Charles Cusumano

Charles F Cusumano

Name: Charles Cusumano
Rank: Sergeant
Date of Birth: January 16, 1945
Birth Place: Chicago, IL
War: Vietnam
Dates of Service: 1967 – 1969
Branch: US Army
Unit: 463 Supply Unit
Location: Vietnam
Prisoner of War: No

Audio Interview

Veterans Memorial Project
Veterans Memorial Project
Charles Cusumano
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Interview Transcript

Today is December 19, 2007. This is Fidencio Marbella with the Melrose Park Public Library. Also present is Heidi Krug, Reference Librarian at the Melrose Park Public Library. Today we’ll be speaking with Charles Cusumano of Melrose Park. Charles was born on January 16, 1945 and served in the United States Army from 1967 through 1969. The highest rank he achieved was as a sergeant. This is Melrose Park, IL and this interview is being conducted for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Let’s go ahead and get started. Chuck, why don’t you tell us when and where you were born and tell us a little about your parents and any siblings you have.

I was born in Chicago and raised in Chicago, until I was twelve when we moved to Norridge and my parents came from Aragona, Sicily.

What did your father do for a living?

He worked on machines. He was a machine gear cutter. Cut gears on a lathe.

How about your mother?

She worked at a cookie company, packing cookies.

Do you have any siblings?

No.

You served in Vietnam during the 1960’s. Why don’t you tell us how you ended up joining or being drafted into the U.S. Army?

When I was eighteen I had to go down for my physical and we’re going through the physical line and all different stages and we’re all standing on numbers in this one room and the sergeant told us get dressed. Guys on number ten, fifteen, thirty, forty, you’re going home and I was standing on one of those numbers. So out of curiosity I asked him why are you sending us home? And he told us you’re 4F, deferred. I said why, because they were just looking at us. We’re all, no clothes on. He says you’ve got flat feet. We can’t take you, we’d take your mother first before we’d take you. I said okay, so I went home. That was it. My mother said what happened? I said I can’t go. My feet are no good. Deferred. Four years later I get another nice letter in the mail. Come down and take another physical. I’m set. My feet are not any better. I go down. Same thing, standing on the number but they never call my number out. Wait a minute, let’s talk about this, let’s look into this. My feet are no good. I was deferred four years ago. He says not today! Keep going. And that was it.

Now what year was this?

1967.

So what was your reaction to being drafted into the army? Were you ready?

No, no. No way because I thought I was deferred. If I had bad hearing or bad eyesight they would defer you. My feet were no good. And they said keep going.

What was the reaction of your parents when they found out you were going?

I think they were devastated because you didn’t know where you were going to end up. Naturally we never thought we were going to ‘Nam. I really was shocked. But he’s got flat feet. He can’t go.

So then you had to leave for basic training. After that where did you do your training?

Fort Leonard Wood, MO.

What was that like? What was your training like?

It was very, very hard because I think they knew ahead of time that my company was going to go there, so they just made it brutal for us. Brutal. They did everything they could to see if they could weed out the guys that couldn’t do it, couldn’t take orders and get rid of them before they sent us there. In the beginning, they told us, when in doubt, salute. Don’t take any chances. Well, a two-star general went by, nobody saluted him and we had KP for a week to teach us a lesson. From four in the morning to ten o’clock at night. We lost one week of training in boot camp. Nobody saluted him and that was it. That was the kiss of death.

How long did your basic training last?

Nine weeks, instead of eight.

What were some of the things they trained you on?

Hand grenade toss, hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, discipline, discipline, discipline, discipline, discipline. More discipline. Right there – he went by.

Do you remember his name?

Brigadier . . .

Did you ever forget to salute again after that?

Never! No, nobody ever forgot. Not after KP for seven days, from four in the morning ‘til ten o’clock at night.

So once you got done with your basic training in Missouri, where did you go?

Fort, in Washington, AIT, Advanced Infantry Training.

Was that Washington state?

Yes, no Washington, D.C., by the Capitol. I can’t think of the name of the fort. [Fort Lee]

What was AIT like?

That’s advanced now, everything was set up like a jungle village, exactly like a replica and what we would do, what not to do and what to watch out for and that was another eight weeks.

What were some of the things they told you to watch out for?

Couldn’t trust anybody. Don’t trust anybody. Little kids with shoeboxes, try to shine your shoes. Don’t drink the beer, there’s ground glass in it. Just trust your buddy next to you.

So you made it through AIT.

