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WNY veteran recalls Vietnam combat that brought him medal for valor in ‘Big Red One’

After graduating from Kenmore West High School in 1962, John M. Washington went to work for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., changing tires and repairing vehicles.

He had worked part time for the company during high school, so the switch to the full-time job went without a hitch. A year later, he met Germaine Clark on the Elmwood Avenue strip, and three years later, they were married.

For the first three months of their marriage, life rolled along like a new set of tires, “smoothly,” Washington says. He went to work, and his wife, who was from Watkins Glen, attended her senior year at Buffalo State College.

Then a draft notice arrived and Washington found himself facing two years of military service.

“That ruined everything,” he says.

Lacking the financial resources to hang on to their garage apartment on Elmwood, which for Germaine was within walking distance of Buffalo State, she moved in with her widower father-in-law, whose name embodied the essence of patriotism – George Washington.

And while Germaine continued to pursue her education to become a schoolteacher, her beloved was on the other side of the world in an outdoor classroom, a jungle filled with enemies where he learned about the brutality of war.

“We tried not to meet Charlie head-on,” says Washington, using a slang term for the enemy. “We’d find out where he was, and we called in coordinates for airstrikes or artillery. Then basically we’d go back and see what unit was caught in the area, whether it was the North Vietnamese army regulars or the Viet Cong.”

He was a soldier of the 1st Infantry Division, the famed “Big Red One.”

“Usually, no one survived after a B-52 airstrike, unless it was a heavily fortified underground unit,” Washington recalls.

For months, that was his routine.

“We’d be flown by helicopter from one landing zone to another,” he says of the search-and-destroy missions.

Enemy casualties sometimes added up into the hundreds.

“Any time we caught Charlie in the open, it was an annihilation,” he says.

But in January 1968, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army launched the Tet Offensive, the massive coordinated attack against cities and villages throughout South Vietnam. That notched up the intensity of the war, and the death toll on both sides increased, Washington remembers. “The Tet Offensive let us know that we did not have enough people to hold on to the areas that we wanted to occupy,” he says. “We’d have to go over the same areas we had cleared and clear them again. You hated to see people getting wasted by going over and over land we’d already cleared.”

Toward the end of his tour, in fact, just two weeks before Washington was scheduled to return to the United States, he nearly lost his life.

“I was out checking the perimeter of our base camp. We had concertina wire with cans tied to it,” he says. “At night in Vietnam, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I heard the cans rattling, and I went out to check. I was walking down a ravine, and it was a full moon, and I thought to myself, ‘Jeez, I better get some cover.’

“I went behind this big tree, and I could still hear the cans rustling, and so I came out from behind the tree, and I could see this Viet Cong guy coming up the hill.

“We ran into each other, probably 4 feet away. He fired first and hit me in the left elbow and split it. I figured this was it, if he caught me.

“I jumped on the guy, and we rolled down the ravine in hand-to-hand combat. I happened to come up on top. He was holding his pistol, and it had a lanyard attached to it, and I wrapped it around his neck. I used my right hand because my left wasn’t working. I kept making the lanyard tighter and tighter, and finally all the energy went out of him.”

Fearful that the enemy fighter might regain consciousness and come after him as he escaped, the wounded Washington said he decided to take him with him.

“I dragged him up the ravine, and I could hear him making gurgling noises,” Washington says.

“My goal was to reach the bunker. I made it to the bunker, and I don’t remember what happened after that. I must have lost so much blood that I collapsed beside him. When I woke up, I thought I was dead. I was on a gurney, and two Army nurses were cutting off my fatigues.”

His prisoner, he was later told, had died.

Washington was later awarded a Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award for valor, for his actions that night.

He recalls the joy, upon reaching Japan, of taking a hot shower at an Air Force base hospital.

“I asked the nurse if I could take a hot shower, and she laid me down in the stall and taped my left arm that was in a cast to the wall,” he says. “I just laid there with warm water streaming over me. It was my first hot shower in about a year.”

Despite months of rehabilitation, his left arm was never the same, though it did not prove an impediment to civilian life.

He returned to Goodyear and worked for the company for 24 years, often called upon to solve mechanical problems when new tires failed to perform properly. Washington also started a small family construction company, which grew from four employees to more than 30 and is now operated by his son, Michael.

“I named the company Ivy Lea Construction after the street that I had resided on in the Town of Tonawanda,” Washington says.

Germaine Washington graduated from Buffalo State and became a teacher in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District. Both Germaine and John, who also have a daughter, Kate, are now retired.

Of his military service, John Washington says, he is proud that he had the chance to defend the country, but that the negative treatment that he and other returning Vietnam War veterans received from some anti-war protesters still sometimes upsets him. “We didn’t have any choice,” Washington says. “We had to stay the course because we were drafted.”

These days, he enjoys serving with the Patriot Riders, a group of veterans and nonveterans who ride motorcycles as escorts and honor guards for service members returning from war zones.

“I’m getting old,” the 72-year-old says, “but I like to get out on the motorcycle.”

John M. Washington, 72

Hometown: Lackawanna

Residence: Wheatfield

Branch: Army

Rank: E-4

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1967-68

Most prominent honors: Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal

Specialty: Infantryman