Leatherneck’s Best Friend
Thomas Calabrese–Pete DeAngelo grew up in Kansas City, Missouri in the 1950’s and mid-1960’s. His neighborhood was primarily comprised of Italian and Jewish immigrants and their first and second generation descendants. His father, Tony came over from Palermo, Sicily when he was just a teenager. He worked a series of low-paying manual labor jobs until he was hired by Calmanteri Brothers Restaurant Supply. He had been with the company for 25 years and knew every owner, waiter, cook and employee on his route by their first names.
Even though he was listed as a truck-driver on the company’s payroll, Tony was much more than that. He was a trusted and loyal employee who never asked any questions about what he was delivering, even if it was after hours or not a scheduled stop. This behavior was not uncommon in the world of organized crime. There were those who were more open about their dubious activities, these were the so-called ‘wise guys’ who drove Cadillacs, wore expensive clothes, owned sapphire, ruby and diamond rings, gold necklaces and gaudy watches. They ate at the best restaurants, tipped well and had a stable of showy girlfriends for arm candy. They embraced a lifestyle of being feared, admired and hunted, all at the same time. They lived fast and didn’t look too far down the road.
For every wise guy, there were dozens of others who were in the support staff. These men and women were deliberately oblivious. They lived by the philosophy, ‘I don’t know nothing and I ain’t seen nothing,’ if they were never questioned by law enforcement authorities. Tony had perfected this standard operating technique and it helped him support his family and kept him alive.
Pete’s oldest brother, Carl was more like a semi-wise guy. He liked money, but preferred a lower profile. Carl worked for Sal Micelli in his bookmaking operation and supplemented his income with high stakes poker games. He kept several steel boxes of cash and various valuables hidden behind a section of the concrete foundation in the family home.
His brother, Donnie was two years older than Pete and had a need for speed. He was a drag racer, hot rod builder and loved muscle cars. Donnie owned a 32 Ford Coupe, 56 Chevy Nomad and a 53 Mercury. Each car was souped-up with bigger-than-stock engines and a modified drive train. He had a small garage on Prospect Boulevard and the place was a hangout for Donnie’s buddies. They would be talking about cars, girls, teasing and joking with each other, while somebody was usually cooking some type of pasta or sausage in the kitchen. Olive oil, garlic and engine lubricants were common smells that permeated the brick building.
Young Pete was rambunctious and playful as a youngster. He had no interest in being a wise-guy and as long as he had a few dollars in his pockets, he was content, so gambling held no interest for him. He attended Northeast High School, played sports and hung out at Dino’s Drive-In on Independence Avenue with his buddies. When Pete turned 16, his father purchased him a mint condition 1953 Chevrolet coupe with a 6-cylinder engine and a three speed gear shift on the column. It wasn’t very fast and his brother, Donnie wanted desperately to work on it.
Pete warned his elder sibling, “I like it just the way it is. It gets me where I’m going and back again, and doesn’t burn too much gas. You keep your hands off it. Capisce?” (Italian slang for understand.)
It was a good childhood for Pete, who was as easy-going as they come, but that didn’t mean he was afraid to fight if he had to. He could handle himself with his fists, throw a punch and take one with the best of them. With two older brothers, Pete learned very early in his life how to stand up for himself. Unlike some of his buddies who were always looking for trouble, Pete preferred playing a baseball or football game to a fistfight or a brawl.
Northeast High School was playing Raytown South in a baseball game. It was tied at one run each going into the ninth inning. Pete came up to bat with no outs and laced a single to centerfield, stole second and advanced to third base on a fly ball to the left fielder. The next batter hit a pop-up behind first base. The textbook move would have been to stand fast, but Pete tagged up and raced for home. The first baseman whirled around and fired a strike to the catcher, who took two steps up the third base line in plenty of time to intercept the oncoming runner. Just as the catcher crouched down in eager anticipation, Pete did a headfirst dive right over him that turned into a perfectly executed somersault. He touched home plate a split second before the catcher realized what had happened, reached out in frustration and touched only open air.
The Northeast players and students were celebrating their victory at Dino’s Drive-In, when some players from the other team and their disgruntled fans showed up. Tensions were still running high and insults were exchanged and then fists started flying. Pete was sitting on the hood of his car, sipping on a cherry limeade, when he saw three guys punching starting shortstop Andy Barresi. Pete dropped his drink and rushed to his teammate’s aid, pulled the three guys off him and started fighting.
