Release Date: October 11, 2021
From a recent stop on this year’s 26-city tour of The Wall That Heals, we bring you several stories that shed light on why people visit The Wall, the emotions they bring to it, and what happens when a community connects with its Vietnam War history.
Here are some other places where you can listen, follow and subscribe (don’t worry, it is free) to the Echoes of the Vietnam War podcast:
(HOST): [00:00:01] The city of Longview sits at the confluence of the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers in the southwest corner of Washington state. It feels a bit bigger than its population of about 40000, mainly because it runs seamlessly together with its neighbor, Kelso, the county seat, which adds another 12000 in change. As a stranger driving through the area, it’s easy to forget which of these twin cities you’re in at any given moment. Longview and Kelso are much closer to Portland, Oregon, than they are to any major metro area in Washington, so their local TV news comes from Portland. I live just a couple of hours north of Longview, about 30 miles east of Seattle, and have driven to and from Portland countless times. But I’d never seen anything of Longview or Kelso other than the sign for exit thirty-two off of I-5. Until a couple of weeks ago, when Longview hosted The Wall That Heals, I drove down and spent the week with the Wall, the volunteers and the visitors, and I discovered that there’s much more to Longview than what’s visible from the interstate in the act of honoring those who served the community of Longview, opened its heart to us and shared its stories.
(HOST): [00:01:12] In this episode, I’ll share a few of them with you. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of the Wall. This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan, bringing you stories of service, sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict. Nearly 50 years later. This is episode 15. Long view. The Wall That Heals a three-quarter-scale replica of the memorial in D.C. travels to communities across America from spring to fall. Longview is one of 26 stops it’ll make this year fewer than usual because of pandemic-related postponements. In fact, Longview was originally on the 2020 tour but was postponed by the COVID lockdowns. Unassembled, The Wall That Heals is packed into a spread axle trailer that weighs about 55000 pounds. It arrives in the host city under escort, a motorcade led by local police that includes members of the organizing committee and a complement of Patriot Guard motorcycle riders. The Longview escort was staged at GC’S Truck Stop in Toledo, Washington, about 20 miles north of Longview. I met up with them there for a briefing before the ride out here.
(DAN): [00:02:52] All right. All right, so those guys that don’t know me, my name’s Dan Halverson. Call me Double-D. I’m the captain for this ride today.
(HOST): [00:03:01] The briefing is led by Dan double-D Halverson, who organized the Patriot Guard Riders for this escort, and Callie Wright, the director of education at VMV and the site manager for The Wall That Heals in Longview. Callie will oversee every aspect of the walls, transport and care from this moment until the wall leaves town for its next stop. For the next several days, Callie is my boss.
(CALLIE): [00:03:26] That memorial has the names of the more than 58000 who gave the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam, and today all of you will ride it in with these amazing bikes to Longview, Washington. Thanks, guys. Appreciate you.
(DAN): [00:03:44] Ok, so let’s talk safety brief, so anybody that doesn’t ride in large formation, so the rolling the missing man formation is a close formation of just like the jets that go over missing man. There’s five motorcycles, two in the front, one in the center, on the right and two in the back. The empty spot and in the center-left is the missing man, so that’s the owner where the honoree would ride. Also, one thing we do is because we believe that our veterans have choices beyond where we are at. We put our pegs down in the back to basically invite the veteran to- or the hero to ride with us. So all the, all the bikes in the the missing man formation ride with pegs down.
(HOST): [00:04:35] And I noticed that a lot of them are Vietnam vets, but not all of them. Yeah, yeah. What about you? What’s your connection?
(DAN): [00:04:41] So my connection to the American Legion as I am a Marine Corps veteran? I’m not a Vietnam veteran. I went in in eighty-three and got out in eighty-nine.
