War story still chilling 50 years after surprise attack

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Rick Esposito served 23 years as a Rhode Island State Police trooper, but it was nothing compared to what he survived during one dangerous day as a young military police officer.

Drug raids, arming a security post for the mob-related Bonded Vault trial and countless other cases.

“Not even close,” Esposito said with a laugh. “No.”

The Tet holiday marked the Vietnamese New Year, and was generally anticipated as a calm day for the U.S. Military in Vietnam; until the morning of Jan. 31, 1968.

“I never thought I’d make it back to the United States. I thought I was going to die in Vietnam.”

“We were in bed sleeping, at 2:30 in the morning,” Esposito recalled.

Members of his 527th Military Police C Company had already responded to an attack in Saigon, one of dozens of assaults by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers across the country during Tet.

“The deuce and a half truck went down an alley and got hit by a B-70 rocket,” Esposito said. “When they were escaping, they got hit by heavy enemy fire.”

Esposito was in the second wave of MPs who rushed to the alley near the U.S. Embassy to help their fellow soldiers.

“At that point, the MP right beside me got shot right in the chest. I wasn’t worried about myself,” he added. “If something happened to me it was okay. I never thought I’d make it back to the United States. I thought I was going to die in Vietnam.”

As he “laid down cover fire,” hoping for an order to move toward the enemy, Esposito’s composure took the opposite turn from what you might expect.

“It was a calming effect, believe it or not,” he said.” That I have to move forward, and I have to do what I have to do to help my fellow soldiers.”

Seventeen of those soldiers were killed that day.

Esposito keeps a neatly typed roster of the 527th’s survivors and casualties. MP’s like Carey Anthony, Douglas Doody and Nestor Ojeda are among the heroes he remembers most fondly.

“Oh yes,” he said, hearing Ojeda’s name again. “Definitely.”

When Esposito left Vietnam, a superior officer told him his medals would catch up to him. Last month, they finally did – in Congressman Jim Langevin’s office.

As Esposito accepted the honors earned 50 years ago, he carried that list of the lost in his front pocket, telling us it was his way of honoring the heroes who gave the most that day.

“I know you’re in a combat zone. But you don’t expect that many lives to be taken in a flash,” he said. “I came home. They came home in a casket.”

Esposito went decades without sharing the details of what he survived.

Here’s one more for you; Esposito could’ve come home to Rhode Island months before the Tet Offensive, but talked with his good friend Johnnie Thomas, and they both decided to volunteer to serve another six months.

Thomas was one of the 17 MP’s from the 527th who died in the attack.

Email Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com with you story ideas and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.