Thomas Calabrese –There is an old saying that basically goes like this. ‘War is interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror’. Without getting too verbose or belaboring the point, that is a fairly accurate assessment.
Glenn Garrison, Wyatt Pickett and Gary Foster had just arrived in South Vietnam, and after being quickly processed at Danang Airport, they got in the back of a deuce and a half or a six-by, the truck was often called both. The truck has three axles with two wheels on each axles and can carry two-and-one half tons of materials or personnel.
It was early July, the temperature was 96 degrees, the sun was blazing hot and the humidity was hovering around 95 percent. The three young Marines had very little time to get used to a tropical climate having completed their entire training in the temperate environment of San Diego Recruit Depot and Camp Pendleton in Oceanside. It felt like they had stepped in a steam room and there was no exit door.
Ten miles away, the truck skidded to a stop in front of a plywood and screened shack, called a hooch. The driver growled. “Last stop for losers. Grab your gear, I’ve got another run to make. Welcome to Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.”
The three young replacements grabbed their seabags and jumped off. The driver left them in a cloud of dust as he his back wheels spit dirt into the air. In front of the group of buildings was a sign with these words on it; Live by Luck, Love by Nature, Kill by Profession.
Several Marines were sitting or lying on their cots. One of them looked over with disinterest from his Louis L’Amour dog-eared paperback and commented. “There’s some empty cots in the back, you’ve got about 20 minutes before the messhall closes if you want some chow.”
PFC Foster stammered. “Where’s the messhall?”
Another Marine interjected. “Make a right and follow the smell.”
By the time the three Marines arrived at the messhall, the crew was already starting to clean up. Mess Sergeant Marty Carchar looked the three Marines up and down. “Let me guess…you just got into country and you’re hungry.” He turned to Corporal Rackley. “Get these jarheads something to eat.”
While slowly eating their meals and making small talk about their hometowns, Sergeant Carchar walked over and angrily glared at the young Marines “What the hell! This ain’t no damn restaurant and there ain’t no dawdling, shilly-shallying or lollygagging in my messhall. This place is for eating…not flapping your lips!”
The three Marines made a hasty retreat. For the next week, they were given every low-down, dirty and disgusting work detail that needed to be done in the camp. This included garbage detail, latrine duty and filling sandbags in the blazing sun.
New Marines in country are often called ‘boots’. Commonly used in the Marines, “boot” is a somewhat derogatory term for a novice service member, often one who is fresh out of boot camp. Depending on who you ask, it stands for “beginning of one’s tour” or barely out of training. Another reason is that new arrivals In Vietnam wear dark green camouflaged utilities and their jungle boots still have the black on the leather. Marines with any significant amount of time in country wear utilities that have been faded from the sun.
Their boots are light brown for the same reason. Nobody in ‘Nam polishes their boots with black shoe polish, but instead they use saddle soap or baby oil to keep the leather soft and pliable. ‘Grunts’ or infantrymen place a great amount of importance on their footwear because they represent seniority and survival. It’s not unusual for a Marine to spend more time taking care of his boots than he does cleaning his weapon. A grunt will do almost anything to avoid turning in his old boots for a pair of new ones. I know this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but war is full of contradictions and weird traditions.
All of sudden, the three exhausted Marines stopped getting assigned to all the working parties. There was a reason for this, another group of replacements had just arrived and Garrison, Pickett and Foster moved slightly up the food chain of an infantry platoon.
It was just after sunrise and a jeep pulled into the area. A sergeant got out and walked into the hooch and called out. “Rise and shine!” He kicked some trash and added. “Clean up this mess…squad leaders in my hooch at 0800 hours.” then turned around and left.
PFC Foster asked. “Who was that?”
Squad leader Corporal Jim Monson was already up and picking up trash. “That was Dante Buscetti, our platoon Sergeant.”
Lance Corporal Jerry Laidell added. “Three things that you never do in the ‘Nam; you don’t tap dance blindfolded in a minefield, you don’t kiss a bamboo viper and most important of all, you don’t disobey an order from the Double D.”
PFC Pickett was confused. “Double D…who’s that?”
“Double D stands Danang Dante or Deadly Dante or the Bushmaster.” said Corporal Billy Rader (bush is military slang for jungle).
One of the recreational activities of the Marines while in the rear area were boxing matches. They were held behind the enlisted club in a makeshift ring. Special Services provided the gloves and headgear. Sometimes it was a way to settle a dispute or good-hearted competition between platoons, companies or battalions and the betting was usually intense. Sergeant Buscetti was undefeated and even though he stood 5 foot 10 inches tall and only weighed 180 pounds, Double D had lightning quick reflexes, great defensive skills, powerful right cross, devastating left hook and a granite chin.
A group of army personnel from the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division showed up with an offer for Sergeant Buscetti. “We got a guy that we would like to put up against you. We’ll match anything that you Marines want to bet.” Staff Sergeant Connor Milner said.