Pete heard the sirens and considered running like everyone else did, but Andy was bleeding badly and he couldn’t bring himself to leave his injured friend. Two other guys were lying unconscious next to their car. The police arrested Pete and everybody else they could catch.
The court date arrived and the teenagers were sitting in the courtroom with their parents awaiting their turn before Judge Richard Kliner. At that same time, Assistant District Attorney Frank Thompson knocked on the door of the judge’s chambers and heard the word, “Enter.”
District Attorney Thompson stepped in and said, “Sorry to disturb you, your honor.”
“What’s on your mind?” Judge Kliner asked.
“One of the young defendants is Peter DeAngelo, the son of Anthony DeAngelo and brother of Carl. The District Attorney’s office hasn’t had much success in bringing either man to justice.” Thompson said.
Judge Kliner thought for a moment, “Just what are you asking me?”
“I’m not asking you for anything, sir. I just wanted you to be aware of who he was. There is an old saying about an apple not falling far from the tree. Thank you for your time, sir.”
“Put his case at the end, that will give me time to think about this,” Judge Kliner said.
Pete was sitting in the backrow of the courtroom with his father, Anthony and mother, Anna. The other boys took their turn before the judge and were given probation, a fine and community service. When Pete’s turn came, he walked up and stood before the bench.
Judge Kliner glared down at the young boy, “Are you a senior in high school?”
“These are very serious charges; inciting a riot, assault and battery, resisting arrest. How do you plead?”
Pete was confused, he did far less than the other boys and none of them were charged with these crimes. In fact, these offenses were never brought up in pre-trial meetings with the police officers. The boys and their parents were assured if they admitted their guilt, they would get light sentences, especially if this was their first offense.
When Pete didn’t answer, Judge Kliner repeated the question, “How do you plead?”
Pete thought a moment and then responded, “Guilty.”
Judge Kliner said without hesitation, “I sentence you to three years confinement at Missouri State Penitentiary.”
Anna DeAngelo screamed out in shock, “Nooooo!!!!”
Judge Kliner slammed down his gavel, “Order in the court or I’ll have you removed!”
Pete couldn’t believe what he just heard and stood frozen in place. Judge Kliner continued, “You like to fight, the Marines are looking for tough guys. There’s a war going on so I’ll give you the choice, Mr. DeAngelo…penitentiary or military service. You bring your enlistment papers from the Marines to the court within 30 days or I’ll swear out a warrant for your arrest. They have a delayed induction program, so you’ll have time to graduate high school.”
Tony DeAngelo saw Judge Kliner nod to the District Attorney and he had a good guess what had just happened to his son.
Over the next couple weeks, the DeAngelo family thought of every scenario to keep Pete from going in the military. His mother even suggested, “You can go to Canada, a lot of other boys are doing that.”
Pete dismissed the idea, “I don’t know anybody in Canada, besides they would just arrest me when I got back.”
Donnie joked, “Maybe they’ll make you a mechanic, at least then we can talk about cars when you get back”
Carl added, “I guess if it was good enough for John Wayne to be a leatherneck, then it should be good enough for you.”
Tony reminded his eldest son, “John Wayne only played a Marine in the movies.”
Pete went down to the recruiting office on Grand Avenue with his father and signed up with the Marines on the 120-day delayed enlistment program. On the way home, they dropped a copy of the paperwork at the clerk of the court’s office. Pete savored his last summer as a civilian and the four months flew by much too quickly for his liking. He left for boot camp in San Diego and after 10 grueling weeks, he went to Camp Pendleton for basic and advanced infantry training. He was given the MOS (military occupational specialty) of 0331, (machine gunner) which meant there was no doubt that he was going to Vietnam and into combat.
The young boy grew up fast in the Marines and by the time he went home for 20 days leave before heading overseas, Pete was a physically fit fighting machine. When it came time to leave, the entire family went to the airport to bid Pete farewell. No one verbalized it, but they all knew that this might be the last time they would see Pete alive.
Pete maintained his composure, embraced his tearful mother then told his father and brothers, “I guess I’ll see you when I see you.”
