In late 1967 a young Soldier sent a letter from Vietnam asking his big sister in San Mateo, California, to get that community to adopt his unit.
“You see, by having a town or city adopt us, it brings the morale of the guys up as high as the clouds,” Sgt. Joe Artavia, 19, wrote. He was with A Company, also known as ABU, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.
His sister, Linda, was always told to look after her three younger brothers while growing up in San Francisco. After Joe wrote in December 1967, it took her three months to get his request placed on the agenda of the San Mateo city council. Finally the request was placed on the agenda March 4, 1968; and Linda was given the opportunity to address the five-member council that evening. At the meeting, one of the councilmen responded that Joe was from San Francisco and not San Mateo.
“I immediately stood up and said he’s not from Vietnam either but he’s fighting a war over there,” Linda Patterson said. She now resides in Pacific Palisades in southern California and is president and founder of America Supporting Americans, a nonprofit organization.
The five councilmen voted unanimously to adopt Joe’s unit, A Company. The mayor appointed Patterson to lead the program for the city and the community. But two weeks later, on March 24, Joe was killed during a firefight.
San Mateo’s residents responded with support. The North Burlingame Women’s Club, led by Thelma Castle, was the first that called Patterson about sending care packages to the Soldiers.
“Meanwhile all over the country, especially in San Francisco, they were burning our flags, draft cards and protesting in the streets,” Patterson said.
What really rallied the community was the article in the San Mateo Times reporting that Sgt. Joe Artavia, San Mateo’s first adopted son, was killed in action. Civic organizations and clubs stepped forward.
Patterson sent newsletters to the unit and she taped messages of support from the community. Sometimes her messages to individual Soldiers would come back undelivered because the 18- or 19-year-old had been killed in action. The unit, based at Camp Eagle in the northernmost I Corps near Hue and Phu Bai, did heavy fighting in the jungles. San Mateo decided to send each member of the unit a Christmas gift consisting of a card and a medallion cut with the city seal which read “Adopted Son” on one side and the Soldier’s name engraved on the other side.
Originally they planned to mail them but it was
suggested that Patterson personally deliver the Christmas 1968 presents and she agreed.
“The reason was to deliver these gifts and see the men that served with my brother,” she said. “It was so emotional for me.”
The then 27-year-old took out a $500 personal loan for half her plane ticket and received a matching donation from a women’s sorority club to fund the $1,000 trip. With two suitcases full of medallions for the 130 Soldiers, she had a police escort to the San Francisco Airport. But she did not have any government approval for her trip.
“I had a passport, a roundtrip ticket and $40 on me,” she recalled. She left on a Pan American flight Dec. 16, arrived in Saigon, got escorted to Camp Eagle and waited more than a week for the unit to arrive from the jungle. Her military escort, 1st Lt. Steve Patterson, a platoon leader, eventually became her husband.
“Joe was like each and every one of them,” she said of meeting the members of A Company. “I said you are all my brothers. To this day, they call me Sis.”
San Mateo has maintained its relationship with the unit for the past five decades. In 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, Patterson started her nonprofit, America Supporting Americans, to connect cities with units of all branches of the service. More than 300 cities have adopted units. “We are more than just sending packages. What we do is bond,” Patterson said of the long-term relationships.
Patterson, 77, has two sons and a daughter and two grandchildren. She stays busy researching the deployed units and contacting the various cities. She doesn’t have a staff – just her points of contact in cities throughout the nation. She shared her thoughts on the national commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I think it’s wonderful that they’re doing this,” she said. “There’s a healing process here with them doing this but it’s a little too late. The way they (Soldiers returning from Vietnam) were treated then had a dire effect on their lives. They’re scarred from that wound and the way they were treated.”
Her husband of 42 years, Steve, 75, originally from Massapequa, New York, is retired from the investment business. He served with the 101st in Vietnam from January 1968 to January 1969. He was an infantry platoon leader for most of the year. His awards included the Silver Star, Bronze Star, two Army Commendation Medals with “v” device for valor, two Purple Hearts and the Air Medal.
When cards and letters would arrive from San Mateo, he said they really benefited the younger enlisted Soldiers – the 18- and 19-year-old privates and specialists. He was then a 23-year-old first lieutenant with A Company.
“It’s a great connection for the young men,” Steve Patterson said. “I think the biggest impact was with the younger men.”
Retired Lt. Col Hal Winton, 76, of Madison, commanded the adopted unit, A Company, in Vietnam from September 1969 to February 1970. He is originally from Fort Benning, Georgia.
“The monthly arrival of packages from the kind people of San Mateo, California,” Winton said, “did much to maintain and raise the morale of my Soldiers.”
Editor’s note: This is the 219th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.