For the past decade, I’ve been on a journey to learn more about my uncle Bill Newvine. (Bill Newvine is on the far right in the picture above.) Bill died in 1968 at the age of twenty-three, just seven months after returning from service for the US Army in the Vietnam War. He was killed in a car accident. I was eleven years old.
In the years immediately following his death, our family mourned the loss. My grandparents never got over it. Billy was the youngest of four children and was born twelve years after my dad. My grandparents visited his grave every day, excluding the time when they would vacation in Florida.
For years, the biography of Billy Newvine was told in one sentence: my dad’s younger brother, served in Vietnam, and died seven months after returning from the service.
For years, it concerned me that Billy’s life (everyone in the family called him Billy) was so short and his legacy reduced to just fifteen words: served in Vietnam, died in a car accident seven months after returning from the service.
In 2000, I began a journey to find out more about Billy. It started with a chance search of his name on Google. I found a photograph of Billy taken from his time in Vietnam. The source of that photograph was a website for the unit he served during his tour of duty. That site led me to an email of a soldier who served alongside my uncle.
That soldier sent me a couple of photographs of Bill (his adult friends in the military dropped the “Y” from his name) including the one I first found in my web search. He also sent a letter with some reflections on Bill the soldier and friend.
I detailed some of those reflections in my first book: Growing Up, Upstate in 2006. I’m now writing a sequel and am revisiting some of the stories I told in the first book.
This revisiting of my years growing up in a small upstate New York village has led me back to the website where I first found that image of Bill. I’m now in contact with three soldiers who knew and served with Bill in Vietnam. I’m learning more about Bill’s tour of duty, the kind of man he was, and the kind of friend he was.
The unit’s company clerk knew my uncle and would occasionally have Bill join him for visits to the Enlisted Men’s Club. Another soldier told a story of how he went out for several beers with Bill the night before they reported to the induction center.
They entered the same unit in basic training, and remained friends throughout their time in the service and afterwards. Bill had asked him to be in his wedding party once his hitch was up. Bill died before that wedding could even be planned.
Another soldier knew who Bill was, but was in headquarters during the tour of duty and did not serve alongside my uncle.
This man is helping me connect with other soldiers in the unit. He organizes a newsletter for the unit and remains in close contact with dozens of soldiers who served in what we now know was the one of the most intense periods during the Vietnam war.
I’m learning more about this unit and their bravery under fire. In what is referred to in the organization’s newsletter as the Battle of Suoi, Bill's company came to the rescue of a firebase that was close to being overrun by the enemy on March 21, 1967.
That date was one day before my tenth birthday.
The group was given the Presidential Unit Citation. The only one other time that unit received this very prestigious award was at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. As one of the officers in that group described the honor, “Not bad company.”
I’m learning more every day as I check my email, follow up on new links, and have dialogues with the men who served with my uncle Bill in Vietnam. It has been a labor of love and it is by no means over.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.