Each Memorial Day brings memories of my friend Bill Follon. Bill and I were stationed together at Phu Cat airbase during the Vietnam War. Bill was assigned to the Red Horse squadron, an Air Force unit comparable to the Navy Seabees. I worked with Bill for a about a week on one detail. (Reference my earlier blog story My First Week in Vietnam)
Bill was from Everly, Iowa. He was a bit older than most of us, married with one child and another on the way. I remember that Bill liked to play basketball, and while off duty you could often find him at the two hoops which were set-up at our small recreational area.
Bill’s tour of duty was up in February of 1970. Out processed and ready to go home, Bill sat in the small Phu Cat air terminal awaiting a flight to Cam Ron Bay, where he would board a Flying Tiger aircraft for the long flight home. I was in the vehicle that dropped Bill off at the terminal, Though envious of him, we wished him well and went on our way.
No sooner had we turned the corner, when the base came under Viet Cong mortar and rocket attack. During the year I was in Vietnam, VC attacked our airbase every two to three weeks. The attacks often lasted only minutes, but were terrifying in their affect. The goal was to take out aircraft and personnel, and to spread terror, which they accomplished very well.
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These attacks usually involved Chinese communist made mortars, and 122 millimeter rockets. The mortars were damaging, the rockets devastating. Twice during my tour, our airbase was attacked by sappers, sneaking through our perimeter. The sappers were caught and killed before they could do much damage. Late in my tour we were attacked with tear gas. I recall that event very well, because no one could find their gas mask and our eyes burned for a day or two after.
After these attacks armed patrols and aircraft would attempt to flush out the VC, who usually launched the attacks from the nearby mountains. Sometimes the perpetrators were caught and killed, other times unfortunate Vietnamese in the area were accused and taken into custody or killed…somebody had to pay.
That day in February, the terminal took a direct hit from a rocket, spraying large and small pieces of shrapnel everywhere. A large piece of shrapnel passed through our vehicle, fortunately hitting no one. The blast did, however, deafen me for two to three days, and resulted in the delayed long term loss of my hearing. About two dozen people in and near the terminal were wounded. Bill Follon, unfortunately, was fatally wounded and succumbed to his wounds within hours. Being killed on one’s last day in Vietnam was the cruelest fate of all, and it devastated those of us who new Bill. Bill would never join his wife and child, and would never see his unborn child.
I’ve thought of Bill often over the years, and in 2003, along with my friend Tim who was with me in Vietnam, we visited the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, DC While there, Tim and I honored Bill and several others killed during our tour of duty. We also honored other friends who were killed in Vietnam at one time or another during the war. I took etchings of them and keep them in a folder of personal belongings. I also have the shoe lace from one of Bill’s boots, which was made into a necklace with a crucifix. I take it out and look at it from time to time.
Several years ago I connected with Bill’s daughter that he never met. I was very happy to find that rather than being downcast by the tragic loss of her father, she is a cheerful, upbeat young lady who now champions various Veteran’s causes. She has a family of her own and still lives in her hometown of Everly, Iowa, near her mother and sister.
Each Memorial Day, in addition to Bill, I think of all our warriors who have passed, in all of our wars, and also of the families they left behind…and I wish the best for them all.
Joe Campolo Jr., a lifelong resident of Kenosha, is an award winning author, poet and public speaker. A Vietnam War veteran, Joe writes and speaks about the war, and is a veterans advocate.
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