In May 1966, four U.S. Marines, fresh out of basic training and ranging in age from 19-21, were stationed in Camp Pendleton, right outside San Diego. Bob Falk, Dennis Puleo, Bob DeVenezia and Tom Hanks were placed in the same weapons platoon and trained together for over two years–developing a close friendship. On weekends they would let loose, sometimes going on trips to Mexico or the San Diego Zoo or bar hopping. One weekend they headed to the beach in Oceanside, California. While goofing around, they took pictures of each other using one of their cameras. Huddled together with a surfboard they borrowed, the young men took a group shot. The picture not only showed their youth, but also captured the carefree joy of four soldiers who had yet to see the horrors of war.
Once they were shipped out to Vietnam, they were sent in separate directions. All of them successfully completed their tours of duty, although Puleo had been administered his last rites after a piece of shrapnel pierced through his foot, calf and thigh and DeVenezia took a bullet to the left shoulder. Their battle wounds earned the two men Purple Hearts, with DeVenezi receiving one and Puleo three.
After returning from war, the four men, eager to put their combat experiences behind them and scarred from harsh anti-war sentiments, scattered across the country, and soon lost touch. About five years ago, the group reconnected after Falk found an online memorial Hanks had created for a fallen comrade. The group began to meet infrequently, but never all at once. When Hanks found the picture of the four of them on the beach together as young Marines in California, he had an idea—to recreate the photo 50 years later, using the anniversary as incentive for a reunion. At first, all but Puleo agreed, but his fellow Corpsmen eventually convinced him to attend.
On April 23, the four men gathered for the first time since returning from Vietnam. Since three of the Marines currently live in Florida, they decided to meet on Cinnamon Beach on Florida’s northeast coast. They borrowed a yellow longboard and set about recreating the carefree photo they’d taken five decades earlier in California.
“Look, everybody has reunions. They’re a dime a dozen, but this one? Dennis got last rites in the same battle I got shot in,” DeVenezia told the “Today” show. “The fact that we’re all alive after 50 years, much less survived Vietnam, is what makes the story neat.”
While the four Marines left the reunion without making official plans for the next meeting, one thing was clear: the reunion was a success. As Puleo poignantly told the Naples Daily News, “we’ve been given a gift of 50 years.”