CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Army, 1st Cavalry Division
Date: May 15, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell
Summarizer: William Elwell
Gregory Kucharewski was born in 1948 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, into a family with a history and tradition of military service. His father and a number of uncles on both sides of the family had either served in the US Navy, Army, Army Air Forces or the Italian army in World War II and the Korean War. Kucharewski grew up listening to stories of wars and wounds from the conflicts his family members had engaged in.
Kucharewski was drafted in 1967, following his graduation from cosmetology school. His mother had kept his draft notice from him for two weeks, only informing him two weeks before he was supposed to report for service. Kucharewski recalled that he was aware of all the “draft-dodgers” in the country at the time and felt that, considering his family’s military legacy, “that wasn’t an option for me.” He said that though he had “always wanted to be in the army… when my time came I didn’t really want to be in the army.” A number of his friends were drafted around the same time, but they did not serve with him.
In September, 1967, Kucharewski received immunization vaccinations and was formally inducted into the army in Newark, New Jersey, then left for basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. While adjusting to army life, he remembered that he “wasn’t used to the screaming and yelling,” but conceded that the drill sergeants “probably just wanted you to learn.”
After two months at Fort Dix, Kucharewski was transferred to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for advanced infantry and jungle training. The course included instruction in weapons, booby traps, and survival techniques. He recalled that it was “the best training around” and that he began to take notes on his experiences in a notebook he carried with him throughout his service. Weapons training at Fort Polk included marksmanship with the M-14 and M-16 rifles and M-60 machine gun, as well as grenades and anti-tank weapons. Kucharewski also was instructed in helicopter air assault tactics, which would become part of his daily routine in Vietnam.
Kucharewski shipped out to Vietnam by air and arrived “in country” in February of 1968, landing at Bien Hoa airbase near Saigon. He was transferred from there to An Khe, the staging area for the 1st Cavalry Division, and was assigned as a replacement in Company A of the First Battalion of the division’s 8th Cavalry. The unit was sent to Quang Tri Province to conduct operations against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular forces.
Kucharewski’s “baptism by fire” occurred when his second platoon held a reserve position on Company A’s night perimeter behind the first platoon, which took fire from hostile forces. The first platoon lost some men, but by morning, the enemy had disengaged and disappeared without a trace.
During his tour of duty, Kucharewski participated in “Operation Delaware” in the A Shau Valley, and “Operation Pegasus,” a relief force for the Marines besieged at Khe Sahn. He is still bewildered by the A Shau operation, because his unit defended a low valley; and, he had been taught that it was always preferable to “take the high ground” in a military situation. On a patrol through the jungle near Khe Sahn, Kucharewski encountered a recently abandoned North Vietnamese campsite. The North Vietnamese had left behind a bamboo cage presumably intended to confine American prisoners-of-war, an image that haunts him to this day. He also distinctly remembers the smell of the camp, recalling that “they had an odor and we had an odor.” Kucharewski was deployed on search-and-seize, search-and-destroy and patrol operations throughout his tour in Vietnam. He eventually was promoted to sergeant and was in charge of the platoon’s radio communications, and responsible for smoke signaling to identify positions and perimeters.
Kucharewski, like many servicemen in Vietnam, was exposed to Agent Orange. He believes that it had “its good points and its bad points.” Agent Orange greatly increased visibility, and therefore safety, around friendly firebases by killing jungle growth. Its medical effects were not apparent until much later. Kucharewski was diagnosed with multi-chemical sensitivity, which necessitated his retirement from his own cosmetology business many years after the war. His time in Vietnam also led to permanent hearing loss in his left ear due to artillery strikes. A visit to a Veterans Administration hospital upon returning home confirmed this. Kucharewski felt guilty seeing soldiers wounded worse than he was at the hospital, saying, “There were guys who could’ve used the compensation more than I could.”
Kucharewski flew home from Vietnam in February, 1969, carrying a captured Mosin Nagant Model 44 bolt-action rifle as a souvenir, and wearing his uniform. He was chastised by peace activists at Newark Airport, as well as on the bus ride he took to complete his journey. After closing his cosmetology business in 1992 due to his Agent Orange exposure, Veterans Administration assistance allowed Kucharewski to return to school for computer programming. He was hired at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he began his second career in the mail room. Following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, Kucharewski helped to safeguard the base from the subsequent mailed anthrax threat. He believed that his military experience assisted him in training younger staff members to be alert and aware, saying that “everything happens for a reason.”
In the 1980s, Kucharewski was watching a Memorial Day parade in Brick Township, New Jersey, in which his daughter was marching with her Brownie troop. He was wearing his old military hat, which was noticed by a group of Vietnam veterans marching in the parade with the Vietnam Veterans of America. The group was carrying a bamboo cage similar to the ones Kucharewski had seen in the jungles around Khe Sahn! They invited him to join the march, which he did. Years would pass, but Kucharewski would eventually join the Vietnam Veterans of America, as well as other veterans’ associations. Other than the Vietnam Veterans of America, he is very active with the program “Playing Hooky from PTSD,” which seeks to bring veterans from all wars on fishing trips for relaxation and recuperation. Kucharewski believes that fishing is a very relaxing and natural remedy for stressful situations, and he is an avid fisherman himself.
Kucharewski is very proud of his time in the service and is doing the best he can to give back to other veterans, as he believes that he was once in a similar situation following his return from Vietnam.