HELENA — Bill Rich remembers climbing the observation tower on a pleasant evening 45 years ago to escape the heat in Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam.
There was a slight breeze and it was a vantage from which to savor the sights of the city. This he remembers clearly.
“Because it was a beautiful evening, I had climbed up and was sitting up there talking to the guard,” he said.
“The opening round in Hue was a rocket that flew over that tower,” Rich said, recalling the start of the epic battle that began for him on Jan. 31, 1968, during a truce.
The rocket was aimed at the tower. He describes its passage overhead with a whoose-whoose-whoose sound culminating in a blast as it landed and exploded. Up until this point, attacks by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had relied on mortars — a sound that still leaves him shivering and deters him from attending military events with live-fire exercises even today.
Mortar fire, he said, is "just one of those sounds that stays with you all of your life.”
Rich, who was a Navy Seabee for his 30 years of service, talks about all of this and displays the silver palm-sized decoration with its bee atop a crossed rifle and saber atop oak leaves.
“I guess I’m most proud of the Seabee Combat Warfare as it’s hard to get,” Rich, now 66, said.
This is one of the awards that is among the 17 that were presented to him in a ceremony on Friday at the Fort Harrison Navy Reserve Center by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Many were due but never awarded.
The senator read off the awards one by one and then handed them to Rich, who stood with an American Legion cap on his graying hair to accept them.
The Navy Achievement Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, the National Defense Service Medal with one bronze star, the Fleet Marine Force Combat Operations Insignia filled his hands. Navy Expert Rifle Medal with three bronze stars, Navy Expert Pistol Medal with two bronze stars, Vietnam Service Medal with one silver star, two bronze stars, Antarctia Service Medal with bronze winter-over clasp, Humanitarian Service medal, and Vietnam Campaign Service Medal were among those he received.
The Meritorius Unit Commendation Ribbon with one bronze star and Presidential Unit Citation were also among the recognitions he received for his service.
Standing in a plaid flannel shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, Rich received the awards. His solemn expression reflected the meaning of the occasion for him.
He said that he had noticed in looking at his service records that the Navy hadn’t presented him with awards due him. A letter to the Navy produced nothing after two years. Finding a copy of the file he had used to petition the Navy, he contacted Tester’s office. A couple of months later, Tester’s staff notified him that the awards would be presented, and a time was arranged.
“I think anytime that people sacrifice and go above and beyond, they need to be thanked for it,” Tester said prior to the roughly 30-minute ceremony attended by Rich’s family, friends and several members of the military who filled seats in the room for the event.
Thanking Rich in a public ceremony would show the appreciation for his service, Tester said.
“When this kind of stuff falls through the cracks, I just don’t think it’s right,” he added.
“I think it’s an opportunity just to set the record straight,” Tester said.
Rich deserves to be thanked, Tester said, even though it’s a generation later.
When troops came home from Vietnam, nobody was there for them. They fought and did their job incredibly well, the senator said.
“It’s because of them that folks are paying attention to those coming back from Afghanistan and before that Iraq and Desert Storm. They understand things weren’t real cheery when they came home and they want it different for these folks,” he said.
Changes to the Veterans Administration because of those injured in Iraq and Afghanistan are benefiting those who served in Vietnam too, he noted, adding that those who were denied benefits in the past should reapply as the rules have changed.
“It’s a different VA than it was even five years ago,” Tester said.
Time flies when you’re young and you’re having fun, Rich said, as he reflected on his career while talking in a conference room across Fort Harrison from where he would be presented with medals and ribbons for his military service.
“It seems like yesterday I was in Vietnam. And that was a long time ago.
“You sort of lose track of things over the years,” Rich said
Rich was just out of high school in Spring Valley, N.Y., and his father, who worked for IBM, was being transferred to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He tried to enlist in the Navy in his hometown but the recruiter told him he’d have to wait. There was a waiting list.
“I always wanted to be in the Navy,” Rich said. His dad was a Navy veteran. Reading about the battle of 1812 and the Civil War further fueled his desire.
Joining his father for the ride to what would become his new hometown, he got off at the Navy recruiter’s office and went inside. The year was 1966.