His orders were for the 26th Marines and when Pete arrived at Danang Airport, he was directed to a truck that took him to the Battalion staging area. He was assigned to Lima Company, 3rd Platoon and boarded a CH-46 helicopter for a short trip to the bush with other replacements early the next morning. He was assigned to a machine gun team that included; Sergeant John Morrison, Corporal Louie Dielman, and Lance Corporal Henry Caggiano.
Dodge City was a 36 square km area located approximately 20 km south of Danang and to the west of Highway 1. It was given that nickname by the Marines due to frequent ambushes and firefights there. It was crisscrossed with numerous small waterways, which presented a variety of problems for the Marines. Dodge City was also the base for the Vietcong R-20 Battalion and the North Vietnamese 1st Battalion, 36th Regiment.
Only two days in the bush, the Marines came under heavy attack from infiltrators in the middle of the night. This was Pete’s first time in combat and his heart was beating so fast, he thought it was going burst right through his chest. Claymore anti-personal mines were exploding, flares were lighting up the skies and shadowy figures were appearing and disappearing before his eyes. When sunlight came, enemy bodies were lying inside and outside the perimeter. Corpsmen were tending to the wounded and ponchos covered the dead Marines.
Corporal Dielman and Lance Corporal Henry Caggiano were both wounded and medevac’d. Sergeant Morrison called out, “DeAngelo! You’ve just been promoted from ammo humper to gunner.”
Pete swallowed hard and didn’t know how to respond. Sergeant Clark Gardner and his scout dog, Bumper, passed by, “Don’t think too much…it can get in the way of staying alive.”
Bumper nudged Pete with his nose, “Now you know why I call him Bumper,” Sergeant Gardner said.
During the rest of the search and destroy operation, Sergeant Gardner and Bumper would set up their night position next to Pete and Sergeant Morrison. Bumper would sometimes lay next to Pete, who rested his hand on the dog’s head.
After a rough day of engaging the NVA in firefights and skirmishes, several Marines were seriously wounded. Sergeant Gardner said, “I need you to ask you a favor.”
“Sure,” Pete replied.
“Take care of Bumper if something happens to me.”
Pete replied, “I’m a machine gunner, not a dog handler.”
Sergeant Gardner sighed, “Sometimes they’ll kill the dogs or leave them behind if something happens to their handlers. You’re the only person besides me that Bumper will get close to.”
“I love that dog! I’ll do my best,” Pete promised.
During Operation Oklahoma Hills, Sergeant Gardner and Bumper were walking point, looking for booby traps and ambushes when a sniper’s round hit Gardner in the chest. Pete sprayed the tree where the bullet came from and the NVA soldier fell out of it. Pete and the Corpsman arrived at Sergeant Gardner’s side at the same time. He had a sucking chest wound and was gasping for air.
Sergeant Gardner whispered, “Remember your promise.”
Pete and Bumper watched the chopper take off with Sergeant Gardner in it. Pete looked down at Bumper and smiled, “It looks like you’re stuck with me now.”
Bumper nudged Pete with his nose. Soon afterwards, Pete approached Captain Bill Landon, “Sir, I’ll be watching Bumper since Gardner is gone.”
Captain Landon was naturally apprehensive, “That’s a lot to take on, walking point and being a gunner.”
Pete replied, “Bumper keeps a lot of Marines alive and he won’t work with anybody else but me. I’ll do my best, I can promise you that.”
As Pete walked off, Captain Landon couldn’t help but admire the young Marine’s determination. Three days later, Lima Company came under attack from elements of the NVA 36th Regiment. Captain Landon and Sergeant Morrison were both wounded in the firefight. By the time the battle was over, Lima Company was down to 40 per cent of its normal fighting strength. They were so short-handed that Lance Corporal Jerry Ward assumed command of 3rd platoon.
When 2nd Lieutenant Malcolm Webster arrived to assume command as platoon commander, Bumper was the first to pick up on something that he didn’t like about the young officer. His barely audible growl was noticed by Pete who responded, “We’ll keep an eye on him.”
