My Uncle Billy’s descriptions of life as a soldier in the jungles of Southeast Asia tell a story of loneliness, bravery, and love of family
“So how is everything going on at home? Been out riding the Ski Doo very much? Or isn’t there enough snow yet”. Letter dated January 25 1965.
He was away from home, a long way from home. His family made sure he got frequent letters. My dad, aunt, and uncle sent them regularly. Some of my cousins and I sent occasional letters too.
His mother wrote to him every day.
He was my uncle Billy Newvine, known by his Army buddies as Bill. Bill served in the US Army in Vietnam. Surviving the jungles of Southeast Asia in some ways was the less-troubled part of his life journey.
He was killed in a car accident driving a brand new Chevrolet convertible he bought upon his return to the States.
The crash happened about six months after his military service ended.
I’ve detailed my journey to learn more about my Uncle through columns here on this website and in a short book called Finding Bill.
I was eleven years old when he was killed.
On a recent visit to my hometown, I visited my Aunt Betty, Billy’s only sister. I already knew he received a lot of letters from home, and that he responded when possible.
I asked Betty whether she had kept any of his letters. After searching around the family farmhouse where she has lived most of her life (and where Billy lived until he was seven years old), she found about forty letters Billy wrote to her while in the Army.
“After twenty days on the USN Walker, we got here. We got here on the ninth, but were not allowed in the harbor to the tenth. Then not allowed to unload till yesterday the fourteenth.” Letter written September 15, 1966, postmarked October 16, 1966.
He sent letters from many places. Some were from where he started his military life in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Other letters were from his pre- deployment time at Fort Lewis in Washington State. Many letters covered the entire time he was in Vietnam which spanned from September 1966 to September 1967.
I spent some time sorting through the letters Aunt Betty loaned me. I arranged them in chronological order, took several pages of notes, and made a few copies at the local drug store. What emerges is a story of a young man (just twenty-one years old) who misses his family, who has made new friends, and who is showing the courage to endure what he’s going through in the jungles of Vietnam.
“…got almost two months in. Our time started September 2. So we are supposed to be back in the states September 2. We will fly back. The old man told us that…” Letter dated and postmarked October 27, 1966
I was taken aback by the passage above because of Bill’s sense of looking toward the end of his hitch. By the postmark, I can tell he had only been in Vietnam a little over a month. Yet, he is already explaining the details of how he will get back home in another eleven months.
Bill’s letters make it clear he was a dedicated soldier
Some of the unvarnished scenes he describes on the battlefield disgusted him, but he knew there was a job to do as well a story to tell his loved ones about what he was experiencing.
“I pulled up and aimed and did not fire. But he fired and then you feel different and fired. My hand froze on the trigger I shot the whole twenty rounds.” Letter written December 16, 1966 and postmarked December 17, 1966.
There are also images of what he missed from home: family, friends, a snowmobile, and his sister’s farm. The letters are what I would describe as newsy. In a letter before leaving the United States, he tells his sister about mistaking members of the rock group The Animals for women in the Chicago airport. He frequently references winter in upstate New York and his favorite winter pastime of riding his snowmobile.
“Well how is the sledding around there? I guess Dad is having fun with his. I took more time over here to get out in November.” From the same December 17, 1966 letter.
His letters reflect research I did for the book Grown Up, Going Home where I include interviews with his Army buddies.
One friend told me how Bill would frequently mention his snowmobile and how amused Bill was with some of this buddies who just couldn’t believe that you could drive a snowmobile over a frozen lake in the middle of winter.
In another letter, Bill described what I call an altercation in a bar when a South Vietnamese soldier insulted two women. (“I gave him a love tap on the jaw… His buddy carried him out of the bar. The bartender bought us drinks.”) Bill writes that he was in that bar with his friend Paul, who is likely Paul Metzler, a man I spoke to for my book project.
Paul had a lot of nice things to say about Bill, but I recall the most touching story he shared was the one about a letter he received from my grandmother (Bill’s mother) a few months after Bill died in the car accident.
Paul told me how touched he was to receive the letter from the woman who had just lost her son. “It was a beautiful letter,” he said to me. “It broke my heart.”
Paul and Bill mustered out of the Army together and flew from San Francisco back east upon their departure from the service.
In another letter, Bill makes a reference to two soldiers from his unit who were killed while taking the camp garbage to a dump.
“Then yesterday we are here in base camp. Two guys made the trash run and there was fifteen VC inside the perimeter and killed them at the dump. That sure makes you feel funny.” Letter dated March 15, 1967 and postmarked March 19, 1967.
Those two men were Tom Nickerson and Clint Smith. I learned their story from the man who helped me research and find some of the soldiers who knew my uncle.
I found their names along with other soldiers my Uncle knew on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC in 2012.
The story of Bill Newvine: son, brother, uncle, friend, and Vietnam War veteran continues to be told. These letters my Aunt Betty saved for nearly fifty years offer another side to this forever young man. Betty’s forethought to keep the letters is a special gift.
Bill Newvine, a typically quiet person, learned to survive during his time in Vietnam. Whether it was defending the honor of a woman in a barroom, or taking out an enemy Vietcong soldier bent on doing the same thing to him, he fought and endured.
From the letters this seemingly shy young man wrote, it is apparent that Bill perhaps expressed himself best with the written word. His letters are part of his legacy.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.
He is including a new chapter about the letters his uncle wrote in the second printing of the book Finding Bill.