Made it through AIT and they said, one day it was a sunny day and we were all dressed up, clean for once and everybody got their orders and all two hundred of us. The guy says when I tell you to open up your orders, open them. So everybody opened up their orders and everybody started crying. This guy next to me, he started laughing. I said what’s so funny? He says, where are you going, to me. I said Vietnam and he said I’m not going there, and I said why not? 199 of us are going, how come you’re not? He says nope, my orders say Southeast Asia. I said you idiot, that’s where we’re going. Vietnam is in Southeast Asia. He started crying too.

So after you got your orders, did you have a chance for leave at all or did they send you right away?

I really can’t remember, maybe a week off, two weeks, maybe.

Did you get to go home?

Yeah, we did, that’s another story. We did, I remember that.

What was your parents’ reaction like?

They were devastated, I was the only son.

So after you finished your leave, they shipped you off to Vietnam. How did they send you? By ship or by plane?

If I could have went by ship, I wasn’t lucky enough, it would have eaten up thirty days, but they sent me on an airplane. Twenty-two hours. I think we landed in the Philippines or Japan and everybody got to get off the plane and nobody could leave – they had all MPs around us so we couldn’t duck. Some guys might have said, Hey wait a minute, I’ll take my chances. So we all got to stretch our legs, got back on the plane and we flew into Tan Son Nhat Air Force Base.

What was your first impression when you stepped off that plane in South Vietnam?

It was like 125 degrees and your fatigues just went soaking wet. Like somebody just hit you with a hose. Dusty as heck, and you see all the body bags, they’re bringing them home. All the buses had bars on the windows so the kids couldn’t throw hand grenades in them while we’re going to our base camp.

What unit were you assigned to?

I was assigned to 463rd Supply Company. We were supplies, had everything, ammunition, gas, food, water, everything.

So after you arrived in South Vietnam, what were your responsibilities?

I was in charge of five major warehouses. I ran them, took care of them, filled out whatever they had ordered that day and re-supplied them

Now at the time, were you already a sergeant?

No, I was a Spec 4, no I was probably a private, then I made Spec 4.

What’s a Spec 4?

Spec 4 is a grade under Sergeant. Then there’s a Spec 5, but a sergeant with hard stripes, a three, is over a Spec 5. When I got there everybody went here, some guys went there, some guys said you’re going to go to a place called Quin Yon. What’s, how bad is it there? So they flew me in and I was sitting in the air force base and they put me in this little hut and they said you stay here and don’t go until somebody comes to get you. You don’t leave here because somebody will come and get you. I said, I’ll stay here for the whole war, I don’t care. So I’m sitting there all by myself, there was nobody there to keep me company and they had a jukebox in the corner and I’m sitting there and nobody touched the jukebox and out of nowhere Nancy Sinatra came out with a song These Boots Are Made for Walking. I went, how eerie is this! Then they came and got me and brought me to the base camp.

How long were you actually in that hut?

Oh, a couple of hours ‘til they came and got me.

Then what happened after that?

I went to my base camp and the airfield that we were on was always getting rocketed and mortared because they wanted to blow up all the helicopters.

What airfield was this? Do you remember?

No. And then they brought us safer into this compound. They got us all out of there. They moved us.

What was it like being mortared or rocketed? Tell us about that.

It’s not too good, you know, scary. You don’t know what the fragments, shrapnel, a direct hit.

How would you protect yourselves?

We had bunkers, sand bunkers, I’ve got pictures here.

Was that pretty safe?

Safe, unless you got a direct hit, which could happen.

Did your unit have any casualties at this time?

Oh yeah, we had a POW hospital, prisoner-of-war right behind our barracks and all the VC, North Vietnamese soldiers were there and none of them ever tried to escape because why should they try to escape and go back and fight again and maybe die when they had clean sheets, they had three meals a day, and they’d just sit out the war? Not one tried to get out, but they were guarded, they’d be shot if they got out.

Did you have any interaction with these prisoners?

No, no I could see them through the fence. They’d come out, they were clean, they had it made. The war was over for them, as long as they didn’t escape.

What year was this that you were on this base? ’68?

’68.

How long were you there?

I was there fourteen months. You were there for a year, unless your time was closer, like I was drafted so I had two years to serve so if I got there after fourteen months, all I had to do was spend six months and my time would be up and I could go home, but I was there early. The army had an early out program. If you had five months or less after you got out of Vietnam, if you had three months, five months or less, I can’t remember, but anyway, I extended two months over their extra to eat up the three months, it was five months altogether. I stayed there two months extra and when I got out of Vietnam, I was out of the army. Everybody that I was with, all went home, they could take the military stateside duty better than this, so they all went home for thirty days and had three or four months to do because they all still had time so I ate up my time. I had fourteen months, I was okay. Oh, if you had three months or less you were out of the army. So I had two months, two from five is three and I was out. I couldn’t take going home again and then leaving again and going back to hup, two, three four again.

