PHOENIX — “My name is Frank Vinales. Born and raised in New York City in the Bronx.”
Back then, he was just a carefree kid enjoying the innocence of childhood.
“It was actually fun back in the ’50s,” he said. “I mean everybody was friendly. We used to skate down the middle of the street and we would have water balloon fights.”
But when President John F. Kennedy was killed, he said it gave him an urge to do something to help his country.
“To step up and not just be a stand-by looker,” he said. “It seemed to have touched me, as it did most people.”
At 17, he joined the Army and was promoted to sergeant within his first year of service.
He went through jungle school in Panama, war games against the Green Berets in Georgia and to reconnaissance school and became a machine gun squad leader.
“When we came out of jump school, we got assigned to a unit that had just been emptied out,” he said. “They just shipped everybody out to Vietnam.”
It was at Fort Campbell Kentucky where he met Sgt. Paul Cline.
“He was a champion wrestler from his town so he was a pretty heavy dude,” he said. “He was the only guy I ever had a fight with in the service, which seemed to have brought us closer together.”
Shortly after, 19-year-old Vinales headed to Vietnam on the USS William Weigel.
On Feb. 5, 1968, his unit was sweeping the city of Phan Thiet in southeast Vietnam.
“We were going down the trail and we started taking mortar fire, and I heard that one of the sergeants out front got cut off,” he said.
It was Cline.
“And every time that they tried to go out to get him, they started taking in heavy machine gun fire,” Vinales said.
Vinales was angry and wasn’t ready to leave his friend out there.
“I took it upon myself to find another way to get in there,” he said.
He grabbed a LAW (a hand-held rocket launcher), backtracked about a quarter-mile and came in from a different direction.
“On the way, I fired the LAW into one of the buildings, one of the homes that they were shooting machine gun fire from,” he said. “So I knocked that out and it got quiet after that.”
Vinales just crawled and crawled until he finally found Cline.
“He was pretty happy to see me,” he said.
Cline was shot in his legs and couldn’t walk. He was too big for Vinales to carry.
“I told him I would stay with him until the rest of the guys could move up,” he said. “In the meantime, we started taking rifle fire from a banana grove which was maybe 50-60 meters away — not very far.”
Vinales fired back and tried direct fire from other soldiers.
“They kept shooting and the bullets were flying over my head and sounded like bees going by,” he said. “Leaves were falling out of the tree.”
During a few minutes of heavy fire, Vinales was shot twice.
“It flipped me around and, the next thing I knew, I was looking up at the sky,” he said. “My arm felt wet so I realized I was hit.”
But he didn’t realize he was hit in my ankle at the same time, so he just flipped over and kept firing.
The men behind him kept trying to move up, but every time, they would be targeted by rocket fire.
“Every 15, minutes the guys would yell out ‘Frank, you okay?’” he remembered. “And I’d say ‘Yeah we’re okay.’”
Vinales said, each time he spoke, the gunfire would pick up.
“So after about the second or third time of that happening, I stopped answering them,” he chuckled.
The enemy changed position. Vinales and Cline were hiding behind a small tree when bullets started coming from a different direction.
That’s when Cline was hit again.
“He got hit in the back, I saw it in his face when he got hit,” Vinales said. “I saw the tears.”
“As he got hit, he leaned over and lay himself on top of me,” so Cline would take the brunt of the bullets, Vinales said.
“I passed out from lack of blood,” he said.
His arm had been bleeding profusely from a 7-8 inch gash.
“The moon was out, it was a full moon … I knew he was dead already … because I knew,” he said.
When he regained consciousness, Vinales started crawling back and was hit two more times but made it to safety.
Vinales received four Purple Hearts and one Silver Star for going to get his friend.
KTAR will honor each grand marshal of the upcoming Veterans Day parade during our Profiles in Courage series.
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- Profiles in Courage: Army vet wants fallen soldiers, including son, to be remembered
- Profiles in Courage: Veterans Day Parade grand marshal recalls fighting in WWII