Girard veteran recalls shared fears in Vietnam
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GIRARD — It was 50 years ago today when George Finelli returned home to Girard after a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam.
And although the Army veteran never saw combat or was exposed to enemy attacks, he still counted the days until he returned home.
“From the moment I put foot on the ground, the countdown began. Nobody really wanted to be in Vietnam. As I remember that first day, we all looked alike: scared. The only numbers that were meaningful were how many days before the flight home,” Finelli said in an email.
He said the day he was about to be drafted was the day the military was recruiting Marines. Finelli said there were 150 guys in a little room and they had 15 minutes to see an Army recruiter or they would be drafted into the Marine Corps.
“I have never seen 150 guys go through a 36-inch door so fast,” Finelli said. “But the recruiter sold me on the Army, so I probably would have chosen that anyway.”
Finelli did his eight-week basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky, starting in January 1969. He then went to advanced training in Fort Jackson, S.C.
From there, the Army sent him to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, where the Army’s human resources office was located. There, he learned to be a personnel managament specialist, but he ended up being the company clerk — which he said was about two steps lower than what he was trained for — for the 13th Quartermaster Platoon POL (petroleum, oil and lubricants) in Vung Tau.
“That was one of the safest places to be in the country. I did not fight in combat and was not exposed to enemy attacks. I wasn’t even assigned a real weapon,” Finelli said, but later recalled, “While I was acting mail clerk, I was assigned a small side arm, but I was never issued any bullets.”
Finelli said the 13th’s mission was simple: Operate and manage the second largest tank farm in South Vietnam and provide or deliver fuel as needed to all the armed forces in the III and IV Corp.
“I had nothing to do with any of that. My job was to manage personnel. The unit consisted mostly of truck drivers and fuel handlers, dispatch personnel, two lab technicians, a 1st sergeant, sometimes a 2nd lieutenant and me, the company clerk,” Finelli said. “At first, I stuck out like a green tomato, but that didn’t last long. In just a few days I easily blended in, looking and smelling like everyone else. The nature of my job allowed me to get to know everybody and, of course, all got to know me.”
He said as the company clerk, he handled the mail for the soldiers and became the “go to guy” for almost everybody for almost anything. He said he believes, and most soldiers would agree, that everyone — whether combat or combat support — possessed value and importance to one another.
“As often as I would volunteer to ride shotgun on a tanker while in convoy to some scary place, the driver would simply say ‘No. You are too valuable. You’re the company clerk’,” Finelli said.
After his tour in Vietnam ended, Finelli served stateside for one year. In late August 1970, he reported for duty at U.S. Army Headquarters, First Recruiting District in Fort Meade, Maryland, where he was assigned to a team of personnel specialists. All 10 of his team members served in Vietnam, but only two of them were the company clerk, Finelli said.
As part of his training, he was trained to work at armed forces entrance examination stations and while in Vietnam, he requested to be assigned to the examination station in Cleveland so he could be close to family and his then-girlfriend, Patti, who later became his wife. He said the job involved a lot of paperwork and he “oversold” his skill set, which landed him the post in Fort Meade instead of Cleveland.
“It wasn’t a bad thing. It was a great job. We screened personnel and since we didn’t have computers then, we would spend days looking at records to determine who was fit for the military,” Finelli said. “We were part of creating the all-volunteer Army that exists today.”
Finelli said his military experience was firmly in his “rearview mirror” once he returned home, but a visit to The Wall that Heals — a 375-foot-long, three-quarter-size traveling replica of the Vietnam Wall in Washington — that came to Warren in the summer of 2018 seemed to bring his memories “flooding back.”
“I felt as if the war was in front of me again. The park was full of veterans, and I felt a sense of closeness like I had with the guys almost 50 years ago.” Finelli said. “It was mentioned that the average age of the service members on the wall was about 23. That was my age the day I returned home.”