So by staying in Vietnam you got more credit?

No, I just got out early.

What was your reaction like when you actually left Vietnam?

Well, they took you out of the jungle one day and the next day you were in the states. You were like an animal out of a cage.

Tell us a little about the living conditions.

We had barracks; there were maybe two floors, maybe twenty-five guys, thirty guys on each floor.

What was the weather like?

It rained for three months straight, the monsoons, nobody could fight, it was all mud, so that was good. It rained for three months and the rest of the time it was like 125 degrees. It was over 95 degrees, six o’clock in the morning. Already that hot.

Any air conditioning?

No, unless you were an officer.

Did you ever get a chance to take leave in Vietnam?

Yeah, I went to Hawaii and met my parents. Went to Hawaii.

What was that like?

Oh, it was only for five days but it was better than nothing.

Did you ever get into Saigon?

No, never. I never left the compound except once and that was it. Once you left the compound you were on your own. Anything could happen.

What did you leave the compound for, that one time?

I got pictures.

What was that about?

I befriended a bunch of Koreans there. The Koreans, there were two kinds, the civilian Koreans that were hired by the United States to haul the food from the ships to the base. That was their job. The other Koreans were army. Tiger Division, ROK Army and I made friends with them and they invited me up to their camp. That was the only time I think I left.

What was their camp like?

It was, I don’t know, the Vietnamese feared them, the Koreans, feared them because Koreans had no rules. They could torture, kill, maim, rape, they could do anything they want and nothing was said. But if we did that, the Americans, then we were in trouble. Koreans had free run of Vietnam, do whatever they wanted.

Any other stories you have that you want to share with us? Anything that really stands out?

We had an ammunition dump and in ’68, whatever it was, it went up.

How?

Sappers got in.

What’s a sapper?

A sapper was Viet Cong, he’s not a North Vietnamese regular, he’s a farmer during the day and a Viet Cong at night, or Charlie we called him. And everything was barbed wired and they would take off all their clothes so they’d go through the barbed wire and you wouldn’t hear it ripping, it wouldn’t get hung up. They had satchel charges on them and they’d go in and blow up whatever they wanted to and I’ve got pictures of it. They blew up our ammunition dump and it burned for, I don’t know, a long time. Back then it was two and a half million dollars and that was a lot of money back then, ’68. The guy came out and I shot and killed him.

Did we have any casualties from the dump blowing up?

No, no, nobody got hurt.

Except for the sappers.

Yeah. I don’t know if there were twenty sappers or one or two.

Oh, they’d come in groups?

Yeah. This way one of them’s got to get in. You know, there’s probably more than one but that’s all we caught.

Any individuals you can tell us about?

Individuals, well they were the greatest guys in the world.

Now did you serve over there with any of the guys you did basic training with or were you all scattered?

One guy I think, one guy I think he was in AIT with me and then I was surprised to see him on the airplane and have a buddy to talk to.

Can you be a little more specific about what your responsibilities were?

When the trucks would come in, the flatbed trucks, semis, we’d have to unload all the food and everything and store them. And then when we’d get orders from, we fed like a third of Vietnam. We supplied a third of the soldiers and then we’d say okay, send us this, send us that and then we’d palletize it and put it on a forklift and put it on trucks and off we’d go. Convoy it to all the base camps.

You actually rode in these convoys?

Sometimes, yeah.

What was that like?

I got another story about that. We were so well armed that nobody ever attacked us, they were afraid to engage us, to battle with us because they wouldn’t win because these supplies have to get through. They have to no matter what. And then we caught, in the side of a, they made a makeshift cave, we saw a girl of maybe about thirteen and three of her friends in the cave too. What they would do is mark down the date that we came by, time and try to keep a record of when we had the least amount of fire cover and that’s the day you would get attacked. And we captured them. They were spies, they were lookouts.

What happened to them?

Well, if the Koreans got a hold of them, they would blindfold them, if they talked or didn’t talk, probably raped the girl, probably, and threw them out of the helicopter, tied up, bound feet, hands in back of them, blindfolded, out they go. Kick them right out. Five hundred feet up in the air, nobody could’ve lived.

Were any of the convoys that you were with ever attacked?

No, we had helicopters, tanks, everything going with us, minesweepers on the roads.

They would go before your convoy?

Oh yeah, you’d have to have the minesweeper out there.

Now how did you get promoted to sergeant?

I don’t know, I guess I was a good leader.

After you were promoted to sergeant, how many people did you have under you?

Two hundred. The whole company, well, that’s my commendation here. I think I was making, when I got promoted to sergeant, I was making four hundred dollars a month, clear, which was good money. That was good money, three forty was regular pay and sixty dollars a month was hazardous duty pay, so I made four hundred a month. That was good, compared to seventy dollars a month in boot camp. That’s what we got, seventy bucks a month.

