After 47 years, the forgotten warriors of one of the first Marine units to make an amphibious landing in the Vietnam War were remembered Monday with the welcome home party they never got when they came home from war.
For 70-year-old Mario Gambacorta, a private first class "ammo humper" in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, it was a chance to hug 69-year-old machine gunner Antonio Cervantes, whom he hadn't seen since 1965.
"I'm so happy to see everybody," Cervantes, of El Paso, Texas, said with a wide smile, surrounded by about 70 brothers-in-arms who had gathered for their first reunion, in a ballroom at the Plaza in downtown Las Vegas.
With his wife, Olimpia, by his side, Gambacorta, of White Plains, N.Y., said he "got chills thinking about it" after he was first contacted by the organizer, former Cpl. Paul Salas.
Salas, of Albuquerque, N.M., managed to locate 173 of 204 Marines from the company, only to find out that 41 percent of them - 71 - had died over the years, many from combat injuries and exposure to Agent Orange, a dioxin-laden defoliant used to deny cover to the enemy.
"He used to think about it (the war) a lot and wondered what happened to these guys," Olimpia Gambacorta said about her husband.
The reunion brought together many who last saw one another in the jungle near Phu Bai before they were dispersed throughout the 3rd Marine Division for extended tours, then returned to the United States individually.
Such was the case for Sgt. Frank Lemos. He had signed a $20 South Vietnamese currency note for his buddy, Cpl. Paul Marquardt, on a promise that Marquardt would return it the next time they saw each other.
Marquardt, of New Ulm, Minn., had lost contact with Lemos but found the note in mint condition after 47 years while packing to come to the reunion.
"I signed it and gave it back to him last night," Marquardt said.
"Civilians cannot and will not understand us because they are not one of us," reads the card that Lemos, of Orange, Calif., handed out as he rolled away from the speaker's microphone in his motorized chair.
"The Corps - we love it, live it and shall die for it. If you have never been in it, you shall never understand it."
The 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines landed on Red Beach in Da Nang Bay, South Vietnam, on April 10, 1965. The sea was calm. A light wind blew from the south, but it was hot and muggy, recalled Gambacorta.
"It was a bitch of a landing," he said. "You left the boat, and you ran to this perimeter at the top of the hill. It was hot as hell," said Gambacorta, who was 21 at the time.
Cervantes, the Weapons Platoon machine gunner, remembered the strange feeling of his first combat encounter of many to follow after the landing.
"They started firing at us," he said. "It was an unknown feeling at first. But after we got used to it, it was like a regular job for us," said Cervantes, who served two tours in Vietnam.
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman gave the men an official welcome home, reciting from a letter that retired Maj. Clarence D. Williams had written to introduce her to men he described as the "Forgotten Warriors." At least 13 from five companies in the battalion were killed in action in the first 30 days after the landing.
And when the survivors came home one by one, "there were no parades, no celebrations, no flag waving, and no patriotic speeches by government officials or politicians," Williams wrote. "They were cautioned not to wear their uniforms while traveling home or off the military base. Some were spit on, cussed at, and called 'baby killers,' but they were never 'welcomed home.' "
Former Sgt. Ted Riccubuono of Las Vegas, who helped organize the reunion, said that when he and his buddies returned to the United States, they were disenchanted with the war but "more disillusioned by the American public," which for the most part shunned them with attitudes of hostility, coldness and indifference.
Helping Salas contact the former Marines for the reunion "tugged at me," Riccubuono said.
"This past 10 months has been the greatest journey I've been on in the past 47 years," he said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.