'I have to go back to say goodbye'
Posted April 23
Updated April 24
WRAL producer/director Clarence Williams, 63, is leaving Wednesday to spend 13 days in Vietnam, where he served as a paratrooper in the war 44 years ago. He is going with current coworker Leonard Peebles and former coworker Paul Pope, who also served in Vietnam. Williams will blog about his travels, sharing photos and stories along the way. Before he left, he sat down with a WRAL.com reporter and talked about his trip. Here is an edited version of that interview, in Williams' words:
Why he's going back
The reason I wanted to go back, it’s like an odyssey where I just never felt ... I hate to use the word closure, but I always wanted to say goodbye to a lot of my friends who didn’t make it back. It’s sort of a remembrance of them, to honor them.
I came up with this idea a few years ago and told two of my coworkers at the time, Leonard Peebles and Paul Pope. I said, “You know, I just feel this need to go back to Vietnam and just sort of have some time to reflect and pray and remember.” And they immediately said, “Well, we’re going, too. We’re going with you.” And that was fine because I was prepared to go by myself because it was a personal odyssey for me. But they apparently felt something of the same way.
They were both Marines and did different things. Leonard did two tours in Vietnam himself. He tried to do three to prevent his brother from going. He wasn’t successful. His brother went and was shot. He survived it though. But, I guess they have the same draw. We never really talked about it in detail.
His time in Vietnam
I grew up in the 50s and 60s where this country was sort of … well, it was a turbulent time – a lot of racial strife, a lot of anti-war activity. Most of the people in my neighborhood were military. It was like a proud military tradition. When I knew that I was going to leave college and go into the military, I always knew that I wanted to be a paratrooper because the older guys would come back and they were all paratroopers.
When I went in, I had two years of college. I was 19. I was at Fort Bragg basic training. Then I went to the AIT and jump school and special ops school all down in Georgia at Fort Benning. I spent a lot of time in Georgia. Then I was sent over.
Vietnam to me was always a fascinating place when I was there. I was there in '71. The normal tour is 13 months. My unit was there nine months. I was with the 101st Airborne, and we were working primarily near Cambodia, trying to disrupt the supply line down the Ho Chi Minh trail and to force the government of North Vietnam to negotiate a peace agreement.
We did a lot of bombing in Cambodia and Laos particularly when we spotted some supply lines. Our role was not to engage them unless we accidentally bumped into them. But basically we were kind of there to listen, check out supply lines, disrupt them, discover munition casts, destroy them and get out of there, because we were only supposed to be in Cambodia for a short time.
It’s a beautiful, beautiful country. Some of the people, the Vietnamese and Cambodians that I was with that I worked with, were beautiful people. I don’t think I harbor any animosity towards them. It is war. I guess they did what they did, and I did what I did. I feel very fortunate that I wasn’t injured. War was a new experience for me, especially for a guy from southeast Raleigh. It’s a culture shock.
Why this trip is personal
A friend of mine used to be a projectionist here at Channel 5. His name is Erroll Thompson. He died a few years ago. His son wanted some of his ashes taken back to Vietnam. I will try to make it back to the valley, which is where he had his most difficult time.
He was an infantryman. He was in the 173rd. He fought on I think it was hill No. 934, known as Hamburger Hill, where they fought for 10 days – night and day. It was something like 60, maybe 68 Americans killed over a 10-day period and over 300 inured.
So, Erroll was awarded the Silver Star for bringing the dead and wounded back off of that mountain. But it scarred him for life. So, his son wanted a part of him back there because he never really left. It’s for guys like him.
Guys like Ernest McCrimmon, who lived around the corner from me. He was there three days. His tour in Vietnam began on May 13, 1968. He was killed on May 16, 1968 of small arms fire. It’s for guys like him. I was still in high school and these guys were constantly being shipped back from my neighborhood, guys I knew, grew up with.
We were very close, and their death affected me. People like Harold Mann, who lived two blocks away from me. He was in Vietnam for 13 days and he drowned crossing a canal in combat.
Traveling through Vietnam
We’re going to fly into Ho Chi Minh City, which used to be Saigon, and then we’re going to work our way up. We’re going to maybe see a few of the places that we were. I’m going to try to make a special effort to get over to the valley where Earl was awarded the Silver Star and try to leave some part of him there.
Then we’re going to eventually get up to Hanoi and tour the famous Hanoi Hilton where John McCain and so many of the pilots were in prison, just to go there, pray about them, take pictures. You wonder what the north looked like, so I’ll get to see the north. I’ll get to see some of the remnants of the war.
The Vietnamese were great at tunneling, building bunkers and that’s how they conducted the war. They snaked down through Laos and Cambodia to bring supplies down. It was very impressive they way they fought that war, and they had years of experience of fighting. We were better trained, better equipped, but somehow they had a determination to just wear us down, and that’s what they did. I never look at it that we lost the war. I think it just came to an end.
Was it worth it? I don’t know. Would I do it again? Would I go again? Probably, because you become attached to the guy next to you. You cover each other. You depend on each other. There’s a bond that you get because you had that shared experience. There are some people that I forgot their names, but their picture, what they looked like, is kind of still emblazoned in my head. I have no idea what they look like now, probably like me with a bald head (laughs).
I wonder how I’m going to feel (about being back in Vietnam). In thinking about it, it’s kind of a mix of reasons for going. But over the years, I guess I matured. I look at it a little different now. I’ve become perhaps a little more spiritual about it. My reason for going back is to honor those who didn’t come back and to honor those who came back but somehow their spirit stayed in Vietnam.
Just as many as we lost we probably have lost here, and that’s why you run across them every day. They’re homeless with issues. I feel very fortunate that on the surface I don’t think I really have any issues. Early on, I had sleeplessness and things like that, but I grew out of that. I just was determined to just move on, to let it go. It’s over. It was the issue of my time. Everybody has something to deal with, and that was what I had to deal with, or what my generation had to deal with.
Some of the guys, particularly who are vets, think it’s crazy. “You’re going to Vietnam? There’s no way in hell I’m going over there. That’s horrible. Bad memories.” Some of them have sort of biases towards the Vietnamese. They can’t forget. They can’t forgive. And some of them understand why I’m going back.
It’s been my goal for years to just go back. I always had a yearning. I knew when I left that I would be back. It’s just like a draw. I have to go back to say goodbye. It didn’t end right for me. The closure wasn’t there. So, this’ll be a way of trying to seek that. I have notion that it’ll help me put it away – in a good way.