America’s tradition of service: Bill Camper
When you talk with Bill Camper, you will most likely be laughing. You may not notice that his right eye has been blind since 1972, but you will understand why Mimi Gentilini (Mimi’s Good Food) describes Bill as the nicest man in town.
At 83 years old, the highlight of Bill’s life is that Peg, his wife for 62 years and counting, has newfound freedom from dialysis, one of very few her age to receive a kidney transplant and it turned out wildly successful.
Once in a while Mike King, Skip Ragan and I, sharing coffee, orneriness and humor, take Bill Camper off his track of exchanging pleasantries with Mimi’s customers. We ask him to share his memories of Vietnam because Bill’s stories are spotted with some good laughs, and because serving our country under difficult conditions is too important to forget — someone should be sufficiently interested to ask.
We also ask because, even though we served in the same war, Bill is like our elder statesman with a unique experience.
In 1964, while Mike and I were still learning the art of chasing girls (Skip was already an expert), Bill was assigned to transform himself from an Army Infantry officer into a District Advisor to the Vietnamese population of Binh Son, a district of about 100,000 people in the Quang Nai province of north coastal South Vietnam, a hotbed of enemy activity and near the hamlet of My Lai where US troops went off their rocker four years later and murdered a bunch of civilians.
Like much of Vietnam, the district landscape was beautiful, ranging from ocean beaches to thick mountain jungle. The Montagnards, a peaceful mountain race of small people that had been persecuted by the Vietnamese for centuries, were American allies and valuable friends to Bill’s men.
Bill wore what we called black pajamas and sandals to blend in with the population, including what we called Ruff-Puff, the “Regional Force/Popular Force” rag-tag civilian security armed with whatever weapons they could scrounge.
Bill and his few Americans worked with the Vietnamese to improve their daily life in government operations, health, sanitation, transportation, agriculture, education and foremost, physical security against enemy attack. He had plenty of practice with the latter since the bad guys knew he was there and ambushes were frequent.
When I asked Bill how often he found himself in a firefight, his good eye flew open wide and he declared with instantly stark memories, “Every day!”
Sometimes it was an enemy sniper instead of a fight, but the fear you must push down into your gut to keep your head while someone is trying to kill you is always there under wraps, never forgotten.
In one of Bill’s many combat experiences, a Vietnamese girl about 10 years old was wounded in the abdomen by enemy fire, her intestines exposed. His memory of taking her to the Vietnamese hospital was notable for how the families of patients had to bring them food and help care for them, and how that brave little girl recovered after parts of her intestines were removed.
He lived with the Vietnamese, ate what they ate, slept as they slept. The water tasted terrible with iodine tablets to clean it up, so Bill’s kids mailed him Fizzies for flavor.
His crew set up a 55-gallon drum of water, heated only by the sun, for showers which were attended by many local spectators until they erected a privacy screen.
Bill’s job was doing the things that would gain the trust of locals by improving their lives. Meanwhile, he put up with the stupidity endemic to every war as he coordinated with headquarters to order building materials for schools and other projects, equipment to help with the harvest on schedule, and medical supplies.
Bill’s men did have a decent roof over their head. From folding cots with mosquito netting, reading at night by kerosene lantern, they would watch the big rats running across overhead beams, then after lights out could hear them scratch and scamper.
With only a two-burner gas stove, they managed cooking just fine. Fruits like oranges, pineapple and bananas were abundant, some vegetables were pretty good, but it was hard to tell what animal meat was from so they chased off the blanket of flies for closer examination in the village markets.
They ate their poultry Vietnamese style, hacked up with a hatchet, a bone in every bite. The polite and humble locals sometimes brought food, sometimes they invited Bill to share a meal.
Canned goods in packages from home were a special treat, like Spam and other canned meats. One Sunday morning one of Bill’s men produced a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix, and they set about cooking pancakes but they didn’t have any syrup.
Bill remembered his grandmother making syrup during the Depression with sugar and water, so he did just that and darkened it with a generous amount of Jim Beam bourbon. The men said those were the best dang pancakes ever to grace their lips.
While travel in the district was not easy, they did make some headway, especially in sanitation and healthcare. Local hospital workers learned to set compound fractures as an alternative to amputation, and they improved sanitation and sterilization to reduce infections. Sanitation was improved with better toilet methods, and medical care was spread by opening small clinics in villages. They also improved the prevention and treatment of malaria, a constant problem in the tropics.
