John W. Flores. Marine Sergeant Freddy Gonzalez, Vietnam War Hero. Revised edition. Jefferson: Mcfarland & Company, 2014. 277 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-7421-9.
Reviewed by Thomas Cossentino (Rutgers University)
Published on H-War (August, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Reflecting on the death of a friend in a letter that he penned to his mother from Vietnam, Marine Sergeant Freddy Gonzalez imparted, “I hope all the people back home remember Victor, cause he didn’t give his life for nothing. His life was given willingly, rather than taken” (p. 125). Gonzalez was killed less than two weeks later, defending his outgunned platoon against North Vietnamese Army forces in the opening days of the 1968 battle for Hue City. President Richard Nixon posthumously awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. John W. Flores in his recent biography celebrates Gonzalez’s sacrifice while remaining critical of America’s “badly managed” policy in Vietnam (p. 166). While coverage of Gonzalez in the existing literature is largely limited to his actions at Hue, Flores incorporates valuable correspondence and interviews that provide greater insight to the larger personal and social forces that influenced the trajectory of his life.
The first four chapters discuss Gonzalez’s childhood and adolescence in the Rio Grande Valley. Gonzalez’s mother, Dolia, gave birth at sixteen and raised him as a single parent. She worked as a waitress and farm worker to provide for him, and relied on an extended network of family and friends to help with childcare. Freddy also worked summers in the fields from the age of seven, first as a water boy for the work crews, and then as a regular laborer in his teenage years. Flores suggests that the American escalation in Vietnam influenced Gonzalez’s decision to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1965, noting that “in those days, the Vietnam problem seemed to be something worth fixing to young men like Freddy” (p. 64). Yet his sources emphasize the importance of class politics and personal ambition. As the historian Christian Appy has demonstrated, class status delineated the “narrow boundaries of choice within which [draftees and volunteers] faced the prospect of military service.” Gonzalez explained to his mother after graduating from high school that he could not afford college in the fall, and he did not want to go back to working in the fields. The armed forces offered opportunity, and the marines were “the best. The toughest” (p. 72). Gonzalez’s pride in sending money to alleviate his mother’s hardship pervaded his correspondence.
Chapters 5 through 10 cover Gonzalez’s induction into the armed forces and his two tours as an infantryman in Vietnam. Returning from his first combat tour in January 1967, having been slightly wounded and stricken with malaria, he divulged to his mother that he “had seen some things [that he didn’t] want to see again” (p. 103). He told a childhood friend that he would never return to Vietnam. Yet after learning that several marines with whom he had served were killed in an ambush, Gonzalez began to manifest a profound sense of survivor’s guilt. His mother recalled that he was haunted by the faces of his friends killed in Vietnam. He woke screaming in the night. Gonzalez soon volunteered for a second combat tour, telling his protesting mother that he wanted to “keep Marines alive” (p. 107). The final two chapters review the memorialization of Gonzalez’s death: his mother’s acceptance of her twenty-one-year-old son’s posthumous Medal of Honor in 1969, the dedication in the 1970s of several Texas landmarks in his name, and the navy’s commissioning of the USS Gonzalez in 1996.
Flores might have enriched his analysis had he done more to consider his sources in light of the existing scholarship on the social history of the Vietnam-era military. He might have delved deeper, for instance, into Gonzalez’s ideas about fighting on behalf of democracy in Vietnam despite the persistence of racial discrimination at home. Flores does not overlook the social constraints that Mexican Americans confronted in the 1950s and 1960s, but suggests that Gonzalez “never dwelled on racism.... He was used to it” (p. 78). Yet his sources, which often appear unabridged and with little authorial comment, evince an unacknowledged tension. Gonzalez loathed the “lousy” cowboys and Indians movies that played at the base theater on Okinawa, complaining in a letter, “Boy, the Indians were fake” (p. 90). In another remark that Flores referenced in an earlier piece but did not include in the present biography, Gonzalez suggested his reluctance to kill Vietnamese people who “worked the fields and lived simple lives, like most Hispanics from the [Rio Grande] Valley.” Interested readers can learn more about the larger context of Chicano military service in the work of such scholars as Lorena Orapeza and George Mariscal, who explore how shifting Chicano racial politics intersected during the Vietnam War with previously dominant notions of conventional patriotism and assimilationism.
While Flores’s primary sources personalize Gonzalez’s story in a way that is at times poignant, the organization of his book often distracts from that central narrative. His forays into the political history of the war are often abrupt and tangential. Specialists will note several inaccuracies of fact, such as his reference to “United Nations forces” killed in Vietnam, and more instances in which points of historiographical controversy are oversimplified or unacknowledged (p. 14). The middle chapters are chronologically and thematically disjointed, as Flores juxtaposes Gonzalez’s actions at Hue with the various deliberations of senior military and political officials, but fails to connect the two in a precise and compelling way. His extensive reliance on lengthy and often meandering block quotations without endnotes, a bibliography, or other conventional means of scholarly citation is also problematic. Flores identifies his sources in the text in most cases, although many vague references are essentially useless for attribution purposes. Two pages of his discussion of the battle for Hue City closely paraphrase U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year, 1968, without crediting that source (pp. 131-132). Other editorial issues include numerous typographical errors and an incorrect chapter header throughout chapter 5.
Despite these problems, Flores provides a more intimate account of Gonzalez’s short life than is available in the literature. His intent to honor Gonzalez’s memory is apparent, as is his censure of the caricatured “top brass ... in their plush, comfy offices” to whom he attributes much of America’s misguided policy in Vietnam (p. 130). Yet it does not diminish Gonzalez’s sacrifice to suggest that he shared with many of those leaders a fundamental sense of his nation’s place in the world: a vital faith in American military power and benevolence. He wept as a child when he watched John Wayne’s romantic death as Sergeant Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), telling his mother that he, too, would “become a Marine sergeant some day” (p. 41). He wrote from recruit training in 1965, just months after the marines landed at Da Nang, that “we will win, because the Lord is on our side” (p. 78). The assumptions that shaped US policy in Vietnam were not bound by the corridors of national power in the mid-1960s, but deeply embedded in the larger society.
. An earlier biography of Gonzalez, Sol Marroquin, Part of the Team: Story of an American Hero (Mission, TX: Rio Grande Printers, 1979) has long been out of print and is not readily accessible. Flores independently published the biography under review in comparable form as John W. Flores, When the River Dreams: The Life of Marine Sgt. Freddy Gonzalez (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006). To learn more about the larger context of the battle for Hue City, with passing coverage of Gonzalez’s actions, see Keith William Nolan, Battle for Hue: Tet, 1968 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996); Eric Hammel, Fire in the Streets: The Battle for Hue, Tet 1968 (Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, Inc., 1991); and Jack Shulimson et al., U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year, 1968 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1997), especially “Part II: The ‘Tet Offensive.’”
. Christian Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 44.
. John Flores, “The Ballad of Freddy Gonzalez,” Hispanic Magazine (November 1996).
. Lorena Oropeza, ꜟRaza Si! ꜟGuerra No! Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Viet Nam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); and George Mariscal, ed., Aztlan and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). See also the oral history collections Charley Trujillo, ed., Soldados: Chicanos in Vietnam (San Jose, CA: Chusma House Publications, 1990); and Lea Ybarra, ed., Vietnam Veteranos: Chicanos Recall the War (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004).
. Shulimson et al., eds., U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 164.
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