Many times I have been told to “get over” Vietnam. I absolutely have no intentions of getting over Vietnam; I will always be a child of that generation and that war. Vietnam shaped us, molded us, and instilled deep within us memories that will never leave.
I was a sophomore in 1964 in high school in my small hometown of South Whitley when the war began to take on new life. Johnson had been overwhelmingly re-elected to his first full term as president following his assumption of office after the assassination of JFK in November 1963.
My girlfriends and I were absorbed with school, boys, and stopping at the local soda fountain after school every day for a cherry coke and some chatter with other kids from school. Or sometimes we popped in at Bowers Restaurant for an order of fries and a coke. The Beatles had landed in the United States, and I had watched their performance on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964, with my best girlfriend.
We immediately adopted their songs and sang them nonstop as we traveled to away basketball games and band concerts. The school bus we rode on reverberated with the sounds of “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
We never dreamed in our sophomore year that some of our classmates and our fellow high school students would soon find themselves flown close to 10,000 miles away to fight in the jungles of a country we had not even studied in our history class. All we were told was that it was necessary to stop the spread of communism and help the South Vietnamese stay free from the Communist North Vietnamese. We heard the term “domino theory” and were told that if South Vietnam fell, then one country after another in Southeast Asia would fall.
My class graduated in 1966, and it wasn’t too long before my classmates were being drafted to go to Vietnam – at least those who hadn’t enrolled in college or were lucky enough to have some other deferment.
Bob Wilfong was one of those who was sent to Vietnam in the summer of 1966 – barely a couple of months after graduation. He was quiet, and he was shy. He was one of those kids who was there but never drew attention to himself. I remember he always blushed easily. I never heard him say a bad word or an unkind word. I have to admit I did not know him well at all. I knew sort of who he hung around with, but in those days, girls and boys didn’t really mix in groups like they do today.
He lived in a house on the northeast edge of South Whitley, on a curve heading out of town on State Road 205 toward Columbia City, our county seat. His parents were also very quiet, and they bought groceries at our family-owned store. I am sure Bob got his quiet nature from them.
I remember hearing about his death. I am not sure now how I reacted, but I do know that I have not forgotten his death or that of the others from South Whitley who died. I also knew two others – Lyle Smith and Avery (Tracy) Nye – who had been killed in Vietnam.
I always thought that if I got to Washington, D.C., I would stop at the Wall and look for his name. In September 2006, I did just that. I will never forget going to the Wall. I walked the length of it several times, and, just like others I always saw in pictures, I touched the Wall as I walked along. I found the names of the three young men from South Whitley who had died in Vietnam, and I made pencil rubbings of their names.
I can’t say how others feel when they go to the Wall, but I instantly felt at home; I felt a connection and a closeness with this v-shaped, long, black-granite wall with over 58,000 names carved into it. I felt I was with a friend. And I felt relief that I had finally made it. My fear had always been that I would not see the Wall before I was too old or unable to travel.
I have included two versions of the song, “50,000 Names Carved in the Wall.” One is by the writer of the song, and the other is a rendition by someone else. I had not heard the song until this past Saturday at our Peace Rally, and I have listened to it dozens of times since then.
Forget Vietnam? Never, it isn’t possible, and, even if it were, I wouldn’t do it. The memories of that time are forever etched in my memory, and I make no apologies for how I feel. I hope to return to the Wall again this year. I am drawn to the Wall. Perhaps it is the memory of a quiet young man from a quiet little town who became a quiet hero for all time.
In honor of Robert Wesley Wilfong and all those whose names are carved in the Wall.
ROBERT WESLEY WILFONG
|LCPL – E3 – Marine Corps – Regular
Length of service 1 years
Panel 24E – Line 49