A version of this article originally appeared in “We Remember, So You Won’t Forget: Stories of Cambridge and Deerfield Veterans” published in 2017 by the Cambridge Veterans Memorial Committee and Hometown News.
Phillip Dunaj enlisted into the U.S. Army in 1968. From the South Side of Chicago, Ill., he quickly found himself at Fort Ord, Calif., where he completed his basic training. It was then off to Fort Riley in Kansas, where he attended advance infantry classes.
Four months later, Dunaj was a grenadier and member of the 9th infantry, “Old Reliable,” division. He was stationed at the Mekong River Delta, Vietnam.
“I was there during the monsoons; it rained every day,” Dunaj said. “You couldn’t see your hands in front of your face. We were always wet, sometimes with water up to our waists.”
Early into his time in Vietnam, Dunaj found himself in what would become an all too familiar location — the air.
Flying in a helicopter and the only new face on board, Dunaj let his legs hang out the side of the aircraft as it came upon a monsoon storm cloud. All at once, the other men onboard the helicopter began to pull their legs back inside.
When the rain hit, Dunaj remembers, it felt like cold needles tearing up his legs. Today, Dunaj laughs at the memory. “That was one of the good times,” he said.
As in any war, Dunaj experienced his fair share of horrors. For a long time, he didn’t talk about his time in the war, and says certain movies go it “too right.”
“It changed me, I wish I didn’t have to do it,” Dunaj said.
Dunaj had two main duties during his time in Vietnam. The first was to guard villages, a task he remembered as being one of the good times. Once, he was witness to both a Vietnamese funeral and a wedding.
The funeral, he remembers, was interesting. Due to the rain and standing water, digging graves was an impossibility, so caskets were placed on stands above ground.
For the wedding, Dunaj took part in the local customs — drinking his share of the local and potent rice wine, then eating a customary dinner of raw fish.
Dunaj’s second main duty involved going up in the helicopters and scouting. When their colonel would think he saw something happening, he’d drop Dunaj and the rest into the jungle to lend a hand.
The sound of bullets whizzing past his head is something he will never forget.
There were many firefights, he said, adding he could recount them all.
“People ask me now-a-days, ‘well what’d you do?’ Infantry. ‘But what did you do over there?’ What do you think? You’re in a war — you kill people.”
After seven and a half months of fighting, Dunaj was wounded. Bleeding and flying out of the war zone, Dunaj lay in the helicopter cold from the shock and colder still from the helicopter blades throwing rain water around.
“Then, all of a sudden, he was taking my bandages off,” Dunaj said, addressing his friend with a concerned, “I’m not dead yet.” “And, he told me we were at the hospital and they were getting me ready for surgery.”
He recovered in Japan. He wouldn’t return to Vietnam, but neither would he be allowed to leave the military just yet.
It was normal at the time for soldiers done in Vietnam to be immediately released from the military, but that was only if they had served a year. Dunaj had only seven and a half months under his belt, so they kept him. Dunaj would finish his time working as part of an engineering unit at a barracks in the states.
Then, at 21, he was out of the military, taking a train back to Chicago. People had warned Dunaj not to wear his uniform. Dunaj, though, was undeterred, and while waiting in uniform for his brother to pick him up, he said three men assaulted him.
“I was on crutches still from a broken ankle and they came up, knocked me down and took my crutches,” Dunaj said. “They called me a baby killer.”
What the general public, friends and family couldn’t understand was his bond with the men he had served with shoulder to shoulder in the field.
To this day, the men stay in contact and hold reunions.
Their first reunion was in 1989 and brought Dunaj and his buddies from around the country to meet in Cincinnati. The men were together for the first time in 20 years and their gathering was covered as a front-page story by the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Five years later, he had moved to a home on Ripley Road near Cambridge and it was time for another reunion. The 25-year reunion was an extended three-day long event that the whole town got into the swing for.
He helped cater this event as he worked as a caterer at the time, and festivities were held at the former Ivan’s Bar, now the Lake Ripley Inn, with lunch and nightly events.
The owner of the former hardware store, which used to be on Main Street in downtown Cambridge, decorated his front windows in honor of the men and their sacrifices. He recalled many people from the village lending a hand and joining in the celebration and remembrance.
“My cousin asked when we first all got together, ‘are these other guys from the 9th infantry? No, these are the guys I was actually in the field with. Some of them didn’t make it back, some of them did. It’s the bond we have, and nobody’s taking it away from us,” Dunaj said.