Before this weekend, the last time David Gibson had seen Gerry Rodriguez was May 21, 1969, during a day of heavy fighting in the Vietnam War.
At that moment Gibson was convinced that he’d never see Rodriguez alive again.
“He was laying there and he had a sucking chest wound. … I remember thinking he wasn’t going to make it. It looked that bad,” said Gibson, who was then a United States Army captain and commander of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division.
Gibson, of Brookhaven, Mississippi, said he later learned Rodriguez had survived but said it was still a powerful moment to see Rodriguez again at a reunion in Corvallis for Charlie Company members.
“It’s just a feeling of elation because you know the circumstances (of his injury),” said Gibson.
Members of Charlie Company began holding annual reunions in 2005 after members gradually found each other over the years after the war. The location moves each year so Charlie Company members get a chance to see different parts of the U.S. each year.
This year, Corvallis resident Tim Nokleby hosted the reunion, which was attended by 28 members of Charlie Company and their families. The group did a trip to the coast Friday and a barbecue at Nokleby's home Saturday.
Gibson said the company endured a lot together, which gives them a bond that is hard to even put into words.
“I don’t think anybody can understand the closeness that kind of situation puts in you,” he said.
John “Mac” MacFarland, the company’s unofficial historian, said some members of the company at the reunion served during the Tet Offensive of 1967 and 1968, but most of them served in Operation Lamar Plain in Tam Ky. MacFarland said at the start of their 90-day offensive during Lamar Plain their battalion went in with 285 people. At the end of that 90 days, casualties had dropped them down to just 87.
As members of an Airborne Division, MacFarland said Charlie Company was often sent into dangerous situations in helicopter assaults, where it was easy for the enemy to shoot at them from the ground.
“You are sitting like a sitting duck in that helicopter,” he said. MacFarland said he thinks everyone at the reunion did the 25 air assaults required to qualify them for the Army’s Air Medal.
MacFarland said the reunions are kind of therapeutic for those who attend.
“You are able to bring things up that many of us have stored away for years because they went through the same stuff you did,” MacFarland said. He added that even other Vietnam veterans don’t understand what they went through as well as the members of Charlie Company. “With these guys you can sit and talk about stuff you never could with anyone else.”
MacFarland said the attendees get to continue to strengthen their bond as a band of brothers, but the reunions also give their wives a chance to develop some camaraderie.
“Through the reunions they’ve learned more about their husbands than in years of marriage,” he said.
Nokleby, a Springfield native who worked at mills in Philomath and Albany before retiring, said he never would have believed his fellow soldiers would come to visit him in Oregon.
“I spent 36 years looking before I found my first guy,” he said. “For me it’s a dream come true. What a bunch of brave, brave guys.”
Nokleby said he’s surprised any of them made it through the war. Nokleby himself nearly didn’t — he was wounded by a grenade, also on May 21, 1969.
The date features in a lot of stories the men of Charlie Company tell — and with good reason — Gibson said four of their men were killed that day and another 14 were wounded. Gibson said he was ordered to have his men attack a fortified position with no air or artillery support.
“We had to attack it John Wayne style,” he said. Gibson said while casualties were heavy that day, they weren’t heavy considering how difficult what they had to do was.
“I came up with a plan and that got us halfway there. And these men did the rest. Every one of them is my hero,” Gibson said.
Nokleby recalled having multiple grenades hit him — not all detonated — but one did injuring his back and more seriously injuring his friend Roy Huckaby, a Rosalia, Washington, resident who attended this year.
After the grenades hit, Nokleby said he couldn’t walk but he was able to keep firing as Dennis Carpenter, a Las Vegas resident who attended the reunion this year, pulled first Huckaby and then himself out.
Carpenter said Saturday that Nokleby kept firing even as he was being dragged to safety.
“I had to yell at him to keep him from blowing my legs off,” Carpenter said.
Nokleby remembers shouting back that he couldn’t stop firing because the enemy was right there.
Hucklaby, for his part, said he remembers the grenades rolling down on them and hitting the ground, and not much after.
“The next thing I remember is was waking up in the hospital, a month later, in Japan,” he said.
He’s learned more about the incident through hearing about it at the reunions than he remembers himself.
Nokleby counts a Purple Heart and three Bronze Stars among his medals from the war; one of the Bronze Stars has a “V” device for valor.
Nokleby said he also got a good conduct award.
“I have no idea on what day I was good,” he joked. Turning more serious, he added, “I had to be a wild man to survive. … I had to be quick and lucky and I still don’t know how I survived.”
Just three days before he was wounded, Nokleby recalled walking into an ambush where multiple enemy soldiers popped up out of "spider holes" and fired at him. He said he doesn’t know how all the bullets missed him.
Nokleby was the point man for one of the company’s platoons. MacFarland said this meant he was the one who walked up front through the jungle looking for the enemy.
“It was a very dangerous position, of which he did an excellent job,” said MacFarland.
Gibson agreed unequivocally.
“He was a good soldier,” Gibson said. “He did his job to the best of his ability. Everything I asked of Tim, he did and always with a real good attitude.'
Gibson said he was a career soldier, but most of the men who fought under him were drafted. He said they all did what their country asked of them.
“If it hadn’t been for these guys, I wouldn’t be standing here,” he said.