MADISON – The images are sharp and colorful. Images from a different time in a war-torn country many miles from home.
Within a year after arriving in Vietnam in August 1966, Spc. 4 Pat Freel purchased a Nikon F camera from a PX. Armed with Kodak Ektachrome or Kodachrome, he used the 35mm to shoot more than 500 photos of nearly everything he saw. There was famed CBS newsman Walter Cronkite in Hue in February 1968. There was an Army truck flipped over on its side by a 122mm rocket attack.
All these pictures reside as digital images in Freel’s computer at his home in a peaceful Madison neighborhood. He asked a company to digitize the color slides for him about a decade ago.
“I have 16 directories filled with Vietnam pictures,” the retired chief warrant officer 4 said. “And each directory probably contains upwards of 36 pictures. So, I’ve got probably 500 pictures that I took in Vietnam.
“Lucky pictures, good camera.”
The Merrick, New York native, the oldest of seven children, joined the Army in 1965 when he was 17 and a half to leave a challenging homelife. He turned 18 in June 1966, making him eligible for deployment to Vietnam that August. Because of his test scores, Freel was offered a position with the Army Security Agency. He became a communications center specialist.
Freel would go on to serve 51 years in Army intelligence. This included 35 years in the military, culminating with his retirement in 2000, and 16 years as an Army civilian at Redstone Arsenal. He retired from the 902nd Military Intelligence Group in 2016. “In a variety of roles that I can’t go into,” he said of his career.
In August 1966 he left Oakland aboard a transport ship called the USNS Gaffey. The trip to Vietnam took nearly 30 days. The enlisted Soldiers were crowded in the hull in bunks stacked four high while the noncommissioned officers and officers slept in the staterooms on deck. But Freel took advantage of his high school newspaper background to volunteer for the ship’s daily newsletter, so he had the run of the entire ship instead of being stuck in the hull.
“I’ve always been heavy into photography,” he said.
Part 382 in series
They landed in Qui Nhon and were greeted by air-conditioned buses and girls selling cokes on the beach. They drove to Pleiku, in the highlands. Freel spent three months there as a communications center specialist for the Army Security Agency, helping to intercept enemy communications to learn where their troops were and what they were doing.
“It was a metal hut on the back of a vehicle, either a three-quarter ton or a deuce and a half,” he said of the comm center.
Next he was transferred to Nha Trang and reassigned to the 1st Field Force Vietnam headquarters. In March 1968 he moved to Phan Rang which had the headquarters for the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. “So, we were attached as an Army Security Agency unit to the 101st Airborne Division,” he said. “And we provided direct support to the commander of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, Brig. Gen. Omar Barsanti.
“The thing that was unique about that assignment was the 1st Brigade of the 101st would move on a regular basis. So, wherever they moved, we moved. Because of that, we moved to a lot of locations around Vietnam.”
Their stops included places like Bao Loc, Phan Thiet, and Hue. He extended his yearlong tour six months and left Vietnam in March 1968.
“It was a real experience,” Freel said. “I grew up in a middle-class Catholic family, Long Island, New York. And after I was trained, first place I went was Fort Wolters, Texas. They said we would be deployed to Vietnam. I had never heard of Vietnam.
“And within six months, I was in a war zone. So, it was a real event. But the war side apart, it’s an absolutely beautiful country. And generally speaking, friendly people; of course, everybody isn’t. When I was in Nha Trang, that was on a beach and some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.”
He said he remembers the heavy rains in the monsoons when the red mud would stick to everything. He remembers filling many sandbags to provide protection from the periodic mortar attacks. Freel received the Bronze Star, an Army Commendation Medal and the standard Vietnam service awards.
“When you’re there at the age of 18, you don’t think about the risks nearly as much as you would at age 40 or later,” he said. “I wasn’t a hero. I just did my job.”
Freel received an associate degree in liberal arts from the University of New York in 1973. He liked doing intelligence work and decided to stay in the Army.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Sharon, in 1968. His wife of 50 years died in 2019. Their daughter, Deborah, and two grandsons reside in Charleston, South Carolina. Sharon’s brother, Air Force Sgt. George Mainardy, was killed at Da Nang in a rocket attack at the air base in 1972, near the end of the U.S. involvement in the war.
At 74 Freel enjoys computers, photography and target shooting. He has a 50% disability rating from Veterans Affairs.
He shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I think it’s excellent,” he said. “A lot of veterans from Vietnam that I met felt like they didn’t receive their due. And these commemorations perhaps just express the nation’s appreciation for what they did.”
Editor’s note: This is the 382nd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.