|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
I Thought I Was a Widow for a Year and a Half
When my husband was 22, right out of college, he decided to enlist into the Navy and he wanted to fly. As he was training in Key West, Florida, I was not even sure where Vietnam was. Also, Vietnamese soldiers were training in this country, and I remember seeing them on the Navy base, and I did not even know who they were.
The day my husband left home for Vietnam was one of the worst days of my life. I knew what he was going into, and that there was a chance I might not see him again. My daughter Dabney was actually born the day after he left. He came back to see her, but only stayed for about five days.
My husband was shot down in Vietnam in 1965. We thought that he was killed because his plane crashed and they did not see a parachute. So I really thought that I was a widow, and I moved with my infant daughter to Atlanta, Georgia, and began a new life. I was just trying to keep a stiff upper lip and do the best I could. It was hard, that was pretty early in the war and I did not know anybody else who was a widow at 24 years old.
Then a year and a half later, I found out that he was not dead, but was probably a prisoner of war. The Navy and the military kept very closely in touch with me and the first real information I got was from a sailor on a ship who fell overboard and was taken prisoner. He just played dumb, that he was so dumb he had gone to sleep and fallen off his ship, so they let him come home early, thinking he knew nothing. He had memorized over three-hundred names of people in prison, and my husband's name was one of those. He had memorized them alphabetically by day of shoot down. Now one really knew who was there. So that was the first real confirmation I had that he was a prisoner of war.
My family lived in Roanoke, Virginia and in 1944 when I was two years old, my father went into the Army in World War II. We lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Austin, Texas. Following the war, we moved to Fort Dennis, Florida, and I lived there until I went to college. I am an only child and my father was a real estate broker. He worked in a development in South Florida, and my mother was a nurse. I grew up in a big city and went to a very big public high school. I had an average, happy childhood.
The schools were segregated and the area I lived in did have a black population, so they had their own school systems. The school I was going to was undergoing a big renovation, so I ended up going to a school in another part of town. One day I had a dental emergency, and I remember I couldn't get hold of my parents. I knew it was a long walk, but I felt like I could walk. It was a totally Black neighborhood, and as I walked through about halfway, I began to realize that maybe I was not comfortable. People were looking at me and wondering what in the world I was doing because that just was not something that people did on a regular basis.
Being from the South, I didn't listen to typical music. I listened to a lot of Black music. We all loved Black music. I really never knew any Black people my age. I knew we had a Black maid at my house who helped my mother clean. We thought very highly of her, and my mother also did a lot of work down where the migrant farm workers worked. I don't think we thought less of them, but they definitely did not have the same opportunities that we had. You would go to a black nightclub where bands that were not nationally popular would play. One concert that really sticks out in my mind was when Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis came to a fraternity party at my husband's college. They never played in those big concert venues and they did not have millions of dollars, so I think life was a struggle for these people.
I went away to college to a totally different environment. I chose to go to a small girls' school in Charlotte, North Carolina; I was a history major. Most girls in my day thought they would grow up and maybe get married and that they really would not have to work. I met my husband at a party at his college. I actually had a blind date with one of his fraternity brothers. We were married on Christmas of 1963, and I graduated in 1964.
I was very involved in political things while my husband was a POW. I was involved in a family organization called the National League of Families of the American Prisoners of War, and those missing in action. I was on the Board of Directors, and represented ten southern states. All of us wives met as a whole group in Washington. We had a national headquarters there. We met twice a year, and people from the Department of Defense would come, and the President would come. Our group was one that everyone wanted to help and really rallied behind us. Because I was on the Board of Directors, I actually met with White House Staff every three weeks.
I always set aside a period of time that I would write. I tried to write fifteen letters per night to either members of Congress or foreign countries telling them about my situation and the fact that I had information which led me to believe that the North Vietnamese were not abiding by the Geneva Convention which they had signed. This meant that they should tell the names of all the people they held as prisoners, as well as treat them humanely. One of the countries that I wrote to most was Sweden hoping that they would use their influence. Sure enough, the Prime Minister of Sweden got a list of prisoners from the North Vietnamese. My husband was on those lists, and then I got the first letter from him. It was like a little postcard, and it only had five lines. It had instructions, so he could only write on those lines. He just told me over and over again that he was all right, and he hoped I was OK. It was very general.