(HOST): [00:04:55] The escort pulls on to I-5, led by Longview PD right behind them is the American Legion Patriot Guard’s missing man formation, followed by the tractor trailer pulling The Wall That Heals. Then come the rest of the bikes, almost all of them flying the American flag. Then comes me in my Volkswagen, and behind me are members of the organizing committee, Longview PD brings up the rear. As we mix with the other southbound motorists. I noticed that they treat this escort with reverence and respect. Some join us for a few miles before moving into the passing lane. At one point, we go under an overpass where several first responder aid vehicles are parked with lights flashing. Firefighters and paramedics stand at the railing and salute as we pass under them. Eventually, we get off the interstate and enter Longview by way of Nichols Boulevard. It’s lined with huge oak trees on either side, which come together to form a leafy green canopy over the procession. The street is lined with people welcoming us to town with waving flags and applause. Schoolchildren make up a significant portion of the crowd on both sides of the road. Finally, the escort arrives at Longview Memorial Park, which will be home for the next few days. The trailer is carefully placed by Tom, our volunteer driver, courtesy of Wilson Logistics and a 78-year-old veteran of two tours in Vietnam himself. Every site manager for The Wall That Heals is assisted by someone called a cadre who has experience touring with the wall and can serve as kind of a lieutenant Callie’s cadre in Longview is a longtime VVMF volunteer turned employee named Nikki. Nikki is a professional massage therapist who is also studying to become a counselor for combat veterans. She’s warm and engaging, but no-nonsense when it comes to treating veterans and this wall with respect and reverence.
(HOST): [00:07:03] She wears several MIA bracelets on her wrist and refers to them as “her guys.” I want to learn more about her connection to Vietnam veterans and those MIA bracelets, but I never get the chance. The Wall keeps us busy 12 to 14 hours a day, and every night after dinner, Nikki goes straight to her room to write papers for her master’s degree program. Early the next morning, it’s time to put up the wall, Callie and Nikki direct the local volunteers, which include two large work crews provided by a weather guard, a local roofing company, and J.H. Kelly, a huge construction company headquartered in Longview. Nikki reminds the crews that erecting the wall is not a matter of speed, but of respect. The one hundred and forty numbered panels containing the names of the dead weigh up to 80 pounds each, and even the lighter ones are always carried by at least two people. That’s so that the panels never touch the ground as they are carried about 60 yards from the trailer to where they’ll be erected on an aluminum frame. As the components of the wall are emptied out of the trailer and expertly assembled, the trailer itself is converted into a mobile education center featuring Vietnam War timelines, artifacts from the era, items left at the wall, and short informational videos. Despite the rain and the mud, the whole process only takes about six hours, Callie says. This is probably a record the result of having two professional work crews on the job as soon as the setup is complete. Callie leads a training session for the volunteers, who will be on hand to assist visitors for the next few days.
(CALLIE): [00:08:39] I am so excited you’re here tonight, I promise before you leave, you’re going to learn absolutely everything you need to know about being a volunteer. But before we move on, we’re going to play a quick game called “Are you smarter than the high schoolers that I had out here last week?”
(HOST): [00:08:55] The intense afternoon sun has dried out everything but my socks, so I borrow a dry pair from Nikki and change into a clean shirt. More than 400 people will attend the opening ceremony later that evening, which features speeches from the organizers and a local veteran of the Vietnam War and honor guard to perform full military honors and the choir from the local high school. After the ceremony, The Wall That Heals is officially open to visitors 24 hours a day every day until Sunday afternoon, when we’ll tear it all down, loaded into the trailer like the world’s biggest game of Tetris and send it off to its next stop in La Pine, Oregon. Nikki and Callie and I stay until the sky is dark and the wall is lit up. As we leave, I see couples and small groups of visitors at the Mobile Education Center and down at the wall, with more filing in from the parking lot. At the wall, A man is down on one knee praying with one hand on the wall. Some people, and especially some Vietnam veterans, prefer to visit the wall at night when it’s quieter. On the way out, I stop and talk briefly with Lloyd Smith, a local man who’s been photographing the proceedings ever since the trailer arrived on site. Lloyd is 81, going on 60.
