Memorial Day 2001
I remember the day like it was yesterday. The first time I met Joe. It was a hot humid day during the summer of 1971. I pulled up to the Wall around 10th Street to check the Surf. As I walked up to the cement wall there was a young man leaning against the Wall. He looked to be about my age 20-21. He had long hair, and had a bead of bear claws around his neck. He was checking the surf as well. As I got closer I looked down and saw a familiar tattoo. A panther crawling up his leg. The claws dug deep drawing blood. He gave me an instant look of like "what are you looking at." No words were spoken. But I smiled and nodded. For that tattoo was the sure sign of someone who had been to Vietnam.
It was small talk about the surf at first. I could tell this guy was not auditioning for any new friends. Slowly, the subject got around to the tattoo. I'd seen enough of them in 1969 and 1970. We both looked over our shoulders to make sure no one was listening. For you see, in those days NO ONE openly admitted they were Veterans of Vietnam. It's sad but true. In the early 70's you did not tell anyone you were a vet. Unless of course you ran into a fellow vet and only then, it was mentioned in the utmost discreet mode.
Turns out Joe was there the same time I was there. He was Army and I was in the Marines. After a short time Joe and I both realized how much we had in common. We were both Vietnam Vets who loved Rock and Roll and Surfing. Thinking back now, it occurred to me how the Vietnam War was the first real "Surf War". Surfing was very popular in the 60's from the West Coast to the East Coast. The whole country was into Surfing and the Surf culture. Unfortunately, there was a war raging in Southeast Asia and a lot of those surfers got drafted. There were I'm sure, plenty of surfers who enlisted, but for the most part, they got drafted. So Joe and I were surf vets. We became very close friends in a very short period of time.
Those days were strange to say the least. Whenever Joe and I were alone we'd talk about the War, and the minute someone else would come into the conversation we'd clam up. I remember once when I was attending college in Boston. I was at a party, when a group of students found out I was a vet, they asked me to leave because "I was bringing them down". Joe and I never talked around anyone else. We knew better. There were exceptions to the rule. The young surfers like Kevin Grondin and Jeff Obst. We'd talk around them, but mostly so they'd never get any ideas about running off to join the armed forces thinking it was cool. War is not cool. And the War in Vietnam was winding down. 1971-72 was a bad time. We kept to ourselves in those days. It was better for all of us.
But, there was one thing that was painfully obvious to me, and to anyone who really knew Joe. You see, as proud as I am of my service and my fellow Marines (and anyone who knows me, knows of my love and respect for my fellow Marines) I could never hold a candle to some of the things that Joe had experienced. The more I learned about what he did in the War the more respect I had for him. Joe was a bona fide War hero. For the sake of time, the term "Hero" has been used many times in our lifetime. Especially in sports. However, there's a big difference between war heroes and Sports heroes. A Sports Hero does something he loves to do, is loved and admired by thousands of adoring fans and more than likely, gets paid extraordinary amounts of money. The War hero did something he more than likely didn't want to be involved in, while only a handful of people were witness to the deed and they got paid little. Very little. Joe was a War Hero.
Joe Somogyi was originally from upstate New York. His father, was a survivor of the infamous Battan Death March in the Phillipines during WWII. He passed away at an early age. Leaving his wife Marion,Joe and his older brother Steve. They made the most of it like most families do when tradgedy strikes. Joe started surfing as a young boy travelling to the Jersey Shore and Long Island. Like any surfer, once he caught that first wave he was hooked. That was before Vietnam. Eveything changed after that.
He enlisted in the US Army after High School in 1968 reluctantly leaving the waves of the Jersey shore. He became a highly respected Airborne Army Ranger having graduated from Fort Benning GA Airborne course in March of 1969. Shortly after he was sent to Vietnam arriving in country on July 4th 1969 and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Divison. He was promoted to the rank of Spec 4. He attended the 5th Special Forces MACV Recondo School and was from that time on involved in some of the War's most dangerous covert missions. Joe was deep into the War that only a few would ever experience.
For starters. Photo Recon missions; when his team of 3 would be inserted deep into "Indian Country" for days on end. Secretly watching and recording entire NVA (North Vietnamese Army) battalions. Learning quickly the disadvantage of reporting enemy activity too soon would result in "Arc Light" bombings from the ominous B-52's. "The ground would roll and shake" he'd say.
