By Sue Moore
It’s been said that one can never go back to an old haunt, especially one with memories of war. But many veterans do so. One was Gary Belden of Vicksburg, who went back to Vietnam where he had served in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, fighting to keep a strategic bridge open to traffic seven miles south of Da Nang.
His unit was assigned to keep the bridge open at all costs. He fought in a bunker next to Lewis Puller, Jr. his second lieutenant in the platoon. He fought in what came to be called the “bridge battle” in January 1968.
His platoon had been befriended by a young girl the platoon named Wendy. She lived near the bridge and had been considered a Viet Cong. She spoke no English but would bring fruit to sell to the hungry soldiers guarding the bridge each day. She got to be their mascot as they were stationed at the bridge every third month during Belden’s tour of duty. “She was sweet, so we looked after her. Then one day she was wounded in a firefight, losing her left arm, and my buddy, Joe Oncay, saved her life. He took her to the medics for help. This is the battle where I received a combat promotion as a machine gunner from PFC to corporal with a commendation for courage and composure under fire in August of 1968,” Belden said.
Shortly after that, Puller lost his legs in a battle that made him somewhat famous. He was the son of General “Chesty” Puller, the only man in the Army to go from private to general and the most decorated Marine in history. His son has written a book about his experiences in Vietnam.
Members of Belden’s unit have held reunions through the years and even visited Vietnam about 10 years ago. In February, Belden and Joe Oncay decided to visit Wendy on their second trip to the country. She had been unable to work because of the lost arm but she put on a big spread for them. They took her out to dinner and managed to leave her with hundreds of dollars when the visit was over. “Now when we go back, the people are so nice. It’s in their nature. She has a son and daughter-in-law but is divorced and her husband is deceased.”
Belden was later stationed in San Diego, Parris Island and Quantico, where he trained officers in jungle warfare who were studying to become Green Berets. He mustered out as a sergeant and went to work for Hoekstra’s Meat Co. in Kalamazoo. Shortly after that he got a job with Mead Paper Company and after six years there became a tower boss.
He went on to obtain an associate’s degree from Southern Ohio business college and then an electrical degree from University of Cincinnati. He is a boiler expert and can fly single engine aircraft. His final job before retiring and returning to Vicksburg was running the power plant at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Cincinnati for nine years.
He left Vicksburg at the age of 17 right out of Vicksburg High School in 1967 to join the Marines. He suffers from diabetes, which he believes is the result of being exposed to Agent Orange. He has had his remembrance of the bridge battle published in a book entitled “We Remember II”. His home on Sunset Lake has a room reserved for memorabilia from the Vietnam War along with some special items from World War II and the Korean War.