In 1965, 19-year-old New Bedford native Bill Comeau was drafted to fight in Vietnam alongside 17 other men from the city. After training with the 4th Infantry Division, Comeau shipped out to Vietnam in September 1966. He and his unit fought mostly in the jungle, including at the Battle of Suoi Tre, in which around 300 American soldiers faced 2,800 members of the Viet Cong on March 21, 1967.
“My battalion, a mechanized battalion, and a group of armor units raced to the battle to save the defenders,” Comeau said. “We arrived in time, but just barely. The artillerymen had run out of high explosive artillery rounds and were left to fire smoke rounds at the enemy when we arrived.”
Comeau’s unit and two others received the Presidential Unit Citation for their valor that day. His time in Vietnam shaped his future in more ways than he could have imagined. When he first got back to New Bedford, he did his best to put the war behind him, but he never forgot the battles he waged or the men he fought alongside, including his friend Donald Evans, killed in service. Seeking camaraderie at veteran’s organizations, Comeau joined the local branches of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), both of which he still belongs to today.
Comeau pursued a career as a technician at a local book manufacturing company and settled down with his wife, Chris. Then, in 2000, he decided to locate the men with whom he had served 35 years prior. This endeavor led him to form Alpha Association, a veterans organization for A Company, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry of the 4th Infantry Division. Comeau located around 80 men himself. Now, the group has over 200 members and gathers at yearly reunions. Comeau serves as president, newsletter publisher, historian and website manager for Alpha Association.
When Comeau first began Alpha Association, he realized that sharing stories would help people stay in touch with each other and learn more about the history they had participated in together. Interested in history since grade school, Comeau decided to dive into the origins of his company and battalion through a series of research trips to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. The more Comeau learned, the more he wanted to know. He shared his research in the form of newsletters, called Alpha’s Pride, and his work has even been published by the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. Since Alpha’s inception Comeau has written 93 newsletters, each of which has 20 or more pages. Comeau prides himself on preserving these stories as a source of living history for historians in the future.
At the encouragement of an editor friend, Comeau eventually compiled his work into a book. “Duel with the Dragon at the Battle of Suoi Tre” came out in 2022 as the first complete account of what happened that fateful day in 1967.
“Nobody ever heard that battle until I wrote about it in the book because nobody cared,” Comeau said. “But all the guys who were in that battle cared quite a bit.”
In addition to the work Comeau has done with his book and Alpha’s newsletters, he also has dedicated himself to uncovering the stories of local veterans and historical namesakes.
In an interview with The New Bedford Light, Comeau shared more about his historical research, his passion for storytelling, and his deep love and appreciation for his fellow veterans.
New Bedford Light: How did your interest in history develop?
Bill Comeau: It began in grade school. History was the subject I couldn’t wait to learn. It was easy for me to remember dates and it was easy to remember stories. … When I was sent to Vietnam, I wrote over 300 letters home. I knew that they were going to be important documents. They turned out to be quite important because a lot of them were published. I thought to myself, “What’s happening now is of historical significance. I need to document this.” That’s what I used as a basis for when I started publishing newsletters and went out to the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, because they are interested in living history. So that all formed the basis for my book also.
NBL: What does storytelling mean to you?
BC: My dad died when I was 2, and I had older sisters. We had two escapes from the life that we lived, and we didn’t have much money — The Free Public Library, where I learned to be an avid reader, and also the movie theaters. Movies were a form of escapism from the life I was living. So I was always looking at what made those movies interesting. I took that theory with me when I started to write stories. How do I put a hook in there? How do I get people interested to read more? That’s how my storytelling developed, through reading and those movies I saw every Saturday afternoon.
When we came home from Vietnam, there wasn’t a lot of appetite for hearing stories from Vietnam. By that time, the war was going badly and nobody wanted to hear about it. But I had all these documents, and I had documented what happened. I kept it to myself for 35 years until I found my guys. I knew they would be interested in it because I was telling this story, and nobody had ever told this story of what it was like to be an infantryman in Vietnam. It was pretty tough.
NBL: How did your writing journey unfold?
The writing began in March of 2000 when we founded Alpha Association. At the time, there were about 12 of us who got together and said ‘“Let’s go find the guys.” And I said, “Why don’t we publish a newsletter?” … Now I have over 90 of them now that I’ve done. So that’s when I began to write about us. I wanted to learn so much more, because we didn’t know what [the war] was about. They just told us to go into the jungle and kill it if it moves.
Alpha Association funded my trips — I did several to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and me and my wife researched all the history of our unit. We have information on everything that our unit has done, where it was, etc. I knew where [certain events had] happened. So I was able to say to people, “Remember when you got hit that day? This is where we were.” It was fascinating for my guys. With Donald Evans, my friend who was awarded the Medal of Honor, I had no idea where he was killed until I did the research. We were less than two miles out of basecamp.
