Marine Sergeant Alfredo Gonzalez lost his life
while commanding the 3rd Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion 1st
Marine Regiment at Hue in 1968.
By John W. Flores
Twelve enemy soldiers, armed with B-40 rocket
propelled grenades, moved stealthily through the underbrush that
lined the edge of the schoolyard of the Jeann d'Arc High School
and Church complex, located on the edge of Hue City. They took
cover as 38-man U.S. Marine force approached their position across
an open field on the opposite side of the church. A violent and
bloody showdown was imminent.
It was the morning of February 4, 1968, five days after the NVA
and VC had overrun Hue, the old Imperial capital of Vietnam, at
the beginning of their Tet Offensive. The Marines were from the
3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment
(1/1), commanded by Sergeant Alfredo "Freddy" Gonzalez,
a 21 year-old Marine from Edinburg, Texas. He had taken charge
several days earlier after the lieutenant who normally commanded
the platoon had been wounded and evacuated.
Gonzalez had enlisted in the Marines three years earlier, in May
1965, just after graduating from high school. He had always wanted
to be a Marine from the time he was a small boy, according to
his mother, Dolia Gonzalez, who still lives in Edinburg. Often,
while watching John Wayne war movies at the town theater on Saturday
afternoons, he would nudge his mother, cup his hand to her ear
and whisper, "Someday I'm going to be a Marine just like
After boot camp, Gonzalez served a one-year tour in Vietnam in
1966-67. "Freddy had just completed one tour of duty, and
he'd made it back home," recalled J.J. Avila, a close friend
of Gonzalez's who also served as a Marine in Vietnam. "He
was on leave, and I remember he called me over to his house and
said he had had a serious dilemma. He had just gotten word that
a platoon of men he had served with in Vietnam had been blown
away in an ambush." Gonzalez told Avila he believed that
he could have kept the men alive had he been at the scene. "And
he had reason to be so confident," said Avila. "He saved
many men through his coolness under fire, a calculating, rapid-fire
courage, and a big-brother's concern for his men." Avila
continued: "I told Freddy, "Do not go back. You've done
your duty." He said he did not want to go back. He's seen
enough of the war, and he wanted to be close to home to take care
of his mother. But the ambush really hit him hard. Finally, I
knew it was no use. He'd made up his mind, and there was no changing
it. I told him he'd already done his duty, but if he had to go
back, just be careful. Just come back home."
When Gonzalez returned to Vietnam he was assigned to Alpha Company,
1/1. In January 1968 the men had just come off duty along the
DMZ at Con Thien and had moved south to the provincial capital
at Quang Tri. "I had no other officers with me," recalled
retired Marine Colonel Gordon Batcheller, who then a captain had
taken command of Alpha Company on Christmas Day 1967. "They
were all gone. Sergeant Gonzalez was commander of the 3rd Platoon.
We were ordered as part of a large-scale movement down to Phu
Bai, outside of Hue, the night before the Tet Offensive started
on January 30. We were alerted we would be a reaction force, then
I got blown away with an automatic weapon of some kind going into
Hue and was medevaced out."
Lieutenant (now Maj. Gen.) Ray Smith, who took
command of Alpha Company after Batcheller was wounded, was impressed
with platoon leader Gonzalez. "The thing that probably is
most surprising and maybe says a lot about him is that I thought
of Sergeant Gonzalez as an old veteran," said Smith, "At
the time, I mean, I remember thinking of Sergeant Gonzalez as
an old-timer, a guy who had been around a while. I was just 21,
and as it turned out he was four or five months younger than me.
I remember him as a real mature, grown-up sergeant type of a guy,
as opposed to the 21 year-old that he was. He was a real quite
person, but he always had a smile on his face. He was a little
restrained in his emotions, but that was probably because he was
truly one of the 'grown-ups' in our organization."
"I primarily knew him on a personal basis, because in November
and December 1967 in Quang Tri we had an officer and staff NCO
card game," continued Smith. "We would gather in the
company commander's bunker and play penny ante poker. You had
to be an officer or a staff NCO to be involved in that card game,
but we made an exception for Gonzalez because he was to us a grown-up
among those kids. Like a lot of people that you remember for their
actions, my memory of him is as a big muscular guy. He was actually
fairly small. I'm 6'feet-2" inches tall and 218 pounds. Recently
a friend sent me a photo of Sergeant Gonzalez and I standing beside
each other. I couldn't believe I was that much bigger than him.
It was just the opposite in my memory. He was the big one"
the advance into Hue City, Gonzalez was wounded twice by machine-gun
and mortar fire. At one point, when Gonzalez and other Marines
became targets of sniper fire, they took cover behind an armoured
vehicle that was rolling along ahead of the platoon. One of the
privates under Gonzalez's command was hit and went down on the
road ahead. Gonzalez jumped from behind the tank and sprayed fire
at a VC machine-gun bunker that was hidden amid the heavy foliage
along the dirt road. While some members of his platoon were momentary
stunned by Gonzalez's bold move, others raked the machine-gun
nest with automatic-weapons fire. Before the sergeant reached
the badly wounded Marine 20 or 30 yards ahead, he made his way
along a narrow ditch until he was near the bunker. He then lobbed
two grenades inside, and the explosions killed the enemy soldiers
in the bunker. Gonzalez then made his way back to the wounded
private, heaved his 170-pound body over his shoulder and ran back
towards the cover of the tank. Although hit by bullet fragments
and mortar shrapnel from other enemy troops and bleeding badly,
Gonzalez managed to reach the tank.
