Two men who grew up near each other in Rockford met for the first time while serving in Vietnam.
Steve “Spike” Stone crouched low in a field artillery base at Ban Me Thuot, in the mountains of South Vietnam near the Cambodian border. Standing up straight often meant risking a sniper’s bullet.
The 38 men on that tiny base had a daunting mission: Fire their five howitzers at the North Vietnamese Army to stop it from getting out of the mountains along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They fired the big guns so often that the barrels got red hot. Their orders: Shoot at anything that moves.
“If they make it out of these mountains they can walk right into Saigon,” Stone shouted to the new guy in the unit. “It’s our job to see that they don’t get there.”
It was the fall of 1968, and Stone, a 1966 Auburn High School graduate who had been drafted in 1967, was in the thick of the Battle of Ban Me Thuot, part of the Tet Offensive, a joint operation of the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong guerrillas to capture Saigon and take over South Vietnam.
Stone had just turned 21, but he was an old hand at combat; he’d been in the country for 10 months, almost every night spent dodging incoming rocket and mortar fire and shooting at enemy soldiers trying to climb up the hill and kill him.
To get past the Americans’ wire fence, the North Vietnamese tunneled under it. Luckily, the Americans had a primitive version of night-vision goggles, which allowed them to see the enemy sneaking up to their base.
“You’ve got to shoot as soon as you see them,” Stone said to the new guy. “The NVA are trained, uniformed, disciplined soldiers. They’re tough.”
“And by the way, we don’t sleep much at night. That’s when they’re moving,” Stone said of the enemy. The fighting usually would begin about 1 a.m., he said. Enemy soldiers hid during the day in camouflaged caves they’d dug in the mountainsides.
The Americans couldn’t see them until they emerged from the caves and started firing rockets.
Stone, an E-5 sergeant trained in map reading and fire direction control, gave more advice to the new man: “And when you do get a couple of hours to sleep in the hooch (bunker), be careful of the rats. If you’ve got any food on you, they will nibble it right off your face. Always sleep with your boots on. You might need to get out of there in a hurry.”
Stone also warned him not to go into the bamboo trees to relieve himself. Snakes and vipers live there, and they bite, he said.
Stone had no idea who the new soldier was, just another comrade in arms. Then someone visiting from another fire base said, “Hey, where you guys from?”
“I’m from near Chicago,” the new guy said.
“Yeah? I’m from near Chicago, too. Where exactly?” Stone said.
“Well, I really live in a city outside of Chicago no one’s ever heard of called Rockford,” the new guy said.
“Rockford? Rockford? Me, too,” Stone said. “What part of town?”
“South side, Hulin Street.”
“I’m on Lexington Avenue, off Pierpont. We’re on opposite sides of Levings Lake,” said Stone, as both broke into wide grins.
That new guy, also an E-5, was Joey Falzone, a 1964 West High graduate. In the next few minutes, he and Stone discovered that they knew many of the same people, had even dated the same girl at different times. But they’d never met until the Army sent them to that artillery base in South Vietnam.
They also would learn when they returned to Rockford that their mothers were friends; both worked for Johnny On the Spot Cleaners.
“Our moms knew they had sons in Vietnam, but they didn’t know we knew each other,” Falzone said.
For the two months before his tour ended and he was sent stateside, Stone showed Falzone what he’d learned about how to fight the war against the conventional North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong guerrillas. Joey reckoned that training helped him stay alive.
Both Falzone and Stone endured intense combat during their 13-month tours in Vietnam. Their artillery base at the top of a mountain was set up to fire in all directions. Of course, that made it a target from all directions, too.
Stone was a map reader who directed howitzer fire, talking by radio to helicopter pilots and the command post in Pleiku.
Falzone fired howitzers and was a forward observer who forayed outside the base to find the enemy and direct fire into the area.
“We ran out of ammunition several times, and we were firing every fourth or fifth round. There was so much smoke from fires that the helicopters supplying us couldn’t get through. Some of our helicopters were taken out by enemy rockets,” Stone said.
“The barrels of our (howitzers) would turn red at night from shooting them so much. We’d try to pour oil on them to cool them off, and it would catch on fire,” Falzone said.