My unit goes all the way back to 1798. We were there when Baltimore was saved [during the War of 1812] because our unit was on the outside of that fort. Anyhow, we got the designation of being the “Red, White and Blue Regiment” because of the “Star Spangled Banner” that Francis Scott Key wrote outside the Baltimore Harbor. They didn’t know about that at the Center of Military History, so I had to tell them about that and show them all the documents I had. It was John Adams, the second president, who authorized the 12th Infantry Regiment to be formed.
NBL: It’s interesting that you’re able to combine history and storytelling in this way.
BC: If I didn’t love history, I couldn’t do this. It’s like working on a video game. You know, you say to yourself, “If I get through this section, I’m going to see what the new section is going to be like.” By the way, I do play video games.
There’s different ways to do it, to find history. But it’s fascinating when you say, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know that.” And most people don’t. Frankly, they don’t have time for history. I’m reading an Audible version of the Pentagon Papers. And that’s really interesting to me because it leads right up to the time I was drafted. And I didn’t know anything about what happened before. I can’t wait to get to the part of the book from when I was in Vietnam and what they were saying about it. So I’m always learning.
NBL: Tell us about your book.
BC: I was convinced by my publisher that this was a story that needed to be told. And I owed it to the guys who were at the Battle of Suoi Tre. It was a major battle, and nobody knew about it. … It was very satisfying to me that I was able to do that for the guys. I just love these guys. To be able to tell this story in book form, and get it out there and get it published and sold around the world feels amazing.
NBL: At what point in the research process did you envision your work becoming a book?
BC: Never, honest to God. My publisher is a historian for the 4th Infantry Division, and he and I got to be friends because we share our work. He said, “You got to get this story in. You’re the only one that knows the whole story.” … I’m happy to say that he let me be and he let me write it the way I wanted to write it. He checked it out for about two or three chapters and said “You’re doing fine. Just keep at it.” So I never had that thing where authors say they went through a third or fourth draft. It was done over the course of two weeks in one draft. But I had 20 years of research.
NBL: How did you form Alpha Association?
BC: On that day in March of 2000, I said, “Let’s go find the guys.” I was the original locator, and I located quite a few guys, maybe about 80 guys. Then I had to hand it off to somebody else because I’m also the historian for the association. I publish our newsletter, and I’m the webmaster. So it keeps me pretty busy. That October, we had our first reunion. There were about 30 men there, and their wives. Some of these guys I hadn’t seen in 35 years.
I think we’re very proud of what we did. If you go on the website, you can see pictures of over 300 men that were in my company and our names. In 35 years, you can forget names, but you don’t forget faces. One of the jobs I took on was making badges for us, because we’ve changed in 35 years. … It occurred to me after a year or two that I was putting pictures of how young and handsome we were, and the poor women weren’t there. So I asked for the ladies to send me their pictures of what they look like at 18 years old, and then they had their badges too.
The ladies love the association because they get to talk to other women who have the same problems they have. I’d say 80% of my men in my company — we’re an infantry that fought in the jungle — have PTSD. So it’s good that the women get together and they compare notes. … Lucille Ball had it perfect because they asked her about her husband and said “What is it about your husband that you love so much?” And she said, “He raises my lows, and he lowers my highs.” That’s what my wife does for me.
NBL: What is it like to have lived in New Bedford for so long?
BC: I feel comfortable in New Bedford. It’s my hometown. I feel that people are very friendly here. I never thought of moving away from New Bedford. … I just love the city and I just don’t want to leave. I love working at the DAV, which has 630 members. It’s a regional chapter. We’re kind of spread out all over the country, but many are from this area. We all have the same history. We have the same background, the same thoughts in our mind about the future and the past. So I wouldn’t want to leave. I love this city.
NBL: What does being a veteran mean to you?
BC: I just wonder how many people really care. Maybe that’s a drawback to when I came home and nobody really cared. The only ones who cared were the veterans. On the week I came home from Vietnam, I got a knock on the door of my apartment. There were two officers from the VFW, and they came to welcome me home and asked me to join them at their posts as a member.
When I’m in the DAV building, anytime somebody comes in that door, and I don’t know them, I’ll go up and introduce myself and welcome. Because I remember what it was like that first time walking through that door saying, “Oh, boy, am I in the right place?” So I go out of my way for veterans because I know the sacrifices they made, especially disabled ones. I love the veterans because I remember what it was like to serve. I try to make them feel comfortable because it’s scary sometimes to join an organization when you’re the new guy.
Servicemen really don’t get their due, except maybe on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Yet they’re living with the consequences of their action. Sometimes 40 or 50 years later they’re still dealing with the stuff that they saw, and a lot of it was very challenging to the psyche.
To learn more about Alpha Association, visit http://www.alphaassociation.org/.
Rachel Wachman is a correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.