“How much money are we talking about?” Dante asked.
“We’ve got an entire Brigade and everybody is willing to put in some money. How does five thousand dollars sound?” Sergeant Archer Williams smiled.
“You’ve got my interest. Who’s your fighter?” Dante asked.
Staff Sergeant Milner replied. “Sergeant Dave LaRue, just got in from Bragg. He was a Florida Golden Gloves Champion three years running and undefeated in nine Division fights. He was planning on going pro before he got drafted.”
Sergeant Buscetti had been wounded during Operation Kansas Prairie and spent 15 days recovering on the USS Sanctuary hospital ship anchored off the coast before returning to his unit. The Regiment took heavy casualties during intense fighting against North Vietnamese Regulars. Third Battalion got the worst of it. During their 58 days in the bush, they lost 78 percent of their men, either wounded or killed in action near Khe Sanh, The Rockpile and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Battalion was so depleted in manpower, especially officers, at the time he was injured. Sergeant Buscetti was the acting company commander. An NVA infantry company attacked their position and despite being outnumbered four to one, the battle weary Marines repelled the assault. Instead of waiting for the North Vietnamese to regroup, Sergeant Buscetti led a counterattack against the enemy and caught them off-guard. Despite being wounded numerous times and bleeding badly, Double D never wavered. He divided his attention between directing fire from his Marines and calling in air strikes and artillery barrages until the enemy eventually retreated.
“I heard that you got dinged up a little…are you up for a fight?” Sergeant Archer smiled.
“I’m a fast healer.” Dante dismissed the nine shrapnel and bullet wounds to his legs with the same amount of concern that most civilians would show to a skinned knee.
Once word of the boxing match became known, Marine and Army leadership both realized that it would be a great morale builder for both services so they supported it. In the military, confusion, redundancy, red tape, chain of command bureaucracy all contribute to inefficiency. It is like two steps forward and one step backward. FUBAR is an acronym that originated in the military to stand up for the words ‘fouled up beyond all repair.’
On the other hand, never underestimate a highly motivated military man with a clearly defined mission that he believes in. The small area with the boxing ring behind the enlisted club would not work. There would be hundreds perhaps thousands of people watching the fight so they needed more space. Army and Marine Corps engineers and Navy Seabees worked together to build a makeshift stadium with an elevated ring. Communications personnel placed loudspeakers around the area for those on base who had duty. For those out of the area, the fight would be broadcasted over the radio. Disbursing personnel from the Army and Marines kept track of the bets. Whenever an Army man wanted to place a bet, the Marines were contacted to see if it could be covered and vice versa. Before long there was 50,000 dollars on each side. This fight would be bigger than the Bob Hope USO show and that was saying a lot.
Everybody that wasn’t on duty was eagerly volunteering their services. It was agreed that there would be equal numbers of soldiers and Marines in attendance.
The excitement and anticipation of the fight was building with each passing hour. It was the main topic of conversation from Saigon to the DMZ. Could a highly trained boxer beat a seasoned jungle fighter? Did the effects of 2 ½ tours in combat take enough of a toll on Double D to affect his boxing abilities. How could it not? Was being new in country an advantage in this particular instance…the Army hoped so. Leadership of both services were pleased to see their men happy and enthused. The last few months had been rough for both services.
Sergeant Buscetti maintained his calm demeanor and was asked about the fight. His standard response was. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Disbursing stopped taking bets three hours before the bout. There was $67,400 dollars on each side for a total of $134,800. Rank and injuries had its privileges so generals, field grade officers and the wounded were given ringside seats.
Garrison, Foster and Pickett were fifty rows back, but they weren’t complaining. The announcer introduced the fighters to a crescendo of partisan applause. Sergeant Dave LaRue stood 6 foot 4 inches tall and weighed 240 pounds. Double D was five foot ten and weighed 180 pounds. Just by appearances, it didn’t look like Sergeant Buscetti had much of a chance against his bigger opponent. He was definitely fighting out of his weight class.
Not only were the opponents completely different in how they looked, they had different fighting styles. Sergeant LaRue was a skilled boxer and he wasted little time exhibiting his skills. He moved lightly around the ring, bobbing and weaving, flicking his stinging jabs out and throwing combinations. He also had a five-inch reach advantage and he utilized it to perfection.
Sergeant Buscetti was a counterpuncher and knew that he would have to take five punches to land one, so he had to make that one count. While LaRue focused on headshots, Double D went for the body. The first four rounds went to Sergeant LaRue, but the powerful body shots had taken their toll on the Army fighter. By the sixth round, his movements were much slower and he was having trouble taking a full breath. By the eighth round, LaRue was coughing up blood and Double D’s right eye was almost completely swollen shut.
