The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Rick Wilson III

Interview and story by: Keith Traver
This story is based on one of a series of interviews conducted by South Kingstown (RI) High School students in the Spring of 1998. All of the interviews were focused on recollections of the year 1968. In addition to the student's edited story below, you can find on this site the electronic transcript of the interview and a quicktime recording of the encounter , as well as a table of cues and contents .

Helicopter Pilot Extraordinaire

World War II had just begun its devastating spiral as I was starting out life. As it turns out, both were action packed. I grew up quick, but not a moment of my childhood was lost. My father was the publisher of the Narragansett Times. I learned a lot from him, more so on life than factual knowledge, although being around a newspaper for most of my childhood gave me exposure to a wide range of knowledge. My father and mother were very outgoing. Both of my parents were pilots. In fact, my mother was the first woman pilot in Rhode Island. This allowed me to get my pilot's license at the age of 16. I loved to fly. I flew every chance I could get. I wanted to join the ROTC because I wanted to fly. Not just any kind of aircraft, mind you, but only the latest and most advanced high performance aircraft.

After I graduated high school, I went to the University of Wisconsin and was first in my freshman class. If I was not studying, I was playing sports. That was my main extra-curricular activity. I played football, hockey, baseball, and I was on the rifle team. I was very good at all of them. I was the best shot on the rifle team and have the awards to prove it. I also worked on the school paper The Daily Cardinal, not to mention the ROTC, which I was involved with. I will say one thing about the kids at my campus. They all dressed on the conservative side. I, being from the East and prep schools, wore a tie and jacket.

I did not see much antiwar protests when I was there mostly because that did not start until 1968 or so, and I graduated in 1965. It all just started to build and swell until the people just started protesting everything. Mostly, it was the war and the draft. I could understand that people did not want to be drafted, but when they acted out in a violent manner, they lost credibility and meaning. Now they were just breaking the law.

ROTC was a very big part of my life. I really wanted to fly in the Marines and I knew that if you wanted to fly, you had to be an officer. I was shipped off to boot camp, which actually turned out to be a piece of cake for me. It required only a few things from a person. One needed to be physically fit. I was. A soldier needed to be mentally tough. I was. One had to follow orders. I did. It was not that hard for me. I just kept my nose clean and got through it all. In addition, I was one of the best shots that they had, so that helped me out.

Officer Training School was like twelve weeks of hell. We got very little sleep, very little time to eat, and very stressful situations. At boot camp, they try to make a person feel good about being a Marine and being in the armed forces. However, at Officer Training, they pushed soldiers to the limit and then over the limit repeatedly in order to weed out all those who could not handle the pressure. It was one of the hardest times in my life, but I made it through.

I was living life as usual. I did not intend to get married. I planned to go into the service and have a good time; however, life sometimes throws a curve ball. I was visiting a local Catholic girls' school, when I met Sharon Colleen McCarthy. As soon as I saw her, I knew that I wanted to marry her. We dated a lot through graduate school,and when I came back [from flight training in Pensacola], we got married.

Most of the time I served in the north of Vietnam. I served about 120 miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and also right along the DMZ. The DMZ was one of the most active places in Vietnam. There was a lot of combat and activity. For about seven months, I was aboard a DMZ ship patrolling the area. Then I spent the last six months in Quang Tri. Basically, my entire service was spent flying med-evac, recon, and re-supply missions. The helicopters that I was flying could carry about fifteen people, but in Vietnam, we carried about eight. I also did some search and rescue of pilots along the DMZ. By the end of my service, I had accumulated over a thousand hours in combat. Pretty impressive, if I do say so myself.

Being a med-evac pilot, I saw a lot of action. I had a lot of fun doing it though. I have always loved to fly and when one is in a combat situation, restrictions aren't a concern. I flew hard core, to the max, all out every time. The times when you need a med-evac helicopter is when there are sick or wounded men or men who need to retreat out of a given area. I was shot at every time I went out there. I feel very lucky, though, because I was only shot down three times and I never received any injuries from them. I had men who were injured, but I never was. I also never had any deaths on any of my crashes.

I loved my time over there. Some of my best friends were ones that I met in Vietnam. There really was not a lot of racism or discrimination among the guys there. It was a time of war and you could not afford to be fighting among yourselves while fighting the enemy as well. The men were a close knit group because each person had a job that was vital to the success of the unit. You had the responsibility of someone's life in your hands. If you were a mechanic and you were boozing and goofing off, and something broke because of you, you could be responsible for many deaths. People drank, but it was all in moderation. If you had to do a job, you did it with the clearest mind and sharpest wit.

I felt the women had a rough time [in Vietnam]. The only ones we came across were nurses but, even still, it was rough, and that is not just from a medical standpoint. The living conditions were harsh and rugged. One of the main problems they had was a lack of privacy. They were women trying to live in a man's world over there, and it was a tough job for them. I felt as if they were able to bring together all of their courage and strength and do their job.

Looking back now at my whole military experience, I really loved it. Being in the military taught me many skills -- leadership, duty, honor, pride, responsibility, respect, and self-dependency. I was the youngest major in the Marine Corps and one of the most highly decorated Marine Corps pilots. I had a great and promising career ahead of me and I would have stayed in except my wife died. The only thing I missed in Vietnam was my wife and child. The thought that kept me going was that I knew that I was doing something positive and saving lives. I felt as if my talents as a pilot were put to good use. Several hundred Marines owe me their lives. If I had to make a decision whether or not I would do it all over again, I still would.

I felt that we were right to be in Vietnam. What we were doing there was good. The war was conducted in a lousy manner. The problem was that all the wrong people were making all the decisions. If they had just stood back and let the military fight, it would have been over a lot quicker. They would not let us use the weapons that we had. We won the war if you look at it from a personnel standpoint, or a body count standpoint, or from an economic standpoint, but they won it politically.

Glossary Words On This Page
boot camp

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