AUGUSTUS J PONTO

AUGUSTUS J PONTO - PFC

  • HOMETOWN:
  • blackwood terrace
  • COUNTY:
  • Gloucester
  • DATE OF BIRTH:
  • September 29, 1945
  • DATE OF CASUALTY:
  • June 10, 1967
  • BRANCH OF SERVICE:
  • Army
  • RANK:
  • PFC
  • STATUS:
  • KIA
  • COUNTRY:
  • South Vietnam

Biography


Augustus J. Ponto III was born on September 29, 1945.  His home of record is Blackwood Terrace, NJ.

He served in the US Army and attained the rank of Private First Class (PFC).

Ponto was killed in action on June 10, 1967.

Gussie

                             September 29, 1945-June 10, 1967
                       PFC, Army            Blackwood Terrace, NJ
 

Ask Ed Farace of Deptford Township, NJ, what he remembers about Augustus "Gussie" Ponto and his eyes sparkle with memories.  "Gus was about as nice a guy as you would want to meet.  He was something special.  I'll always think his death was a waste, but his life wasn't.  I know he meant a lot to many people."

After graduating from Deptford High in 1963, Gussie found a job at Corsaro's Packing in Almonesson.  It was there, in 1965, that he started dating the boss's daughter.  Their romance blossomed and soon they were inseparable.

"His eyes were so blue that they glowed when he smiled," says Cathy Muhlbaier of Westville, NJ.  "He had such a beautiful smile, too.  And he was always teasing his parents, my parents and everyone he was close to.  If you knew Gus at all, you had to like him.  He was a good worker, too--if you could work for my father, you had to be.  My family really liked him a lot but when Gus wanted us to get engaged before he was sent to Vietnam, my father said it would be best to wait until he got back."

Gus grew up in the Blackwood Terrace section of Deptford Township in the fifties and sixties.  The Pontos had three boys.  Ron was the oldest, Gus was in the middle and Bob was the youngest.  Days were passed playing ball, exploring local wooded areas and just being kids.

Ron remembers Gussie's zest for living and his determination to always be one step ahead of everyone else.  "Life didn't owe that boy a thing," he says.  "He never made it to his twenty-second birthday, but he lived more in those twenty-one years than most people do in sixty.  He didn't get cheated while he was here."

Gussie loved sports and became Deptford High School's centerfielder in his junior year.  "He was an excellent leadoff hitter," remembers former varsity baseball coach Roy Pickens, now living in West Deptford.  "He was small but very quick and strong.  He worked hard and was a good kid.  I wished I had more like him."

"He was a holy terror," his mother said.  Before her death in November of 1993, Catherine 'Cass' Ponto recalled her son with a painful and fond simplicity.  "He was as ornery as they come and my heart breaks every time I think about him.  I'll never get over losing him."

Anna Butchinko of Deptford Township was Cass' sister and remembers the relationship Gussie had with his mother.  "They were more best friends than anything," she says.  "He always had a great love for her.  He was bullheaded and we always called him the 'little bugger'."

In February of 1966, Gus was drafted.  He underwent basic training at Fort Dix, NJ, and then in April, was sent to artillery school at Fort Sill, OK.  Cass Ponto saved and dated every letter her son sent home, from basic training through his tour in Vietnam.  Gus wrote often to his best friend.

"Hi, Tiny", begins one letter from Fort Sill.  How is everybody at home?  That's a stupid question because you wouldn't tell me if they were feeling bad because you wouldn't want me to worry.  I play ball about once a week when I have everything else caught up.  You hear all this bullshit about how nice the girls are here.  For all but a very few I have seen, I think a glass of beer has a better head and a baseball bat has a better shape.

Gus finished training in July and had a two-week leave before being sent to Vietnam.   He spent his time with Cathy, his buddies and his mother.  "That was such a good time," Cass said.  "None of us could have ever guessed what was coming."

When Gussie arrived in Vietnam, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 8th Artillery, a unit of the 25th Infantry Division.  Their mission was to provide fire support to the division's 2nd Brigade, using its 105mm howitzer cannons.  His letters home tell of his new environment and of his duties hauling ammunition boxes and driving trucks.

