Joe Paul was the one who answered the door. He was only 11 at the time, out of school for the summer, hanging around the Gonzalez family home on South Street in Hollister. At the door greeting the boy, there stood an army chaplain.
During the Vietnam War—as well as the Korean War and World War II before it—a chaplain at the door was a potent symbol of dread for American families. It was usually a harbinger of bad news. For many, it was the worst news they would hear in their lives.
The Gonzalez family was already a house in distress by the time the chaplain reached the door. The day before, the family had received a telegram, informing them that their oldest son PFC Albert Gonzalez, who was serving in Vietnam, had been “mortally wounded,” in the preferred military euphemism of the time. There was some confusion about what that meant. Was he dead? Or merely wounded?
Albert’s mother Amelia feared the worst, and she stayed up much of the night weeping, expecting a knock on the door telling her that her Albert was gone forever.
The next day, the knock came.
Memorial Day is the most difficult holiday on the calendar, especially for the millions of families who’ve been touched directly by the sacrifice of war. On one hand, it’s painful, maybe even excruciating, to remember the worst moment of your life. But on the other hand, memory is the most meaningful tribute to those who laid down their lives in service to their country. The debt the living owe them is paid in memories.
Albert Gonzalez was one of about 58,000 Americans who died while serving in Vietnam. He had been “in country” for about four months when he was killed in combat, “during hostile ground action,” as the military put it. A few weeks after the chaplain’s visit to the Gonzalez home, Albert was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service. He was 22 when he died.
Fernando Gonzalez, another of Albert’s brothers, was a teenager working at the JC Penney in Hollister that day.
“The manager told me that I’d better get home right away,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was all about. He didn’t give any indication what it was about.”
The news was both devastating and shocking. The widespread protests that marked the domestic reaction to the war had not yet reached the mainstream, at least not in Hollister.
“At the time, people were still volunteering,” Fernando said. “The message that if you go there, you might not come back wasn’t really in anybody’s mindset.”
Yet, Fernando remembered when Albert shipped out. He was a volunteer, not a draftee. At the time, he was a promising young man, attending Gavilan College in Gilroy. He had worked a wide variety of odd jobs for a number of people around town. Before heading off to basic training, Fernando remembers, “he really made an effort to go visit everyone he had been working for, told them he was going into the military. He was basically saying his goodbyes to all these people, in case he didn’t come back.”
Hollister was a considerably smaller town 50 years ago, and it seemed to the Gonzalez brothers that Albert knew almost everybody in town. He was an outgoing, charismatic guy, drove a 1958 blue Chevy Impala and, on the side, he was an entertainer, playing the guitar and singing at parties and functions, with a special love for the folk group The Seekers.
He liked to dress up occasionally in cowboy garb, and he had lots of friends at Hollister High School and beyond.
“Every time we’d see one of his friends, they always asked about ‘Al,’ ” Joe Paul said. “We never called him Al. We always called him Albert.”
“Girls would always be coming over looking for him,” said Fernando in the common kid-brother lament. “But he was always somewhere tinkering.”
The Gonzalez siblings—there were seven all together counting Albert—worked in the community, usually in the fields, consistently. While in high school, Albert had an inclination to figure out how things worked and how to fix them when broken.
“Albert was very talented at repairing vehicles, making go-carts, finding some old car and bringing it back to life,” Fernando said.
“He would get so happy,” remembered his mother Amelia, who still lives in Hollister, a large portrait of Albert featured prominently in her living room, “when he would find (something broken) and make it work. He really did a lot of good things.”
His family said that Albert’s greatest passion was electricity and he was offered a job at General Electric in San Jose. He signed on with the U.S. Army instead.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Albert’s death. He would be only 72 today, probably a grandfather. Little brother Joe Paul Gonzalez, the one who answered the door that fateful day in 1968, has a long record of public service in Hollister and is now the Clerk, Auditor & Recorder for San Benito County. In 2018, he and his wife Irma visited Washington D.C. and, for the first time, got to see the famously reflective black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Right there on the Washington Mall, in sight of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, on panel 51, line 39 was etched the name “Albert Gonzalez.”
While gazing at his brother’s name, Joe Paul was approached by another man, an ex-Marine who had served in Vietnam. The man gestured to the wall and said softly, “Is that one yours?” Joe Paul, unable to speak, just nodded.
Fernando Gonzalez has been to Washington to see “The Wall” as well. Like Joe Paul, he was overcome with emotion. Both brothers said that they were compelled to linger over many of the other names engraved there, to reflect on the sacrifice of soldiers they did not know. It gave them comfort to know that Albert was not alone on that wall.
“It’s amazing that it’s been so long since Albert (has died),” Fernando said. “But, still, even now, he’s always on my mind, even with the pressures and problems of everyday life. But I know I can tell people that my brother served. And that gives me a lot of pride.”