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(Las Vegas, Nevada) – When Vincent Palmieri Jr.’s mother looked down at her newborn baby boy while living in Brooklyn, New York, she could never have imagined the things that he would see or the life that he would lead. The middle child of three boys and one girl, Vincent looked up to his older brother, Louie, throughout his childhood. Louie was strong and athletic. He joined the Marines and fought in the Korean War.
“That’s one thing about the Marine Corps. If you did join and you were in combat, you could always depend on your buddies to take care of you. They’d never leave you behind.” Louis told his little brother, while at the same time trying to talk him out of actually going through with joining.
Although Vincent dreamt of becoming a professional basketball player as a child, he graduated high school just as the Vietnam War began. After receiving a draft notice, he knew that he didn’t want to join the Army. Instead of allowing himself to be drafted, he enlisted in the Marines and considered making it a career. By the time he enlisted, he had been told by several people about the motto that the Marine’s live and die by, “Until they are home, no man left behind.” This appealed to him and would stay with him as he progressed forward.
It was 1967, and during boot camp a drill instructor told the platoon that every man would serve at least one tour of duty in Vietnam. After training, Palmieri’s platoon was assigned to go to the Dominican Republic for police duty during their elections. When they returned, his buddies and he volunteered to go to Vietnam, reasoning that since they would have to go eventually, they may as well get it over with.
Leaving from the Kennedy Airport on his way to Vietnam, he said goodbye to his family and his girlfriend. As he gazed out of the plane’s window, all he could think of was whether he would ever see them again. The plane landed in the coastal city of Danang, Vietnam, and Vincent watched the flight attendants shed tears as the Marines passed them on the way to their destiny.
The suffocating humidity hit them like a thick wet blanket. Palmieri was assigned to Third Battalion, Third Marines and told to head to the rock pile to search for caves. After this, they were sent to Mutter’s Ridge, the name given by the U.S. Marines to the Núi Cây Tre ("Bamboo Mountain") ridge, in Quảng Trị Province. This is the very location where well-known photographer Larry Burrows shot the infamous photo, “Reaching Out”, featuring injured Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Purdie holding his hand out to a fellow fallen comrade. The photo was first published in LIFE magazine in February 1971 and has since become the most famous picture from the Vietnam era.
Vincent’s battalion was expected to climb up the mountain through the thick mud and fight the enemy in the treacherous conditions brought on by a wild monsoon. Returning from Mutter’s Ridge, their whole company marched with tanks preceding them. Little did Palmieri know that worse was yet to come the following day.
He was assigned to be the walking point, meaning that they would be the first to be shot at. Thinking that since he was behind a tank he would have cover, he settled himself in his position. However, the Viet Cong fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at the tank and blew it up. Vincent took shrapnel in the neck and was brought back to Đông Hà, Vietnam. They tried to operate to remove the shrapnel but were not able to, due to the proximity to his varicose vein. After receiving stitches and being sent to his tent to recuperate, he was sent back to the field with stitches still in his neck. This was how Vincent earned his first Purple Heart.
At this point, Palmieri was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines Division, where he was once again the first to go out. He was ordered to Cồn Tiên (Hill of Angels) Marine Base. On July 2, 1967, Operation Buffalo was launched, which was a sweep of the area north of Cồn Tiên. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked, causing the single worse day for the United States in Vietnam with a total of 86 killed.
That morning, Vincent remembers experiencing “Ho Chi Minh hour”, which was how they would wake up every morning, taking incoming rounds from the NVA. Vincent had been trained to be a company radioman, carrying a 25lb radio on his back with a long antenna (an easy target for any sniper). That day, after their company went out to gather the killed and wounded and bring them back to Cồn Tiên, they started taking incoming rounds. While at his bunker, Vincent saw a flash where the enemy was firing an RPG. Vincent radioed it in, and everyone in his squad gathered together in his bunker to go over their plan of action.
The next thing he knew, Palmieri was waking up with a hole in his arm wide enough to stick his thumb in to stop the bleeding. They had taken a direct hit, and every one of his fellow soldiers were lying around him not moving. He was later told that had he not had the radio strapped to his back, he would not have survived the attack. Crawling to the first aid station, Vincent heard other Marines crying and screaming in pain for a corpsman. When he finally arrived, he was given morphine and was airlifted by helicopter to a Dong Ha field hospital. From there he went to a Naval hospital in Japan and eventually to St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, New York. This horrifying experience earned Vincent Palmieri Jr. his second Purple Heart.
The 1st Battalion Ninth Marines were given the name, “The Walking Dead” and the “Ghost Battalion” by the NVA because no matter how many men were killed or wounded, the NVA could seemingly never over run them. Operation Buffalo ended on July 14, 1967 with a total of 159 Marines killed in action and 345 wounded.
Today, Vincent serves as the Americanism Officer in the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He enjoys this position, as it allows him to speak at schools across the city and give them a better understanding of what being a veteran truly means. He is also a member of the Marine Corps League, and he has spoken at schools in this position, as well. One of the most disheartening things that he found while doing this was that when posed with the question, “Do you any of you know what a Purple Heart is?” only five students out of a crowd of five hundred high schoolers raised their hands.
August 7th of every year is designated Purple Heart day in the United States, and it is set aside for the nation to pause, acknowledge and honor the sacrifices made by the brave members of our esteemed military. The Purple Heart is presented to service members who were either wounded or killed as a result of enemy action while serving in the United States military. It is a solemn distinction which dignifies the recipient as someone wo has greatly served and sacrificed for their country, or paid the ultimate price, while in the time of duty.
“People often say, ‘Thank you for your service’. For those of us who have been in combat, that can be hard to accept. We don’t want to be thanked. If you truly want to honor me or any other veteran, find a good veteran’s organization and donate at least five dollars.” Vincent concludes sincerely. “That is what would make me happy.”
To become a sponsor and help support veterans in Henderson, Boulder City, Las Vegas, and Pahrump, please visit http://purpleheart730.org today.