Everything up here is quiet.  We are about 25 miles from Saigon in a place called Cu Chi--you know, like when you are tickling a baby under the chin.  The people in town are quite friendly but we still have to carry a loaded rifle because you never know when the Cong are around.  For all we know, we could be talking to one of them.  And tell Joe I said American girls are much nicer than the ones over here.

Gussie's devotion to Cathy is obvious in all his letters. He wrote of his concern of being separated a year, of Cathy being lonely and his doubts about marriage.

"He was the only one for me," says Cathy.   "I used to write to him and tell him to quit worrying about it.  I wanted to get engaged as much as he did."

The letters were almost always upbeat.  One tells of some new found friends.

There's more mud here in Cu Chi than the whole state of New Jersey.  I'm getting a great tan.  I have three black friends who call me 'the blue eyed soul brother of the year.'  Each one weighs more than 230 pounds.  I call them my 'little' brothers.

One shows his frustration when he does not hear from Cathy.

Do me a favor.  Call Cathy to see if she is alright.  I haven't had a letter from her in over a week.  That is not like her.

The next, relief when he does.

P. S. Cathy's letters finally got here!  All at once.  Does she call you Mrs. Ponto or Mom?

In his letters, the war and Gussie's part in it were most often secondary to his other concerns but were very detailed.  He told of a friend being out in the jungle and wounded by a U.S. artillery round that landed short of its target.

They were firing through a tree and fired one round too low.  It killed three of the South Vietnamese soldiers and wounded twenty-five.  The five U.S. troops that were wounded were taken to the hospital.  Ron got the smallest injury.  He lost the better part of his left ear.  One of the other guys was hit in the balls but he is still alive.

In a letter dated September 27th, he tells of his first brush with death. 

Sorry about not writing for a while but we have been in the field for over a week.  We didn't even have a chance to pack anything but what we needed.  The second day, we were hit with small arms fire and mortars. There was one killed and fourteen wounded.  The boy who was killed was Harris from New Jersey.  When the first round hit, I was so goddamned scared that I ran like my ass was on fire. But really, I'm okay.  I will have to close for now because we have to deliver some ammo.  Be good and take care of yourselves.

Never far from his thoughts was Cathy.  In an October letter, Gus wrote to his mother that he had picked out a Bible for Cathy and had been making payments on it.

I have five payments left that come to $30.90.  I think more of her than any girl I have been out with and you know that I have been out with a few.  I really love her and I do intend to marry her when I come home.  I mean right away.  Do you think she loves me as much as she says or do you think it's just a passing fancy?  A year is a long time.  I can see it myself that I am really beginning to grow up.  She told me that she would wait for me and marry me when I was ready.  I really don't know how I am going to feel when I get home and I don't think she does either.

He finished paying for the Bible and sent it to Cathy. "I still have it," she now says.  "There's nothing written in it but it will always be a cherished reminder of Gus."

Answering his mothers' questions was very important and Gussie did so with unerring candor. 

Yes, I did find out why we have to burn our mail after reading it.  About two months ago, one of our planes was shot down and the pilot was killed by the Viet Cong.  In one of his pockets, he had a letter from his wife.  The V.C. cut off his ears and sent them to her.  I think that is good reason for burning our mail.  I know you wouldn't want to see my ears if they weren't attached to my head.  They have been on the same block for twenty-one years and if I have anything to say about it, they will still be there when I come home.

The holiday season is an especially lonely time for service men and women away from home.  Gus reflected his feelings as early as October. 

It's getting close to the holidays back there and I can really say that I am beginning to miss home.  I know that the next two months are going to be the hardest two months of my life.  I am really going to miss the family and friends I have.  I am really going to miss Cathy.  I love her so much that I could cry the rest of my time over here.  I just hope that she doesn't find anyone else while I'm here.  That would be too much for me to bear.  In every one of her letters, she says there could never be anyone else for her.  She is such a wonderful girl that I wouldn't want anyone else for my wife.

In December, he wrote about the presents he was buying to send home and of the packages he was receiving.  He requests, and later receives, pepperoni, cookies, Marlboros and extra T-shirts.  Dye them Army green, OK?

He wrote of his transfer from the ammo section to the maintenance section, and of a rumor going around that the battery was about to go out on a six-week operation.

