Tone Johnson, Joe Pena, Vince Cantu
Marshall, Texas; Lavaca, Texas; Refugio, Texas
As Tone Johnson, Joe Pena, and Vince Cantu – three of the many Texans who were soldiers with the U.S. Army’s First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry – rode in the well of the Huey helicopters flying over the South Vietnam treetops, they expected a minor engagement with a relatively small enemy force. They had trained for this for months under the command of Hal Moore, who had been charged with pioneering a new kind of warfare the Army termed “Airmobile.” The trio had no way of knowing they were headed for the first major battle of the Vietnam War in the Valley of the Ia Drang.
Johnson was only steps from the helicopter at LZ Xray when he was hit and knocked unconscious. Waking later, he found himself the “ranking Private” survivor of his squad, surrounded by incessant mortar explosions and gunfire, with the enemy closing in. Seriously wounded himself, his only choice was to call in a napalm strike directly on his own position.
Pena’s mortar platoon, which should have been in the rear, found itself with no choice but to shoot its defensive fire nearly straight up. Cantu was zigzagging through the incoming fire to retrieve the dead.
The November, 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang was witnessed by Texan journalist Joe Galloway, who later would join with Moore to write the best-selling book recounting the bloody battle “We Were Soldiers Once, And Young.” The story is also told in the feature film “We Were Soldiers” starring Mel Gibson as Moore.
Johnson, who had enlisted in the Army, spent many months in hospitals recovering from his injuries. As he observed the care provided to him and other wounded soldiers, he was inspired to pursue a career in medicine, and is now a physician in Corpus Christi. Pena spent 30 years as a law enforcement officer and sheriff in Calhoun County, and now serves as the Veterans Services Officers for the county. Vince Cantu is retired from a career in Houston public transportation.
They were soldiers once, and young. Now, they are Texas heroes.