Phil Gioia followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming an Army officer.
“He was my hero growing up. He was great. Terrific officer. Great role model,” Gioia said.
The oldest of two sons of retired Lt. Col. Joseph and Diana Gioia, he entered ROTC at Virginia Military Institute. Gioia graduated from VMI in 1967 with a bachelor’s in history and became an infantry officer.
He was a 22-year-old second lieutenant when he went to Vietnam in early February 1968 during the Tet Offensive. This was his first of two Vietnam tours. He was a rifle platoon leader with 2nd Battalion, 505th Airborne, 82nd Airborne Division. They were up around Hue.
“My platoon discovered the first of the mass graves of Vietnamese who had been executed – murdered really – by the communists,” Gioia said. “That grave was on the north bank of the Perfume River and right near one of the old emperor tombs where they buried emperors.
“The action was spotty. It wasn’t constant contact. When you find them, there was a short fight then you’d keep looking.”
Gioia was medically evacuated April 5, 1968, after he got wounded on a ridge west of Hue in the hills. He got shot in the left arm. He was air evacuated to Japan for surgery and then sent back to the United States.
Between tours, Gioia commanded a company at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the 82nd Airborne as a first lieutenant.
Part 367 in series
His second tour in Vietnam was April 5, 1969, to April 5, 1970, with the 1st Air Cavalry Division. They were in III Corps, north of Saigon, in War Zone C up along the Cambodian border. Gioia was an infantry company commander with A Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry.
“A lot of action. Went up against mainline North Vietnamese units,” he said.
Gioia was nearly killed in August 1969 in a rubber plantation on the Cambodian border. While waiting with his troops to get airlifted out for a combat assault, he was sitting with his command group on a sandbag emplacement around a howitzer. That’s when a mortar attack ensued.
“I’m pretty sure it was a heavy mortar. So the first of several heavy rounds impacted right inside that ring,” Gioia said. “That round killed everybody in the gun crew right behind us; I think four or five men. And it severely wounded one of my men who was sitting right beside me. It smacked me and this man right upside this bunker. Almost broke my (left) ankle. So we had to tape it up real tight so I could walk.”
Gioia refused evacuation and went back to the field with his company. He completed his tour in April 1970 and returned home. His ankle eventually had to be surgically replaced because it was so badly damaged.
“Very challenging,” he said of his Vietnam deployments. “I had very good Soldiers on both tours. The difference between the two units was: The first tour I was with all volunteers –
paratroopers, all professional Soldiers. On my second tour, the company I commanded was about 70% draftees. And they were terrific Soldiers. They turned into absolutely terrific Soldiers.”
He received a Purple Heart with oak leaf, Silver Star with oak leaf, Bronze Star with V for valor, Vietnamese gallantry cross and the usual campaign medals. Gioia said he most remembers “the dedication of our Soldiers during the kind of combat missions we were required to perform.”
The Greenwich Village, New York, native was a captain when he left the Army in 1977 to attend graduate school in business. He received a master’s in foreign service from Georgetown University in 1973 and an MBA from Stanford in 1979. His career in technology, finance and consulting spanned almost 30 years. He retired two years ago from Pathfinder Partners, a technology consulting firm.
Gioia has written a book that details his life from 1946 until 1970 when he returned from Vietnam. “Danger Close!” will be published in June by Stackpole Books. “Danger Close was a radio term we would use when you were left buckle to belt buckle with an enemy unit,” he said.
Growing up in an Army family, he traveled throughout the world. He went to four different high schools in four years and graduated in Williamsburg, Virginia. The family spent three years in Japan when it was occupied after World War II, three years at West Point in the early 1950s, three years in Italy, two years at Fort Rucker and two years at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He was an Eagle Scout in 1960 at Fort Rucker. His father, a World War II veteran, medically retired after 29 years.
At 76 Gioia and his wife reside in Corte Madera, California. They have two daughters. Corte Madera is just north of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge. Gioia served about eight years on the city council and twice as the mayor. He likes sailing and military history.
He belongs to the American Legion, the 1st Cavalry Division Association and he is a life member of the Army Historical Foundation.
Gioia shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“First off the war was a long time ago. I’m glad the country is commemorating it as they are now because it was a very unpopular time when we all came back,” he said. “I was very proud to have served my country in time of war and to lead American Soldiers in combat.”
Editor’s note: This is the 367th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.