A reference to the holiday season was the last paragraph of a letter dated December 19th. 

No, I haven't done too much drinking.  That's about it for now.  I know this will be as hard for you as it is for me...I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Gussie's January and February letters to his mother were fewer but longer.  They describe everything from the weather to his preference of snacks. 

We're in the really hot season now.  That's why you see no water in the pictures.  Send more Girl Scout cookies.  We bought some Korean-made cookies in the PX and they were terrible.

He asked his mother how Cathy made it through the holidays and described a jacket he bought.

It is a lightweight black jacket with a map of Vietnam on the back.  Above the map, it has written, 'When I die, I'll go to heaven because I've spent my time in hell.  Cu Chi, Vietnam, 1967.'

Gus purchased a Polaroid camera for Cass and wrote why. 

About the camera, you said you didn't want me to cut myself short.  Ever since I can remember, you have always wanted one for the family.  I couldn't think of a better gift than that camera.  The way this place is, you never know when you might get zapped.  I just hope I can see you using it.

In one letter, he brags about his unit's efficiency. 

We had 30 minutes to load all of our trucks and be on the road.  The main gate was three miles away and our 15 trucks, 4 tanks, 7 personnel carriers and 2 small tracks were out and on our way in 28 minutes.  The next morning, a general came out and told us he didn't know how we got ready so fast.  He was so happy with the move, he brought coffee and hot food out to the field for us.

In another, he responds to Cass's concerns for his health.

I'm fine, really.  I'm up to 140 pounds and when we are in base camp, get three meals a day.  A truck even brings beer in from Saigon.

Gussie also expressed how he had come to view his fragile well being.

As you say, there is nothing you or Cathy can do but pray.  I hate to say this but I am not afraid of dying if the bullet has my name on it.  I just don't like those damn bullets that roam around and say 'To whom it may concern.'   As you and I both know, it could very well easily happen in this crazy, mixed up war.  I guess I will close for now and write the next chance I get.  Love, Gus.

In the beginning of March, Gussie's unit was involved in an offensive known as Operation Junction City.   It was, at the time, the biggest of the war.  In a letter dated March 8, Gus wrote what he could. 

We have been out in the field for awhile now and could be for another four weeks.  We have been told this could be the turning point of the war.  We haven't had time to do anything but eat, sleep and shit.  And very little sleep.  At one time, I and another guy didn't get any sleep for 48 hours.  Don't forget to call Cathy and tell her why I haven't answered her letters.

Another letter told of a barracks thief who had broken into some lockers and 'got me for $120'. He wrote he was glad that his younger brother, Bob, was going out with a girl and asked if Cass had seen or heard from Cathy.  He closed the letter with a familiar theme.

Don't worry, please.  Tell everyone I said to say hello and to be good.

On March 17th, Gus was on perimeter guard duty at "B" Battery's forward location near Duc Hoa.  An enemy mortar attack resulted in Gus receiving serious head wounds.  He was stabilized at the 3rd Field Hospital in Tan Son Nhut and, according to the telegram Cass received on March 19th, Palm Sunday, ...his condition is of such severity that there is cause for concern but no imminent danger to life.

On Good Friday, she received another telegram.  The condition of your son remains the same.  He is still on the seriously ill list.  Evacuation to the U.S. not contemplated at this time.  You will promptly advised as additional information is received.

On March 26th, Easter Sunday, another telegram informed her that Gus had been transferred to the 106th General Hospital in Yokohama, Japan and his condition remained serious.

The next telegram was dated March 27th, and contained devastating news.  Additional diagnosis is brain injury with paralysis of the left side of face, arm and leg.

On the same day, another envelope arrived with unfamiliar but obviously female handwriting, but with Gus' return address at the hospital.  The letterhead on the stationary read, "The American Red Cross."

Dear Mom, Sorry about not writing for awhile, but I have been in the hospital for the last week due to wounds I have received.  I was shot in the head and the rear end.  Due to the head wounds, my left side has very little feeling but they are going to work with me to get the feeling back before I come home.  Please don't worry about me because I will be O.K.  Would you please call Cathy and tell her.  Love, Gus.

A full week went by before Cass received another letter and again it was in the handwriting of the Red Cross volunteer.

