By John W. Flores
In February 1995, I began working on stories about the building of a billion-dollar U.S. Navy warship at Bath Iron Works, in Maine, named for a 21-year-old Marine Corps platoon sergeant killed saving his men on the morning of February 4, 1968, during the Tet Offensive in Hue City, Vietnam. He was wounded three times over a three-day period prior to his final desperate, courageous move against enemy positions at the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in that embattled city.
His name was Freddy González, the only child of Dolia González – who is 82 years old and still lives and works every day in the family hometown of Edinburg. She had to raise her boy alone, on the wages of a farm worker and waitress.
I found this story as a novice reporter at the old Edinburg Bureau of the McAllen Monitor, the biggest newspaper covering the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Along with other duties, I kept with the González story, and a year later after leaving the newspaper, in Oct. 1996, the Navy sent me alone by helicopter from Key West NAS to the ship as it headed for commissioning ceremonies in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The October 1996 commissioning drew thousands of people, including former Marine buddies who served with Freddy up to the time he was killed by an enemy rocket propelled grenade.
On our trip from Florida, across to Cuba and the across the wide expanse of ocean toward Corpus Christi, the ship accidentally caught the edge of Hurricane Josephine, and for two days the new crew of about 300 sailors endured 40-foot seas. There was some damage to the ship, but we made it in time to clean up and repair for the ceremony.
Dolia González stood on an upper deck to wave at the large crowd, standing beside Secretary of the Navy John Dalton. She was a mere waitress, and former farmworker, but she was a star that day. And though she is financially poor, Dolia does not complain. She is proud of her boy’s heritage as the only American to receive the Medal of Honor for his heroic last stand in Hue City–at the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church. It was there he gathered a dozen or so anti-armor rockets, climbed to the second floor of a school complex, and fired at enemy positions before getting hit.
In 1997, Dolia González told me she had been cut off from receiving monthly benefits from her son’s death many years before, and then had received a letter from the V.A. stating not only was she being cut off, but she owed the V.A. about $8,000 for “overpayment of benefits” over a period of decades.
I got on the phone with friends in the media, and wrote a story myself that was carried on AP, and soon Alb-ertson’s Corporation–a grocery store chain about to open a new store in Edinburg–read my story and contacted me, saying they were going to present a check for $8,000 to Dolia González to cover her “bill” from the V.A. I faxed over all the stories to the V.A. secretary’s office, and he personally cancelled the bill.
She still works, part-time as a greeter at the local grocery store, and part-time as a waitress at the Echo Hotel and Conference Center–an old, historic meeting site for locals–just to survive.Freddy was the sixth recipient of the medal since it was established in the 1950s. Another recipient was one of Audie Murphy’s commanding officers during World War II.
This story started for me in 1995, and it will always be a part of me. I will not cease and desist until this story about a heroic Mexican-American becomes nationally recognized, perhaps even made into a movie. In the past two years actor Martin Sheen, Mr. Vietnam (from his role in Apocalypse Now), has taken an interest in my book and hopes it really makes it. He’s sent me several letters urging me on.
The first book “When The River Dreams”, was not complete, and since that time I have completely rewritten it—greatly expanding it with photos, more interviews, war stories, and many of Freddy’s letters home to his mother during those tours in combat. Right now, U.S. Naval Institute Press, in Annapolis, is reviewing the manuscript for publication. I have my fingers crossed.
This is a great American story of hope from a remarkable woman who, though very poor, financially, raised her only child to have a heart like a treasure chest full of gold. He could easily have gone into gangs, drug abuse, criminal activities. But that was all reprehensible to him and his innate sense of human decency. His sense of honor. His sense of civic duty, instilled in him in no small part by her.
Last Christmas was the 44th one that she has spent alone, without her only child. But instead of sitting alone with her memories, she always reaches out and is like a star shining at the top of the tree, for those around her. That is her sense of decency, honor, and civic duty.