(HOST): [00:10:23] The lights are bright in Lloyd. He’s observant and perceptive, kind and funny, and he moves better than I do. Even though he’s got nearly three decades on me, he tells me that his friend Bill McGee, a Vietnam veteran, will meet me tomorrow to share his story. I thank Lloyd for arranging it, knowing that Bill was reluctant to talk without Lloyd by his side. It occurs to me that a person could accomplish just about anything with Lloyd by their side. Early the next morning, we arrive at the site coffee in hand, just as the first of several school buses is starting to unload. Callie breaks the kids up into smaller groups and takes one to the front side of the education center while Nikki takes another group to the backside. The third group follows me out toward the wall. We have about 15 minutes to get through our spiel before we rotate the kids. I start my tour at the In Memory plaque so the kids understand that the memorial honors everyone who served not just the fifty-eight thousand two hundred eighty-one names on the wall. I talked to them about how the wall is a narrative on many levels, from its design and orientation to the symbols next to the names. I told them there are twenty-one names on the wall from Cowlitz County, and I showed them the name of Keith Olsen, a kid from Kelso who probably isn’t more than two degrees of separation from them.
(HOST): [00:11:45] I teach them how to find the name of Dan Bullock, a U.S. Marine who died in Vietnam at the age of 15, having lied about his age. Some kids in the crowd are around that age themselves or have siblings who are. And I tell them about the eight women on the wall. Women weren’t eligible for the draft, so every one of the more than 10000 who served, including the eight on the wall, was there because she raised her hand and said, I’ll go. I tell this handful of stories to more than 1500 students in one day. But the wall isn’t just a source of stories. It’s a magnet for them as well. For example, I got to spend some time with Steve West, whose motorcycle buddies call him Wacko. He’s one of the Patriot Guard riders who escorted the wall into town, and he also participated in Honor Guard ceremonies throughout the week. He’s a local guy and a Vietnam era veteran. In 1967, Wacko had orders for Vietnam and was on a plane to Chu Lai when he got diverted to Korea instead. He has 31 friends on the wall, including nearly all of the boys from Cowlitz County.
(STEVE): [00:12:55] One of the ones from Kelso was one of my dearest friends in high school named Harvey Sanders, the United States Marine Corps. He was in country about three weeks when he was killed. He was 20 years old at the time. And his name is called last every Veteran’s Day at the Assembly they have at the Kelso High School. His last name called I do pretty good until I hear his name. And then I choke up. Pretty good. I get pretty emotional. Yeah, we just we were just, uh, cut from the same cloth that seemed like, I guess. And uh, like I said, he went in the Marine Corps after getting a draft notice, and it didn’t last very long we had in country. He was killed in an operation called Operational One
(HOST): [00:13:50] 19 East, Line 101. Yeah.
(STEVE): [00:13:56] Here’s Harvey S. Right here. Harvey are right here. Yeah. Yeah, I deal with, I deal with this easier now than the first time I went to Washington, D.C. It was horrid. It was horrid for me. I so like I said, you know, I can kneel down and and touch these names, and there was a time it was just painful to do that. I could do it now without without a lot of a lot, a lot of hurt. He was a, he was a wrestler too. He was. He was. He was tougher than nails. So we got a hung out for that reason, too. You know, we watched each other’s backs too quite a bit.
(HOST): [00:14:44] I’m just looking to see if there’s a picture of him on the wall of faces.
(STEVE): [00:14:47] Yeah, there he is. Yeah. Yes. Yeah.
(HOST): [00:14:49] Yeah, yeah. So somebody somebody submitted that.
(STEVE): [00:14:53] Mm hmm. Probably his brother,
(HOST): [00:14:57] Wacko talked to me about two other names on the wall. One was Fredo Montalvo, who had served with Wacko before being killed in Vietnam. The other was whackos brother-in-law Milton Spears, who was just 20 years old when the armored personnel carrier he drove was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Milton was badly burned and died a few days later. Waco was in Korea when he got the news. The two had been very close in Waco, still has a hard time talking about it.
(STEVE): [00:15:27] I went over to the local EM Club, bought a lot of fifth of vodka and drank it. I never got drunk. I was so amped up and so upset. Uh. Between the rage and the tears, I finally ran out of tears, but I didn’t drink anymore after that because I thought, Oh, this ain’t going to work, so I didn’t have anything more to drink after that. And it took quite a few years to realize there was nothing I was going to be able to do about that. I don’t know. It just didn’t deal with it very maturely. For some reason, then (HOST) that’s close to home. (STEVE) Yeah, that close to home. And then one of your friends gets one of your friends, gets zapped here, and then it just stacks up. Just keep stacking up and you’re going, Jeez.
