Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day Tribute
A Sunday in Vietnam

I was trained to be a Photo Lab Specialist and looked forward to developing film for the Army, even in Vietnam. But, when I first arrived in the country and sent to the 199th Infantry Brigade, they informed me that the brigade did not have a photo lab. In training, I had been told that without a lab I would be sent to the front with the “grunts” and required to take pictures as well as fight. I was petrified. I was sent to the Information Office, the newspaper office, you might say. There the Lieutenant in charge reassured me that the job was available. He referred me to the Sargent in charge. The Sargent in charge said there was one problem. Someone else wanted the position too. A photographer, who had been in the field fighting for half a year also wanted the job. The Sargent had to decide who would be assigned the position. He asked us both to go build a bunker outside the building. Being new in the country and army life, I obeyed without question, while the other guy refused and told him off. I got the job which was to collect the negatives from the photographers in the field then have them developed next door at Long Binh before delivering the photos to Saigon to be censored (or not). I would then send them out to UPI and AP to be published in the newspapers in America. I was working in a newspaper office with reporters. A great job on a secure base. One of my extra duties was to travel with the General on Sundays to visit the wounded, from our unit, at the area hospitals. I could learn to like this job, I decided.

Most days were quiet and normal. I received the photos, the reporters wrote their stories and once a week we took a day trip to Saigon and after being censored, visited the USO and ate at a nice restaurant. On weekends we lounged around the pool on our off hours. Sundays I attended the early interdenominational church services just a few buildings down from our newspaper office and traveled with the General. This is a story about the one day I will never forget. April 1, 1970.

April Fools Day. It was a Sunday in Vietnam. I woke up in the bunker that I called home, the same bunker I helped build, which had assured my working here instead of at the front fighting with the “grunts”. Aside from a few April Fool's jokes with my friends, the day seemed to be no different than all other Sundays in Vietnam.

I knew that after the service I would go back to the office, gather my camera and wait for my "Sundays with the General".  Brigadier General William Ross Bond was a decent guy. He wasn't aloof like other Generals I had seen. He made you feel like you were somebody and that you weren't alone in this war. He spoke TO you and not AT you. My job was to just silently take pictures of him with the wounded so they would have a record of his visit and a picture to send home to anxious loved ones. I always had plenty of Polaroid film on hand for these visits. I didn't just silently take pictures with General Bond, though, because he encouraged me to also speak and visit with the men. He felt it was important. So here we were, the General, his aide, and me making rounds in the hospitals visiting and reassuring wounded men. I had been doing this for half a year already and it seemed quite ordinary for me, a Specialist 5, and he, a General, to board his helicopter, gunners on each side of us and fly to the wounded every Sunday. We became friends on those flights. Sometimes we talked about nothing in general, other times about his family or mine. It was like going on a Sunday drive with a friend.

So today would not be any different, I thought. When the call came I met them at the heliport and off we flew. First we visited one soldier who had been badly wounded, displaying stitches from neck to groin. Then another from our unit who had lost a leg. When I first started these visits, I couldn't look the soldiers directly in the eye because I felt guilty that I was in a fairly secure position and they had been living in hell. But now, I was quite at ease visiting and offering a word of prayer. I didn't feel as embarrassed taking a picture of them with their scars and missing body parts.  We had made several visits that day, but then we received a call that there was some fighting further north with several wounded on the ground without a medivac helicopter near. General Bond, without a moments hesitation, decided that we should leave immediately and help rescue those we could. It would be very dangerous.

As the helicopter took off Gen. Bond said, “Drop Blair off at the base, first. We might have some information to send him.” I was grateful. Returning to the office we waited for any information that might come in. We were anxious. Two hours later we got the word that my friend General Bond was dead along with everyone else on his helicopter. Gen. Bond had ordered the pilot to land so they could help rescue wounded soldiers. They were fired upon. General Bond was carrying a private in his arms when he was shot.

Chills ran up and down my spine and I cried. I had lost a great friend that I only briefly got to know on our Sunday afternoon flights. I lost friends that were always on the helicopter with the general and his aide. This thought shook me to my bones knowing that if he had not decided to drop me off first, that I would have been one of the causalities too. Life stood still.

We had a memorial service at the base later that week. I felt so guilty. Why did they die and not me. This was an experience that many soldiers have when their friends have been killed and they were spared, I learned. I was no different.

For several years, I lived with that guilt and silently kept it inside. I had bouts of depression. Gradually, I came to terms with my feelings and was able to talk about the war.

I am a grateful person that my life was spared. My faith helped me weather the storm. I learned to look on the bright side and talk of my Army days as joy and fun. The dark side doesn't seem dark anymore. I know what these soldiers feel when they return home without a friend. I feel the guilt and pain with them when I hear their stories. I am grateful that, but by the grace of God, it wasn't me.

Sometimes I get sad and cry on memorial day for I feel the pain so many have suffered. Thank you Lord, for all men and women in the armed forces who put their lives on the line every day to make America the free country we so love. Thank you for those who died and for their families. Their sacrifice was not in vain. We must never forget.  Never!

Without General Bond's decision to leave me behind I would not have ever met Frances or been married or had Marty. I would not have ever met Marty's Kristi and seen their two wonderful boys. Life would have been so different for my family this memorial weekend. I am a grateful person.

© Nippy Blair 2015. Posts and pictures on this blog cannot be copied, downloaded, printed, or used without the permission of the blog owner, Nippy Blair.

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad you shared this story with me a few years ago. Your life has meant much to many, especially children, and I'm grateful you got to live it after the war was over.