Both fighters had sustained significant punishment, so the two questions were…who had enough left in the tank and who would rise to the occasion? It was the 10th and final round and both fighters made their way to the middle of the ring and touched gloves. Three more minutes…180 seconds to determine victory or defeat. Sergeant LaRue started throwing combinations but they did not stop Double D from moving forward. Ninety seconds to go and there was no holding back now. Non-stop punching from both fighters in the center of the ring. Tick, tick, tick, only 20 seconds to go, Sergeant Buscetti put his whole body into it and unleashed a vicious uppercut that caught his opponent under the chin. LaRue teetered for a moment like his body was no longer receiving signals from his brain or a big oak tree that had been struck by a bolt of lightning and couldn’t resist the call of gravity.
The Army fighter was unconscious before he hit face down on the canvas. The place erupted in celebration and both fighters were given a standing ovation.
This was an epic confrontation and an unforgettable experience for both fighters and spectators. When two men go out to face each other, it sometimes comes down to only one thing at the moment of truth. In this particular case, Sergeant Dante Buscetti simply refused to lose.
Two days later, Double D was socializing with the Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Grayson in front of Regimental Headquarters when Foster, Pickett and Garrison walked by.
Garrison commented with admiration. “When I was thinking about joining the Corps, that is what I thought a Marine was and what I wanted to be. Now that I’m in, I realize that I’ll never be that kind of leatherneck.”
Foster responded, “He sets the bar pretty high for the rest of us, a lot easier to walk under it than reach it.”
“That was a hell of a fight…wasn’t it?” Wyatt reminisced. “I could hear the punches landing all the way back to where we were sitting.”
It was finally time to get back to the business of war. 3rd Platoon boarded three CH-46 helicopters and headed out to Hill 726 to relieve Bravo Company. Sergeant Buscetti assigned the bunkers then inspected the concertina wire and perimeter defenses for any weaknesses. The squads alternated doing routine day patrols around the area and ambushes at night. Enemy activity was increasing dramatically throughout the region as NVA units prepared for a major offensive. The Marines remained vigilant and Double D kept his men focused with his strong leadership and calm demeanor. He reassured them, “Just do your jobs, I’ll take care of everything else!”
The intense mortar barrage went on for ten minutes and when it stopped, NVA soldiers attacked the left flank, but the Marines drove them back with overlapping small arms fire. The enemy quickly regrouped then attacked from all directions. Fighting was everywhere and just when it seemed that the Marines were about to be overrun, Sergeant Buscetti grabbed an M-60 and a dozen belts of ammo and ran to the highest point on the outpost and began firing. The-M-60’s barrel was red hot and spitting fire and death in every direction. Enemy soldiers were falling like leaves from a tree in a windstorm.
The last time Glenn Garrison saw the legendary Double D was a split second before a massive explosion shook the hilltop. When the smoke cleared, the enemy was either dead or running down the hill. Sergeant Buscetti was gone and nobody knew if he had been captured or killed. The only thing that was certain was that Double D’s courage and bravery had saved his men.
For years afterward, Garrison wondered what happened to the legendary Deadly Dante. In fact, that was the prevailing memory of his service in Vietnam. Garrison became a professional gambler and lived in Las Vegas. In one high stakes game, he bet two million dollars against a beachfront home in Oceanside. While looking over the property, Garrison read an article in the San Diego Union Tribune about the Veterans Writing Group of North County that meets on the 3rd Saturday of the month. He had sometimes thought about writing a story of his legendary platoon sergeant. This might be a good opportunity for him to get some advice on how to proceed. It would probably come across more like fiction than fact. Nobody would believe that a man like this actually existed.
When Glenn Garrison arrived at the Veterans Center, he saw a group of men near a table and a barbecue grill. When he got closer, a man asked him. “Meatball or Italian sausage?”
The man looked vaguely familiar and his voice touched a nerve. Suddenly it dawned on Garrison who it was. He burst out, “Sergeant Buscetti! Double D!”
The former Marine responded calmly and with total recall as if it had only been a few days instead of over 50 years! “Hey Garrison, how are you doing?”
Going back to that fateful day on Hill 726 in South Vietnam, Sergeant Buscetti was taken prisoner. He killed four of his captors and escaped. Three days later, he made contact with a group of Green Berets and was medevac’d to China Beach. He was recruited by the CIA to work covert operations in Laos and Cambodia as part of the infamous ‘Ghost Battalion’. After the war ended, Double D moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand and opened an Italian restaurant. He stayed there for ten years before relocating to Portofino, Italy, where his ancestors resided.
As time passed, Dante became a world renowned chef. He was currently in the process of opening his eleventh high class eatery across from the Oceanside Pier. Being a restauranteur was his cover for his continued espionage activities on behalf of the free world.
It only seemed appropriate that the unique and delicious meatball and sausage subs with the Provolone and Mozzarella cheeses, peppers and onions and secret seasoning that Double D was generously donating to his fellow veterans were called Dante’s Hero Sandwich.
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance
The Veterans Writing Group of San Diego County invites all writers to join us at our monthly meetings. Veterans and Non-Veterans are equally welcome. For more information go to our website: www.veteranswritinggroup.org