(HOST): [00:16:25] In the decades since the war, Wacko lost more friends to illness from Agent Orange exposure, and he’s buried three friends in the last month because of COVID 19. Despite all this loss, he remains one of the sweetest, most upbeat people I’ve ever met. But even at 74 years old, he’s still not somebody I would challenge to a bar fight. Thousands of volunteers devote countless hours helping us find a photograph for every name on the wall. Over the years, we’ve managed to find a photo for all but about 31 names. If you look at the wall of faces, you’ll notice that wherever we don’t have a photo to go with a name, we use a graphic. It’s an image of a very tough-looking marine. We use the same image for other applications on banners, for example. And as the icon for our mobile tour app. Well, it turns out that this graphic was made from a photograph of an actual marine whose name is on the wall. James Mitchell Trimble of Humboldt County, California, died on a hill overlooking the Khe Sanh Valley on April 6, 1968. I learned all of this in Longview when his cousin, Linda Gideon, visited The Wall That Heals and told me her story. It was late when I met Linda and I had already put away my fancy audio gear for the day, so I recorded our conversation on my phone.
(LINDA): [00:17:52] I don’t remember him, I was six when he was killed. I just knew we had a cousin that was in Vietnam and he didn’t come home, and we don’t talk about it because his dad didn’t want to talk about it.
(HOST): [00:18:05] But what do you know about him as before he went to war? What have you learned about?
(LINDA): [00:18:09] What I have learned about him was that from what I’ve gathered, Jim was part of a bitter, bitter custody battle between his mom and father, and his father was opposed to him joining the Marines to joining the military. And he wanted to. And so in the middle of this dispute, an aunt gave him permission to join at 17, and that’s how he joined the Marines. And that’s why from everything I was told when I was younger that his dad was very heartbroken and very bitter. So you know that he didn’t want him to go, and now his son is gone.
(HOST): [00:18:50] Jimmy and his comrade, Tony Pepper, died together on Hill seven hundred when an enemy mortar landed in the foxhole where they were taking cover. Their bodies were never recovered. Linda shows me another picture of Jimmy. One before he went to Vietnam, and the contrast is striking.
(LINDA): [00:19:08] You know, he was a handsome kid. You know, I look at the pictures of him and I just I’m just so struck in the one picture, the one that y’all used, actually. He looks like, you know, this angry 19 year old, you know, and he looks angry. They’re angry. And then you look at that and he’s just this kid holding a puppy.
(HOST): [00:19:33] I had a man come here earlier today and he asked me for help finding a name, and he was already this man was already in pieces. It was hard for him to be here. I could tell. So I helped him find his name and I offered to do a rubbing for him and he allowed me to do that, which, you know, I consider a privilege, right? And as I handed him the rubbing,
(HOST): [00:19:58] I don’t remember whose name it was. I, you know, done several today. But as I handed him the name I, I said, What can you tell me about this person? I called him by name. I don’t remember what the name was. What can you tell me about Ronald or whatever, right? And the guy could barely speak, and he just looked at me and he said. He was just a kid like all of us. Then he turned around and walked away. That’s all he didn’t want to talk about it. It’s easy to look at that graphic version of Jimmy and see a man.
(LINDA): [00:20:35] He was a 19 year old kid who’s a kid probably scared shitless.
(HOST): [00:20:38] You bet. Let’s go find Jimmy. Yeah.
(LINDA): [00:20:46] Ok. Over this way, 48 E.
(HOST): [00:20:51] Here’s forty-eight.
(LINDA): [00:20:54] Yeah, Jim is right here. James Trimble and then Anthony Pepper is Anthony Ray.
(HOST): [00:21:02] Oh, there he is. Ok.
(LINDA): [00:21:04] Yeah, there’s James and then Anthony is right here. Yeah, they’re forever linked on this wall and in death on a hill.
(HOST): [00:21:19] After a short break, we’ll bring you the inspiring story of Bill McGee, whose Instamatic photos from Vietnam would play an essential role in healing his emotional wounds five decades later. Wilson Logistics is one of a handful of companies who partner with us through the Truckload Carriers Association to get The Wall That Heals from town to town during the touring season. I mentioned Tom, the veteran of two tours in Vietnam, who brought The Wall That Heals to Longview. Well, Jeff Hebert is the driver who picked it up in Longview and is transporting it for the next few stops of this year’s tour.
