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Friendship never dies: A Vietnam War story from Winsted

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WINSTED -- In the midst of bombs and bloodshed during the Vietnam War, letters sent by mail usually carried a lot of comfort. “It made me feel like, okay, they know I’m still here. They didn’t forget about me,” said U.S. Army veteran, Joe Godenzi.

Reassurance for Godenzi didn’t just come from home, but also his comrades and hometown companions. Godenzi and his childhood friends Dave Tazzara and Paul Vaccari from Winsted, joined the army together shortly after high school.

The three young men took this brave step without hesitation as the U.S. was sending more troops overseas to support South Vietnam’s efforts to ward off communists from North Vietnam. From Connecticut, the trio remained side-by-side for months of training and they even got off the same plane in Vietnam together in 1968.

“It’s like 105 degrees, 80 percent humidity. Welcome to Vietnam,” said Tazzara.

At that moment, reality hit. “Scared,” Godenzi recalled.

They were frightened after quickly separating for the first time in their military career. “It was really, really devastating for me. I was like, wow,” said Vaccari.

From that point, while on their reconnaissance missions in the jungle, the three could only communicate through letters. Each letter ended with a countdown.

However, letters between the three only flowed back and forth for two months. Godenzi still has the letter he was reading from Paul when his base camp came under attack by North Vietnamese soldiers.

“My hand’s gone. My foot’s ripped to shreds. I got a dead body across from me. I panicked,” said Godenzi. Godenzi was rescued and taken back to the United States for surgery, leaving his friends behind.

When Vaccari realized weeks had gone by without a response from Godenzi, he too started to panic. With nearly 17,000 deaths, 1968 was the deadliest year for Americans in Vietnam.

“The fact that we decided to do this together weighed heavily on me. Wow. We decided to join the army together. Maybe Joe’s not going to make it,” said Vaccari.

Godenzi did make it and eventually got around to writing Vaccari a five page letter with his one good hand.

From there, Vaccari and Tazzara continued to write, keeping each other updated on Godenzi’s condition as they finished out their taxing, year-long tour in Vietnam. “That’s probably one of the greatest feelings of my life, if not the greatest, was the day I left Vietnam,” said Tazzara.

Vaccari and Tazzara reunited with Godenzi as soon as they returned home. Today, they’re living in Winsted again with their families. In fact, Tazzara and Vaccari live on the same street.

All three admit, they’re proud of their service, but have talked very little about Vietnam since leaving, especially because much of the country was against the war. “You could just look at each other and just knew, by looking, how you felt,” said Tazzara.

Instead, they focus on the fonder memories of growing up and how grateful they are, letters are no longer needed because the trio is together again.

Now retired, Godenzi worked 31-years as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. Tazzara spent nearly four decades working as an elevator technician. He too is now retired. Vaccari is still working as an officer with the Winsted Police Department.