Neal J. Madsen, on the right, Vietnam 1966-67
"The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." -Douglas MacArthur
I was asked to present the wreath in honor of fallen soldiers at our local Memorial Day celebration in 2016. I was seated next to the guest speaker, Neal Madsen, and his wife, Jodean, who was a friend of a friend. Neal was in Vietnam during the worst of times. His speech about a specific battle was intense and emotional. I had forgotten the name of the battle, but I well remembered the emotions I felt while listening to him.
Fast forward three years - I'd recently been asked to write the quarterly Vet's Museum articles for the Central Coast Journal, and I wanted to write one on the battle of Soui Tre but I was supposed to write on a local person. I wondered how I would ever find a local veteran who might have been in that battle, if there were any. It seemed an impossible task.
Two hours after I'd been pondering that, Jodean Madsen showed up at my door for an unrelated reason. We chatted about many things before it came up about Neal being a veteran. I then remembered his powerful speech. It turned out that the battle he spoke of that day was the battle of Soui Tre; the answer had came to my doorstep! Here was a local veteran who had fought in Soui Tre. My impossible task had been solved before the day was half over! My next article for the Central Coast Journal could be about Soui Tre, the battle with the largest number of lives lost in one day in the Vietnam War. I have written two previous posts about Soui Tre.
This post is more about Neal J. Madsen, who survived that battle, and though his physical body left Vietnam intact five months later, the horrors of Vietnam have never left him. Neal was born in Compton, CA in 1946. As a child, his family, which included an older brother, moved to Santa Barbara, where he graduated from high school in 1964. It was only 18 months after graduation when he was drafted. He spent a year at Fort Lewis, Washington for 105 Howitzer artillery training. The 105 Howitzer is seen in this picture.
It took him 23 days to get to Vietnam on the USS General Walker, a ship built to hold 3,400 yet carried 5,700 soldiers on that trip. At 20 years old, Neal arrived in Vietnam in November of 1966, with the 2nd battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment of the U.S. Army. His first three months were spent on the Mekong Delta before heading 20 miles north of Saigon to an area called the Iron Triangle. This was a 120 square mile stronghold area of the National Liberation Front of the North Vietnamese, with underground tunnel systems and supply areas. Every three or four days Neal's crew moved in order to support various ground troops; every move required three Hueys - one for the howitzer, one for the crew and one for the ammunition. On March 21, 1967, they landed at Firebase Gold. This is the day of the largest one day battle of the Vietnam War, the battle of Soui Tre. Their fighting that day earned them the Presidential Unit Citation, given for actions that resulted in over 600 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) killed in action. They were attacked by 2500 NVA, who were invading their perimeter and 650 enemy mortars fell upon them. At the end, 51 Americans were killed, 109 wounded, and 647 of the NVA were killed, with an additional 300-400 wounded who died later. Neal earned a Bronze Star for bravery for that battle. His heartfelt speech 49 years later, having known some of those who died that day and having feared for his own life, can be heard at the following link:
A map of the Soui Tre battle:
Before leaving Vietnam in August of 1967, Neal was in another battle that earned him his second Bronze Star for bravery, awarded in April of 1967.
Eight years after returning to the states, in 1975, he moved to the central coast of California where he has remained. Every year in the spring, for 20 years, Neal has reunited with four to seven fellow platoon brothers, some of whom survived Soui Tre with him.
When I asked what interests Neal had to give up when he left for Vietnam, his reply was that he gave up his innocence. And, sadly, that he did.