Navy corpsman rushed to administer to Gonzalez and the dying Marine
he had tried to save and ordered the sergeant to leave by medevac
chopper. But Gonzalez would have none of it, according to Smith.
These were his men, and he refused to leave them. As Gonzalez's
boss, Smith tried to get another sergeant to take command of the
3rd Platoon while the company continued its advance on Hue City.
But nobody challenged Gonzalez's decision to fight on. According
to Smith, "The gunnery sergeant said, "Lieutenant, I'll
go and follow Sergeant Gonzalez around if you want me to, but
he is in command of 3rd Platoon." He said he was going to
put him in for the Medal of Honor if we survived. Always seen
as a good solid, lead-by example Marine, when we entered the fight
in Hue City, Gonzalez became way more than that. for the next
few days he became almost a one-man army. All of us who survived
remain in awe of him."
On February 4, 1968, as smith later recalled, "the first objective
of the company was the St. Joan of Arc School and church only
about 100 yards away." It was a key position that both sides
wanted because it could serve as a protective bulwark during the
fighting. "The building was square, with an open compound
in the middle," recalled Smith, "and we found that by
0700 hours it was heavily occupied." Sergeant Gonzalez ordered
his platoon to keep down, out of the line of fire, while he surveyed
the situation. Meanwhile Lieutenant Smith and the remainder of
Alpha Company entered the school.
a fire storm erupted. Many of the Marines fell dead or wounded
from machine-gun and rocket fire, and platoons from scattering
like pool balls after a break, with bullets whizzing inches above
the men's helmets. Only a handful were already inside the church
and school corridors, and those who had fanned out to take cover
were under intense fire. "We were trying to secure the church,"
said Smith, "and the enemy was inside the school. We had
to blow holes in the walls so we could get through and take the
school rooms. It was very tough fighting." Smith's Marines
found themselves engaged in room-to-room combat.
Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Gravel, the battalion commander of the
1/1, said that in the convent building the Marines proceeded from
wall to wall. "One Marine would place a plastic C-4 charge
against the wall, stand back, and then a fire team would rush
through the gaping hole. In the school building Sergeant Gonzalez's
3rd Platoon secured one wing but came under enemy rocket fire
from across the courtyard." Although still suffering from
his earlier wounds, Sergeant Gonzalez managed to grab a handful
of LAW's (M-72 light antitank weapons) and positioned himself
on the second floor of the school, firing at enemy positions from
one window to another," said Smith. "He had managed
to take out several of the enemy positions when a rocket was fired
at him and hit him in the midsection."
Lawrence "Little Larry" Lewis of Chattanooga, Tenn.,
a rifleman in Gonzalez platoon, was only a few feet away from
the sergeant when he was hit. Lewis had arrived in Vietnam in
September 1967 and was terribly frightened he would be killed.
Sergeant Gonzalez had noticed that he was upset and had talked
to the young man and put him at ease. When Gonzalez went down,
Lewis pulled him out of the line of fire and laid him on a door.
"His heart was still beating," Lewis recalled, "but
he was died a short time later. O couldn't believe he was hit.
He was hero to us all, and took care of us young guys when we
got in country."
Gonzalez was a hero to his country as well. In 1969, his mother
Dolia Gonzalez, was escorted to the White House to receive the
Medal of Honor awarded to her son posthumously. Signed by President
Richard Nixon and presented by Vice President Spiro Agnew, the
official citation read:
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity
at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while
serving as Platoon Commander, Third Platoon, Company A, First
Battalion, first marines, first Marine Division, in the Republic
of Vietnam. On 31 January 1968, during the initial phase of Operation
Hue City, Sergeant Gonzalez's unit was formed as a reaction force
and deployed to Hue to relieve the pressures on the beleaguered
city. While moving by truck convoy along Route #1, near the village
of Lang Van Long, the Marines received a heavy volume of enemy
fire. Sergeant 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 own safety, Sergeant
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 fortified machine-gun bunker on the other side
of the road, the company was temporarily halted. Realizing the
gravity of the situation, Sergeant Gonzalez exposed himself to
the enemy fire and moved his platoon along the East side of a
bordering rice paddy to a dike directly 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, the enemy had again pinned
the company down, inflicting heavy casualties with automatic weapons
and rocket fire. Sergeant 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 Sergeant Gonzalez
reflects great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps and were
in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval
Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country."
That was not the only honor that Sergeant Gonzalez
received. In 1975 an elementary school in his hometown of Edinburg,
was named in his honor, and in 1993 Navy Secretary John Dalton
announced that the Navy's most advanced and one of its deadliest
warships would be named after him. USS Alfredo Gonzalez (DDG-66),
a guided-missle destroyer, was christened at Bath, Main, in February
1995 and commissioned at Corpus Christi, Texas, in October 1996.
The first modern warship named for a Mexican-American, she is
now serving with the Navy's Atlantic Fleet.
John Flores, a Coast
Guard veteran, writes from Texas. For further reading: Phase
Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968, by Nicholas Warr
(Naval Institute Press); and U.S. Marines in
Vietnam: The Defining Year 1968, by Jack Shulimson et al.
(USMC History and Museums Division.