The day the first letter arrived, I happened to be at the grocery store, and all of a sudden my mailman shows up at the grocery store looking for me. He said, "You have to come home," and I knew. I said "The letter's come," and he said "yes." Then he said, "No, I'm not going to give it to you here." I lived just a couple of blocks away, so I went home. When he had come to deliver the mail, he had not just put it in the mailbox. He knew what it was. When I got back, there must have been fifty people who lived in this apartment complex who were waiting for me. It was really exciting that the postman found me in the grocery store to deliver this letter that did not even have my address on it.
When my husband was a prisoner of war, I could not get a charge account; I was married, but my husband couldn't sign his name, and I had no legal rights of my own. My husband had those rights, so I couldn't have a charge card. I wanted to get a house, but I couldn't get a mortgage on a house, because they said, "well your husband could come home and say, `I'm not going to be good for this'." Towards the end the government, the Navy in particular, got behind the women, and they were co-signing for loans. Things were beginning to change as far as women having more legal rights.
Holidays were pretty hard times for me. Everybody else was with those whom they loved, and I really did not have any family. My mother died when I was in college, and my father and I were not that close. I had a lot of good friends, and they were always very good about including me in on holiday celebrations. Sometimes I would go, but other times I just wanted to feel bad and get everything out of my system.
I thought that the United States was justified in helping the Vietnamese people maintain their sovereignty and their independence from China. I think we really felt this "domino theory" that if one country fell to communism, that whole area of Southeast Asia would fall. After the war, I began to think that maybe the way we went about fighting the war was wrong until. I think that our government thought it was something we had to do.
I felt that everyone had a right to his own beliefs, and there were a number of occasions when I guess I met face to face with people who were against the war in Vietnam. I felt that they did not have all the information, and they were looking at things from a narrow point of view. One example of this was that I was very active in my church, and we had a young minister who came as an assistant. He was very strong in his opposition to the Vietnam War. He and I discussed the matter, and my whole church was really behind me. We came to an understanding and I think I learned the reasons why he felt as he did, and I felt he in turn, learned my feelings and why I thought my husband was being treated cruelly. This minister participated in a march on Washington and burned his draft card on public television on Easter Sunday. His priesthood was taken away from him for doing that. The older minister at my church used my name and said we can't have him doing that when we have this young woman in our church whose husband is suffering. I felt very badly because I would not have done that to him. Not that what he did was right, but because I was used as a scapegoat for letting him go. I did not go back to that church because I was very upset that that had happened. I did call the young minister and I said "I understand that you were told that I was part of the reason they fired you." He said, "No, I understand. I know you, and I knew that it was not your fault."
I never missed a television newscast while my husband was in Vietnam, because it was always about Vietnam. The news would come over and it would be horrible, but it was something that had happened twelve hours before, and so my feeling was my husband is safe. I would have heard by now had something terrible happened.
It was all over television when the Paris Peace Talks were signed, and I knew that one of the things was that all the prisoners were to be released and that, within thirty days, the release was to begin. They came out in five or six groups about three weeks apart, and the sick and injured came out first. Then, they were sorted by order of shoot-down. That pretty much guaranteed my husband would be in the first group. It was all televised, so I watched him get off the airplane in the Philippines. They flew from Hanoi, and I saw photographs of the American plane landing there to pick the prisoners up. I was very well prepared. I also talked to the Navy two or three times every day on the telephone, and every time they had some information, they would call. They were wonderful about keeping us informed.
On February 12, 1973, when they landed in the Philippines, it was 4:30 in the morning. About twenty people had come over to watch. Each of the men stepped off the airplane and shook hands with the dignitaries, and we really got a good picture of them. I immediately recognized my husband; he looked great. Then,I woke my daughter up (she was seven then) and they replayed it, so she watched it. Even though he had been away, he had been very much a part of her life.
It sounds crazy, but it really was not like he had been away. Also, for the four days that he was in the Philippines, they said that we could have two telephone calls a day, but I think they immediately realized that that was not enough. I imagine that I probably talked to him an average of maybe six hours a day, so we really got very well acquainted on the telephone.
The newspapers played him up, and all these companies wanted to thank these men for what they had done. We got a free Ford for a year, and lifetime passes to any National League game. People were just really nice. The sad part is that the men who had come home from Vietnam and had fought and suffered were not acknowledged. These men got all the glory, and there were a lot of other people who deserved it just as much.
The Vietnam Memorial was very moving to me because I knew how close my husband came to having his name on the wall. The man who was in the plane with my husband, his name is on the wall, and so is my cousin's who was a helicopter pilot after whom my son is named. When you see how many names, and the fact that it is symbolizing each individual; I think that is very meaningful.