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Nelson Fortis

So many of the Crusader brethren have gone on from Riordan to give their lives in dedication to service.

Riordan has so many military and civil servicemen to be proud of. We hope to honor their great service by profiling their stories of sacrifice and how they have embodied the true spirit of an Archbishop Riordan High School Crusader.

2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, a major counter-attack coordinated and launched by a combination of Communist military forces in Vietnam. Named after the Vietnamese New Year, Tet impacted the entire theater of US and Allied operations in Vietnam. After the initial shock of the attacks, Allied forces regrouped and delivered massive casualties to the enemy. In the concerted efforts of the United States military and South Vietnamese allied forces to counter-attack the North Vietnamese offensive, a Riordan Crusader, class of 1967, was badly injured as a Marine Recon soldier involved in operations targeting major North Vietnamese Army strongholds. Nelson Fortis ’67 narrowly survived his medical evacuation after an intense, sustained firefight with the NVA. He was kind and patient to take our President, Mr. Andrew Currier, through his story of graduating from Riordan and moving on to joining Class 1066 of Marine Corps Basic Training in San Diego, his combat experiences, and his subsequent struggle to obtain the necessary medical services to help him manage his many wounds and injuries received in combat.

Nelson Fortis

Preparing for War

The idea to join the United States Marine Corps may have been inspired by, or at least had something to do with, the renowned Riordan Chemistry teacher, Brother Hinger, SM. Nelson Fortis found himself in the counsel of Dean of Students, Mr. John Rubia, himself a former “Devil Dog,” as they sometimes call Marines, after a particularly salient episode resulting from Brother Hinger’s corrective measures.1 Fortis knew there was something for him that he needed offered in military life. After forging his mother’s signature on a government form, Fortis began spending weekends of his senior year at the naval base on Treasure Island doing calisthenics and other aspects of basic military formation in the 120-day program (a sort of primer for basic training). In discussing this tumultuous time in his life, Fortis explained how the military provided an outlet and an escape.

When leafing through his Marine Corps Basic Training yearbook, Fortis explained and pointed out different aspects of boot camp. The sign above the mess hall read, “Take all you want, eat all you take”—a sure indication that the “maggots”2 are expected to burn off a lot of energy in their formation as combat soldiers. While the yearbook exhibits a happy, well-ordered place with palm trees, a swimming pool, and plenty of recreation, Fortis assured me that life in basic training was far from the serenity depicted in the year book. You couldn’t hear the hollering of drill sergeants and the gasping of young men putting forth their maximum effort. The neatly dressed men were actually busy yelling, the swimming pool was for tread-water tests of 30 minutes with battle dress, boots, and packs, and the recreation areas were for perfecting the art of marching in cadence. Upon graduation from boot camp, Fortis was designated a Recon candidate, which involved extensive training prior to being sent to a combat zone. Some of his advanced training included infantry training at Camp Pendleton, Fort Benning for parachute training, prisoner of war school at Camp Lejeune, and then G2 intelligence training at Camp Pendleton. Finally, before being designated for duty in Vietnam, Fortis was sent to Okinawa for Survival Escape Resistance Evasion school where he learned techniques to evade capture behind enemy lines. Fortis described being given a compass, a Ka-Bar4 knife, and 5 days to get back to base camp after being dropped off, alone, in a remote location of dense jungle. This is where soldiers learn to eat bugs and find water sources in interesting places. Fortis had already begun developing a reputation as a singularly resourceful Marine who could get things for people. He began gaining a reputation as “The Provider,” a nickname he gained by asking lots of questions and knowing how to maneuver well in the city having grown up with a familiarity with the streets.

Fortis hails from several different parts of San Francisco having been born in North Beach to Salvadorian parents of Italian extraction. He attended Sacred Heart Grammar School for a time and then St. Anthony’s where he completed his grade schooling. Fortis and his family conversed in diverse tongues: Italian, Spanish, and Yiddish. He took care of his younger siblings and picked them up from school at St. Anthony every day. He still gets together with some of his old schoolmates from St. Anthony’s.