(JEFF): [00:22:30] I’ve been driving with Wilson for four years, for four years.
(HOST): [00:22:32] How long you been driving overall?
(JEFF): [00:22:34] 17 years.
(HOST): [00:22:35] If you had To guess how many miles you’ve driven in your career?
(JEFF): [00:22:38] Almost a million miles.
(HOST): [00:22:40] That is amazing. Do you guys get assigned this duty? How does it work?
(JEFF): [00:22:44] Well, I’ve asked the owner, Mr. Wilson, that I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and so it’s all volunteer basis. I’m an owner operator, so it’s all volunteer.
(HOST): [00:22:54] I see. So it’s just the guys opt in?
(JEFF): [00:22:56] Right.
(HOST): [00:22:57] So what makes you want to do this?
(JEFF): [00:23:00] It’s been a dream to do it, a way to figure out a way to give back to all the veterans that served me and something I can do. I mean, I wish I could do more.
(HOST): [00:23:09] And why? Why is that important to you in the military, in particular?
(JEFF): [00:23:13] I’m patriotic. And I mean, I have my aunt served in the military and my uncle served in the military and my cousin served in the military.
(HOST): [00:23:21] Yeah. So you’ve got military in your blood?
(JEFF): [00:23:23] Pretty much, Basically. Yeah, OK. Yes.
(HOST): [00:23:25] I mean, I knew that that guys like you helped us get the wall from town to town. It never occurred to me that you would stay with it. Yes. And help with, you know, any number of things, right during a stop.
(JEFF): [00:23:38] Right. So that’s how I like to be. I like to write to represent the company and stuff. I mean, the more that I can help out around them, the better.
(HOST): [00:23:45] Great guy, Jeff. And we couldn’t get the wall around the country without drivers like him and without partners like Wilson and Logistics. We’re grateful for the support. We also couldn’t bring The Wall That Heals to communities like yours without the industrial strength, heavy lifting of the leaders and organizers who apply to host it and then make the event happen. If you’re interested in hosting The Wall That Heals in your community, find out how to apply by visiting vvmf.org/the-wall-that-heals and click on host The Wall That Heals. If you’d like to visit The Wall That Heals, it’ll be in Bullhead City, Arizona, October 21 through 24. After that, only three more stops this year for the remaining twenty 21 tour dates and locations. Check out VVMF.org. And by the way, on the topic of gratitude, we’re super grateful to you, our listeners, who are helping our little podcast grow like gangbusters. We recently passed a major milestone 10000 downloads and our audience would not be growing at this rate without your help. So thanks for spreading the word and please keep up the great work. Bill McGee spent the first 15 years of his life in Portland, Oregon, when his father got a job transfer to Longview. The family relocated to neighboring Kelso, where Bill finished out high school and then enrolled in Lower Columbia College. Like a lot of draft eligible young men, Bill volunteered for the military. His father had flown B-24 during World War II and after hearing President Kennedy’s famous line.
(KENNEDY BROADCAST): [00:25:40] Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
(HOST): [00:25:48] Bill signed up. Having studied forestry at LCC, Bill requested Alaska, the army, of course, sent him to Vietnam.
(BILL): [00:25:58] Originally, I was down with the 9th Infantry and Binh Phuoc, which is about thirty-five miles or so southeast of Saigon, near the coast. But I was mechanized. I was the mechanized unit APCs, and we kept getting those things stuck in the rice paddies. So they figured that better use of our equipment would be up north in the Highlands. So we end up in the 1st Infantry Division. Halfway through my tour out of Lai Khe, which is about 30 miles north of Saigon on Highway 13, I think.
(HOST): [00:26:32] Bill had brought a little pocket camera with him a Kodak Instamatic 10, and he took a lot of pictures in May of 1968. He was wounded during a firefight in the Chinese district of Saigon. He was sent to Japan for treatment, and while he recovered, he bought a Minolta 35 millimeter film camera and continued taking pictures. By July, he was back with his unit driving an armored personnel carrier, or APC. On January 17th, 1969, Bill was wounded again. This time it took him out of the war and out of the army.
