By: Dottie Fieger
On the night he receives the last two medals he earned for Vietnam valor, retired Marine Master Sergeant Alonzo R. Rivera, Jr., plans to host a big private party to celebrate his military achievements and to honor the memory of 53,000 American men and women who lost their lives in Vietnam while giving the last and best measure of their love for our country.
The private party will be held Saturday, March 8 at the Don Diego VFW Post 7420 in San Diego. During a brief awards ceremony, retired Marine Colonel Joaquin Gracida, a friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, will present Rivera with two of the highest medals awarded for valor in combat. Rivera will receive the Silver Star Medal and the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”, accompanied with citations sent by the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV).
Ironically, the date of this party marks the 38th anniversary of the beginning of Rivera’s Vietnam combat experience (March 8, 1965) for which he earned the Bronze Star Medal with Combat V to be presented at this party.
Bronze Star Medal with Combat V
According to the SECNAV citation, Rivera earned the Bronze Star medal with Combat V, “For extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action against the North Vietnam Army and Viet Cong forces in the Republic of Vietnam from 8 March 1965 to 15 June 1965.”
This period marks the beginning when America’s role in Vietnam changed from advisory to active armed conflict. The original Marine group stationed in Okinawa, Japan, moved to Vietnam then launched the first big battle of the U.S. Marine Corps called operation Starlite.
Rivera participated in this big time!
As a Corporal with Kilo Battery, 4th Battalion, 12th Marines, Third Marine Division, Rivera was in charge of an artillery unit called the 155 Self-Propelled Gun, and was responsible for the squad (4-8 Marines) who operated it. He says the gun housed eight Marines, traveled on tank tracks and fired 27-lb., projectiles with a range over 18 miles. Rivera and his squad provided firepower in support of Operation Starlite.
At the peak of this major battle, they averaged over 50 rounds shot per day. And, during this period, Corporal Rivera and the Kilo Battery fought their way through five northernmost Vietnam provinces, successfully achieving their three-fold mission: occupying and defending key terrain; searching and destroying the enemy; and conducting an intensive pacification program.
The operations resulting in capture of thousands of tons of weapons and material; conducting over 125,000 counter guerilla actions; routing the well-entrenched enemy and cutting off their food supply.
It also praises Rivera for unrelenting and undeterred combat spirit while faced with heavy hostile artillery and mortar firepower while under extremely difficult conditions of rough terrain, incessantly hot and humid temperatures, and pounding monsoon rains.
Silver Star Medal
Rivera will also receive the Silver Star Medal “For outstanding heroism against enemy Viet Cong forces during the assault and seizure of the Van Tuong Peninsula in Vietnam from 18 to 23 August 1965.” By this time, Rivera had been promoted to Sergeant with responsibility for a platoon comprised of two artillery units (guns) operated by 8 to 16 Marines.
During this period, Rivera’s higher Marine command received critical intelligence information that the Viet Cong’s 2000-man Main Force Regiment, located in the Van Tuong Peninsula, was preparing to attack the Chu Lai airfield used by Americans to bring in supplies and launch attacks against the enemy in the northernmost provinces. Sgt. Rivera was ordered to promptly maneuver his platoon and attack the enemy within 96 hours.
In this short period of time, Sgt. Rivera mapped out his military strategy, rallied his troops, and then successfully coordinated air, sea and ground fire cover to launch his assault. Then Rivera and his platoon advanced with a combined amphibious and helicopter landing under intensive enemy barrage. With this military support, Rivera’s platoon attacked and, by that evening, they had driven the compressed enemy into a pocket area against the South China Sea without chance for escape.
In the days that followed, Rivera’s platoon continued attacking within the peninsula and fighting through a maze of caves, tunnels and fortified localities, and over rugged jungle terrain to secure a Van Tuong village. Rivera recalls that they found a deep trench dug by the Viet Cong around the village. He said it turned out to be a tunnel, 3 to 4 feet deep by 2 miles long leading to a large underground area equipped with a hospital unit, kitchen, weapons and storage space, and a generator for electricity.
A native of Fresno, CA, Rivera grew up planning to be a Marine like his three cousins who served during wartime. He joined the Marines in 1961, completed boot camp at MCRD, San Diego and then transferred to infantry training at Camp Pendleton where he completed overseas training.
In February 1968, he was sent to the Republic of Vietnam where he established an impressive record for military proficiency, combat spirit and valor. His many awards and decorations include: another Silver Star and Bronze Star Medal with Combat V for another major battle in September 1968, for which he received two Purple Hearts for combat injuries; two Navy Commendations with Combat V; and a Presidential Unit Citation with Star.
He retired as a Master Sergeant in 1972. He entered Federal civil service and retired from Customs as a Special Agent 23 years later. He remains active in the Marine Corps League (MCL) of California. He was recently elected as Commandant of the MCL Scuttlebutt Detachment #886.
Why did it take Rivera 30 years to finally receive his last two medals?
“It is simple, they couldn’t reach me,” stated Rivera. “I was wounded in combat and they MedEvac me to Oakland, from there to Balboa and then on to Camp Pendleton which didn’t really have a hospital. They tried to find me but in all the paper shuffling they lost track of me.”
“It wasn’t until recently when I checked into the VA hospital and was diagnosed with Agent Orange, and after checking my records, they discovered the two outstanding medals.”
Rivera concluded his story by stating that the party is not about him, but, instead is about the men he served with and the 58,000 men and women who gave their life in Vietnam for their country.