George Terry was wearing his Vietnam veterans’ baseball cap while delivering meals for Manteca Unified Nutritional Services at Nile Garden School when a staff member said a young boy wanted to ask him a question.
“Are you a real veteran?” the boy asked the 68-year-old Terry.
Terry answered that he was.
“Thank you very much,” responded the boy, who then broke out into a broad smile.
Ron Cruz was having a spa installed at his home. After a company representative knocked on his door he asked if the pickup truck in front of the house with the Purple Heart license plate was his.
When he replied in the affirmative the 69-year-old Cruz was then asked what branch of service. Cruz’s reply of the Army prompted the man to say in jest that he guessed that was OK even though he was a Marine.
“Welcome home,” the Marine then told Cruz.
That stands in stark contrast to the America that greeted the two fast friends and fellow graduates of Manteca High’s Class of 1965 when they returned from fighting in Vietnam.
Terry recalled how soldiers made a beeline to the nearest restroom to change out of their military uniforms and switch into civilian clothes after arriving stateside at airports to avoid war protestors confronting them with taunts of “baby killers” and even spitting on them.
Cruz’s “welcome home” greeting was perhaps rougher. He was severely wounded during the Tet Offensive and was sent to Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco to recover and to learn how to walk again. When patients eventually made their way outside the hospital for walks in The City that was the hotbed of the war protest movement, they were denounced, screamed at and treated poorly.
The experience of Terry and Cruz mirrors that of many of the 2,594,000 Americans that served in the Vietnam War and came home to a nation that based on their reception seemed downright hostile. Cruz was one of 303,704 injured including 153,329 that required hospital care. But he considered himself lucky. Some 58,202 didn’t make it home. Eighteen of those casualties were from Manteca including buddy Bruce Soares.
‘Color and all that stuff
doesn’t mean anything’
And while both who were in the thick of the fight of the massive and bloody Tet Offensive, have dealt with nightmares and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and agree that they grew up in a hurry in Vietnam, they have not let the negatives of the experience define them.
“You learn real quick that color and all that stuff doesn’t mean anything,” Terry said. “Your lives depend on you looking out for each other.”
Cruz agreed adding that you also quickly discover the challenges that you are capable of tackling.
But what makes the experience of Terry and Cruz a bit difference is how their lives have been intertwined since they became good friends as newbies at Manteca High 54 years ago.
They were part of the Manteca cruise on Yosemite Avenue from The Patio (now Johnny’s) and Foster Freeze. They hit the orchard parties.
They did the same hijinks such as climbing the fence around the Manteca High swimming pool and then when Manteca Police officer Ron Hedberg came by to check while making his rounds, they’d jump out of the pool and hide in the shadows. Hedberg would notice the ripples in the water and then in a loud voice order whoever was inside the fence to come out because if he had to enter the fenced area he’d have to beat them with his flashlight.
That brought Cruz, Terry and other buddies from out of the shadows. As they scaled the fence they had a stern warning that the officer had better not catch them in the pool again.
“Of course we were back two months later and the same thing happened,” Terry said with a chuckle.
After high school, Cruz went to work part-time at Hater’s Furniture while going to college. Terry worked at the Defense Depot in Tracy. Both got their draft notices within weeks of each other. They both also went to basic training together. And both ended up in Vietnam at the same time — Cruz with a tank unit and Terry with a support unit.
Terry recalled how his father cried when he saw his son’s draft notice.
But there was little doubt that his father expected him to serve his country.
“If I had gone to Canada my father would have gone up there, got me and shot me himself,” Terry said. “He was a Greek immigrant and he was proud of what this country gave his family.”
Terry said his father tried to enlist but the military wouldn’t take him because he had lost one eye to a grease accident during his job as a cook. His father pressed them to still take him arguing a cook didn’t need two eyes. They still refused.
Cruz’ sister brought the Selective Service letter to him at Hafer’s.
“We lived a block from the store,” Cruz said. “I remember her walking into the backroom with the letter.”
There was little doubt that Cruz would serve.
“My mother came from Mexico to the United States,” Cruz said. “She felt the same way (as Terry’s father).”
Cruz set target record
at Fort Knox for
Both Cruz and Terry went to work when they got back home, with Terry returning to the Defense Depot and Cruz going back to working at Hafer’s before switching eventually to the Postal Service. They both married Manteca High graduates. They both bought homes in Manteca. They both retired here although Terry took a job with the school district several years after retiring.
They both belong to the American Legion as well as the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“The first time you have to fire your gun in a fight you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore,” Terry said.
And while Terry had the “luxury” of returning most nights to base after engaging the enemy, the two months that Cruz spent in Vietnam was primarily on the road moving through the Mekong Delta and other battle areas where his skills as a machine gunner reflected in setting a record for most hits during training at Fort Knox came in handy.
He also learned other skills such as how lit cigarettes were effective for getting leeches off your legs after they attacked you when you had to wade into rice paddies to get tanks unstuck.
“I learned to smoke in Vietnam but I quit after I got back,” Cruz said.
As for their friendship, Cruz noted Terry is “always happy.”
“He’s a great guy and is always there for you,” Cruz said.
Terry feels the same way about Cruz.
“He’s honest,” Terry said. “What you see is what you get.”
And for 54 years and counting Cruz and Terry have gotten an enduring friendship that grew out of hanging out in the halls at Manteca High, shooting pool at Mel’s Billiards on Friday and Saturday nights, cruising Yosemite Avenue, hitting orchard parties, getting into trouble, facing the hell of war, returning to an ungrateful nation, going right back to work, and raising families.
“That’s what kept you going in Vietnam,” Terry said, “dreaming of coming home, getting married, buying a house with a white picket fence, and having lots of babies.”