written by Carole Wagener
For Bill and Carole Wagener, 1969 was The Hardest Year. Newlyweds separated by 10,000 miles, Bill served in the 865th Engineer Gas Generating Detachment at Cha Rang Valley while Carole was a student at protest-wracked University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their 300-plus letters back and forth are the basis of a new book recounting their trials of love and war against the background of Vietnam. Below is an excerpt from The Hardest Year: A Love Story in Letters from the Vietnam War (Kindle released April 10/Audiobook and paperback in May) where Bill describes to Carole the circumstances of what he expects will be his impending court-martial.
21 February 1969
Less than two hundred days left when you get this letter. I haven’t written for the past three days as the mail wasn’t going out anyway. Tet’s officially over now, and I’m still in one piece. We got mortared, and three rockets hit, but the casualties were light. They hit a few barracks, the mess hall, and parked trucks. There wasn’t any ground assault on our location, but a convoy down the road was pinned down. We received a radio call for help, but they wouldn’t let us go out because of our weak perimeter defense.
I was with the CO’s driver, Austin, at the time. I’m not sure who talked who into it, but we took off in an amour-plated three-quarter-ton truck with a fifty-caliber machine gun mounted on it. We appropriated two M-79 grenade launchers and all the grenades we could grab.
When we got down to the main gate, it was shut and locked. The security guards wouldn’t let us through until we told them we were under the Bn. CO’s orders to help the convoy. They only half-believed us but let us through. One security guard joined us while the other called the Bn. to check out our lie.
When we arrived, the VC were on the bridge. Austin drove straight at them. You should have seen those brave NVAs jump when we hit two of them. The convoy was half a mile farther down the road. Austin told me to open up with the fifty-caliber machine gun when we got there.
Bill in Cha Rang with a bottle of oxygen for medical use or acetylene for blow torches.
By then, the g–ks were already stripping the convoy’s first two trucks, the drivers’ bodies, and their guards, so I shot right at the convoy. Unfortunately, the VC shot out our headlights, so I didn’t know if I killed any g–ks until we found their bodies later. Unfortunately, that string of ammo lasted only fifteen seconds, as in all of the excitement, we’d forgotten to bring extra ammo.
Then I opened up with our M-79 grenade launcher. Scary! It was rather cold and chilly, but I was sweating like Niagara Falls. Sweat kept pouring into my eyes. Austin was brilliant and drove right up to the convoy. By this time, our tires were shot out, too.
Most of the VC were on the west side of the road and too close to hit straight on with the grenade launcher as the grenades need to go at least thirty-eight yards before they explode. So I shot the grenades practically straight up to come down directly on the VC. Those grenades are bad news. In about three minutes, Charlie was hauling ass.
Then it was fun as I could shoot straight at them with the grenade launchers. I could see their silhouettes in the moonlight as they ran away, but a single sniper kept us there until morning. We were too afraid to move as he kept circling us, and we never knew from where he was shooting.
Then, finally, when daylight broke, we could see the sniper about three-quarters of a mile away, running through the rice paddy. A chopper went after him. Did you ever see a person running scared with a ‘big bird’ shooting at him?
In the morning light, we could see the half-stripped bodies of our GIs. Those VC bastards believe a person can’t go to heaven if defiled, so they cut the ears off of our dead GIs. I think I shot one dead g–k on the back of the second truck. There were six dead g–ks, and five dead Americans. Most of the convoy was injured.
The senior NCO said the first half of the convoy (seven trucks) would have been taken by the VC and men killed, perhaps the whole convoy destroyed. No one else came to help them for a while because the choppers weren’t there yet, and our compound was still being mortared.
I know you’ll feel awful when you read this, but I feel much better now that I’ve told someone. My dad was so disappointed when I dropped out of the U.W. and then washed out of helicopter flight school that I can’t tell him this. But you can tell him if I go to prison for disobeying orders. Worrying Dad makes no sense because I might get off the hook. I strictly forbid you to say anything to my dad or your folks, as our parents tend to stick together.
I’m so tired, and my neck hurts. I’m too scared and too worried to sleep because I’m waiting for word on a trial. There’s a meeting at the Bn. to decide if we three should be court-martialed for leaving the compound.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so miserable in my whole life. All last night, I was crouched behind a half-inch steel plate, sweating and ducking down. And now I may go to prison for all that risk, trouble, and danger.
