Billy Blaikie, Vietnam Veteran, Boston, US.
I was born on March 13, 1951, and grew up in Charlestown, Boston with 4 sisters and 1 brother. As a young kid, I didn’t have much, but I fondly recall going to the theatres on Saturdays for two movies at the cost of just 0.25 cents at the time. Growing up without modern technology, I enjoyed a great childhood, riding bikes over lots of Boston bridges & exploring the streets with the neighbourhood kids. I remember taking the train from Charlestown into Boston many times- It would cost a nickel! We grew up living above the Alibi Bar Room on Warren Street when we were kids. The Alibi was a Boston neighbourhood barroom full of Teamster truck drivers, dock workers and local drunks. My younger brother Bo and I would sneak down to the basement and stick broomsticks through the holes in the old hardwood floor and trip the patrons of the Alibi. You would hear drunks accuse other drunks of tripping one another and all kinds of ruckus and fights would break out after our broom stick pranks. My brother Bo was bitten by a rat the last time we were in that basement and had to be hospitalized with hepatitis as a result.
One of my fondest memories was being invited to be part of the now famous Boston Bugle Corps at the age of 13-14. I always loved music and I would play albums all the time. I had some friends that asked me to try out and I was so proud to be accepted. I think we had to pay around $1 a week. We got to travel up and down the East Coast and rehearsed religiously and even had our own club house. There were plenty of girls in the choir (which was a bonus!) There were around 50 people playing harmonicas, a dozen drummers and females that flipped the guns and flags. I played a Mellophone and Soprano. It really was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I got to travel, play instruments with the male and female ensemble – and it was the start of many lifelong friendships and positive memories. It was a time when I felt true happiness and my passion for music has stayed with me ever since.
As I grew into my late teens, I was no saint, but I was good hearted. I admittedly got into a bit of trouble every now and again, even stealing a car, and driving from Boston to New York and then taking the bus home one time!
When I got into the workforce, I got into a regretful fight with my co-worker which led me to court. My employer at the time was very supportive and backed me which I was grateful for. However, due to the incident I was encouraged to join the military at the age of 18, so that’s what I did. I underwent basic training and moved on to advanced training which saw me specialize in Morse code and radio communication.
In 1969, shortly after my training and with high security clearance already established, I received orders to go to Vietnam on a top-secret mission. I had no idea what my role would be, it was top secret. I was only a kid at 19 years old with no clue just how dramatically my life would change from that point on.
I was put on a bus and sent over to Maguire Air Force base, next to my army base. No advance notice at all. I did as I was told and followed orders and prepared to leave for Vietnam. It really didn’t bother me too much at the time, but I remember just thinking to myself- “I hope I can come home, and I hope I do a good job for my country”.
After an 18-hour flight with a stopover in Alaska, I arrived in Vietnam and remember it being awful hot and humid and I soon experienced a monsoon, the first of hundreds in my time in Vietnam. After some training I was sent to Unit in Communications where I was told to wear a metal vest and always keep a weapon on me – 24/7. It was here I was assigned as Radio Operator. I remember seeing hundreds and hundreds of gallon drums all over and wondered what they were. I was told they were full of Agent Orange, a chemical to clear foliage in Vietnam. Many years later we would discover, and the US Government would finally admit, that Agent Orange was not only deadly to the environment but also the GI’s.
I formed part of the First Calvary and for the next 7 months I was stationed on Chu Pong Mountain, known as Mt Thomas to the US Military (named after the American soldier who lost his life there.) It was also known as the “home of the First Calv”.
On this mountain I worked with incoming, communicated with pilots, called in airstrikes, and worked around the clock 7 days a week, 12 hours a day and was lucky to get one hot meal a day. I survived on C-rations and very tough living conditions. I remember we used parts from our explosives to heat up a can of beans or a cup of coffee. I was 155 pounds when I arrived in Vietnam and 132 pounds when I got home.
My main job was communicating. I always wondered why I got that job. Looking back, they gave me a lot of training on compass and Morse code. I was in direct contact with pilots and artillery people, I’d have to relay F4 fighter jets, and I’d have to fly out in combat and drop off radios to keep them being able to communicate – it was pretty rough. I would have to pull apart our radios and change codes every week. The guys would ask why I did that, and I’d explain that I couldn’t let the Vietnamese know what our radio codes were, so I had to change them every week. I worked with Rangers and Seals too.
There was no way off the mountain except by helicopter. It was incredible, I could get a helicopter as easy as you would get a taxicab in America.