In Country

Fortis landed in Phu Bai in December of 1967 and then transferred to Da Nang where he experienced a sort of limbo until he was picked up by his Marine regiment—1st Marine Division, 3rd Battallion, 5th Marine Regiment (3rd/5th)5. During this waiting period, he elaborated on his reputation as “The Provider,” exploring different areas in the expansive military base and getting things for other people. Nelson’s cousin, Carlos Silva (Riordan Class of ’65) was already situated in Vietnam as a Marine enlisted man. Fortis recalls visiting his cousin just as he was placed on Bald Eagle6 status during the Tet Offensive. “The Provider” had to gain access through several restricted base areas in order to reach his cousin, whom he told to tell everyone back home that he loved them. Fortis had a sense that he might not come back from the forward parts of the warzones he was about to be thrust into.

Operation Houston II was intended to keep Highway #1 open through the Hai Van Pass. Fortis’s platoon deployed from an established Marine outpost located in the valley and walked directly into heavy opposition, inadvertently engaging an enemy base camp.7 Fortis describes receiving fire from three sides at one point in the pitched fire fight with the PAVN soldiers. The enemy was firing from camouflaged holes in the ground as well. Fortis’s company was trapped for days before being relieved. Heroics from individual soldiers helped many of the men preserve their lives, including the retaking of high ground where enemy machine gun nests poured fire downward onto the embattled Marine company in the valley. The combat report describes the terrain as “torturous” and describes how several attempts were made to blast the trees down to create space for medevacs. Fortis was first wounded on May 9th as a chicom grenade’s shrapnel entered through his left eyeball. Fortis was also wounded in the neck and other parts of his head from grenade shrapnel. He and two men were pinned against the large exposed roots of a tree and Fortis attempted to pull one of the Marines towards the root to avoid the blast, but was too late. That Marine was discovered KIA8 several yards from the blast. When the H-47 Chinook medevac helicopter came to extract the wounded Marines, Fortis was the last of many men to climb aboard the helicopter bound for the hospital at Da Nang. Fortis describes the dread of being the last man to climb in the chopper at the entrance of the helicopter’s door gunner, who was soon killed from enemy fire. Fortis describes how the enemy had a practice of shooting for the gunner first during an extraction, which meant Fortis was likely to encounter close enemy fire inside the helicopter. The fuselage of the Chinook helicopter is made of thin sheet metal, so soldiers made a habit of sitting on top of their helmets for added protection from fire from below. The medevac took heavy AK-47 fire on its attempt to leave the battle site. Given that the space for the helicopter was tight for landing and the H-47 has twin rotors, the chances of clipping the foliage were likely. Inevitably the chopper’s blades clipped trees and careened towards the enemy’s position.

Fortis describes praying the Hail Mary while sitting atop his helmet inside the helicopter as it attempted to evacuate. Fortis sustained 5 AK-47 bullet wounds while seated in the chopper. One of the bullets still remains lodged in his torso to this day. The H-47 Chinook is equipped with an aft bay door that opened up during the crash. As the chopper got hung up in foliage, the soldiers slid out the back of the bay door due to the high angle and back onto the LZ.9 Fortis remembers coming to as a fellow soldier attempted to drag him to safety. Not having his wits about him and having suffered several more injuries from the fall from the crashing helicopter, Fortis instinctually reached for his Ka-Bar and slashed at the soldier attempting to aid him. With no time for convincing the disoriented Fortis that he was friendly, the soldier punched him hard enough to knock him back out and drag him to safety. The list of injuries Fortis sustained is unfathomable (in addition to the 5 bullet wounds and the pierced eyeball): skull fracture, 2 collapsed vertebrae, broken ankles, collateral medial tear, broken left patella, and one too harsh to even mention. Fortis was finally strapped to a litter and attached to the skid of an Army Huey, which meant that he was entirely exposed to enemy fire and outside of the aircraft for the entire duration of the flight back to the air base. The medics on the ground tagged him with just a few of the many injuries apparent to them. Many more injuries and wounds existed and were only to be discovered more thoroughly in another hail of fire.

