By JOEL McNEECE
Joe Carnaggio, of Calhoun City, still remembers the “great feeling” seeing the tops of the trees of the Vietnam jungle as he was helicoptered out after being shot in the leg during a tenacious fire fight in May of 1970.
Nearly 40 years to the day of that injury, Carnaggio said his thoughts typically drift to those family and friends who weren’t as lucky as he was to come home from the Vietnam War.
“The older I get, I tend to reflect more,” Carnaggio said. “I think of all the veterans that served before and after me. Many, especially the World War II veterans, saw a lot worse than I did.”
Carnaggio was raised in Greenwood. His father was an Italian immigrant, born in Sicily, who came through Ellis Island with Carnaggio’s grandparents.
“My father was nine-years-old when they came to the United States,” Carnaggio said. “I’ve never known anyone who was more proud to be an American than he was.”
Carnaggio’s mother died before his sixth birthday. His father died before he turned 16. He lived with his step-brother Frank, who was paralyzed from the waist down, and his father’s first wife.
With both of his parents deceased, Carnaggio said it was a given he would be drafted for the Vietnam War. He ended up in the Army with a two-year enlistment. His training began at Fort Polk for Basic and AIT (Advanced Individual Training). He was then sent to Fort Benning for eight months of NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) School and left as an E5 Sergeant. He was then returned to Fort Polk for another Basic Training as a drill instructor.
He flew to Seattle where he was sent on a commercial flight to Vietnam. “I had expected to get off the plane, they hand me a rifle and we go charging into the jungle,” Carnaggio said. “It wasn’t anything like that.”
They touched down in Cam Ranh Bay where thousands of U.S. troops were being processed. Carnaggio was placed with the 101st Airborne.
“The good thing about that was we flew in helicopters everywhere we went rather than walk,” Carnaggio said. “But it led us to a lot more action because of it.”
Carnaggio described Vietnam as very hot, humid, terrain, and at night it was the darkest of dark. “You didn’t light a cigarette because you would give yourself away it was so dark,” Carnaggio said.
Those on look-out would dig a hole just before dark and then five would climb in. Four would sleep while the fifth stayed on watch.
Carnaggio’s first fire fight was actually with friendly troops.
“We were cutting our way through the jungle and had been told there were no other troops around,” Carnaggio said.
Through the thick jungle they could see other troops in the distance, and soon after, the firing began. Carnaggio said when both units called for air support at the same time, they realized they were on the same side.
“Thankfully no one was hurt,” Carnaggio said.
A few days later Carnaggio’s company had been called to the rear for a “stand down” – three day rest period. They were all sleeping on the ground when an approximate 11-year-old Vietnamese boy, wearing no clothes, made his way into their camp claiming he wanted to surrender.
He told them he was instructed to go kill one American. He carried the U.S. troops back to his rifle and clothes where they discovered his rifle was only capable of firing one shot, then he would have obviously been killed. The young boy told the soldiers of a planned meeting of Viet-Kong leaders and an ambush was set up. Carnaggio fired the grenade with a launcher that ended the meeting. After the ambush, the soldiers discovered the Viet-Kongs plotting against them were people they saw on a daily basis.
“Vietnam was unlike previous wars,” Carnaggio said. “There was no front line.”
He described the enemy as being “everywhere,” often hard to distinguish.
Carnaggio’s worst fire fight was his last. They had just been brought to the rear to hear a live speech from President Richard Nixon during which he said the war would be spreading into Cambodia to attempt to cut off supplies. Carnaggio’s company was among those headed to Cambodia.
Their first mission was to destroy a training facility. The helicopters attempted to drop them in a “Hot LZ” (landing zone), but the fire from below was too intense. They were dropped out farther up the valley and had to cut their way back through the brush.
Carnaggio and a fellow soldier came upon a wide path by jungle standards that had wires running from tree to tree. They used their bayonet to cut the wires. For the next five days they were in “constant contact,” 100% alert.
They never made it to the training schools due to the fighting. AK-47s continually fired back and forth. “It’s a very distinctive sound you will never forget,” Carnaggio said.
After each exchange, the Viet-Kong would run away and the Americans would push forward.
They moved into a small village that had been bombed by B-52s. Their inspection found no people, but thousands of pounds of rice and countless traps – lightly covered holes in the ground with pungi sticks pointed upwards.
They moved forward and the fighting picked up in intensity. “It got pretty hairy pretty quickly,” Carnaggio said. But in this encounter, the enemy didn’t run. They dug in. “We knew we were in trouble then,” Carnaggio said. Carnaggio said rockets were flying constantly over their heads and one clipped a tree above him.
“It felt like bee stings on the back of my legs,” Carnaggio said.
Shortly after, he was hit with a round in his leg that passed all the way through without touching any bone. He was immobilized by the wound, but medi-vacs couldn’t get to him due to the fighting. He got hit three more times by shrapnel before he was rescued nearly seven hours after the initial injury.
It was then he saw the “treetops” and knew he was headed to safety. He was operated on in a tent and ultimately sent to Japan for recovery. He weighed 95 pounds when he was flown out. He entered the military at 165 pounds. “Water was much more important than food,” Carnaggio said.
He told how they would come upon streams and siphon the water through their shirts into a canteen trying to remove as many bugs as possible. But all that was behind him as he tried to recover in a Japanese hospital and later in Anchorage, Alaska. Carnaggio chose not to inform his family of the injury, mainly out of embarrassment.
“It’s a hard thing to accept when you get wounded like that,” Carnaggio said. “There’s an embarrassment to it. You feel like they got the best of you.”
He did start adding back to his now 95-pound frame when he arrived in Alaska.
“I had a big greasy, hamburger first thing,” Carnaggio said. “Best hamburger I’ve ever eaten.”
He later returned to Fort Polk to complete his recovery. He managed to hitch-hike back to Greenwood for a few days at home.
“The day after I got home we received a telegram from the Army saying I had been critically wounded in Vietnam,” Carnaggio said.
He finished his tour with an armored division in Washington state. Forty years later Carnaggio said he has only minor side effects from his war injury. He’s never felt comfortable applying for any kind of disability due to his experience with his brother Frank, who made a good life for himself battling paralysis without government help.
Carnaggio, 62, who owns Carnaggio Accounting and Tax Services in Calhoun City, continues to assist with Veterans’ and Memorial Day programs.
“I only spent a total of 73 days in Vietnam,” Carnaggio said. “There are so many more who sacrificed so much more than I did. I have the utmost respect for all of those veterans.”