I never slept at night. It was too dangerous. We never had running water or toiletries. To take a shower, every 3 or 4 days we used a 55-gallon drum cut in half. We’d climb up a ladder, pull the corkscrew positioned in the drum and quickly get some water on us. I’d put a bit of soap on if I had some and then pull the cork again to get enough water to hopefully wash myself off. I’d sometimes take showers in the monsoon, where it rained so hard the water would be collected. It was hard, everything was hard, but I didn’t complain. We had a job to do and we did what needed to be done.
It was tough living. I was with the same group for a lot of time over there you always had to be on guard because the Vietnamese would constantly come up the side of the mountain. It wasn’t much bigger than a baseball park. It was all barbwire and bunkers for miles. I used to tell new guys – “don’t you ever light a cigarette at night or shine a flashlight.” That’s the first thing a Vietnamese would shoot at. It was a rough 7 months because we didn’t have much. I remember I had to get down to the rear of the mountain one time and I hadn’t had a shower or been able to clean myself for some time. I looked terrible and knew I needed a shave, a haircut, – and I had a Colonel that had just arrived in the country saying to me ‘How dare you look like a slob like that’ – I remember being so mad, he made me miss my helicopter – he had no idea how we were living or what our conditions were like.
So, it was hard and it was a lonely place, but I was up there, and I had to find a way to get used to it and get through it, so I did.
One thing I was proud of that I’ll never forget was a new Captain that came up the mountain one day – and I went to salute him and he said “Don’t you even think of saluting me, what you do up here on your own, you have no hot meals, you’re working all these days, 7 days a week, you deserve a lot of credit, the flying you do is amazing”. That validation and recognition meant a lot to me.
I would look forward to supply packages we’d receive every 2-3 weeks. They had cigarettes, toothpaste, candy and things like that in them –I always saved candy for the Vietnamese children. They loved it. The Vietnamese adults would always try to buy American cigarettes, and if I gave them a pack, boy were they happy.
Throughout my seven months on the mountain, I faced constant danger, always staying vigilant due to Vietnamese forces attacking from the mountainside. Despite the hardships and loneliness, I excelled in this role, and earned the greatest honour, being awarded the First Cavalry medal, which is the highest honour they can give you. You need to have had at least 25 missions in combat, and I achieved that as part of the 1st Cavalry, with incredibly challenging terrain of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. We conducted operations throughout much of the highlands while remaining close enough to the coastal port to avoid being cut off by enemy forces.
I remember one time I almost fell right out the chopper along with the radio that I watched drop to the ground. We had the chopper churning so fast because we were taking on incoming, they thought I was strapped in but I wasn’t- I always remember the Pilot saying to me “Billy – you want to get out and get it” …
One helicopter flight I was on crashed pretty badly, that was a big scare for me. We lost the front propeller and we went down hard. A few guys had broken arms and wrists, they called in gunships to cover us. There were 15 of us in there – I was in the back. When it hit the ground, it hit it hard, it was a big chopper called a Chinook – it could hold around 20 guys and was used to carry heavy weaponry.
One of the biggest events I saw during my time in Vietnam was the mass explosions by the B52’s. Still in effect today, they had a squad of B52’s (5) They flew over an area, and they all dropped their bombs simultaneously. It was so thick and there were so many Viet Con, they tried to get them out.
I was about 15 miles from Cambodia when I saw this happen. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever seen.
They always said “never make friends with the people you work with because you never know when you’re going to lose them” – that never left me. I made some amazing friends over there, including the pilots. One of the best friends I made was still over there when I left in Vietnam. He was due back a few weeks after me. I called his house a few weeks after I got back to the US hoping he’d be back by then too, and his father told me he had passed away. That devastated me. His father said to me “I know who you are because my son wrote home and mentioned your name.
My time in Vietnam came to an end and they sent me home. But I couldn’t get a job. It seemed anything I applied for where I mentioned I had “military experience’ would see me being rejected. So, on the third attempt to get a job I put “no military experience’ and sure enough, I got a job, hired on the spot. Coming home it was clear to me so many people in this country were against the war and unfortunately that meant that we were not looked at favourably. They’d often take out their frustration at the Government on the GI’s. I remember taking a cab when I landed back on US soil and the cab driver next to me not saying a word except “you back from the war?” – I couldn’t wait to take my uniform off. People at home took out their frustration of the war on us and it hurt. We had no parades; we had no welcome home. It had a huge effect on me.