Dearest Mom, How are you feeling?  As for myself, I don't feel too good.  Tell Bob I wish he'd wait to get married until I get home.  Say hello to everyone for me.  Tell Mr. Pickens I said hello.  I will be evacuated to Walter Reed hospital when I leave here.  My clothes are all put away.  I don't need anything else.  I just had the Red Cross worker read my mail to me.  I got the Easter card with the five dollars from you and Ron.  Thanks a lot.  I'm tired and am going to sleep now.  I will get a Red Cross worker to write for me again.  Lots of love to you, Mom.  Gus.

On April 7th, another telegram brought more bad news.

The condition of your son is fair...It is contemplated that he will be evacuated to the U.S. in one to two months. Present diagnosis is meningitis complicating a head wound.

Six days later, Catherine was notified that that Gus' condition was listed as poor but the prognosis was good and evacuation to the U.S. could be in as little as two weeks.

The emotional roller-coaster that Catherine rode was brutal and must have seemed endless.  On April 21st, the telegram stated that "prognosis was guarded but evacuation to the U.S. was still contemplated."  The next day, she received yet another that stated his condition had been downgraded from serious to very serious and  "additional diagnosis is a fungating wound of the brain.  Recovery is questionable."

Mysteriously, the telegrams stopped coming.  Among the letters and telegrams Catherine saved, there is a rough draft of a letter she wrote to then President Johnson.  It is dated May 14th, three weeks since her last telegram.  In part, it read:

This is a heart broken mother appealing to you for information.  My son was wounded in Vietnam on March 17th and moved to a hospital in Japan a few days later.  At intervals of a week, I had reports on him until the 22nd of April.  Then through the offices of Congressman Hunt, I was told I would get a weekly report on my son's condition.  Until this morning, I heard nothing and then received a call from a Father Budniak, the chaplain at the hospital, asking me why I hadn't contacted my son's physician as he had been sending reports every two days.  I have never received any of these and have been extremely worried.  Father Budniak told me he is dangerously ill and has very little chance of recovery.  He has had three operations performed but still his chances are slim.  What I would like to know is where are these reports and why haven't I received them.  I would appreciate any help you could give me.  Someone isn't performing their duties.

The telegrams started arriving almost immediately.  For ten consecutive days, she  received discouraging updates on Gussie's condition.  And she no longer had to wonder why the volunteers had stopped writing.

Your son...remains on the very seriously ill list...His present health is poor and he is in a coma.  Recovery is not expected.

The May 30 telegram was from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC and was the last Cass was to receive.  The cold, hard words must have been very difficult to read. 

I wish to inform you that your son was admitted to this hospital on 30 May 67, as a very seriously ill patient with diagnosis of a penetrating fragment wound and recovery is questionable.  Your presence is not required, however you may visit him at anytime.

"That was one of the hardest things I ever did," says Anna Butchinko.  "We went with my sister so we could see Gus as often as possible.  He never came out of the coma."

Gussie Ponto died on June 10, 1967.  The 'holy terror' was taken away by a piece of shrapnel that in his words: "roams around and says, 'To whom it may concern.'"

He was buried in Eglington Cemetery in Swedesboro on June 16, after the funeral service at McCann Funeral Home in Blackwood.

Cathy painfully recalls the time.  "The night of the viewing, I couldn't believe he looked that good," she says.  "Except his head was wrapped.  That just stuck in my memory for years.  I would go to the cemetery a lot.  I didn't want to accept his death."

Cathy eventually met and married a Vietnam veteran in 1970.  Ron Muhlbaier served with the 9th Infantry Division and was wounded in September of 1969.  He knows that Vietnam forever changed both their lives, and is a caring, supportive husband.  Cathy knows she would have married Gus had he returned.  She also knows Gus always wanted the best for her, and in Ron, she found it.

"We would talk a lot about Gus," Cathy says.  "He really understands and I'm glad I met a man who is understanding and I understand him."

Under Gus' photo in the 1963 Dorian, the Deptford High School yearbook, are the words, "How dull it is to rust unburnished, not to shine in use."  His life does shine in the memories of his family, friends and girlfriend...and his soul now shines together with that of his best friend, his mom.

Excerpt from They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam
by John Campbell
Used with permission of author

Sources: John Campbell and NJVVMF.

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