SAN ANTONIO — Fred Navarro was born a soldier. He started on the battlefield of life as a child. The Hutchinson, Kansas native would rather forget his childhood.
"Life at home with my grandparents wasn't very good,” he said.
He lived with his grandparents, but his father, Charles Navarro, who was a World War II veteran, would come over on the weekends. Navarro said he would get the dreaded ‘drunk beatings’ from his father.
At nine years old, he ran away until he was caught and given an option by a juvenile officer to live in an orphanage. His hopes of life getting better were soon diminished. Navarro said the orphanage was abusive too.
He said orphans were punished for their shortcomings and mischief at the end of week. Navarro said the kids were told to place their hands on the fireplace to position them for punishment.
“We had to take licks,” he said.
Navarro remained at the orphanage until he was a sophomore in high school. He and a group of guys from the orphanage decided to leave their abusive life behind. The family of one of his friends took him in. Life started to get better.
“I always did things to be the best, because I had been beaten and not loved,” he said.
He was a state champion caliber athlete who played football and ran track. Navarro started to field college offers, but decided to enlist in the Army in 1961. The 18-year-old had no idea a life-changing mission was a few years away.
In fact, in April 1966, as he and his Charlie company landed for their search and destroy mission in Vung Tau, Vietnam, he was still clueless. “We didn’t know what was about to happen,” he said.
30 miles east of Saigon, on April 11 the Viet Cong started a battle the soldiers didn’t see coming. Navarro was the point man.
“The VC had gotten all around us,” he said. “We didn’t take but a few steps and all hell broke loose.”
He said they fought for their lives but were outmanned and outgunned. “I don’t know how we made it. I really don’t,” he said. “There was 180 of us and 550 of them.”
Navarro said it was a nightmare and heart-racing situation where American soldiers were going down fast. They radioed the Air Force to send help to get the wounded.
William Pitsenbarger, on his day off, jumped on a helicopter to fly into the battle to save Americans—if he could.
Navarro remembers the Ohio native and pararescue coming down from the helicopter to the ground.
Two loads of troops went up into the air and away from the Battle of Xa Cam My. On the third trip, Navarro said the wounded were lifted to safety again. The pilot beckoned for ‘Pits’ as the pararescue was called.
“The pararescue motto is 'so that others may live',” Navarro said. “So, Pitsenbarger waved the helicopter away.”
The attack was relentless. Four hours into the battle Navarro was shot.
“Imagine 700 guns firing at the same time. Pitsenbarger came to check on me---and he took his flight vest off and put it on my chest.” Navarro said. “And then he pulled two dead Americans on top of me to protect me.”
As Pitsenbarger ran away, Navarro said the hero was killed. The gunfire still did not let up. Wounded Navarro lay under the dead bodies as darkness fell. He said they couldn’t see a thing.
“We laid there all night, which was really scary. You couldn’t see your hands in front of your face,” he said. “But you could hear guys moaning and crying and calling for their mother---praying.”
Their prayers were answered the next day. The attack ended and the soldiers were rescued, Navarro said.
He said 180 soldiers walked into that mission. 111 were wounded and 48 were killed. Navarro left the devastating scene on the same helicopter Pits flew in on.
The next battle was trying to get Pitsenbarger the Air Force Medal of Honor. According to Navarro, the effort was denied in 1967. But in 2002, Former Speaker of the House John Boehner pushed approval through President Bill Clinton.
Pitsenbarger’s father received the award for his son.
“Pitsenbarger is a hero,” Navarro said.
A movie about the battle called ‘The Last Full Measure’ is scheduled for release in late January, according to the production and film company Roadhouse Attractions—who owns the rights.
The film has been shown at several military installments already. Navarro, who is not fan of war movies, said he was assured this was going to be a real story. After seeing the film with stars like William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda and Jeremy Irvine, this film, he said, is the exception.
The movie’s title comes from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.
“…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
77-year-old Navarro is not only retired from the Army after 28 years, he’s also a retired Northeast ISD bus driver. His wife Annette still drives buses for NEISD.
That day in April is one he continues to live with. He said getting a good night’s sleep wasn’t a reality for 20 years. His PTSD is overwhelming, but marriage, medicine and a furry emotional support dog named Max make life better.
“This incident has done its damage,” he said. “And it’s sad because I’m not really the person I used to be.”
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