Carl Johnson carries with him the anguish of a single day almost 53 years ago.
You can hear the sorrow in his voice and see his eyes begin to well with tears as he purposefully tells how his three best friends — all as close as brothers — were killed in a battle in Vietnam on April 27, 1970.
Johnson, a 74-year-old Vietnam War Veteran who served in the U.S. Army, First Cavalry Division, talks about that day often even though it brings pain. He tells the story to remember his friends, cope with their deaths, and teach others what the Vietnam War was really like.
Now retired and on permanent disability with post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes, Johnson lives in West Hempstead with his wife, Suzanne. He helped create a Vietnam War Memorial at Sewanhaka High School — where he graduated in 1967 — to honor nine veterans killed in Vietnam.
“You lived with death,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to be there. The Vietnamese didn’t want us there. The people back home didn’t want us there. But you’re there. Why? Because the government said so.”
He pauses and looks straight ahead. “Did I want to go to war? No. But I did my duty and I’m proud of it.”
SUB HED: A soldier’s journey
When Johnson graduated high school, the Vietnam War had already become one of the main events in America. U.S. troop levels were approaching half a million.
A listless teenager, Johnson failed out of New York Institute of Technology within three semesters. He lost his deferment and entered the Army in June of 1969.
“At that time, when you went into the service, it was pretty well known that you were going to Vietnam,” Johnson said.
He completed basic training, was shipped to Vietnam and after completing two weeks of jungle training, assigned to a company of 100 men.
“Our job was to go out into the jungle and find the enemy and kill them before they killed us,” Johnson said.
Soon, he befriended three other soldiers who would become as close as brothers.
SUB HED: Best friends
Johnson became best friends with Richard “Richie” Forte from East Northport, Gary Sanceverino from the Bronx, and Larry Loncon from Louisiana. Richie talked about the four of them going to Jones Beach, and they wanted to go into New York City with Gary.
They all became close through shared combat experiences. Larry was the only one not from New York, but that didn’t matter.
“He liked hanging around with us,” Johnson said. “He thought we were tough New York guys.”
Johnson said there was one thing that made war tolerable — friendship.
“You got to know guys like a brother,” he said. “We were inseparable, until April 27, 1970 when the three of them got killed one day in battle.”
SUB HED: Tragedy in combat
Johnson was a field radio operator who communicated with superiors using a PRC-25 radio. On April 27, 1970 Johnson and the company of 100 soldiers was deep in the jungle in the Phuock Long region of Southeast Vietnam. Johnson had about half a year in the jungle and knew what to look for.
“I see some trees that were cut down. They were very fresh,” Johnson recalled. “You get over there and you become a very good hunter.”
The lieutenant ordered Johnson to radio the news to the captain. The company waited for 15 minutes, and then continued in the jungle.
A German shepherd they brought with them “alerted” meaning it smelled something. Johnson radioed the information to the captain, and the company waited, and then started marching.
“That’s when all hell breaks loose,” Johnson said.
During the attack, Richie and Gary were hit by a grenade. Larry, a medic, rushed to help. Johnson was on the other side of a hill and didn’t see the explosion.
“I was told that Larry was working on Richie,” Johnson said, “and he got hit and fell down on top of Richie.”
After the battle, when Johnson learned he lost three best friends in minutes, there was no time for mourning.
“It’s just, ‘Move it up, move out,’” Johnson said. “I mean, here I just lost three brothers, and it’s like, you’re a GI. You just keep going. And that was that.
“You don’t mourn because you’re supposed to be this tough guy who just takes it and forgets about it. But you never forget about it.”
SUB HED: Homecoming, and a new mission
There was no reception when Johnson arrived at JFK Airport after his tour. He walked through the airport and got into a car driven by a friend. He asked if they could drive around Long Island for a while.
Johnson returned to ‘normal’ life. He graduated college while working days, met his wife, and raised a family. His grandson, Connor Gentile, graduated from Division High School in 2022 and is studying at West Point.
Johnson said he has been in therapy for 20 years. He has been active in several veterans’ organizations, and he speaks frequently about his experiences to remember his friends, and hopefully teach younger generations what sacrifice for country means.
Johnson said he hopes the divisiveness engulfing America today can be resolved.
“What I find most disheartening is that younger people aren’t taught to appreciate America, to appreciate and honor the flag,” he said.
Johnson was raised in the Floral Park Covenant Church, and he said faith and prayer helped him in Vietnam and when he got home. He thinks about his friends who died in combat on April 27, 1970 every day.
“I will take that day and those memories to the grave,” he said. “And I hope to meet my friends again.”