Webster had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look in his eyes when he stepped off the chopper. That look is a mixture of fear, surprise and confusion. Webster had just transferred to the infantry from supply and was eager to prove himself. A wise and prudent officer usually listens to his more experienced enlisted personnel until he feels comfortable in the situation. Webster couldn’t wait to show his Marines who was in charge. His first big mistake was wearing shiny gold rank insignia on his collars, making it easier for snipers to identify him as an officer. His second one was yelling at a young Marine who just arrived in country for not saluting. His voice echoed through the jungle and gave away the Marines’ position. Somebody in the back of the column called out, “Whatever idiot is shooting off their mouth…shut the hell up before I kick your teeth out!”
Lt. Webster was outraged, “Who said that? I demand that you identify yourself!”
There was a one word reply, “Guess.”
“Unless the Marine steps forward, I’ll have no other choice than to punish the entire platoon!”
Lance Corporal Ward walked forward and warned, “This is the ‘Nam and that kind of crap don’t work here.”
Lt. Webster didn’t know what to say, but it was easy to tell that he was angry and embarrassed at being called out. Pete and Bumper took point and the platoon moved out. When they came to a village, Webster ordered, “Ward, take first squad and scout the area.”
Ward pulled out his map and said, “We’ll come around the left flank of the rice paddy, got some pretty cover there.”
Lt. Webster replied, “Marines don’t go around…use the dyke and go straight in.”
“We’ll be easy targets!” Ward was dumfounded by the stupidity of the order.
“That’s the point, when you draw their fire, the enemy will give away their position.” Lt. Webster growled, “And we’ll be waiting for them.
As Ward and his squad prepared to leave, Pete approached him, “Bumper will find Charlie’s location. I’ll set up an M-60 to cover you.”
Bumper pointed toward a thick stand of elephant grass about two hundred yards away. Pete set the M-60 with the barrel pointed in that direction. “I don’t know how you’re picking up a scent at this distance, but you haven’t been wrong yet.” He rubbed Bumper’s head and told PFC Bruce Rader, the M-79 grenadier, “Set your range for that area. When the shooting starts, start lobbing high explosive rounds in that elephant grass.”
Ward and his squad were about halfway across the rice paddy when they came under fire and dived behind the dike for cover. Pete fired a long burst that cut through the grass like a high-powered weed whacker. The grenades from the M-79 were right on target and enemy fire ceased immediately.
It is sometimes said in war that it is better to be lucky than good. Ward and the other Marines survived and if there was any bad news, it was that the incident inflated the ego of Lt. Webster, who actually believed that endangering the lives of the men he commanded was the right call.
Operation Oklahoma Hills lasted from March 31 to May 29, and most of the men of 3rd platoon had been out there the entire time. When it concluded, the men of the 26th Regiment were eager and happy to get out of the bush. They had been back in the rear area for five days and were decompressing quickly. It is surprising what a little hot chow and somebody not shooting at him can do for a Marine’s deposition.
Several Marines headed to China Beach so they could sit in the water. It was surprising how the good the salt water felt on their open jungle rot sores. It also helped with the healing process. Some Marines, including Pete and Bumper spent time at Freedom Hill, watching movies and drinking at the beer garden.
Imagine the shock and outrage when the Marines of 3rd Platoon were told that they were going back out again.
Lance Corporal Wicker screamed out, “We just got the hell back!”
“Why us? There’s other units who didn’t go out on Oklahoma Hills… why not send them?”
Platoon Sergeant Ramon Garza walked into the hooch and overhead the exchange, “Because Lt. Webster volunteered your guys.”
The next morning, Marines of 3rd platoon boarded two CH-46 choppers bound for Hill 861, an isolated observation post, not far from the village of Khe Sanh and near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The place consisted of ten bunkers, one tall wooden observation tower and a well-stocked ammo dump.
The Marines began daily patrols around the hill and often came into contact with enemy forces. Pete told Lt. Webster after one firefight, “ The NVA is pouring men and supplies into the area.”
“I’m aware of that.” Lt. Webster snapped back.
Pete warned, “If we don’t get out of here, the same thing that happened at Khe Sanh is going to happen to us and we’re a lot less fortified than they were.”
“Just do your job and leave the decision-making and planning to those that are more qualified.” Lt. Webster routinely downplayed the severity of their situation in his radio communications with command. He did this in order to keep his men in action and build up his own resume. The day finally came and the outpost was almost completely surrounded. Webster finally had to give an accurate assessment of the situation and he was given orders to destroy the ammo bunker and abandon Hill 861.