As with most of the war, friendly forces dominated in daylight while the enemy owned the night, when they mined the roads, infiltrated and attacked. The enemy also found out about Bill’s shipments of medical supplies and sometimes succeeded in hijacking them at gunpoint.
His reaction was what he calls his only foray into biological warfare. Bill arranged for packages of Ex-lax (a potent laxative) to be labeled as penicillin and other meds and made the shipment widely known. The Viet Cong took the bait, stole it, and Bill giggles as he describes the sudden peace that settled in his area for a few days. Montagnards sent messages the enemy was experiencing severe illness.
That short peace was a welcome relief to the snipers, ambushes and booby trapped roads and trails the enemy left for them. One learned very quickly to watch the locals since they sometimes knew where the booby traps were and simply avoided them.
Bill’s men also protected themselves by having enemy prisoners walk the roads or trails, prompting them to disclose the hidden traps waiting to kill them. Sometimes these POWs were eager to cooperate, having been unwilling conscripts.
During Bill’s 12-month tour, he was transferred to replace a wounded senior advisor to the ARVN (South Vietnamese army) 3rd Regiment, 1st ARVN Division based in Hue. Here, his Vietnamese language and social skills were almost as vital as his combat experience as he gave advice to the Vietnamese commanders and served as liaison with American units for air and artillery support. He would have more than his share of the brutality of infantry combat.
Like all who served in Vietnam, at the end of his tour Bill was anxious to go home to his family and a stateside job.
His return to Vietnam for a second tour came seven years later in late 1971, when he found himself amidst the brass at MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) headquarters.
Not being the type to temper his comments with political tact, Bill soon found himself booted to an unsavory assignment as advisor to the ARVN 56th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, a collection of Vietnamese deserters, draft dodgers, criminals and scoundrels serving as a buffer just below the DMZ.
Bill was bound to this band of pirates when the ARVN 56th commander and his counterpart in the ARVN 2nd Regiment at Camp Carroll, a Marine artillery base halfway between the beach and Laos to the west, decided to swap positions, an illogical move that Bill would later suspect grew from collaboration with the enemy.
While Bill’s 56th moved west and the 2nd prepared to move east, the North Vietnamese crossed the DMZ and invaded South Vietnam in force on Easter weekend of 1972.
At Camp Carroll, the 56th commander informed Bill of his intentions to surrender to the enemy, which was surrounding their position. Bill radioed his higher-ups, who misunderstood the situation and ordered him to stay with the Vietnamese commander.
Being an independent and clear-headed cuss, Bill was not about to surrender, so he grabbed the only other American and two Vietnamese radio operators and set out to escape and evade on foot through minefields that Bill knew well.
Meanwhile, he radioed an American Marine unit nearby, who sent the only available helicopter to him, a huge Chinook twin rotor aircraft.
As the “Hook” came in for landing amidst enemy fire, Bill radioed the position of enemy firing at the Hook and a pair of Cobras escorts took them out.
About 40 South Vietnamese soldiers who thought better of surrendering rushed to join Bill’s escape on the big aircraft, but Bill kicked one of them off because he had no weapon and Bill wanted nothing to do with anyone unwilling to fight.
The 56th ARVN they left behind did surrender and Bill never knew how they were treated. The commander who ordered the surrender was released by the enemy, but by that time Bill had been reassigned as advisor to the ARVN 2nd Regiment.
On 28 April they were guarding a bridge to keep it open for allied tanks when Bill thought he heard enemy fire to their rear and went to check it out. Suddenly, enemy artillery was incoming to hit the bridge, and when a round hit a high tree Bill looked up by reflex as it detonated and he took hot shrapnel in his face and neck between his helmet and flak jacket.
He was medevacked home and after six months in Walter Reed Army Hospital, his right eye worked fine except for seeing, and the Army tried to give him medical walking papers. But Bill won his fight to stay in the Army and retired many years later as lieutenant colonel.
Now in the winter of his life, Bill Camper remains active serving others, mentoring elementary school kids, serving in a local honor guard for veteran funerals, visiting the sick and spreading good cheer wherever he goes.
We all owe him gratitude for service that took him to hell and back. It is good to see his quick smile and the twinkle in his good eye as he enjoys life despite his walk through the valley of death and even though he knows how to bite.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]