Doug Billman was one of my sergeants in Vietnam. He arrived in country about 10 weeks before I did.
Doug was from Matamoras, Pennsylvania, a sleepy little village in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania where the Delaware River touches Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. Billman was a squad leader who had earned his stripes in country.
We became friends when he learned my dad was from western Pennsylvania, and they shared some of the same regional idioms. “Honyok,” and “nudnik” are two of them. Both were of ethnic origin and described someone who was a pain in the rear. They are familiar terms of endearment in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and some parts of Indiana.
In spite of only having two months in country, Doug was an old timer. We shared time and space with the old timers, listened to their stories and took their advice. They led us on patrols through jungles and rice paddies scattered across the countryside and rode with us in helicopters.
These sergeants were our tour guides, and if we wanted to stay alive we had better pay close attention to the non-commissioned officers. Not all of our NCOs were career soldiers, but that didn’t diminish their capabilities, or qualifications to lead.
Whenever we stopped in the field for a break longer than 10 minutes, Doug would pull out his entrenching tool and begin digging a foxhole. I imagine some of Doug’s holes are still collecting monsoon rains across a vast area of Binh Duong and Binh Long provinces.
One day at a firebase in range of the Cambodian border, Doug was summoned to the command bunker. He was introduced to the battalion chaplain who counseled him about a “Dear John” letter he was sure to receive. It seems Doug’s long-time girlfriend back home in Matamoras had just grown weary of waiting, and had found someone else.
In a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business, his local pastor had learned of her change of plans, and notified Doug’s family and the Army.
“It don’t mean nuthin,” Doug would say in the vernacular of the grunt.
Two days after that crushing blow to his psyche, he received a letter from a young professional woman he had met on R&R in Taipei. Many soldiers entered into business relationships with these ladies while on R&R, and they often wrote, encouraging us to return.
“Listen to this,” he said. “Dear Alan, I miss you so much and can’t wait for you to come back to me. You are my dream baby,” he read aloud. “The envelope is addressed to me, but she put the wrong letter in the envelope. I wonder who got the ‘Dear Doug’ letter?” We all knew Alan was likely another GI she had done business with while he was on R&R in Taipei.
In spite of the bad news letters and two Purple Hearts, Doug was one of the lucky ones. He went home in November 1969, a little the worse for wear, and looking forward to life back in the world. We exchanged addresses and promised to write, and to get together some time, some place. I received one letter from him while I was still in Vietnam, and the exchange continued after I returned home.
The last letter I wrote to Doug was in late April, 1970. When I didn’t hear back for a while, I didn’t think much of it. We were both readjusting to civilian life.
I never met Doug’s mom, but several weeks later, when a letter arrived with her return address, I knew it was terrible news. I refused to open the letter for weeks, then forced myself to slice open the envelope and read the neat, Palmer method script of a loving mother, sharing the news of her son’s death with his friends.
The pain and sadness was evident in the carefully constructed description of the accident, struggling to convey the horrifying details while at the same time trying not relive the agony of the event.
Doug and three of his buddies were on the mid-Delaware Bridge crossing the river to Port Jervis. Their car was stopped behind a stalled car on the bridge. While waiting for it to move out of the way, they were struck from behind by a tractor-trailer rig and the car they were in burst into flames, killing all four. Doug was 22 years old.
Jim Doyle of Fresno is a freelance writer and a veterans advocate.