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‘My first taste of war’

November 08, 2019 by Brian Jopek

It’s been 50 years since Bill Calvaresi of Hazelhurst was drafted into U.S. military service. 

He’s originally from Kenosha, graduating from Bradford High School in 1966. 

After graduation, Calvaresi worked at Western Publishing in Racine while studying fluid power at vocational school.

“School got to be too much for me, but I kept working,” he said. “Then, Uncle Sam called in ’69 and said he needed me.”

Calvaresi’s initial physical wasn’t successful. 

“I failed it, 4F,” he said, a reference to the classification given people who were deemed unfit for military service. 

“Lucky me,” Calvaresi said. “It was due to being overweight. I thought about it awhile and I didn’t want to be 4F.”

He and a friend, Vince DeMarino, decided they’d both diet to lose weight. 

“I lost 50 pounds in three months,” Calvaresi said. “With diet pills.”

Their intention had been to enlist using the “buddy system,” but DeMarino flunked his physical because of flat feet.

“Of course, I passed mine with flying colors,” Calvaresi said. “I officially entered the service in May of ’69.”

He did his basic combat training at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, home of the “Screaming Eagles,” the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. 

After his advanced individual training at Ft. Polk, La., Calvaresi said he was supposed to get 30 days leave “but took 40.”

“I went duck hunting with some friends over by LaCrosse,” he said, adding his punishment for being absent without leave for those 10 days and late reporting from leave was an Article 15, which a member of the military may  receive for committing  a minor offense not requiring a judicial hearing. 

Calvaresi and his friends bagged 30 ducks on that trip. 

“I was going to ‘nam,” he said. “It was fun. It was LaCrosse, man. That was a ball.”

‘I heard buzzing’

In October 1969, Calvaresi was finally on his way to Vietnam. 

“After a 17 hour flight, my plane landed at the airport at Biên Hòa,” he said. “They opened the door and I thought ‘What the hell is that smell?’ It was the rotting jungle.”

Following five day, “in country” orientation, Calvaresi was taken to an American base near the city of Tây Ninh, just a few miles from Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. 

He was assigned to the Fourth Brigade, Ninth Battalion, 25th Infantry Division, nicknamed “Tropic Lightning.”

“I had to pull tower duty that first week,” Calvaresi said. “One night, I heard buzzing and wondered what bees were doing out at night.”

It was then he said an urgent call — “Sniper, sniper, sniper!” — came across his radio. 

“That was really my first taste of war,” Calvaresi said. “I was in a mobile division so we moved around a lot. Tây Ninh was ‘Rocket City.’ C? Chi was ‘Tunnel City.’ B?n Cát, Long Binh ... I went to Cambodia for 32 days, six hours and 27 minutes.”

Assigned to a mortar platoon, he had that down nearly to the second.

“I was mostly on patrol bases, but being part of a mortar platoon, I didn’t go on patrol much,” Calvaresi said. “We’d set up next to small villages so the enemy wouldn’t hit us. But, that never worked.”

He completed his tour of duty in Vietnam in October 1970, never really talking to anyone about it.

Coming home

Calvaresi’s flight back “across the pond” home from Vietnam after his tour landed at Travis Air Force Base, not far from San Francisco. 

“I went through the airport with my uniform on,” he said. “Big mistake.”

Calvaresi said he was greeted by people booing and saying things like “Go back to ‘nam!”

“Luckily, I never was spit on, but I made a beeline for the restroom and changed into civilian clothes,” he said.

Calvaresi’s final plane flight home from Vietnam ended at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. 

“The only people there to meet me were my mom and my cousin Bob,” he said.

Transitioning into the civilian world from his time in the service and Vietnam wasn’t easy for Calvaresi.

“The first five years after I got out of the Army, I never told anyone I was in the service,” he said. “They all made me feel ashamed and alone.”

It was during that time Calvaresi met his wife, Pam, and they married in 1973. 

He had a 31 year career as a firefighter at Glenview Naval Air Station near Chicago, at O’Hare Airport and at Gen. Billy Mitchell International Airport, moving to Hazelhurst after he and Pam retired.

“We love every minute of it up here,” Calvaresi said. 

Still, he maintains strong sentiments about the aftermath of the war not only in Vietnam, but another conflict more than a decade earlier as well.

“Society,” Calvaresi said, “owes Korean War veterans and Vietnam veterans a debt it can never repay.”


Healing open wounds

One day at the grocery store a few years ago, Calvaresi ran across another veteran, Wally Oberman, who’d served his two years in the Army during the 1960s as a military police officer with the 34th Military Police Detachment at Ft. Knox, Ky. (See “Mr. Oberman Goes To Town,” in the July 1, 2016 edition of The Lakeland Times).

Oberman was one of 37 Vietnam era veterans onboard the 23rd Never Forgotten Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. and originates from Mosinee’s Central Wisconsin Airport. 

Since that time, he’s done much in the way of volunteer work for the NFHF in the Lakeland area, to include helping coordinate fundraising efforts. 

“He turned me on to the Honor Flight,” Calvaresi said of Oberman. “After harassment from my wife, I signed up.”

He said his time on the waiting list was three years; he was one of 108 veterans — 101 of them from the Vietnam era — on the 37th NFHF on Sept. 2. 

“I’m so glad I went,” Calvaresi said. “It healed some open wounds. They treated us with respect and honored us.”

He said his favorite part was going through the airports, Central Wisconsin Airport at Mosinee during the outgoing and homecoming festivities as well as at Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C.

“The applause and the ‘Welcome home!’ ... I couldn’t shake enough hands,” Calvaresi said. 

During the day-long tour, among the monuments Honor Flight veterans are taken to is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

“At the Wall, I was able to see my fallen brothers,” Calvaresi said of the names of four friends of his from his days in Kenosha. 

Three of the four ended up going to Vietnam before him.

None of the four made it home alive. 

Those four friends of Calvaresi’s were George D. Novakovic, 19, killed in action on March 5, 1968; Arden G. Sonnenberg, who had just turned 20 years old when he was killed in action just a few weeks into his combat tour on Aug. 25, 1968; Pekka Trunkhahn, who was 12 days shy of his 21st birthday when he was killed in action on May 16, 1966 and John P. Becker, 22, killed in action on May 2, 1970.

At the Wall, Calvaresi made etchings of the names. 

“The Honor Flight is something I will always remember and it gave me a new beginning,” he said. “It finally felt like we were supposed to feel the first time we came home.”

Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected]

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