He told me first hand how his team captured a NVA payroll officer without firing a shot. "We laid on our backs in the tall grass, waiting for hours, finally the officer and his two armed guards came walking down the trail. We sprung up and grabbed all three men and brought them back unharmed." Can you imagine that? I can't. It scares me to this day thinking how much courage something like that took.
That kind of enemy contact was sure to get him in trouble. Sure enough, during one mission they were attacked by a large force of enemy soldiers. Joe was stabbed in the arm by an NVA soldier carrying an AK47 with a folding stock bayonet. They got out, but not before they had to deal with combat up close. It shook Joe to the core.
Another time Joe happened to be in the vicinity of a NVA rocket attack. An orphanage was hit and was in the process of burning down. Joe heard the sounds of those kids screaming and with complete disregard to his own safety went into that burning building and pulled those children out of there. I like to think that some of those kids have grown up and made something of their lives. I would hope that some of them remember the Army Ranger who saved their lives.
It wasn't always intense for Joe. He used to have a photo on his kitchen table in one of the "hooches" he lived in here in Hampton. It was a picture of Joe near China Beach, outside of DaNang. He's standing there holding a surfboard. Big smile on his face. Joe had found a way to surf in Vietnam.
I would look at the slides Joe had. It was at the time, amazing to see how beautiful Vietnam was where Joe operated out of. Of course that was before we ever heard the words "Agent Orange". Turns out, they sprayed the areas he and his team worked out of pretty heavy. Now for all intents and purposes, I don't believe for one minute, that the US government knowingly sprayed their own troops, knowing that the stuff they were spraying, would cause cancer. I don't think Joe believed it either.
Joe left Vietnam on July 3rd 1970. He was awarded The Combat Infantry Badge, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal, the Pathfinder Badge, the Parachute Badge, MACV Recondo Badge, Vietnam Service Medal w/ two oak leaf clusters, the M-16 Marksman badge and a number of other awards and medals.
He moved to Hampton to start a new life and to go surfing. He quickly got a job working as a carpenter and was on his way to becoming a solid Hamptonite. He bought a house on Mill Pond Road and was the happiest I'd ever seen him. We surfed and worked our way through the years and life was good. Joe was responsible for naming a lot of the surf breaks that the kids surf today. He was constantly pushing us to ride different breaks in the area. His brother Steve and Mom would travel up to visit from New York every summer. He was proud of his nephew Eric and couldn't wait to take him surfing. Joe was a survivor and nothing could possibly go wrong.
Around 1977 Joe started to get sick to his stomach. We both joked about what was wrong with him. Neither one of us having any idea. But Joe paid no attention to his pain. He continued to work as a carpenter with Norm Murphy. The two of them responsible for many of the homes you see here in Hampton today. Joe was becoming part of the community here in Hampton. We were surfing and working. Joe being sick was just a temporary thing. No big deal. The war was behind us having ended in 1975. Nothing but good times lay ahead for us.
I remember the phone
call after Joe's visit to the VA hospital. "They gave me my ticket."
he said. "What are you talking about?" I asked. And for the first time since I had known him, Joe cried. We both cried. Joe hung on for six months but the cancer in his stomach spread to far. There was no way out of this mess. Not this time. The last day in May 1978, I visited him in his room at the Manchester VA Hospital. When I walked into the room I was not prepared for how much weight he had lost. He looked like he was 100 years old. "Pretty scary eh?" he said. I tried to keep a stiff lip and said "Not really." knowing dam well it was in fact very scary. Joe was typically around 175lbs. But now looking at him, he couldn't of weighed more than 80lbs. He never lost his sense of humor though. At one point the nurse walked in and looked at his untouched plate of food. "Not hungry Joe?" she asked. "Nah, I'm on a diet." he replied. Only he and I laughed.
We talked for hours, about everything. Surfing, girls, work, and more surfing. The very last thing he said to me was, "I'm ready for a new adventure". We hugged each other and said goodbye. Forever. He passed away a few hours later. Joe was 27 years old.
As I paddle out into the surf each day during my Year long undertaking I think about my father...and I find myself thinking about Joe. In fact, every Memorial Day I think about him. Because, even though he didn't die in Vietnam, he died as a result of Vietnam. And that's what Memorial Day is all about. We honor those who gave the supreme sacrifice for their country. Joe paid in full. I still miss him. I always will. Because, Joe was my friend and Joe was a hero.
Ralph G. Fatello