The Parade of Hospitals

Fortis is truly fortunate to have survived the enemy fire, the grenades, and the fall from the crashing helicopter, but his fight was really only just beginning. Getting wounded during the Tet Offensive meant that the hospital in which soldiers were being treated was likely under attack while the nurses and doctors were trying to save the most critical of the wounded. The Tet Offensive hit locations all over Vietnam and the hospitals were inundated with casualties. When Fortis was brought into the DaNang hospital, they had to put him under his hospital bed due to the constant barrage of enemy mortar fire into the base. They still did not know the extent of his injuries. More were discovered when he attempted to get himself to the bathroom. DaNang’s Hospital was under such heavy threat and constant barrage that the doctors felt that Fortis, in critical condition, should be transferred to an even safer care facility at Cam Ranh Bay.10 Soon after, Fortis was airlifted to Tachikawa Air Base near Tokyo, Japan where he spent 2 months in rehabilitation. After rehabbing in Tachikawa, Fortis was transferred to Yokohama hospital for specialized treatment and rehabilitation. He spent nearly 4 months in Yokohama before finally being transferred back to California at Oak Knoll Hospital in Oakland. After surviving horrific circumstances with his Marine unit in Vietnam, Fortis arrived back to a country largely opposed to the war and often disrespectful to its veterans. Veteran care was severely lacking and VA treatment centers overflowed with casualties of war. One of the most difficult fights for Fortis was recovering his medical records from Veterans Affairs. His perseverance led him to his thick folder in the basement of a Saint Louis facility—fortunately he recovered these documents shortly before the facility burned completely. After a near complete rehabilitation, Fortis was reassigned to the Marine Corps base in San Diego in September of 1969. He describes the threat shifting from Vietnamese soldiers to passionate American protesters threatening to lay siege to military installations. Fortis was eventually transferred back to Treasure Island, where they released him in the evenings to stay with family members. In 1970, he was discharged from the Marine Corps and began civilian life. Fortis earned many medals including the Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

Nelson Fortis is about as tough a leather neck as you’ll find. Fortis is Latin for “strong,” and I found his last name to be altogether appropriate. He’s been shot, hit by grenades, fallen out of a helicopter, spat on, and suffered so much that he has a total medical disability. None of this stopped him from leading a successful civilian life. At one point he was co-owner of the popular shoe store on Sutter—Second Sole. Fortis has also been involved in the wine and liquor industry having represented Sierra Nevada and Malachitas Bros. among others. He is happily retired with his wife in Redwood Shores.

We are proud to honor and spotlight the bravery and service of Nelson Fortis ’67. He embodies the true spirit of a Riordan Crusader.

1 Br. Roland Hinger, SM had a distinct reputation as a renowned Chemistry teacher with sometimes severe expectations and repercussions for behavior he deemed out of line.
2 “Maggot” is a term used to describe a life form prior to its full Marine Corps state.
3 Fortis tested high on his basic training standardized testing, which qualified him for a specialized kind of duty in reconnaissance.
4 A Ka-Bar is the traditional fighting knife for Marines since World War II.
5 The “Dark Horse” is a storied unit having seen significant action in every major US conflict since WWI. Their motto is, “Get Some.”
6 Bald Eagle is the restricted, readied status Marine units were put into in order to be ready to fly into action at any moment.
7 Taken from “Combat after actions report, 6/3/1968.”
8 Killed in Action
9 Landing Zone – an area cleared for infiltration, exfiltration, or evacuation on a helicopter
10 Cam Ranh Bay was the major hub for the US Air Force in Vietnam. It later became a Soviet Air Base and continues to be used by Russian air forces.