(BILL): [00:27:07] I had gone to Australia, R&R and I came back, and about a week after I got back, we had set up as a blocking force on the river. I don’t remember the name of the river right now, but the Twenty Fifth Infantry Division, a unit, was driving the enemy towards us and they never made it. They disappeared someplace else. So we yes. So we picked up and the next morning and left and we were headed back. Actually, we were going back to base camp and we were in the special forces. It was an old base camp and they hadn’t taken all the mines out and we got hit. And in fact, we had a jeep up in front. I didn’t know this at the time. Again, John Thompson, the guy who saved my life, he told me later and he was hit with an RPG and the first three APCs in the column were hit by RPGs. So we turned and we opened up and we were told to pull back. So we pulled back and they called in helicopter gunship and we were told to pull back again. So we pulled back so they could call in artillery. And that 50 set right up here to my right. And you can’t fire the thing. He’s got a butterfly handle. You just can’t hold it down or you melt that barrel in no time. So it’s short bursts. But after 20 30 minutes, that barrel gets hot. So I went over the side of the APC because I was going to go round back and get the extra barrel out.
(BILL): [00:28:46] So I went over the side and right where I hit, and I assume my right foot hit directly on the on the we call them booby traps IEDs today. It could have been a hand grenade that was set up or something else. We don’t know for sure. So my right foot, probably, I’m guessing, absorbed 80 percent of the blast and it was gone immediately and my left leg was badly damaged. I had. I’ve got over 300 stitches from my knee to the bottom of my foot. I lost part of my ankle mushroom and I lost part of my calf muscle. I had a compound fracture, so I’m laying on the ground and John Thompson jumps off the APC and he came. He put tourniquets on me. He shot me with morphine. He put his body between me and the fire that we were taking when the medevac got there, which wasn’t very long. I mean, it was like maybe seven minutes, maybe. And so he sent me down and he went and directed the chopper down. He came back and picked me up and literally carried me, put me on the chopper. You know, his leadership, his quick thinking and his courage. Ah, the reason my name is not on the wall. So they choppered me to like, Lai Keh, and I was probably in surgery in another 12 minutes, I was the last thing I remembered was sitting up on the on the x-ray table. So I wanted to make sure that I that they knew that I’d had two tubes of morphine stuck in me because you’re supposed to there’s a little label on, you’re supposed to take off and put it on the lapels.
(BILL): [00:30:46] Well, he had done that, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t remember that at all. That’s the last thing I remember 24 hours later, I wake up and and. Nurse comes over and she checks my vitals, and that’s not how I’m doing, and she said to me, she said, you might want to consider writing your folks a letter. And that’s one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life. I didn’t know what to say. You know, I started off with. I’ve done it again. Meaning I’d been wounded again. And I didn’t want to really write the letter. I didn’t know this at the time. I found out. After I returned, my dad had told me that my mom was on tranquilizers the whole time. She was just a basket case. But I also found out from my dad’s really good friend at work that my dad was. He was beside himself as the words he used because he didn’t know how I was going to make it in life. And part of that had to do with his brother had lost his leg above the knee in a logging accident in California in 1958. And my Uncle Tom kind of turned into a bitter alcoholic. It was. It was hard to be around him at times and, you know, hard time holding on to jobs and stuff. And so anyway, yeah, he was afraid that was the path that I would go down.
(HOST): [00:32:40] Bill never went down that path, but like so many young men who returned home from Vietnam, he found that public sentiment had turned against the war and unfortunately, against those who fought it. He had done what he could do for his country. But there were no yellow ribbons, no parades, no thanks for your service, no welcome home soldier. Bill told me, and he has said it in other interviews as well that the homecoming was the worst part of his whole Vietnam experience, worse than being wounded, twice worse than losing his leg. Worse than all of the horrible things he witnessed. He tried to talk to a few people about it, but quickly learned to keep his feelings to himself.
(BILL): [00:33:22] There just wasn’t any talking to people, some people anyway. People were so influenced by the news media and I would characterize it as they misrepresented, mischaracterized the war. And those of us who served, we were all painted with the broad brush of My Lai. That’s my view. And and nothing could have been further from the truth. And so I just I didn’t talk. My wife will tell you, she said, No, I never said anything about Vietnam. The only thing she knew about Vietnam, at least initially, was when I first returned. Every now and again, I’d have a nightmare, or I’d wake up just totally covered in sweat. One of the things I did that I don’t remember doing, she tells me I did was it I would sit up sometimes and I would look around. And I guess when I was satisfied it was safe, then I would lay back down. I don’t even remember doing that.