When the enemy wasn’t trying to kill them, the water and the snakes were. Malaria was common. They had to put iodine pills in the water before drinking it. The never-ending firefights, the miserable living conditions, unpalatable C-rations, the rats and snakes, all combined to convince Falzone and Stone that they probably were not going to live to a ripe old age.
“We figured this was it for us. We might as well fight it out and do what we can do, because we weren’t coming back,” Stone said.
“When you were digging a hole, you didn’t know whether you were digging a bunker or your grave. I never, ever thought I’d get out of that place alive,” Falzone said.
In the end, “We won all the battles we were in,” Stone said. But a price had been paid for the victories.
Stone and Falzone were two of 16 men who survived, out of 38. And of the survivors, they don’t know whether some were captured. They believe some are still missing.
“I think of all the people we knew who were killed ... Captain Taylor, Captain White ...” Stone said, his voice trailing off into space.
“We were lucky,” Falzone remembered. “Half the stuff the enemy had didn’t work. If they’d had the equipment we had, there would have been none of us left. We were dealing with 3,500 NVA regulars.”
Sometimes the men were not quite sure where they were, and in one case, what country they were in.
“We’d been in Cambodia for six months before we heard the news on the radio that U.S. troops were finally going into Cambodia. We laughed out loud when we heard that,” Falzone said.
Stone left Vietnam on Dec. 18, 1968. He came home to Rockford, still wearing his uniform, and went downtown to State & Madison, then a popular pool hall and bowling alley. Falzone’s dad, Joe Falzone Sr., was bartending at the Head Pin Lounge, part of the State & Madison complex. Stone wanted to tell him that he’d just left his son the day before and that he was in good health.
Stone asked to see Falzone’s dad, who turned pale when Stone approached him.
“Because he didn’t know me, he thought the Army had sent me to tell him bad news,” Stone said. He quickly put the man at ease. “Don’t worry, your son’s fine. I was with him just 24 hours ago. He’s OK.”
Falzone ended his tour of duty on July 17, 1969, when the Army flew him to Fort Lewis, Wash. He was processed out of the Army in six hours and sent home to Rockford. His exit from the war was so swift that he had a difficult time adjusting.
“I stayed in the basement of my parents’ home for weeks,” Falzone said. He didn’t talk about his experiences, he said, “because the Army told us not to.”
“I didn’t talk about it either. I didn’t want to be reminded of it,” Stone said.
Falzone worked with his father in a painting business, then signed on with the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked for 30 years in corrections and at the courthouse. Divorced before he entered the Army, Falzone has two children, a daughter and a son.
“My children were what kept me from giving up. I had something to keep fighting for,” Falzone said.
Stone had a smoother transition to civilian life because he had six months to serve in the Army after he left Vietnam. He spent it at Fort Sill, Okla., with a lot of men who also had returned from Vietnam. He was the driver for a colonel.
“That was a great job, taking that colonel all over the place. He offered me a promotion. I almost stayed in the Army,” Stone said.
But he didn’t. Stone went to college and went back to Eagle Foods, where he worked a total of four decades in produce management for the firm’s Rockford-area stores before retiring in 2003. Divorced, he has two sons and a daughter.
Forty years after fighting in the mountains, jungles and swamps of Vietnam, Stone and Falzone decided to talk publicly about their experience because they want people to know they’re proud of what they did for their country.
“We believed we were fighting communism and doing the right thing, even though we knew there was a lot of controversy over the war back home,” Stone, now 60, said.
“I always knew we were doing the right thing, but Memorial Day always blows me away because I remember all the things I’ve tried to forget,” Falzone, 63, said.
To deal with his combat memories, Falzone began seeing a Veterans Administration counselor about three years ago.
“They help you realize that there’s a whole bunch of people who feel the way you do,” he said.
But counseling or no counseling, the battlefield always remains in both men’s minds.
“That was the place you prayed. You definitely connected with your maker, if you had any religion at all,” Stone said.
Chuck Sweeny can be reached at (815) 987-1372 or firstname.lastname@example.org.