The recruiter was an old Navy chief and a Seabee. He asked Rich if he had ever considered joining the Seabees.
After he was led into another room to watch “The Fighting Seabees,” a John Wayne film from 1944, the idea stuck.
“When I came back, I said, ‘Yeah, being a Seabee would be fun,’” Rich recalled.
The Seabees replaced the cadre of civilian contractors that the military had used to build overseas bases. When the Japanese army overran islands and captured them during World War II, they executed the contractors, Rich said.
The Seabees were created to handle this task and trained to defend themselves.
He trained in Rhode Island and then joined the Mobile Construction Battalion 121 in Gulfport, Miss., before deploying to Vietnam and being stationed in Phu Bai, just south of Hue.
A letter from the draft board caught up with him before leaving for Vietnam and his commanding officer tore it up, saying, “You belong to me now.”
In Vietnam, the Seabees often operated in forward areas building bases, defending themselves when necessary. They knew how to do both.
“We were basically self-sufficient,” Rich explained.
Evacuating civilians from Hue on two occasions earned him and several others who drove the trucks and carried the weapons that would be their defense the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, a gold medal with a red and gold ribbon, from a Vietnamese colonel who decorated them before they left on their second trip to ferry the civilians to safety.
The drive from Hue to Phu Bai, cleared of enemy troops by U.S. Marines, was a dangerous drive. There was still the chance that enemy forces would use mortars to attack the four-truck convoy, he said.
In Hue, as the fighting intensified as it did across Vietnam with the Tet offensive, Rich recalls being able to see the North Vietnamese flag flying above the Citadel, a nearly four-square-mile area that once served as the residence for the country’s emperors.
“The fighting in and around Hue was pretty heavy,” he said.
Marines brought the Seabees a couple of motorized carts where 105 mm cannons were placed and then surrounded with sandbags and ammunition. The Marines left to battle for the city, door-to-door.
“I have a lot of respect for those Marines,” Rich said.
“We’d get shot at. We’d shoot back. It was a long time ago. It wasn’t pretty,” he said, his voice soft, his blue eyes focusing on a time and memories from long ago.
“I actually felt we were there fighting to help people get out from under oppression,” Rich said.
“We found 5,000 people in those graves” in Hue after the enemy forces were driven out, he said. “Not to mention the Perfume River that ran red for a week. They walked people down into that river and shot them.”
Rich thinks back to meeting a young South Vietnamese officer who was a boy at a store near a base where he was once stationed. At the urging of the boy’s mother, he asked his mother to send him a brown corduroy coat that the woman had seen in an American catalog. He gave the coat to the family right before the Tet offensive began.
Rich never saw the family again. Eventually someone else reopened the store. It would not be until his second tour in Vietnam that he would encounter a young South Vietnamese officer who would call him by name. This was the boy to whom Rich had given the coat.
The boy was now a man, changed by the war. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had killed his family. They killed the family of his fiancee, too. Rich still remembers the hatred in the young man’s eyes and said he sometimes wonders what happened to him after they parted company on that day.
“I think the hatred I had was based on him, what war could do to the innocent,” Rich said.
The many times he’s moved for deployments took him far beyond Vietnam, and while on leave from duty in Antarctica, he met his future wife, Debbie, at Bryce Canyon in Utah. She was on a day off and feeding squirrels when they met. They’ve been married since 1975.
“It goes by too fast,” he said.
The family moved to Helena in 1993, and he retired a few years later. His days are spent at the fort and at other state military installations in Montana where he works as an electrician.
Their daughter, Mariah, was born in England, which he said was one of his favorite deployments. His ancestry is English, Debbie’s is Welsh, and they had the chance to learn more of their history while there.
Learning about people and their cultures has made the years meaningful to him, he said.
In Greece, he was honored and served snails for a meal. He got to watch as women stomped grapes to make wine and the pulp of the grapes was used to make liquor at a still in the town.
“It’s just learning about the world around you,” Rich said. “If you get to know the people, you can enjoy the life all the better.”
“I loved my travels. I loved being in different countries.”
And just as travel has been meaningful for him, so are the ribbons and medals.
They represent a record, he said.
“I hope this is something I can pass on to my kids, grandkids, that they can know something about their granddad,” he said.