(HOST): [00:34:29] Bill had taken more than 700 pictures in Vietnam. He had viewed the slides only once after coming home. After that, he put them away and didn’t touch them again. For decades. Bill and his wife, Jane, have had season tickets for the Washington Huskies football team for 40 years. Jane had played in the Huskies marching band in the late 60s and they traveled to some away games. In 2016, the Huskies played Stanford on the Saturday before Veterans Day. Bill and Jane have some family in that part of California, including their great niece, Savannah. Her school was planning a special Veterans Day ceremony, and she asked her Uncle Bill if he would come. And Bill was reluctant. He didn’t feel any need to be recognized. I thought I was healed. He told me he had prayed for healing and I had people pray with him. He had forgiven and forgotten, or so he thought. But he found it hard to say no to 10 year old Savannah, so reluctantly he went. The program lasted more than an hour, and within the first 15 minutes, Bill was fighting back tears. Remember, this was nearly 50 years after he came home from Vietnam, and it’s the first time he’s felt anything like collective gratitude for his service and his sacrifice. That feeling opened floodgates that Bill wasn’t even aware of. He almost made it to the end in one piece. And then the video started all these 10 year old kids looking into the camera and thanking their moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas for their service.
(BILL): [00:36:06] And up pops Savannah. I’ve never been able to get through this without breaking down. And she says, thank you, Uncle Bill, for your service and your sacrifice. And that’s a good thing that was the last thing on the agenda because I headed straight for the bathroom. I had to get myself back together because they give us a meal. I mean, they served us. I mean, they treat us like royalty. And so I knew there was more.
(HOST): [00:37:07] More meaning more unresolved feelings locked away deep inside, more emotional landscape to be turned over and exposed to sunlight. Bill thought of his photo archive.
(BILL): [00:37:21] And so I went to Lloyd and Church one day. We didn’t know each other that much before that other than to say hi.
(HOST): [00:37:28] Lloyd is Lloyd Smith, the youthful 81 year old photographer I mentioned in the first half. The one who introduced me to Bill and who was in the room during our interview. You’ll actually hear Lloyd in the background chiming in now and then whenever Bill needs a prompt.
(BILL): [00:37:46] And I knew he was into photography and I saw I mentioned to him, I said I had all these slides from Vietnam that I’d like to get put to disc. And he he jumped on that and and he said yes and said, in fact, I’ll show you how much you jumped on it. That was in either late August or early September. That’s three years ago now. I think so. By November, late November, I think it was after Thanksgiving you called might have been early December. I still hadn’t gotten them to him. I hadn’t really done anything. I haven’t talked anymore about it. And he calls up and he says, you know, we’re not getting any younger. He said, could you bring those slides down? So I did. And what? In less than five days, he had them all scanned and he’d send him to me on a computer and put them on a flash drive for me.
(HOST): [00:38:38] But that wasn’t all that Lloyd did with those images. Lloyd thought they needed to be seen, and so he asked Bill’s permission to share them when Bill told Lloyd to do whatever he wanted with them. He had no idea how far that permission would be taken. Lloyd sent the images to the Cowlitz County news, and people in the local community began thanking Bill for his service, both online and in person. Bill was overwhelmed. Savannah had started an avalanche in his life. But Lloyd didn’t stop there. He started posting Bill’s, photos and relevant Facebook groups and sending them to every veterans group he could find. The VVA invited Lloyd to submit an article about Bill and his hundreds of photos for their magazine. The VVA veteran, they published Lloyd’s article and a photo of Bill’s Instamatic. The article listed Lloyd’s byline, and it also mentioned that Bill lives in Longview, Washington, one of the readers of that magazine saw the article and decided to look Bill up.