What was it like being in charge of two hundred soldiers?

It wasn’t that bad because everybody did what they were told to do, told somebody to do something, you had to do it, there was no I’ll do it tomorrow, I’ll do it in ten minutes. You couldn’t, this is the Army, it’s not the Boy Scouts.

Some of the movies you see about Vietnam, they show a really ill disciplined army, a lot of slackers.

Like MASH. What a joke, what a joke. Like Klinger in a dress? Nope.

The real thing was a lot different?

Yes!

So then you served enough time in Vietnam, you got to leave, what was your reaction like when you found out you got to go home?

I was very happy I made it out in one piece. And I said if I ever get out of here alive, nothing will ever bother me again, no matter what happens, everything is a piece of cake after this. Everything, no matter what happens. It made me a better man.

When did your parents find out that you were coming home?

I think it was in June? July 4th I came home, July 3rd, and they had a big sign out in front where my parents took pictures, “Welcome Home Sergeant Cusumano From Vietnam” and they threw me a big party. Then I went on with my life.

So you flew back into the states?

We flew into Fort Lewis, Washington, Seattle-Tacoma, we flew in there.

Was that your discharge point?

Yes, yes and they tried to get me to re-up and they gave me a nice steak dinner and they waited on me and they were real nice, they didn’t swear and they said you gotta re-up. I said yeah, okay, I’ve had enough and when we walked off the plane I think half the entire fort was out there to congratulate us and to salute us. We came off the plane with all tattered fatigues, all ripped, faded, and you know, they all looked at us like oh my god I’m going to look like that in a year. But they all had to stand there and salute us which was real nice.

How did you make your way back to Illinois after your discharge in Washington?

We went on commercial airlines and flew into O’Hare. We had to stay there about a week or something to get debriefed and get human again.

What was debriefing like?

Well, just relaxing and taking it easy and they didn’t make us do any duties or anything. We didn’t have to do guard duty or KP, none of that, just relax and take it easy, until they thought we were normal and sent us back.

Now when you flew into O’Hare you hear stories all the time about Vietnam veterans being treated badly. How were you treated?

Nothing happened to me. There were no protesters there. Nobody spit on me, nobody. But I had my rifle.

You had your rifle still?

A Viet Cong rifle, SKS with me. It was legal, semi-automatic so I had all the paperwork taped, I went on the airplane with it, Pan Am and I brought it with me in my seat.

How did you get that rifle?

Shot him, shot him.

You were the one that shot the sapper?

Yeah. Took his shoes, took his cigarettes, took his, here’s what he did.

What was your reaction like when you first saw the sapper coming through?

Anything out in front of you is fair game. Shoot anything. It wasn’t our guys, it was them.

What was your reaction like after you actually shot him?

Felt good. Did my duty, what my country told me to do. That’s why I was over there, to stop the spread of communism.

How did you spot him?

He was coming out, he was done. He stood up and I hit him with a .50 caliber. The bullet was that big.

You had a machine gun?

On a deuce and a half.

Oh, you were shooting from your truck.

Truck. It’s called a, our truck had two, three, four .50 calibers. It was called the Eve of Destruction, the name of the truck. That’s what we did.

Where were these guns on the truck? Were they above the cab?

Yeah. Like this, all sandbagged, all the truck was sandbagged. Took his shoes, they were made out of truck tires. They would take a truck tire and make sandals out of them. Maybe I can find them and show them to you. Ingenious and the sandals were this thick. The inner tube was made for the straps, here, I had that blown up and the blown up picture I can’t find it. There’s three guys behind her hiding in there. And like I said, they would mark down every time we’d come through, if there ever was a lull they’d hit you. Lookouts. She was thirteen, twelve, thirteen, but you could see the guy over here.

How long do you think they were out there, watching?

Who knows? Who knows? The Koreans, These are all the pictures.

How long were you visiting the Koreans?

I just went one time with them. That’s their Tiger Division. ROK Army. That was their division. Like we had the 82nd Airborne, that was theirs.

Okay, do you have any other final thoughts you’d want to share with us, serving our country in Vietnam?

I’m proud I served. Very proud. I did my duty. Didn’t ask questions, just had to do it.

Did you have any difficulties adjusting to civilian life after that?

Yeah. Yeah, you were on edge. Never sit next to a door in a restaurant, sit way in the back. They would throw hand grenades in; if you’re right by the door never sit by the window.

You ever keep in touch with any other Vietnam veterans?

No. Never joined, never, there were a couple of guys from Chicago but I lost contact with them.

Thank you very much for sharing your stories with us.

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