Their experiences were typical. Three of them had entered the war as teenagers. All had seen frequent combat near the DMZ and come home to a country divided over the war. The magazine invited the four men to a weekend reunion in Los Angeles, where reporter Ron Labrecque followed them through a day of eating, drinking and reminiscing. His report:
The day before the reunion—the first time they had seen one another in 18 years—the four old friends were edgy and emotional. With tears in his eyes and a trembling voice, Hoole, now a youth worker in Whitesboro, N.Y., explained: "The only true friends I ever had I haven't seen since the war was over."
Hoole had been a hard taskmaster, the platoon sergeant of their Third Platoon, H Company, Second Battalion, First Marine Division. When platoon leaders were killed or wounded, Hoole was in charge. He'd been tough on these guys. How would they remember him, he wondered. So much time had passed.
They had all changed. Waiting in the hotel suite for the others to arrive that morning, Holloway said that at 5'6" he is eight inches taller than the scrawny 19-year-old they had last seen. Jimenez, now a railroad switchman in Sparks, Nev., had grown a beard since the war, and his hair had thinned. He was kidded in Vietnam because his glasses were always sliding down his sweaty nose. His eyes are more sensitive now, so he must wear thick dark glasses.
None of them needed to worry about being recognized. When Jimenez got off the hotel elevator he heard talking, and he knew the voice immediately. "That's Holloway!" he said excitedly, and Holloway's face lit up the moment he saw Jimenez. With Hoole's arrival, too, there were bear hugs all around. When Hoole told of leaving his position with the local mill to take a job helping kids, Holloway said with a little laugh, "You used to take care of me."
Holloway was the first to mention the bad times—his dozen or so jobs since Vietnam, his problems with prescription drugs, alcohol and impulses toward violence. "I kept it in for years, and I ran," he said. As he spoke, Jimenez and Hoole listened, with patience and sympathy. "I had a fear of just being in any one spot. I always felt like someone was coming after me. The only way I could get into the VA hospital was to threaten to commit suicide, blow my head off. They finally took me in, and I started talking about my feelings." He said things were better now: He has a new sales job near San Diego, where he is raising two daughters from his broken marriage.
Their talk pinballed rapidly between war, families, kids and jobs until, after more than an hour, it became obvious that something had gone wrong: O'Connor—the toughest and most dependable of the four in battle—hadn't arrived. A phone call to an acquaintance elicited the opinion that O'Connor, a plumber from Culver City, Calif., was "running scared"—agitated by the hoopla, he had decided to lay low. After a few more calls, Hoole, Holloway and Jimenez discovered that O'Connor was holed up in the clubhouse of a nearby golf course, and they set out to get him. Once there, they found two men sitting at the lunch counter, either of whom could have been O'Connor. They walked outside to confer. They returned. They stared. Finally one of the men at the counter, staring back, smiled and said, "That's got to be Sergeant Hoole, with that nose."
In that moment all discomfort was forgotten. Beers in hand—except for Holloway, who has given up alcohol—the four men began to remember, and they didn't stop until after midnight.
They recalled lucidly the day the photograph was taken. It was Oct. 11, 1966, during a firefight near the southern edge of the Demilitarized Zone. Hoole's 47-man platoon was ordered to sweep across an open rice paddy to help another squad pinned down by enemy gunfire. Hoole remembers yelling, "That's suicide!" Indeed, as the platoon moved into the open, a machine gun opened up, killing the point man and wounding Leland Hammond, a card-playing 19-year-old lance corporal from Sumter, S.C. "We pulled his flak jacket off, and there was a hole in the left side of his chest," recalls Jimenez, who was the first to reach Hammond. "I knew he had a collapsed lung so I slapped a bandage on and then started mouth-to-mouth. I could feel he was dying and I couldn't figure out why. Later I realized that when he took the first round it spun him about and he got another under his right arm. He got it in both lungs. There was no saving him." Hoole, Jimenez, O'Connor and Holloway dragged and carried Hammond's body to a nearby medevac helicopter, as Hoole yelled for the rest of the platoon to fire back. As they carried Hammond, a deck of cards, with the dead Marine's lucky ace of spades facing out, slipped from his pocket. The night before he had lost $6 to O'Connor. Jimenez remembers screaming at the photographer to get out of the hatchway. (The photographer, Larry Burrows of LIFE, spent nine years in Vietnam. He was killed when his plane was shot down in Laos in 1971.)
