Matt Kamanu of Santa Rosa and Jim Medeiros of San Jose located three names on a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall erected Thursday in Sonoma as part of a four-day Veterans Day tribute.
"This was our battalion. We were Charlie Company," said Kamanu, a Native Hawaiian who was drafted, along with Medeiros, into the Army's 34th Armor Regiment, at age 18.
Standing by the 360-foot-long traveling wall — flat black aluminum panels etched with the names of more than 58,000 American casualties — Kamanu and Medeiros, both 66, recalled the horror of the night of March 1, 1967.
Their tank unit was stationed outside the village of Dau Tieng in southeast Vietnam when enemy forces opened fire from what was supposed to be friendly territory.
"Not on that night," Kamanu said.
The big tank guns initially remained silent, as their company commander had to radio for permission to shoot back, Kamanu said.
He was running toward another tank, carrying ammunition, when a rocket-propelled grenade pierced the tank's side, triggering a white phosphorus explosion that killed three crewmen and blew the driver, who survived, out of the tank.
Kamanu said he was moments away from climbing onto the tank, a move that likely would have taken his life.
Heavy fire from an AC-47 gunship, nicknamed "Puff, the Magic Dragon," ended the deadly firefight.
"It was a rough time," Medeiros said, recalling their tour from 1966-67.
They made pencil etchings of the names of those men: Alvester Hill, Jesse Castro and Joseph Vierra.
Kamanu, who visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., 10 years ago, recalled the visual impact of its polished stone surface engraved with the names of the dead.
"You see yourself (reflected), like you're in there with them," he said. "It is so touching."
The replica wall, provided by a Texas-based nonprofit, is the centerpiece of a Veterans Day program put on by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Bear Flag Post 1943 in Sonoma.
Dan Parker, the post commander, said he was gratified by the turnout of about 400 people for the Thursday afternoon opening of the Cost of Freedom Tribute, which runs through Sunday at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building at 126 First St. West, Sonoma.
Parker, who served in the Navy Seabees Reserve during Gulf War I, said that Veterans Day "should be a day of celebration," in contrast to the somber tone of Memorial Day, which honors service members who lost their lives.
The tribute, which includes a veterans job fair and offers counseling services for vets, features guest speakers each day, including a ceremony honoring firefighters and law enforcement officers at 1 p.m. today.
For a schedule of events, go to the website www.vfwpost1943.org.
Post 1943 put on the tribute to "draw attention to veterans' needs," Parker said, and to let Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, in particular, "know we are here for them."
Bill Myers of Bloomfield, who served as a Huey helicopter crew chief in Vietnam from 1968-69, said the long, black memorial wall was a stunning sight.
"It's just amazing to think of how many of these guys came home in metal coffins," said Myers, 64.