Gerry Palma became the eighteenth warrior of the Class of '64 to fall in combat when he died a soldier's death on 19 April 1969. And, just as were several of the other casualties in the class, Gerry was on his second voluntary tour of duty in the combat zone.
Gerard Vincent Palma grew up in Hammonton, New Jersey, the son of Agatha and Joseph Palma and the younger brother of Ann. Theirs was a close, loving family, and Gerry was raised under the highest of ethical standards. Throughout his childhood and youth, he was committed to a life of service to his fellow man. After graduating from Hammonton High School in 1959 he entered Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he pondered his next step in life. His dilemma was that he was desirous of serving mankind as either a priest or a soldier—both professions appealed to him. One day in the spring of 1960, while he was in the Georgetown Chapel seeking divine guidance, his acceptance to West Point arrived in the form of a principal appointment from the Second Congressional District of New Jersey. That decided the issue and Gerry entered the academy with the intensity, drive, and commitment that were to characterize his all-too-short life. On the athletic field, in the classroom, or at home providing hospitality for classmates who lived too far away for their parents to visit, Gerry set demanding personal standards.
One of those classmates who enjoyed the hospitality of the Palma home was fellow Italo-America, Dave Baratto, from Mount Shasta, California. Dave recounts the following effort to reciprocate during the summer of 1963 after AOT in Germany: "I had planned to take my one-month leave in Europe with the intent of visiting my relatives (whom I had never met before) somewhere in Northern Italy. Somewhat reluctant to venture out on my own, I thought I would ask Gerry if he might like to accompany me. Without hesitation, Gerry was quick and warm with his response. 'Sure, Dave, if you really want me to go.'
"We took the train to Bassano; from there I called my relatives to come pick us up. Cousin Domenico arrived a couple of hours later on a Vespa motor scooter and began to shuttle us and our two bags to Possagno—a process that took about half a day. Gerry couldn't speak any Italian, but by the time we got there he was part of the family. We climbed Mount Grappa, put on Twist Dance Demo's, and harvested the crops in the field. To this day, every time I see my relatives, they recall the fond memories they have of their friend, Gerry Palma. Recently, when they visited us in Washington, D.C., they indicated that one of the places they wanted to see was the Vietnam Memorial. We visited it and quietly searched for our friend's etched name on the wall. The only comment upon finding the name was, 'CHE PECCA' (What a shame)." (Major General David Baratto had the opportunity to see a lot of his relatives in Northern Italy when he was assigned there from 1992 – 1994 as the Southern European Task Force Commander.)
Another classmate who became close to Gerry and his family was Cris Stone, who relates the following: "Gerry and I were roommates for two years. When cadet companies were reshuffled, we became roommates by accident in I-1. With his New Jersey accent and my southern West Virginia hillbilly twang, we wondered if we would ever be able to understand each other. By first-class year, we had invested so much time in learning to understand each other's strange language that we continued to room together. We were good friends, too."
Twenty years after his death, Gerry's sister, Ann, received a letter from his classmate Marty Michlik, which said: "I first met Gerry in my Beast Company. I remember running next to him on the way to Target Field. We were both from New Jersey and we got together frequently. We both went Armor. We went through Airborne School together and were Ranger buddies…he loved the stress and physical demands of both Airborne and Ranger. He threw himself into the training. I don't think Gerry was capable of doing anything halfway. I don't think he ever in his life pulled a punch or tried to take a shortcut."
Upon graduation from West Point, Gerry celebrated with the only personal indulgence many of us remember—a Corvette—his graduation present to himself. The Corvette was an extremely popular car among the bachelors in the class. Its price tag in 1964 was around $3,600. Some of the men in the class who got married had also purchased Corvettes but ended up selling them within a few months. It seems that there wasn't enough trunk space for their wives' suitcases. But Gerry was happy with his and after Airborne and Ranger Schools he hopped in it to drive to Fort Carson, Colorado, for his initial assignment. Marty Michlik remembers that trip: "Both of us were assigned to Fort Carson, and we arranged to drive out in tandem. In the middle of a January night I had car problems and fell out. Gerry went on. After some time he realized I was not still behind him and doubled back to find and help me. I remember the two of us, sitting on a dark highway in Kansas, unhappy with our state of affairs, but confident that we would work any problem out, though it might take a number of hours. I was happy I had Gerry to depend on.
"After we got to Fort Carson, Gerry and I lived in the same BOQ. Both of us were assigned as recon platoon leaders. Gerry threw himself into that job with the same vigor with which he approached everything else in his life. He worked hard and did well. Gerry enjoyed being a platoon leader and liked our life in Colorado, but he was driven to do more. As a true professional, he instinctively marched to the sound of the guns and volunteered to go to Vietnam and was delighted when he got assigned to the 101st. I remember he got a sponsor letter from our classmate Seth Hudgins, who was then in the 101st. I think Gerry must have read Seth's letter to me a dozen times, excited about his upcoming assignment."
He served for a year as a cavalry platoon leader in the Second Squadron, Seventeenth Cavalry. His commander there said that Gerry was a "fearless combat leader who strove for excellence in all he did. He was totally dedicated to his mission and the welfare of his men. He refused to report several minor wounds because he did not wish to be taken from his soldiers in the field."
