on July 7, 2013 - 8:11 PM
When Richard J. DiChristina’s dad died at age 52, the 16-year-old son quit Lafayette High School and took a job at his uncle’s West Side bakery to help support the family.
He learned everything there was to know about running a bakery and, in time, purchased Maria’s Bakery at Forest and West avenues from his uncle, Tommy DiChristina.
But before that happened, another relative by the name of “Uncle Sam” requested his services when he turned 18.
“Six months after I went through basic training and a little specialty training, I was sent to Vietnam,” DiChristina said in recalling what amounted to a shocking arrival at an airbase beside Cam Ranh Bay.
He had dropped his gear on the tarmac when a call went out for volunteers to help load an outgoing airplane.
“We all volunteered, and we noticed that everyone was pretty somber, and we said, ‘What are we loading here?’ Someone told us soldiers who had died and were going to Germany to be prepared for going back home. That was a real eye-opener.”
A few weeks later, DiChristina was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division and boarded a helicopter for fire base LZ Hard Times, near the demilitarized zone.
“We had 12-man squads, and they would fly us about 250 miles out from the fire base and drop us in the jungles for 40 or 50 days, and we would search for enemy caches of ammunition and food. They would give us a map with grids on it to follow.
“The enemy would bury the supplies, put the supplies in caves, down in tunnels or straw huts. If we found anything, we had enough C-4 plastic explosives on us to destroy it. When we returned to the fire base, we would be debriefed on what we found,” DiChristina said.
Living in the jungle for long periods, he added, was no fun.
“They had monsoons, and it would rain for 30 to 40 days. I’d never seen it rain like that. It was also hot and very humid. You would be soaking wet. Some days, it was so hot, over 110 degrees, they would make you sit and just take salt pills. The rain was actually hot.”
The misery was worse for those who had been wounded.
“Guys would get jungle rot if you had a little wound. It’s like a big blister filled with puss, and medics would cut and drain it and give you antibiotics.”
Seeing others suffer from it, DiChristina said, he hoped he would be able to avoid the malady.
That was not to be.
About eight months into his tour of duty, during the enemy’s infamous Tet Offensive, DiChristina and his squad walked into an ambush.
“There were two Charlie firing at us. One guy was hitting us with mortar rounds, and the other was shooting his AK-47 at us to keep our heads down. I felt this pain in my left shoulder, and at the time I was so excited I didn’t really pay attention. One of our other squad members was hit bad. Another squad member told me, ‘You’re bleeding.’ The medics started working on me. I was hit with shrapnel.”
He and his squad members managed to “eliminate the threat” and then radioed for a helicopter to medivac the more seriously wounded soldier.
DiChristina remained with the squad and continued to clear the area.
During those four days, he came down with jungle rot. But fortunately, he was flown out sooner rather than later to a field hospital, where he was treated.
After two weeks of healing, he was returned to the jungle in pursuit of the enemy and hidden supplies. When he at last made it back to the States, DiChristina spent a couple of months in Fort Knox, Ky., before receiving his honorable discharge.
Then he returned to the bakery.
“I felt very lucky, lucky enough to come home. I had a cousin, David Reynolds, who didn’t make it home from Vietnam. He was in the 101st Airborne, and they never found his body,” DiChristina said.
Some 10 years after the service, while working at the bakery and driving a tractor-trailer, DiChristina purchased Maria’s Bakery and operated it for another decade, before competition from the big supermarkets drove him out business.
Today, the 63-year-old war veteran continues to drive a tractor-trailer and says he remains grateful “that I made it back.”
Richard J. DiChristina, 63
• Hometown: Buffalo
• Residence: Getzville
• Branch: Army
• Rank: Sergeant
• War zone: Vietnam
• Years of service:
June 6, 1969 – June 6, 1971
• Most prominent honors:
Purple Heart, Combat Infantry
Badge, Army Commendation
• Specialty: Reconnaissance