NEW BEDFORD — Sitting in the comfortable kitchen of his New Bedford home, Bill Comeau recalled a time more than five decades ago when he awaited the plane that was bringing him to Vietnam.
And to war.
“I never forgot it. When we arrived as a unit from Fort Dix, we had to wait for our plane. And while we’re waiting, all the guys are horse-playing around — because that’s what young 19-year-old guys do.
“All of a sudden it got quiet and we looked over and there was a young soldier with his legs blown off. He was in a wheelchair … and it got all quiet and everybody realized, ‘Oh, boy. We’re going where that guy just came from.’”
Comeau tells the story of those 19-year-old guys — many of whom never made it back home — in his recently completed book, “Duel with the Dragon at the Battle of Suoi Tre,” which is being published by Deeds Publishing of Athens, Ga.
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'Duel with the Dragon'
The book tells the story of his brigade, the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division and its pursuit of the soldiers of the 9th Vietcong Division, which reached a climax on March 21, 1967, at the Battle of Suoi Tre.
There were 180 men in his company — 56 earned the Purple Heart that day.
The Viet Cong’s 272nd Regiment of the 9th Division suffered 638 killed in the three-hour battle, which is considered the Viet Cong’s greatest loss of life in a single day of battle during the course of the entire war.
“All the units of our brigade who were engaged that morning were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. This was equal to every participant receiving the Distinguished Service Cross, the United States Army’s second-highest military decoration,” Comeau said.
“When we got that Presidential Unit Citation, it was the first time the 12th Infantry Unit got the Presidential Unit since the Battle of the Bulge, so that was kind of a big deal,” he said.
That citation, as well as his Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, and a host of other citations and honors, adorn a wall in his living room.
Comeau's honors include the Combat Infantry Badge, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, National Defense Medal, Good Conduct Medal, and the Unit Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Oak Leaf.
He has served as the Regimental Historian for the U.S. 12th Infantry Regiment’s Monument at the Walk of Honor at the U.S. Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Ga.
He has also been awarded the Order of St. Maurice Medal by the National Infantry Association for his dedication and promotion of the U.S. Infantry and the Franco-American Veteran of the Year Award for 2017.
A tale of growing up in New Bedford
His book also tells the story of growing up in New Bedford in the 1940s and ’50s leading up to his being drafted on Dec. 13, 1965.
Comeau was 2 years old when his dad died in an accident at the factory a mile from their home where he worked. His dad walked to and from work every day.
His toe was crushed in the accident. He refused to take any time off, saying he had a family to raise. Two weeks later he died from a massive heart attack due to a blood clot that traveled from the injured toe to his heart.
Comeau’s mom was left to raise their four children: Bill, who was the youngest, and his three sisters.
She struggled, he said, but lived to see all four of her children buy their own homes. “She was very proud that each one of her children was able to buy a house. She thought that was great.”
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Why he started writing
Comeau wrote many letters home during his time in the service. He said, “I thought, 'What an adventure this is. I’m never going to be able to duplicate anything as impactful on portions of my life.' I said, 'I’m going to write as much as I can out of it' — and I did.”
Years later he started a newsletter, Alpha’s Pride, and began researching and writing many stories about his unit and other hallmarks in military history. Those newsletters, produced over 22 years, are now archived in the United States Army History and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
The newsletter grew out of a reunion and the formation of the Alpha Association for members of his company.
And where did he learn to write?
Without hesitation, Comeau responds, “St. Anthony Grade School. Those nuns were very good. That’s where I learned to write. I’m very grateful for that. They gave me a good education.”
His book includes stories of his company’s basic training, as well as the young men with whom he served. “In the book I talk an awful lot about the guys, their background, why they went into the service, who inspired them.”
Comeau said, “I have about eight stories of guys who were iconic members.”
He added, “And I go through what happened, starting with the beginning of my tour. I talk a lot about the first man who was killed in December and how much it affected us. Up until then we thought we were the only ones doing the shooting. But, ironically, he got killed by friendly fire. They called in artillery on us by mistake.”
That fatality foreshadows the firefights that were to come, which are recounted in the book.
Book signing, Q&A planned for Aug. 25
Comeau credits his wife, Chris, for being his “inspiration through the last 20 years of writing the 88 newsletters to date. "She accompanied me on the eight trips to the National Archives in College Park, where I was able to copy a multitude of documents which allowed me to detail the history of our unit in Vietnam and be able to locate where we were at all times. She has been my editor for all my writings, including the book.”
Comeau will provide a reading from his book at the main New Bedford Library, 613 Pleasant St., third floor, on Aug. 25, at 6:30 p.m., and then answer questions. His book will be available for purchase and all the books will be autographed.
This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Veteran's book recounts growing up in New Bedford, fighting in Vietnam