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Wounds cut short duty in Vietnam

At about 4:40 a.m. Jan. 30, 1969, Sgt. Richard D. "Rick" Topolski was in the final hours of a leave back home before heading out on the first leg of his journey to Vietnam.

"We were home, and I was driving up to the intersection at Belmont Avenue and Sheridan Drive, when my car hit ice and we slid through it," Topolski said. "The passenger with me was another sergeant, Daniel Towne, from Newton Falls, near Watertown."

A Town of Tonawanda police officer drove the two young soldiers to Kenmore Mercy Hospital, where Topolski received a dozen stitches in his chin, and Towne was transferred to the Buffalo VA Hospital with a broken jaw.

Because Topolski's injuries were not serious, he was able to make his 9:30 flight later that morning to Fort Lewis in Washington State. He arrived in Vietnam on Feb. 4.

"At Kenmore Mercy, a Vietnamese doctor put in my stitches. Less than a week later, an Army medic removed the stitches in Cu Chi, Vietnam."

Though he found that ironic, the slash to Topolski's chin was nothing compared with the combat wounds he soon suffered.

The wounds halted his tour of duty, though not before he had seen his share of firefights serving with the 12th Infantry Division.

"Parrot's Peak," near the Cambodian border is one such fight he has not forgotten.

"We had intelligence of enemy activity. We got up at the break of dawn, got on a bunch of Huey helicopters and went on the mission.

"When we landed and the Hueys took off, we hadn't even gone 10 meters and walked into an L-shaped ambush. I ran and could see the dust coming up between my legs from machine gun fire. I went for a rice dike for cover. We started shooting back. The [lieutenant] called in the napalm, and after, tanks came in.

"We had a bunch of wounded, but no KIAs [killed in action]. Later we swept the area. Maybe 20 of the enemy were dead from everything we could see."

But the 20-year-old's war duties abruptly ended March 6, a day he was supposed to have off after working the night before on an ambush patrol.

"The [lieutenant] asked us to go check out the landing zone for the Hueys to see if there were booby traps. I went over to a water well, and I must have hit a pressure plate or trip wire, and the well blew up. Shrapnel got me in the neck, between the eyes, the chest and my left middle finger."

Slammed into the ground from the concussive force, Topolski remained conscious as a medic bandaged him. He was then placed on a stretcher that was strapped to the outside of bubble chopper and flown to a field hospital, where he passed out.

For the Topolski family, this was not the first time a member had been wounded in action.

William J. Topolski, Rick's dad, suffered a bullet wound to the left arm while fighting in France during WWII. And like his son, the father, an infantry scout, saw plenty of action, before returning home with a Purple Heart, a Combat Infantry Badge, plus two Bronze Stars.

Because of the severity of Rick's injuries -- doctors were unable to remove all of the shrapnel from his brain, neck and chest -- he was sent stateside to St. Albans Naval Hospital in Jamaica, Long Island, and discharged in August 1969.

During his hospital stay, the standout baseball and football player from Cardinal O'Hara High School said he experienced the greatest day of his life as a sports fan.

"A medic at St. Albans got tickets for Yankee Stadium to watch the Yankees retire Mickey Mantle's number. It was great," he said. "Mickey Mantle was greatest. What can I tell you?"

Back in the Town of Tonawanda, Topolski found work at the Chevrolet plant and continued there until 1998, when he suffered a stroke brought on by the shrapnel still in his brain.

He is now rated 100 percent disabled by the VA and is retired.

Married to the former Debbie Anna, he is known in the Tonawandas for his volunteer work at the annual summer Canal Fest, running the veterans booth and also serving in color guards at memorial events and funerals.

"Whenever I go to one of these services, I pin on the bar of my father's Purple Heart to my dress uniform. That way I always have my dad with me."

***

Richard D. "Rick" Topolski, 63

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Vietnam War

Years of service: Drafted March 13, 1968 -- Aug. 19, 1969

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge

Specialty: Infantry