How can the world get turned upside down in one night? I thought if I did this, it might win me a promotion or a Commendation Medal. Funny how I was so worried about a minor upgrade to E-5. Now I couldn’t care less. I want to erase the last twenty-four hours. It’s been one long nightmare.
Late last night, Austin and I thought we’d be heroes; instead, we may be convicts. I can’t blame anyone but myself because I suggested going out when I heard the negative reply for assistance on the radio. No one was around to stop us because everyone who wasn’t at the guard post was ducking into ditches and bunkers.
My CO thinks the worst they’ll do is bust me to Pvt E-1 and sentence me to six months in the Long Binh Jail. However, they’ll probably suspend the six months in prison and restrict me to the compound as my CO needs me in the orderly room. At least, that’s what he said when he left for the meeting.
If there’s a trial, it’ll be at least a month away. Sitting here and writing, I’ve re-collected my cool. I’m not all nervous as I was before. Remember to keep this to yourself, and don’t tell our parents unless the worse happens. If it bothers you as much as me, you can tell your confidante, but no one else. I don’t want people to know I may be court-martialed.
I just thought of something else. If I get a suspended sentence, I won’t get the GI bill for school. Oh shit. I’m so tired.
I’ll let you know what happens. Right now, I’m restricted to the compound. I can’t go down to photograph the convoy’s wreckage, but I can photograph the destruction on the post, so I’m going to do that instead.
Keep your cool, and study hard.
I re-read Bill’s letter about the possible court-martial and paced my dorm room like an expectant father. I had to tell someone. Maybe I could tell Janet on the way to church. At the sound of her first knock, I yanked the door open. Before Janet could say hello, I grabbed my purse, jacket, and gloves.
Carole at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1968
Janet furrowed her eyebrows at me. “Ready for church? Do you wanna walk or take the bus?”
I locked my door, and we ran down the front stairwell together. The weather was cloudy but mild as we headed toward University Avenue. I put on my gloves and pulled the fur-lined hood of my jacket over my head.
“What’s wrong, Sweetie? Are you sick?”
I shook my head.
“You don’t look okay. What is it? Something’s wrong with Bill?”
I sniffed, trying to hold back my tears. “I’m sworn to secrecy.”
“Whatever in the world? It’s that bad?”
“But if I have to, I can tell you, my confidante. Bill’s being court-martialed.”
Janet stopped dead in her tracks, placed her hands on her hips, and fixed her eyes on me. “You’ve got to be kidding me. After all he’s put you through, and now this? Court-martialed for what?”
I recounted what Bill had written.
“Sounds like a war movie.”
“More like a horror movie.”
“Oh, Carole. Was he hurt?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Sounds like he wanted to be a hero, though.”
“Then he should’ve joined the Green Berets. He could have gotten a medal on his chest.”
Janet stopped me, grabbed me by the shoulders, and spun me around to face her. “Bill’s up against some pretty serious charges here—”
“I’m so worried that he might be in the Long Binh jail or on a plane headed to Fort Leavenworth.”
“But in battle, sometimes lines get blurred.”
Then Janet hugged me as I broke down and sobbed on her shoulder. By telling Janet, a weight lifted off of me. Finally, I pulled away and wiped the tears from my cheeks.
“I’m scared. Will I ever see Bill again?”
“You will,” Janet assured me.
“Whew, I must look a wreck.”
Janet sounded just like John Wayne when she said, “Aw, you look fine, Missy, minus some eyeliner.” She handed me a Kleenex from her purse.
We resumed walking with only the sound of our boots sloshing through the melted snow. When we rounded the corner of Wisconsin Street, I saw the stone walls of the solid stone-built Norwegian Lutheran church. As we got closer, I read the placard out front.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Psalms 46:1.
Janet looked at her watch. “We’re early. Let’s go inside, warm up, and take a few minutes to pray.”
I put my pinky finger out to Janet. “Promise me. You’ll never say a word of this to anyone?”
Janet entwined her little finger with mine. “Pinky promise. Mum’s the word.”
“Thanks, Janet. I knew I could trust you. I feel better now.”
I lit a candle for Bill in the foyer and then went inside and sat down in a wooden pew. Looking up at the old wooden cross in the front of the sanctuary, I admired the colorful stained glass windows surrounding it and then knelt at the pew and prayed.
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
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Top image: Cover photo from The Hardest Year: A Love Story in Letters from the Vietnam War