Elapsed time and the circumstances of the moment make the details foggy. So much we know: 20-year-old David J. Rosales had fresh stitches that practically rounded his torso, from the wound an inch from his spine to his belly button, and medication administered by doctors had numbed his thinking. But he wasn’t so far away that he couldn’t give the pretty blonde woman in black the right answer when she crept up to his hospital bed and asked him where he was from.
“Bakersfield,” he said.
“Hey guys,” the young woman called and looked over at her two colleagues. “This one is from Bakersfield.”
And so the boy-hardly-man became the celebrity of the moment. He remembers feeling slightly guilty for diverting attention from the other wounded soldiers.
The three visitors who came to Okinawa, Japan, on a USO tour to entertain the troops, surrounded his bed. Then she asked the question any self-respecting country musician would ask a Bakersfield boy in 1968: Had he been at the blackboard?
No, he replied, he had never been to the noisy Bakersfield honky tonk that made Buck Owens and a dozen casts to fame. He wasn’t old enough to walk into a bar by the time he enrolled – 19 years old and barely two years after Bakersfield High School. And now, 7,500 miles away, in Quang Điền, an hour and a half drive from the recently liberated Vietnamese city of Huế, he was still a minor, so he wasn’t going to order a slot in the infamous saloon anytime soon. But with the fragment of an enemy grenade missing his backbone by the width of a thumbnail, it seemed more and more likely that one day, if only he felt inclined, he might have the opportunity.
No, the Bakersfield boy had never been to the blackboard, although Merle Haggard’s song “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” suddenly started playing in his brain at the simple mention of it. However, Rosales’ visitors had been there – to perform.
David Rosales doesn’t remember the name of the pretty blonde singer or the name of her band, but he remembers that her visit reminded him that home was a physical place, not just a state of longing. The singer wrote down Rosales’ name and number and promised to call his widowed mother to tell her he was fine.
Five and a half decades later, that moment still means something to Bakersfield College’s history professor emeritus. For Rosales, now 74 and retired in 2009 – serving 16 of his 30+ years at the local community college as dean of studies – that meant solidarity. It meant hope.
On March 23, 1968, five or six weeks before this bedside encounter, Rosales had been on patrol with some soldiers from Team 3 of the MACV or the Vietnam Military Support Command. Only the month before had US and South Vietnamese forces succeeded in retaking Huế from the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army, which had overrun 100 South Vietnamese cities and outposts during the Tet Offensive at the end of January.
But now, on that late March day, the enemy was still in the area, and when Rosales advanced alongside some of the South Vietnamese militias, he’d helped train himself to fight – popular forces they were called – a grenade screeched over the top Sky and nearby exploded. Three men were hit, including Rosales, a South Vietnamese district chief, or đại úy, and the captain who had persuaded Rosales to come along, even though Rosales had slept uneasily for a few hours after a nightly patrol.
Captain Gerald Hazelton’s left arm was torn; Muscles hung loosely from the bone and when the captain saw himself he began to sprint in a panic. Rosales chased after him and realized the captain needed a tourniquet, and quickly. Medics reached the captain before Rosales could, however, so Rosales turned his attention to establishing a line of fire for local militias in case a Viet Cong attack was imminent. He tried to shout orders, but the words didn’t come out of his mouth. He wrestled with his gun and tried to get it into firing position. He sank to his hands and knees. “I felt like life was going to leave me,” he says.
When Rosales knelt there, bleeding and in burning pain, he looked at a group of trees. The good shepherd appeared before him. But the Shepherd’s face was not that of Jesus; it was from Rosales’ own father Arthur, who had died of cancer four years earlier – four years to the day. Levante se, said his father. Levante se, as he had said so many times to Rosales: get up, move around, get up. Now helicopter rotors beat overhead. Now Rosales, his captain and the Vietnamese đại úy were on board. Now the jungle of Quang Điền fell away as the helicopter soared into the sky.
Rosales was transported to a MASH station, then to a hospital in Guam, and then to another in Okinawa. His injuries were severe enough to warrant continued sedation. “I couldn’t have done it in another war,” said Rosales. His captain’s arm was amputated, but the Vietnamese đại úy recovered well enough to attend the brief Purple Heart ceremony at Rosales’ bedside. Rosales would later receive the Bronze Star.
Eight days after Rosales’ recovery, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a national television audience at home. “With America’s sons in the fields far away … I don’t think I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal party affairs,” just the immediate duties of the presidency, Johnson announced, Johnson said he will do not run again.
Two weeks later, maybe a month – he’s not sure – Rosales was lying in that Okinawa hospital bed with this beautiful blonde singer hovering over him. A honky tonk angel, if there ever was. He didn’t know what level of fame she was on concert stages or in recording studios, just that she was a celebrity, and he had never met any celebrity other than Bakersfield High School football coach Paul Briggs.
If the singer’s or her band’s name was even pronounced out loud, Rosales didn’t put it down properly because today he has no idea who it could have been, and the list of USO entertainers who came through Southeast Asia in 1968 does it doesn’t give you any aha suggestions. USO historian Michael Case believes Janie Davids might have been someone named Lazy B Wranglers, but admits that this is just his guess. It is better that Rosales imagine it be Tammy Wynette or Kitty Wells or Ann-Margret.
But the entertainer’s identity is not what matters. That brought her to the soldier’s bed. She brought a piece of home with her, even though it was a piece of home that 20-year-old David Rosales only knew from his black and white neon advertising.
Rosales and his wife Irene celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in May. They have three grown children: Miranda, an elementary school teacher; David Jr., a Kern County’s welfare program supervisor; and Oliver, a history teacher at Bakersfield College.
Robert Price is a journalist at KGET-TV. His column appears here on Sundays; the views expressed are his own. Reach out to him at [email protected] or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz.