When the Chinese New Year comes around, Medford resident William Hosea Hunter can't help but think about buddies he lost in Vietnam.
"I don't have flashbacks anymore, but I think of the guys that didn't make it," said Hunter, 64, a retired letter carrier in Medford. "This is always one of the hardest times of the year for me."
He is a combat veteran of the Tet Offensive that was launched on Jan. 30, 1968, in the Vietnam War. The three phases of the Tet campaign lasted until September.
At the time, the 6-foot-4-inch Spc. Hunter was getting "short," meaning his year's tour was about up with Charlie Company of the Army's 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, 25th Division. Nicknamed the "Manchus," the unit had been deployed to Tay Ninh, an area northeast of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, near the Cambodia border. "Before Tet, they'd send us out on patrols, mainly trying to find where mortars were coming from at the time," he recalled. "We had some skirmishes but it was fairly calm up until Tet. That's when we started having guys killed on a daily basis."
Hunter will talk about his experience Tuesday evening in Grants Pass during a memorial for those killed in the Tet Offensive."The purpose of this memorial is to remember not only those who died during Tet, but also the 59,000 who died during the course of the Vietnam conflict," said Mark Levno, an Army veteran and counselor with the Grants Pass Vets Center.
"In a larger sense, we are honoring and remembering all who have died while serving in the military, regardless of the decade or the conflict," he added.
Participants are invited to place the name of a veteran to be remembered on a card. The card will be placed beneath a lighted candle in a boat which will be launched onto the river currents.
"... ceremony, in the company of others, can often meld the needs of both mind and heart in a very healing way," Levno said.
Hunter was drafted into the Army in the spring of 1966. At the time, the 1965 graduate of Medford Senior High School was 18 and clerking in a Medford grocery store.
After basic and infantry training, he arrived in what was then South Vietnam on March 1, 1967. He quickly was deployed to Tay Ninh and a forward base nearly within rifle shot of the Cambodia border.
What he describes as "fairly calm" before Tet depends on your perspective.
"They overran our base one night and got inside," he said of an attack that began with mortars and ended with a firefight. "It was complete chaos. You didn't know if you were going to make it or not.
"Me and another guy got in this foxhole that was only 6 feet long and 2 feet deep — we hadn't had time to dig it any bigger," added Hunter, who noted he was lankier back in the day. "But we survived."
By the end of January, the region was eerily quiet, he said.
"It was really dead out there — nothing was going on," he said. "But you just knew something was coming up. We hadn't run into anybody. It was almost ghostly."
In fact, the leaders of the Viet Cong in North Vietnam and the Republic of South Vietnam had signed a cease-fire for the annual lunar new year celebration. But early on the morning of Jan. 30, the Viet Cong launched a countrywide attack that would be the biggest offensive yet conducted in the war. More than 80,000 troops attacked everything from the major cities of Hue and Saigon to small bases.
During nearly a year with the unit, most of his time was spent in the jungle, he said.
"When they (Viet Cong) started to pull away from the big cities, that's when we started having big-time problems," he said. "We really started getting into it."
As he looked at photographs taken in Vietnam of fellow Spc. Nicholas J. Cutinha of Florida and Mike Frost of Seattle, he talked about the fellow soldiers who were his buddies.
"We called Catinha 'Porky' — he was great with a machine gun," he said. "They called me 'Fang' because I had a silver tooth in the front of my mouth. They always told me I'd be an easy target. I made a point of never smiling when we were attacked.
"We were a close-knit family," he added.
The family of soldiers that made up Charlie Company would survive the firefights in the jungle, but soon found themselves in a more deadly battle.
"Just before I left (for stateside) on Feb. 29, they moved the whole company down near Saigon," he recalled of the move on the 25th. "They were being mortared down at the Tan Son Nhut air base, and they wanted us to go find where it was coming from."
On March 2, two days after Hunter, after enduring a bit of good-natured ribbing from his buddies, left for home, the unit was caught in an ambush while on patrol. Charlie Company suffered 49 killed and 24 wounded.
His friend Cutinha would be awarded the Medal of Honor — posthumously.
"I'm very proud of him, " the big man said softly. "They got caught in a 'horse shoe' ambush. My squad went over this bridge first. He saved a lot of lives."
His friend Mike Frost also was killed that day.
"I've felt a lot of guilt about not being there, thinking if I had been there I could have helped them out," he added. "But I know I would be dead today if I had been there. I know it."
In May of that year, he volunteered for body escort duty at his base in California. One assignment sent him to Seattle, where he called the family of Mike Frost and met with them.
"I wanted to do what I could to help, to let them know somebody cared," he said.
Discharged in September of 1968, Hunter returned to Medford, where he became a letter carrier, a job he held until retiring 34 years later. He married and raised two children.
But he could not get away from memories of Vietnam and what would later be diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder.
"I used alcohol and work to hide everything," he said. "About 12 years ago, I started drinking heavier. My wife told me to get some help or get the hell out."
He got help. He credits Dian, his wife of 42 years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Alcoholics Anonymous with saving his life. He still goes to AA meetings and PTSD counseling at the VA's counseling center in Grants Pass. He also has attended reunions with fellow Manchus.
"I've got a lot to be thankful for," Hunter concluded. "I know I'm lucky to be here today."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.