“It must be something in our genes, don’t you think, son?” said veteran U.S. Marine Thomas Gualandi, Sr. to his son, Thomas Gualandi, Jr., also a veteran U.S. Marine, as they put the finishing touches on the newest exhibit at the La Salle County Historical Society Museum in downtown Utica.
In honor of Veterans Day, both Tom Sr. and Tom Jr. have donated time, effort, and expertise to update the Vietnam War and Iraq and Afghanistan War exhibits at the museum. The Gualandis also have loaned the museum authentic uniforms, which are displayed exactly as Tom Sr. and Tom Jr. were outfitted and equipped during combat.
In an age when the draft is a thing of the past and war seems far removed to much of the American public, these new exhibits remind us of the sacrifices and experiences of our veterans.
In light of the recent airing of the Ken Burns documentary "The Vietnam War," the addition to the Vietnam War exhibit arrived at a very auspicious time. Thomas D. Gualandi Sr. enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in June, 1967 and arrived in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in October, 1967, where he served as a field radio operator with Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment on the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.
Tom Sr. was wounded in action in January, 1968 during the Tet Offensive, yet served a subsequent tour in the Republic of Vietnam as a Forward Aerial Observer attached to 2nd ANGLICO (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company). Tom Sr. was honorably discharged at the rank of sergeant in June, 1970. He resides north of Utica.
In addition to his uniform, Tom Sr. also has provided the museum a radio such as he would have used as a field radio operator. The kneeling mannequin was purchased specifically to portray how field radio operators used field radios during the war.
The World War II-era radio required 12-pound batteries, and each field radio operator also carried a spare. Tom Sr. oversaw the distribution of batteries.
“It was a very stressful job,” Tom Sr. recalls. “The batteries were not rechargeable, and we had trouble stocking them because the helicopters delivering supplies kept getting shot down. Soldiers kept demanding I give them batteries, but I didn’t have any to give them. We had to constantly trade and swap out batteries within the unit.”
The radio and other gear Tom Sr. would have worn is on view to the public, including a Westclox-assembled disposable wrist watch.
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas D. Gualandi Jr. enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve in March, 1990 and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1995. After serving as a Tactical Air Control Officer during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tom Jr. transitioned to Military Intelligence and served as an Intelligence Officer in Afghanistan.
Tom Jr. has been deployed to the Middle East and Central Asia on multiple intelligence missions and trained foreign militaries in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Tom Jr. retired from the Marine Corps in 2014 and lives in Valparaiso, Ind.
On display at the museum is Tom Jr.’s uniform and combat equipment from his tour in Iraq. A discarded Iraqi Republican Guard uniform, beret, and “Most Wanted” playing cards intended to familiarize soldiers with the faces and names of Saddam Hussein’s government and military during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, brought back by Tom Jr. also will be on view at the museum.
Utica will host its amazing Veterans day parade and air show Sunday, Nov. 5. The museum has many artifacts belonging to La Salle County veterans and will be open extended hours that day, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Both Tom Gualandi Sr. and Tom Gualandi Jr., as well as longtime museum volunteer and donor, Vietnam veteran Sergeant James “Sarge” Masset, of Peru, will be at the Museum that day.
The recently donated WWII scrapbook with newspaper articles about local servicemen and women compiled by Lillian Pakenham will be on display, and donors John Pakenham (Lillian’s son) and Joseph Krizel also will be present at the Museum on Nov. 5.