In 1966, four Marines — Bob Falk, Dennis Puleo, Tom Hanks, and Bob DeVenezia — were the closest of friends. Stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, the Vietnam War was ramping up, and they were preparing to deploy.
They trained together for two years before being sent to Vietnam, but before all of that, when they were fresh out of Parris Island and had just been sent to Camp Pendleton, the four of them met and formed a strong bond. On one of their weekends off, they headed to Oceanside to go to the beach. And they took a photo that they would replicate 50 years later.
The four of them headed to Vietnam, but their training didn’t prepare them for the horrors they would have to face. Puleo had to receive the Last Rites after a piece of shrapnel flew through his foot, calf, and thigh. DeVenezia was shot in the left shoulder. Countless other friends were killed. And the four friends separated.
“We just broke up,” DeVenezia explained. “Life is funny like that. I didn’t keep in touch with any of them. There was something about the Vietnam War and the negativity we kept hearing.” They went their separate ways, building families and successful careers. But then, Hanks created an online memorial for a fallen Marine that the four of them all had known. Falk stumbled upon it.
But while they were finally in touch again, they had never been able to reunite, the four of them all together… until Hanks came upon an old photo album. In it, he found the picture: the four of them, posed around a surfboard they had borrowed from a surfer. And with that, the idea to reunite was born.
Not everyone was excited.
While DeVenezia, Falk, and Hanks were on board with the plan right away, Puleo took more convincing. “The truth of the fact is, I didn’t want to come,” he said. Puleo guesses that he must have said no 12 times. But eventually, he relented, and the four met in St. Augustine, Florida. And as they settled into their condo, the friendship was rekindled. They borrowed another surfboard — this time, on loan from a stranger who had heard their story and wanted to help — and got outfits that matched the original photo as closely as possible.
At noon, they headed down to the beach, posed themselves, and got a photo that was 50 years in the making. Puleo admitted that he was glad he had come; Hanks called it one of the best days of his life. And they never forgot the sobering reality that they were here, together and alive and happy, when so many hadn’t come home, a reality that Puleo pointed out. “We all know that we’ve been given a gift of 50 years.”