Lance Cpl. Lou Piazza of Venice got Navy Commendation Medal for saving Marine’s life in Vietnam

Lance Corporal Lou Piazza of Venice served with Delta Company, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division in Vietnam in1968. He signed up right out of high school and was sent to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, Calif.

“The drill sergeant told us, ‘Maybe half of you guys will come back alive from Vietnam.’ It scared the heck out of us,” he recalled 50 years later.

“We flew out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. to Hawaii, Okinawa, and on to Da Nang,” Piazza said.

“We couldn’t land at the base right away because it was being shelled by the enemy. We waited for an hour or so before landing.

“They didn’t supply us with weapons until we got to our base camp. We ended up on Hill 41, about 60 miles outside Da Nang.

“Our first firefight was on April 18, 1968 when we were on patrol in the jungle near our camp,” Piazza explained. “We were on a night patrol and had set up outside a village waiting for the Vietcong to come into the village and take whatever they could.

“It was dark and I could see this guy walking toward us. I said to my good friend Mark who was right beside me, ’There’s a gook on your left side!’

“All of a sudden the VC opened upon us. We lost one guy who was shot in the throat during that first firefight.”

Piazza holds his M-16 rifle while on Hill 41 in Vietnam. He served with Delta Company, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. Photo provided.

Piazza holds his M-16 rifle while on Hill 41 in Vietnam. He served with Delta Company, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. Photo provided

Piazza’s big enemy encounter came on May 19, 1968 in a place they called “Happy Valley” along the Ho Chi Min Trail in Quang Nam Province.

“I was the point guy for the company,” he said. “Me and another Marine had machetes and we were clearing the way to Charley Ridge’for the other 250 in the company. We had hoped to ambush the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) at the base of the hill.”

Unfortunately his company walked into a NVA ambush.

‘All of a sudden things hit the fan,” he recalled. “We opened up on the NVA with machine-gun fire. Things got so bad our company had to take cover in a dried up river bed.

“While all this is happening a Marine out front of our front line about 20 yards got hit. He was shot in his side three times and was yelling for help. I didn’t know the guy, all I knew was that he was from New York. I decided to go get him. I gave my radioman my M-16 and went after him.

“I ran out toward the NVA, got the guy, threw him over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry and ran 150 meters back to a protected area. An Army medic took it from there.” For saving the soldier’s life, Piazza received the Navy’s Commendation Medal. He never got the rifleman’s name. All he knows is he survived the fight.

Piazza said 63 Americans lost their lives in the shootout. Many more NVA may have been killed that day, too. “We opened up on them with artillery and mortars once we dropped back.

“Looking back on it I don’t know why I wasn’t killed. Bullets were flying all around me,” he said retelling his story at age 71.”

“The operation we were on was called Mameluke Thrust. It was a four month operation searching for the NVA and VC in the mountains. Don’t ask me where we went, we just did what we were told. We lost a lot of men.

“We were some place, it might have been Hill 868 and it was raining pretty bad. Me and the gunny sergeant were trying to keep dry under a poncho. Right then we heard this pop.

Grenades were coming our way. I grabbed my M-16 and the gunny grabbed his .45 and we both rolled out of there just before they blew up.

“The NVA opened up on us. We got behind a tree, but the sergeant was hit in the shoulder. All I had was my M-16 with 18 rounds,” Piazza said. “I fired at the enemy one shot at a time all night long.

“Reinforcements were sent to our hill. There was this one new guy who got spaghetti and meatballs in his C-Rations. He also got a little pound cake that was very good. I swapped him the cake for my four cigarettes in my C-Rations because I didn’t smoke.

“The next day we were collecting our dead and putting them in body bags and I found him. He was hit in the back and killed by shrapnel. He was a real nice guy, but he didn’t last long in Vietnam.”

Coming home from Vietnam after 13 months in the field was an experience.

“We came back to Marine Camp El Toro, Calif.,” Piazza said. “I flew from there to Chicago airport in my uniform, That’’s all I had. The Vietnam war protesters were waiting. They were rude and they didn’t care.

“I got a job right away working on the line for Amoco Chemical,” he said. “Later I went to work as a liquor salesman. For 32 years I sold whisky to restaurants and bars all over Illinois.”

This is Piazza today at 71. He lives in San Lino Condominiums in Venice. Sun photo by Don Moore

This is Piazza today at 71. He lives in San Lino Condominiums in Venice. Sun photo by Don Moore

Piazza retired in his 60s and moved to Venice in 2011. “My wife passed away, but I have a lovely daughter named Jennifer.”

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, and is republished with permission.

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