Asked about other memories of the war, the men talk about mud, rain, jungle rot and the agony of trying to distinguish friend from foe. While searching a village hut, Jimenez heard a footfall, raised his weapon and came within a split second of killing a little boy. "He just looked at me, wondering who I was, some sort of green monster in a uniform," says Jimenez. Hoole wasn't so lucky. Opening a cellar door, he heard movement and fired. Moments later he discovered he'd shot a little girl in the cheek. "That's the bad memory that sticks in my mind," he says. "I wouldn't let anybody put her on the chopper. I put her on myself. That was probably the worst part."
When the men returned, separately, in 1967, they felt out of synch with their fellow 18-to 20-year-olds in the U.S. The years they'd spent in Vietnam were marked at home by the blossoming of antiwar activism, a phenomenon they sometimes found infuriating. Holloway got into fistfights constantly during his short stay at a college in Southern California. Jimenez, spotting some long-hair protesters in Lake Tahoe, Calif. in 1968, "picked one up and threw him. I remember walking between Hill 35 and Hill 15 and seeing [North Vietnamese] propaganda leaflets about the protesters back home. That flashed through my mind and reason departed—just anger and resentment and a fair helping of Coors, and it all came to a boil." He says he has mellowed since. "I feel a little resentment, but that's their business, they want to carry signs. That's the whole thing that we were fighting about, freedom. But now it's 20 years down the road and it just doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference."
Although he too is proud of his service, Hoole says that he had never told his three children about Vietnam or shown them the photograph in LIFE until a few days before the reunion. His wife, Susan, later found their daughter, Terry, 13, reading the article in the basement and crying. Jimenez had a similar experience: His stepdaughter, Wendy, also 13, was shown the story for the first time and asked if she could keep the picture. "To kids it's ancient history," says Jimenez. "They've got enough to worry about without having to figure out whether I was over in the war shooting and killing. I don't talk about it much except maybe to friends or guys who were there. You can't understand the feelings unless you were there. Talking about it now is bringing back a lot of closeness, a lot of nights sitting in the rain, a lot of hot days, a lot of emotions."
At dinner that night, with wives and girlfriends present, O'Connor recalled a confrontation with Sergeant Hoole in 1966. O'Connor had a knee infection and was ordered by medical officers not to return to the front. Hoole, thinking him a malingerer, called him a sandbagger. Angrily O'Connor shot back that he had been on more patrols than the sergeant; Hoole, angrier still, socked him. "That's what hurts the most, the encounter between you and me," Hoole told O'Connor, as tears fell on Hoole's cheeks. Later, O'Connor and Hoole went off privately for a drink and a talk.
Back at the table, the reticent O'Connor admitted, "There's a lot of warmth. I'm surprised I could get that close to another guy." Hoole said pretty much the same thing. "I don't know what to say about Terry," he told O'Connor's girlfriend. "We were close. He was special. No matter how you search you'll never find another bastard as good as him."
Their war had been Vietnam, but their sense of camaraderie is something any veteran—and perhaps only a veteran—could fully understand.
In the March 11 segment of our Vietnam series, PEOPLE ran a photo of four anonymous Marines carrying a dead comrade and asked what had become of the men. Within a week, phone calls from readers enabled us to identify veterans Ronald Hoole, 38, Rickey Holloway, 37, Tom Jimenez, 37, and Terry O'Connor, 39.