go back. It wasn't his fault those guys died. But he had already made up his mind I could see that and there was no changing it," Avila says.

The war had divided the country because many Americans didn't believe United States troops should be fighting half a world away. Television brought the blood and brutality into the country's living rooms, fanning the flames of anti-war sentiment. Freddy was tormented, more than most Marines, by the thought of having to kill the Vietnamese. After all, he once told a friend, the Vietnamese worked the fields and lived simple lives, like most Hispanics from the Valley.

Torn between his conscience and his country, Freddy had to make a battlefield decision on the morning of February 4, 1968, at the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Hue City, Vietnam. Few American troops were in the city the old imperial and cultural capitol of Vietnam when the communists broke a cease fire during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. North Vietnamese troops, many dressed as civilians, infiltrated the city.

Freddy was serving as platoon sergeant with Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. His platoon was ambushed on its way into Hue in the Van Lrong Village. He maneuvered the platoon to safety, then knocked out enemy bunkers with hand grenades. He then took cover behind a nearby American armored vehicle and spotted a wounded Marine lying in the road ahead.

Colonel Marcus Gravel, commanding officer of the Marine division, detailed Freddy's actions in the 1975 dedication of an Edinburg elementary school named for him: "Without hesitation, he leaped from the tank and dashed into the street and returned with his injured comrade. Then, as the column moved against the enemy force, we were met by withering machine gun fire . . . again Freddy left his place of safety and assaulted the bunker, silencing it with hand grenades . . . Disregarding his own wounds, he told the corpsman who attempted to treat him to take care of the others."

Larry Lewis, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a rifleman in the platoon. He had come to Vietnam for the first time in September 1967 and had been under Freddy's command since that time. He was only a few feet away from Freddy when he was killed. "Our battalion had gotten split up. The resistance was just tremendous . . . demolition crews, mortar fire, rocket fire, machine guns, snipers," says Lewis. "By the time we got to Hue, Sergeant G at that time was probably one of the highest ranking [Marines]. Most of the officers were either killed or wounded."

Lewis was only a few feet away from Freddy in the schoolyard of the church. The platoon of about 35 men was pinned down, and Freddy told them to keep down out of the line of fire while he went on ahead to try to find a way to move the men. Lewis followed him, against orders, to give him cover. He watched Freddy grab an armload of small anti-tank rockets and enter the area of the church where the North Vietnamese Army were most heavily entrenched. Freddy began firing the rockets at the enemy troops. After hitting all the visible positions and silencing fire, Lewis says he thought Freddy had neutralized all the enemy positions. One last rocket came out of the rubble, Lewis says.

"I was on the second floor of the building. He was directly below me. I saw the rocket hit him. He took a direct hit. It was hard to believe that he was hit. I went down there and laid him on a door. His heart was still beating when I got him, but he died pretty soon after that," Lewis says.

Freddy died beside the bullet-riddled statue of Saint Joan of Arc.

"Prior to that, he was almost like Houdini. It seemed like he was everywhere all at the same time. I remember that he carried a twelve-gauge shotgun, a big bag of grenades, and a forty-five pistol . . . He was always there in the front, never in the back, waiting. He was always there for us," Lewis says.

Because he took out so many enemy positions with the hand grenades and rockets, Freddy saved the lives of the men in his platoon. What he did that day is indelibly etched in each man's mind.

Gonzalez is one of many Hispanics who died in the war. Statistics on casualties are hard to come by, but what is known is that Hispanics served and died far beyond their fair share. Nearly 20 percent of Vietnam casualties (those listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) were men with Hispanic surnames. At the time, U.S. citizens classified as "Hispanic" constituted a much smaller proportion of the total population roughly 5 percent. Puerto Rico alone sent 58,000 troops. Even noncitizens gave of themselves: In Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam, Charley Trujillo notes that there was a component of "soldados who were born in Tijuana, Mexicali, Piedras Negras, and many other places in Mexico who served in Viet Nam green cards and all."

During the era of disillusionment with the war after the Tet Offensive, Hispanics, like most Americans, had little enthusiasm for the conflict. For most Hispanic activists, anti-war sentiment didn't become a major concern until the final months of 1969, when the Brown Berets steered the movement more in the direction of war protest. As the nation was torn, so were many of its fighting men, including Freddy Gonzalez.

More than two decades after the stormy protests, the war has been put in much clearer perspective. It is through stories like that of Freddy Gonzalez that the nation heals old wounds and gains a clearer understanding of sacrifice, duty, and honor, the codes most soldiers live by. All these years later, fellow Tejano hero and Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient Roy Benavidez says, "I ask myself again and again if it would have been worth it to my family if I had been killed and my body never returned. The answer is yes! . . . Our duty as survivors is to pass on the pride in the noble sacrifice made by our child, parent, spouse, or buddy." It is to this feeling, this solidarity, that the families of those sacrificed turn for comfort.

Robert Alaniz of Edinburg was one of Freddy's friends. He agrees with Freddy's mother and with Benavidez that despite the misguided policies behind U.S. troop involvement in Vietnam, Freddy did not die in vain. "One of the things that really stands out for me is that I had just received a letter from Freddy and he wrote that he had been assigned to the new kids who had just gotten to Vietnam, and he would train them. A few days later, I heard the bad news," says Alaniz. Freddy's letter was clear in its assertion that "He wanted to help the country. He wanted to get in the middle of it and try to end this thing," Alaniz remembers.

Dolia Gonzalez has placed her headstone beside Freddy's in the Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery where Freddy was buried. She still misses him and takes comfort in knowing she'll be buried beside him someday.

On October 12, 1996, at Corpus Christi Bay, Dolia entrusted her son's memory to the world. After 28 years, in the form of a battleship, he is once again on duty, this time to patrol the world's oceans with the most advanced missile systems yet devised.

Once again, his mother was there, bidding Freddy a tearful farewell.