I never talked about my time in the war to anyone. I kept it inside for 40 years. I never talked about it until 2012. Prior to that I was working two jobs and worked very hard for 25 years, keeping myself very busy. I have always been a hard worker, so my mind was always active and full. Then I got hurt and couldn’t get back to my job. So, I had more time on my hands and the thoughts of war started creeping back in.
I’d never had this much time on my hands, and I realized I had no idea how to process or handle the thoughts and dreams that were coming back to me or the things I started to see. I hadn’t even spoken to my wife about my time in the war at this point.
In 2010 I sought help with a Veterans Agent. The agent spoke with me and said, “We are going to get you into the VA. You have a lot to talk about”. That’s when they sent me in and for months I did nothing but talk to psychiatrists and doctors.
I relived Vietnam from the day I was there till the day I left. It was the hardest thing I ever did and looking back I’m not sure how I actually got through it. Some of the people interviewing me broke down and I broke down myself. I never even mentioned it to my wife before that. I had one close friend at work who was in Vietnam at same time as me – he was in the Marines. He died around 8 years ago.
Back home the government didn’t support or care for us at the time. They’re good now, but it took many years for them to admit their fault and show support. They knew what our exposure to Agent Orange did to people, but they covered it up. I got my official letter 6 years ago, confirming that my 2008 diagnosed specific type of Type 2 Diabetes was from my exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
That was pretty tough to hear but I was also relieved they finally admitted it. It I saw a doctor in the mid 80s as I wasn’t feeling very well for quite some time, and the first thing he said to me after I explained my symptoms was ‘Were you in Vietnam?’ – he said then that he thought I was exposed to Agent Orange but the Government wouldn’t admit it then and sadly denied benefits to the troops.
I have my blood taken 4-5 times a year now. I also have trouble reading – everything gets blurry, they think that’s because of my exposure too. The doctor I have told me he just lost a patient who was 68 years old – he used to spray himself with the Agent Orange to kill the bugs.
There are many things in my life I am passionate about and proud of. I was a runner for many years. I ran 7 Boston marathons. With each marathon I raised money for local community kids causes.
I have one daughter and I’m so proud of her – she’s 34 years old and very successful.
I’m coming up to my 50th wedding anniversary in September with my beautiful wife who I met 2 weeks before I left for Vietnam. We were married when I returned home and have been together ever since. I keep fit, walking my dog through the woods a few times a day. Keeping active keeps my mind healthy.
I’ve had many dark thoughts and have struggled over the years. I am on medication for anxiety and depression and have been since the 80’s. They keep me in line. I have had thoughts of suicide like many veterans and it’s hard when you think of things like that but – but the doctors and psychiatrists, medication and VA support all really help. They treat me well now but they just didn’t when I first came home. They watch out for me now, I see them 3-4 times a year and they go over everything.
One of my closest friends was a veteran shot through the neck. We were best friends for over 10 years and never once talked about our time in the war. He tragically committed suicide.
The war and what I was exposed to during my time there is something that is inside of me and it just doesn’t go away. It’s with me 24/7 – it never goes away even on medication – it’s there. What I did. What I saw. And I have to come to terms with it and go through it, but at one stage I had to see 5 psychiatrists in one day.
The advice I’d give to other veterans is to go see your Veterans Agent and they will help you. Because I had no help at all. Reliving it was the hardest thing I ever did. There are things I saw and did, things I’m not proud of but had to do to stay alive. The hardest thing was coming home and having no respect. I never put blame on anybody. I just live with it. I keep it inside of me. I feel relieved now that I can talk about it because if you would call me 15 years ago I couldn’t say a word but I can now because I talked to the proper people.
Keeping in touch with my family also helps and about 8 years I started hanging out at a tattoo parlour near my house –I have about 30 tattoos up and down both arms. I have some tattoos of my First Air Cavalry on my arms. I spend a lot of time there and have met a lot of new people –I stay busy, that’s my thing, if I’m not active then that’s not good for me. I also love music. I listen to You Tube.
And I don’t watch a lot of movies but there was one movie I saw that was the closest to my experience in Vietnam, called “We Were Soldiers” – featuring Mel Gibson. I could relate to that movie because it was the closest depiction of actual events that I encountered in Vietnam. It was tough to watch but I’m glad I did. It was very well done.
With the support of the VA, my family and friends, I wake up to each new day trying to make the best of the life I’ve been given and am happy to be able to share my experience to hopefully be a support and comfort to others.
I would like to acknowledge my nephew John F. Fitzpatrick Boston Fire Fighter (retired).