Pete and Ward were sitting on the hill watching a large enemy force preparing for their attack on the Marines. Ward sighed, “I don’t think we’re going to make it out of here.”
“It’s not looking good,” Pete agreed, “I’m betting they’ll hit us at first light tomorrow.”
Lt. Webster knew he was in over his head and wanted desperately to get off the Hill as quickly as possible. Pete approached him with his idea, “If we leave after sunset, we might be get far enough away before Charlie knows we’re gone.”
Lt. Webster quickly agreed, his fear evident in his tone of voice “Yeah, sounds like a good idea. The faster the better.”
Pete approached Ward with the second part of his plan, the part that he didn’t tell Lt. Webster. Ward was dumfounded, “That the craziest idea I have ever heard!”
Pete responded, “Think about it, if Charlie attacks and nobody fights back then they’ll be on your trail. I’ll slow them down enough to give you a good head start, then Bumper will lead me out of here. He ain’t never failed me yet.”
Ward questioned, “What’s Webster think about this?”
“I didn’t tell him, the less he knows the better. Can you help me set things up before you go?”
As soon as darkness fell, Lt. Webster ordered, “Move out.”
Pete and Bumper were in the lead and stepped into a bunker without being noticed. Ward took point, waved to his buddy and led the Marines down the trail. When everyone was gone, Pete and Bumper went to the ammo bunker and set out three M-60’s, M-79 with a hundred rounds and ten LAW’s (light anti-tank weapon system). A row of detonators for the Claymore mines was within arm’s reach. A radio was also close by. Pete double-checked everything then turned to Bumper. “We might as well catch few Z’s (sleep), it could get busy come sunrise.”
Pete and Bumper lay next to each other, with the sound of enemy activity in the distance to serenade them.
The Marines took their first break about one hour later and Lt. Webster looked at his watch, “Did you set the timer correctly to blow the ammo dump? It should have gone off by now.”
Before Ward could answer, Webster suddenly realized something, “Where’s DeAngelo?”
Ward replied, “He stayed behind to cover our butts.”
Lt. Webster didn’t know what to say. He stammered and stuttered.
Ward responded sarcastically, “Don’t look too surprised, that’s what good Marines do; they look out for their buddies. You can always go back to help DeAngelo if you have a mind to.”
Lt. Webster wasn’t going to do that, not under any circumstances.
“I didn’t think so. Lieutenant, if we make it out of this alive, I’d seriously consider going back to supply if I was you.” Ward snarled, “It will be the safest thing for all of us. You’re just not cut out for this kind of work.”
Bumper nudged Pete and the Marine slowly awakened to feel the morning sun on his face. Pete looked down the hill and saw the enemy moving through the foliage. When Charlie got into the killing zone, Pete began firing with everything at his disposal.
In the distance, the Marines heard the explosions and gunfire. Ward turned to his fellow Marines, “Hell with this, I’m going back! Anybody going with me?”
Lt. Webster argued, “We’ve been ordered to withdraw. Are you disobeying orders?”
“Court-martial me!” Ward snapped and led his fellow Marines back to Hill 861.
The battle was raging and the barrels of the M-60 were red from the heat of firing. With Bumper by his side, Pete refused to leave the bunker, choosing to fight to the end. Explosions rocked the earth and bullets whizzed by his head. Even though he was wounded several times, Pete ignored the pain and the odds and fought on. Just when all seemed lost, the enemy began pulling back as airstrikes and napalm bombs decimated their ranks.
When the battle was over, Pete saw Ward and his fellow Marines through the smoke, haze and debris, He called out “What are you doing back here?”
Ward grinned, “I forgot my Louie L’Amour paperback…have you seen it?”
Pete received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Hill 861. Clark Gardner, Bumper’s first handler, as well as the entire DeAngelo family, were in attendance at the White House when the award was presented. Clark commented after the ceremony concluded as he bent down to hug Bumper, “I knew you two would make a good team.”
It is sometimes said that certain men are born for greatness. Others don’t know what they’re capable of and rise to the challenges they encounter in life or on the battlefield. For a young Italian boy growing up in Kansas City, who had no interest in the military, Pete DeAngelo turned out to be one hell of a Marine. Even stranger, a dog named Bumper became this fighting Leatherneck’s best friend.
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.