From flat tires to rice-paddy rescues, the 148 crew members always came to the aid of a soldier in need in a sense of camaraderie still strong today, 45 years after the close-knit group left Vietnam in August 1969.
This weekend, 100 members and families will reunite in Augusta to celebrate the anniversary of an award-winning unit that changed the Army’s outlook on using Reserve and National Guard companies in combat zones.
“I know you’ve seen reruns of the hit TV show, M.A.S.H.,” member Mike Dickerson said last week, describing the “closeness, friendship and brotherhood” of the unit. “That was us. We each had a job to do, and we did it without question.”
Dickerson, 67, said that much like the Army surgical hospital portrayed on M.A.S.H., the 319th often had to create its own fun, using practical and inside jokes to stay loose while navigating the narrow dirt roads of rural Vietnam.
“There were sad and scared times, (but) humor is what got many of us through the long days of hauling goods to outposts,” he said.
According to Army Reserve records, the 319th was ambushed seven times between September 1968 and July 1969 while transporting food, water, clothing and ammunition more than 1.1 million miles across southeastern Vietnam, mostly within a 150-mile radius of Saigon.
They suffered one casualty, Roy W. Miller Jr., and are missing one member, Terry W. Payton, whom they are still trying to locate.
Commended as a “meritorious unit”, the unit is widely seen as changing the Army’s outlook on using Reserve and National Guard units to increase camaraderie among troops in combat zones.
“There are few groups from the Vietnam era that can have reunions, because they didn’t have anybody to fall back on during the war,” said member Jimmie Kirkland, 69, of Evans. “That wasn’t the case with our company. We had each other’s back, then and now.”
The 319th started meeting at the North Augusta Community Center the year after its return.
The gathering became an official tradition four years later, and on Friday, when members begin arriving in Augusta, the reaction is expected to be the same as in past reunions. There will be slaps on the back, embraces and some tears.
Members said the group’s success and tight-knit bond was because many of its engineers, cooks and drivers went through elementary, middle and high school together before it was activated May 13, 1968, and became one of the first Reserve units to be sent into combat since World War II.
Some crew members can trace their friendships back from the Academy of Richmond Academy to Milledge Elementary and Tubman Middle schools.
Others attended college together. All trained at Fort Lee in Virginia, where the unit picked up its remaining members.
“That’s why we performed so well,” said Sonny Reece, 67, of Augusta. “We had history. We understood each other.”
During Vietnam, the group was divided into teams of five and dispatched in convoys to distribute goods. At night, a team would load and stage a fleet of 60 5-ton cargo trucks for the next day’s crews.
“In the mornings, we never knew where we were going, but we knew when we went on convoy you never were alone,” said John Bowen, 71, of Martinez.
Members of the 319th said it operated on the old saying “one for all and all for one,” a mantra the group has expanded since it was discharged at Fort Gordon on Aug. 19.
In recent years, the group has worked with the Gary Sinise Foundation, the Augusta Warrior Project and Habitat for Humanity to provide food, homes and funds to active-duty military personnel, veterans and their families. It remains close to its commander, retired Col. Drew Troxler in Savannah, Ga., and continues to remember Miller, renaming its Army Reserve Center on Wrightsboro Road in honor of the fallen soldier in 2002.
“The 319th is a special group,” Bowen said. “There are not many units that stay together for 40 years. Our bond is strong.”