(BILL): [00:39:41] And so now we’re sitting there, I know what we were doing over watching a baseball game or something, but this phone, the phone rings and it comes up on my TV screen. I think it was Thompson LLC or Thompson Motors LLC. Well, I’m thinking this is a telemarketer. And so I was going to pick it up and click it on and click it off and put it back down. But I didn’t. I picked it up and I said, hello. He says, Is this Bill McGee? And I recognized his voice. I said, Yes, it is. He says, This is John. This is Sergeant John Thompson. And we talked for about 40 minutes. I had to go into the bedroom and, you know, we talked about experiences. You talked about some of the things we’d done in between. And we were going to get together at some point we would meet and I wanted to do it right away. And I came back out and I started to tell my wife and, you know, she knew who it was without me having to tell her. And she heard me talk about him, (Lloyd) tell him about when you phoned me after. Oh yeah, me. (Bill) Yeah, I called him right away. In fact,
(HOST): [00:41:05] You called Lloyd. Yeah, I called Lloyd Wright after you hung up with John.
(BILL): [00:41:08] Yeah. Uh huh.. And I’m still blubbering. I can’t hardly get the words out. I said, You know, it’s up to the effect you’ll never (Lloyd) send out on the internet. And he was crying. I thought he was mad at me, (Bill) said John Thompson saw them. He saw the article or the, yeah, the article in the VVA and he called me. So 50 years in between. And yeah, that’s that’s a miracle.
(HOST): [00:41:39] Bill’s reunion with the man who kept him off the wall didn’t happen right away. I think maybe the pandemic lockdowns got in the way, but the two of them have stayed in touch and meet up is imminent. In the meantime, that revived connection has brought Bill a dose of healing that he didn’t even know he needed. Savannah lit the flame and Lloyd poured gasoline on it.
(BILL): [00:42:05] I built walls around myself. I built them high and I built them thick and I reinforced them with steel and you were not going to get in. I was not going to allow the beating that I took when I came home again, I would do whatever I had to do to protect myself from that emotional mental pain. And so I did. And for years, I didn’t talk. He had to almost twist my arm to get me to do the first article with. In fact, I put him off for 10 days. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to do it. I really didn’t want to do it. That’s how much healing has come.
(HOST): [00:42:39] I’m so grateful that you were willing to talk to me about all this.
(BILL): [00:42:44] Thank you for the opportunity.
(HOST): [00:42:59] The thing about this story, all these stories, really is that you don’t have to be in Longview to hear them. These stories are everywhere in America and they need to be heard. While there’s still time. If there’s one thing I learned in Longview, it’s this The Wall That Heals isn’t really our program at all. We just deliver the hardware and the software. It’s communities like Longview, communities like yours that breathe life into it, and that is where the healing comes in.
(HOST): [00:43:32] Thank you, Longview, for that lesson.
(HOST): [00:43:47] We send our sincere thanks to Rick Little and all of the Longview organizers for hosting The Wall That Heals to all the Patriot Guard riders and the Longview Police Department to every school teacher in Longview and Kelso who made sure their students were present, well-behaved, thoroughly prepared and highly engaged to all the volunteers who made sure every visitor got what they came for twenty-four hours a day for three and a half days to everybody, amateurs and professionals who carried a panel or swung a hammer or tightened or loosened a bolt. To every musician who played or sang a note to every speech maker who every honor guard participant and to the drivers from Wilson Logistics, you all really helped some people. Thank you. We’ll see in two weeks.
No video interviews are available for this episode.
- VVMF The Wall that Heals – org/the-wall-that-heals
- VVMF Wall of Faces: Harvey Richard Sanders – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/45410/HARVEY-R-SANDERS/
- VVMF Wall of Faces: Sigifredo Montalvo Jr – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/34673/SIGIFREDO-MONTALVO-JR/
- VVMF Wall of Faces: Milton Earl Spears – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/49084/MILTON-E-SPEARS/
- VVMF Wall of Faces: James Mitchell Trimble – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/52577/JAMES-M-TRIMBLE/
- VVMF Wall of Faces: Anthony John Pepper – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/40141/ANTHONY-J-PEPPER/
- VVMF Haul the Wall – https://www.vvmf.org/The-Wall-That-Heals/Haul-The-Wall/
- Truckload Carriers Association – https://www.truckload.org/
- YouTube Echoes of the Vietnam War Interview playlist – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLK63b6Cn53unMMj-yZYEch0RuYy1YN1zl