Veterans of Bucks County

Thursday, April 24, 2008

John Farruggio

In the jungle of North Vietnam, you had
to fight the enemy and the elements.

By Peter Ciferri Editor

"You can have all the training in the world in basic training, but nothing prepares you for your first combat.”

Newtown native John Farruggio got that cold realization his first week in Vietnam, when his Army 4th Infantry Division found themselves pinned down by heavy fire in the central highlands of North Vietnam.

When Farruggio and his men came across a North Vietnamese battalion in the mountainous triple canopy jungle terrain, the 4th Infantry found themselves split up and struggling to survive. Farruggio says one of the four platoons in his company was “annihilated,” taking their troops from 48 to four men in a single battle. They were forever known as the “lost platoon” of Vietnam.

Farruggio never thought he’d see that kind of fighting, let alone step foot in Asia when he was growing up on State Street in Newtown. A 1966 Council Rock High School graduate and first-year student at then fledgling Bucks County Community College (BCCC), Farruggio was just like any other teenager. He split his time between taking classes as BCCC and working for his father’s trucking company and spending time at Newtown Theatre, which his family also owned.

That all changed, however, when in late 1966, Farruggio was drafted into the Army to be trained and sent to Vietnam by May 1, 1967.

“Nothing prepares you for the jungle itself,” Farruggio remembered. During a year in the central highlands, the infantryman said he was constantly bombarded by natural elements: constant monsoon rain, centipedes, mosquitoes infected with malaria, red ants and jungle rot. “The war wasn’t so much fighting the North Vietnamese Army as it was putting up with the elements of the jungle. Eighty percent of my company came down with malaria.”

Every night the 4th Infantry would circle the wagons, creating a circle of foxholes surrounded by trip wired flares and other booby-traps that served at the first line of defense to alert the men of incoming troops. During the days, Farruggio was on search and destroy missions, walking between three and seven miles each day with an 85-pound rucksack on his back. The group was only given rations every three days and were often awake for nearly as long.

“The camaraderie was great with the initial guys,” Farruggio said, describing his platoon as a fraternity. While traveling through four search and destroy operations in the Iron Triangle, the platoon acquired a mascot in a monkey named Georgie-Girl and once came upon a pack of marauding orangutans they initially mistook for an ambush.

And there was also the fighting. Following that first brutal week in the highlands, Farruggio was awarded the infantry “Baptism under fire” badge. “If you see that on an infantryman, you don’t even have to question that he was in combat,” he said. “A lot of people think that everybody who goes to war zones rights. That’s not the case.”

A few months later, Farruggio found himself in one of Vietnam’s bloodiest battles: Dak To — a 17-day battle along the Cambodian border in which 3,000 North Vietnamese were killed.

“The mission was horrific,” Farruggio explained. “Jet air strikes into the mountains, gun ships firing. It took three or four days just to make any progress up the hill.” He says the 173rd Airborne would go ahead of the infantry, blanketing the ground with bombs and bullets in an attempt to rouse the North Vietnamese from their foxholes and underground networked tunnels.“

It’s very hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it. You dig a shallow foxhole and you just stay alert,” he said. “You’re on the edge and you try not to let your nerves get the best of you. You’re fighting for yourself and your buddies. You’re just fighting for survival.”

Farruggio did survive, but only after taking shrapnel from a B-40 rocket in his back. After two weeks in a Quinn Yan hospital, the soldier rejoined his company, only to contract malaria and go back to the hospital for another three weeks. The year had gotten quiet for the men of the 4th Infantry, but they could have never anticipated that just around the corner was the ace up the North Vietnamese Army’s sleeve.

The 4th Infantry was stationed in the middle of the jungle when the New Year’s Eve Tet Offensive started. But with a proud history and prolific strength, the infantry was immediately choppered to nearby Play Ku City, which was under attack. “It was a pretty nasty firefight,” Farruggio remembered.

His leadership and bravery well established, the Newtown native was promoted to Sgt. E-5 and given a rifle squad to look after following Tet.

“You stop worrying about yourself so much and you have 10 men to worry about,” Farruggio said. “You could cause life or death with any judgment you made.”

In the following months, Farruggio’s company would suffer 90 percent wounded and 60 percent killed in action. He said every time his men would die, new trainees were waiting to replace them.

“By that time, you didn’t even want to really get to know them. You figured their chances of survival were slim,” he said. “It’s probably one of the hardest management jobs anyone could face in life.”

Farruggio came away from the war with a presidential unit citation, Purple Heart and other military honors, but like many Vietnam veterans, he was often ignored by the country for whom he served. But he says the ill-effects of an overwhelmed Veterans Affairs Department of the 1970s and 80s that made so many Vietnam veterans suffer further, has helped teach the VA lessons about how to properly diagnose and treat mentally and physically scarred soldiers from the wars of today.

“I’m just thankful I made it. I don’t know how I made it or why I made it, but I made it,” he said, remembering an infantryman’s credo. “You never lived until you almost died. For those of us who fought for freedom, life has a special flavor that the protected will never know.”

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