Michigan nurse was one of eight female soldiers killed in Vietnam War
DETROIT — The image is forever etched in their minds.
Their older sister — a young spirit and kind soul who loved music, singing and dancing — boarding a plane at Detroit Metro Airport in the midst of the Vietnam War.
Barb Bookwalter was 17; her brother, Jerry Orlowski, was 12.
It was the last time they saw their sister, Hedwig Diane Orlowski — known as Harriet or Heddy — an Army nurse from Detroit and the only female soldier from Michigan killed in the Vietnam War.
Orlowski was one of the eight female U.S. soldiers, all nurses, killed in Vietnam — their names among the 58,286 enshrined on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
An additional 56 female U.S. civilians were killed in the war. More than 265,000 women served in the armed services during the war and nearly 10,000 served in-country, according to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation.
“She was smart, fun. She was fun. God, she was fun. Never mean. She was a good sister,” said Jerry Orlowski, 58, of Sterling Heights as he visited the graves of his sister, mother and father at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit on Tuesday, the day his father would have turned 100.
“It still hurts all these years (later). She would help my mom, help my dad. She was the oldest, never caused a problem. She was the kind of kid you hoped for, smart, popular.”
Bookwalter, 63, also of Sterling Heights, said her outgoing sister was the perfect daughter who wanted to help others and her country and always told her younger sister to “try to have fun.”
“I remember her every single day. I remember a lot of the talks we had. I remember a lot of the fights we had, too,” she said with a laugh. “She loved life and she enjoyed it to the hilt.”
Hedwig Orlowski was a 23-year-old surgical nurse when she died in November 1967. She was stationed at the 67th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon and had been sent to a hospital in Pleiku to help during a period of heavy casualties, according to the Virtual Wall website.
On the return trip to Qui Nhon, her aircraft was detoured because of low clouds, rain and poor visibility and crashed into a mountainside, killing all 26 aboard. Some sources, the siblings said, indicated the aircraft was shot down.
Bookwalter remembers the day her family learned her sister was missing.
She said she and her brother were home when a military officer knocked at the door. Their father, a toolmaker at Chrysler, was at work. Their mother was at a meeting and with friends.
Bookwalter said the officer asked for her parents, themselves veterans of the Polish Army in World War II.
“I’m not telling you where they are until you tell me what’s wrong with my sister,” she recalled telling the officer.
The officer replied that he needed to talk with her family; they learned a week or so later that Hedwig Orlowski was confirmed dead.
“My parents died that day. My mom was never the same. My dad, you could see it ripped his heart out,” Jerry Orlowski said.
Bookwalter, a nurse like her mother and sister, agreed.
“My parents were just devastated,” she said. “A part of them died, too, especially my mom. She was really devastated.”
Zuzanna Orlowski visited her eldest child’s grave every week until her death in 1997.
Hedwig Orlowski graduated from St. Florian High School in Hamtramck and Hurley Hospital nursing school in Flint. She joined the Army while at nursing school to help her parents with expenses. She worked at Harper Hospital before going to Vietnam, her siblings said.
The first lieutenant, who was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star, is buried between her mother and her father, Bronislaw Orlowski.
Hedwig Orlowski’s name is one of 2,654 listed on the Michigan Vietnam Veterans Traveling Memorial, which is taken throughout the state. A yellow arrow is by her name to denote she is the only female soldier from the state who died.
For many families, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, celebrated with barbecues and picnics.
For others, like the Orlowski family, it is a time to remember the sacrifices and the lives of those who were lost in the name of their country.
“It’s easy to forget those who have given their lives. It’s easy to overlook it,” said Dave Schoenherr, a Vietnam veteran who sets up the stops for the Michigan Vietnam Veterans Traveling Memorial. “Why shouldn’t we remember them? They made the sacrifice for the freedom we have today. … We need to carry on and keep their memories alive.”
Jerry Orlowski agreed.
“Don’t forget no matter how long it’s been. These guys, they sacrifice a lot; they do. People just don’t realize,” he said.
He is proud of his oldest sister, who gave her life to help others who were wounded and dying.
“It would have been a good life,” he said.