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A Tale of a High School Class Going to War
By Ed White (reviewer)
The Boys of St. Joe's '65 in the Vietnam War
by Dennis G. Pregent
(McFarland & Co, 2020)
In writing this short 232-page book, Dennis G. Pregent has created a one-of-a-kind story about 11 of his high school friends who went to Vietnam. He shares their experiences and brings the reader up to where they are today. I am not aware of any author, or study of this kind.
In the graduating class of 1965 from Saint Joseph's Catholic High School, North Adam, Massachusetts, there were 80 women and 66 men, of which 40 men served in the Vietnam era. According to an unofficial statistic of those whose names appear on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, 29% were Catholics; another 29% were categorized as Protestant, and 16 % coming from Baptist churches. So, the author's 1965 class was in line with the Catholic church's push on anti-communism and support for the war.
The students of Saint James came from blue-collar families where the mother stayed at home. Most of the group had fathers who served in World War II. North Adams has the same population today as it did in 1965: 13,000 residents. Perched in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains, North Adams is described as a Norman Rockwell kind of a town, and the photos and description of the town certainly confirm that notion.
Pregent's book is divided into two parts: in the first part—My Vietnam—the author describes his own experience. The second part, Their Vietnam, describes the life and experiences of his other eleven schoolmates. Before the two parts begin, the author has a map (I love maps!) where he indicates where each classmate served. The author also researched the Corps Tactical Zones, 1963-1973: US Armed Forces Organizational Structure, which I found to be very helpful. Additionally, he referenced Military Occupational Specialties which details each branch of military service. Again, I found this a unique contribution offering an important context for how the war was organized.
The format of the chapters of the veterans goes into deep research of each of those classmates who served. I do mean deep research. Dennis Pregent spent hours on the phone; he wrote numerous letters, attended the 50th Saint James High School Reunion, conducted extensive interviews, and reviewed countless family photos. He begins each chapter with their experience of being in Vietnam, then the author details each individual's life growing up in North Adams. He concludes each chapter with a description of where each classmate lives today. I believe each chapter could be a novel, as he has poured everything into it.
For example, Mike Gorman was an Army Helicopter Crew Chief/Gunner. In the Growing Up section of the book, Pregent traces his family history coming from England and then each family member and the places they moved, high school jobs, where he studied, what he studied, and many photos of the family, as well as his military decorations.
Perhaps the most fraught with emotion was Russell Roulier, a Marine, as was the author. The detail of the firefight that killed Russell could only be described by those who were present. Again, the author also goes into the details of growing up in North Adams. There are family photos of Roulier growing up; photos of his girlfriend, and vacation pictures with friends; as well as his final rites at Notre Dame Church in North Adams. What really stands out is the telegram that his family received from the Commandant of the Marine Corps informing them of Roulier's death, relating the details of funeral expenses. There are excerpts from letters the Marine wrote his parents from Parris Island and Vietnam, ending with the last letter he sent his sister.
What I found interesting is that he includes in these chapters the story of the class historian, Carol Bleau Boucher, a war protestor. Again, Pregent goes into the details of her family, and the arguments she had with her father over the Vietnam War. Boucher's father was the town barber. He fought in the Pacific during World War II. Carol was dating John Hartlage from a small town in Massachusetts. He later went to Vietnam where he died in 1968 at Dong Ha Combat Base. He was in the Seabees. Due to the injuries and deaths of high school friends, she became even more resolved to protest. The author ends her section by noting that she drives a sporty two-seater Mazda Miata and sports a Boston Red Sox hat. Hmmmm…
The author ends with an Epilogue. Seven of his classmates served in the Army; three in the Marine Corps and one in the Navy. Of the 11 men, nine received, or are receiving, disability payments. All received an Honorable Discharge. All were proud of their service. Most continue to think it was a winnable war, although they now believe politicians or military leaders did not know what they were doing at the time.
In the end, the author realized he had PTSD, and in 2017 became part of a therapy group. The book was therapy for Dennis Pregent, and we are grateful for what he has shared. The book is enlightening and will be long remembered.
Ed White is a Marine combat vet with memberships in VVAW, VFP, and VVA. He has taught courses on the Vietnam War at Triton College in Illinois.