One of his several citations for valor stated: "Serving as a platoon leader in A Troop, 2d Squadron, 17th Cavalry of the 101st Airborne Division near Tuy Hoa last March 13th, 1st Lieutenant Palma was leading a relief force to aid the badly outnumbered patrol in combat with the Vietcong. They crossed an open area under intense fire to establish a linkup, then directed artillery fire and an air strike, forcing the enemy to withdraw."
Gerry successfully completed his year in Vietnam and returned to the States where he became aide-de-camp to the commanding general, Military District of Washington. He asked to get out of that job early in order to return to Vietnam as soon as possible. Without pretense or false modesty, he said simply that there was a war going on and he was a West Point-trained soldier. In his mind nothing else needed to be said.
Before returning to Southeast Asia, he attended the Infantry Officer Advanced Course as an armor exchange officer. Cris Stone's mother cherishes the following memory of Gerry's trip to Fort Benning: "When my son was in Vietnam, I received a call from Gerry early one weekday morning. He was driving to Fort Benning and had seen a road sign and mileage marker to our small town 'only 55 miles' away. He had never visited our home, but he had roomed with my son. Gerry called and said he would like to stop by. Over the breakfast I hastily prepared, we talked and laughed, and he filled the gaps only a classmate and fellow soldier could understand. That hour-and-a-half breakfast gave my spirit a lift which endured for weeks. Two years later, when I heard of his death in combat, I cancelled everything in order to go to Arlington for the funeral so I could say to Gerry's parents how his thoughtfulness and sensitivity were a comfort to me."
After completing the Advanced Course, Gerry visited his family before returning to Vietnam. His sister, Ann, remembers his last visit at home: "The night before he left for his second tour in Vietnam, he sat on the floor, leaning against the sofa with his legs stretched out and crossed. He had on a black golf shirt and khaki slacks. He talked about peace, about the Vietnamese people and their history and their politics until four in the morning. He never talked about the war. That was the last time I talked with my brother."
Upon returning to Vietnam, Gerry was given the job he wanted—cavalry troop commander in the Third Squadron, Eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment. He gave it his all, but on 19 April 1969, while leading his troop in combat from his command helicopter, he was mortally wounded. After he was wounded, his last conscious moments were spent directing retaliatory fire on those who endangered his unit. The pilot flew desperately to get Gerry to safety, but Gerry succumbed before the helicopter landed. Although he had already been decorated for valor several times, he would not be able to refuse this final Purple Heart.
Several years after his death, Gerry's family found the following lines in his handwritten personal notebook: "There are games that you play to play; there are games that you play to win; there are games that you do not play. The closest analogy I can offer people as to what I mean when I say 'I am a soldier' is that it is analogous to what I mean when I say 'I am a Catholic.' I wish to live a soldier's life, do a soldier's work, render a soldier's services, and die a soldier's death."
Gerry's death deeply affected his family and his many friends. Nine years later, upon the death of his father, Gerry's mother wrote to Cris Stone: "The spark of living had left him when Gerard was killed. My one consolation is in thinking they are together now. None of it is easy to take, but the memories are beautiful." (Agatha joined Gerry and Joe two years later.)
Cris' wife, Annette, recalls a lighter side of Gerry: "Oh Gerry! I will never forget him. He would show up at 5:45 in the evening, knowing he was always welcome at our dinner table. Or, he would call at three in the afternoon and say, 'There is a special girl coming into town and I need a place for her to stay. I know you have a guest room.'
"'Of course, Gerry—we would be glad to host her. When does she arrive?' (Thinking he must mean the weekend after next.) "'I'm at the airport right now. I will bring her by your house in forty-five minutes.'"
Dave Baratto remembers Gerry's friendship: "Gerry wasn't a super jock, a hive, a goat, or a fileboner (overly zealous student)…he was someone anybody could have as a true friend…and that's exactly what he was—a friend to everyone. Not flashy, not loud, but genuine and sincere, that was Gerry Palma to the bone. His deep respect for, and his pride in his Italo-American family, combined with his Catholic upbringing to create the ideal soldier value set. Respect, loyalty and a warm smile were givens with Gerry—and they were always present. I can't ever recall him having an agenda of his own, in fact. He was always willing to go along and fill in whenever needed. I distinctly and fondly remember that Gerry traveled across the entire country to participate in my wedding in June of 1964. Ruth and I were, and still are, awestruck by that—but that's the way Gerry was."
In his hometown of Hammonton there is a park named for and dedicated to Gerry. The money was raised by friends, teachers, coaches, and townspeople. At the U.S. Army Armor Center in Fort Knox, Kentucky, not far from Serio Hall, there is an Armored Training Brigade building dedicated to Captain Gerard Palma because of the efforts of a classmate.
If there is a special place in the Long Gray Line for those who "find a soldier's resting place beneath a soldier's blow," then there is a special reverence when those of us who have recalled the memories of Gerry Palma say reverently, "Well Done—Be Thou At Peace."
Gerry is buried at Arlington in good company with our nation's other heroes.
~ Fallen Warriors The West Point Class of 1964 by John Murray