William K. Aldrich
U.S. Army – Door Gunner
101st Airborne, 158th Aviation Battalion
Vietnam War (November 1967 – November 1970)
William Kenneth Aldrich was born and raised in Springfield Massachusetts and claims he is “still growing up” here in Marin County. Aldrich joined the military, just like his father and brother, after being a sort of “bad boy” in high school. He was in the early class of ROTC at Springfield Technical High School which was Air Force ROTC. When the recruiter told him about helicopters he thought it was a good idea because he could work in an airport after getting out of the military. Later Aldrich would find out that the job he signed up for had a 3 week life expectancy, and what the army taught you about helicopters could not be applied easily to commercial aircrafts.
Upon joining the military the males in Aldrich’s family were very proud while his mother was scared to death. But he went on to Fort Dix, New Jersey for eight weeks of basic training. There he trained in the “Vietnamese villages” that were knee deep in snow during November, December, and January of 1967-68. Being an 18 year old, and a varsity ice hockey and soccer player in High School, Aldrich was in very good shape. The drill sergeant would get mad because the running and stuff was a “piece of cake”, so he would make Aldrich do an extra four laps in an attempt to break him down.
After cruising through basic training, Aldrich went to Fort Rucker, Alabama for Aviation school, where he learned basic aircraft repair of helicopters with a specialty of Hueys. Then, with an “obnoxiously gung-ho” attitude Aldrich forged on to his first assignment at Fort Campbell Kentucky with a unit building up to go to Vietnam. After three weeks he was sent to another unit in Fort Hood, Texas, and as soon as Robert Kennedy was killed in June of 1968, his entire unit was shipped right out. From Texas, through Alaska, through Japan, and finally to Vietnam, Aldrich’s unit landed in Binh Hoa and was bused to Long Binh, riding through Vietnamese villages, unarmed. For two and a half months the unit worked on setting up their maintenance system to work on helicopters. By this point Aldrich was all in. He felt fear, wondering if he was ever going to go home and was very motivated to follow instructions for the sake of his life. First attached to the 3/17th Air Cavalry, Aldrich and his platoon were next sent to I Corps to join the 101st Airborne Division in August of 1968 at Camp Ego. He was welcomed by the Viet Cong with rocket attacks and spent long days working in the hot sun setting up and doing repairs. At Camp Ego he lived in a tent and showered out of helmets for three months. Following those three months he got moved not far to Phu Bai where they lived in really nice wooden structures with showers, good food, and a wonderful colonel.
With just 3 more moths to go before leaving, Aldrich was sent closer to the DMZ to Camp Evans, which was even more dangerous than where he was working before. There he met up with a new unit that had just arrived from Colorado. The new guys didn’t really know what was going on and relied on Aldrich and the others who had been in Vietnam for six or seven months already. However, because of the experience he had already, Aldrich knew more than even the commanding officer of the company. But he did not like it if any arrogance was displayed, even though he knew that Aldrich and others knew what was going on.
In fact, something that isn’t played up by the press is deaths from friendly fire, meaning the enemy didn’t kill you. This happened in Aldrich’s company. The new first sergeant was killed in “friendly fire” when one guy put a white phosphorus grenade in his bed, killing him.
It was at Camp Evans where Aldrich started flying. He believes it would have definitely been easier on him if he hadn’t volunteered to fly, but the brave 19-year old was full of machismo and volunteered to be a door gunner. As a door gunner you’re flying all day, doing missions and you leave the rest of your unit at camp. This caused a great disconnection. But one of Aldrich’s buddies used to go down every night to the flight line to see the ships coming back, just looking for him to return. Aldrich did return every night because of his motivation to stay alive.
Returning from Vietnam, Aldrich still had eighteen more months to serve, so he went to Savannah, Georgia, Fort Hunter Army Field and then to Germany for the last year where he continued to work on helicopters. He got discharged out of Germany and interestingly enough was sent back to Fort Dix, New Jersey where Aldrich started his service. He even traded bunks with a guy so that he could have the distinction of saying, “My first night and my last night in the military were in the same bed.”
Initially when Aldrich got out of the military, he worked for three months in a factory and got heavily into partying. He moved to California after deciding that he needed to get a new life, so he enrolled at College of Marin for a couple of years. He then went to Bjorn’s Academy in Vallejo which was a “beauty college”. Aldrich wound up taking a complete 180 and ultimately became a hairdresser for thirty-five years, and a musician on the side. He had two lovely daughters and got married in 1991 to a lovely Chinese woman, who he very much respects.
As a Vietnam War veteran, Aldrich and his peers were not “received” well, which he thinks was probably the root of a lot of his problems. The protests made him feel like he wasn’t welcomed home and a lot of people acted out. For a period of time, about 15 years, Aldrich himself was addicted to drugs. This year he celebrated his 33rd year of a clean and sober lifestyle. He was able to make a change, which unfortunately a lot of Veterans were not able to do, and died as a result. This was a major problem with the military. But, from the neglect that Vietnam veterans faced, people have learned to say, “Thank you for your service” to veterans, and treat them with utmost respect and love. What happened to Aldrich and other veterans, impacted the country to realize that, “The U.S. people had the inability to separate the war from the warrior.” (The Acquittal of God, by Uwe Siemon-Netto) and that was wrong.
Another thing that Aldrich has experienced like many other veterans is “fear of intimacy”. In Vietnam, when someone died, you would have to “Tag them and bag them,” which is a very brutal thing to have to do. They were forced to become numb to a friend dying. Later in life a lot of veterans still have issues with letting people in, for fear that they might “hurt me, or die on me”. To this day, Aldrich experiences this fear of intimacy, nightmares, and “hyper-vigilance” 45 years after serving in Vietnam. In the military he had to respond and act instantly, so he is extra aware and overly cautious sometimes. His psychiatrist has given Aldrich tools to cope with and deal with these bursts that he experiences, and is helping Aldrich to move on from the traumatic experiences he faced both in Vietnam, and once he returned to the US. Aldrich is “the poster boy for recovery” he grabbed all the tools that were made available to him by the Veterans Administration and saved his life; even more than that, he is living a happy life too. He said, “You’ve just got to put your hand out there. Someone’s going to put their hand in yours.”
Interview Conducted by Cassidy Bruner on May 7, 2017