I arrived at the Khe Sanh combat base on Feb. 3, 1968, on a CH-46, the guest of Maj. Gen. Rathvon McClure Tompkins of the 3rd Marine Division, headquartered at Dong Ha in I Corps. I was the Team Chief of a III MAF G-3 group doing classified historical documentary work under orders. Tompkins' trip to Khe Sanh was my first opportunity to get in there, as every aircraft that landed there brought a rain of mortar and artillery fire to the already embattled base and its inhabitants of the 26th Marine Regiment.
When the '46 landed, the general was the first off and there to greet him on the Marston matting was David Douglas Duncan. Even in the crashing "krump" of incoming mortars, they stood there talking and shaking hands. I nearly ran them down as I exited the aircraft looking for a hole. I was not alone!
Duncan was accompanied by base commander Col. David E. Lownds. When we came out of our holes, Tompkins, Lownds and Duncan had moved on to the Command Operations Center and I never saw Duncan again.
Years later, I learned Duncan remembered that moment. I had contacted him about a copy of his book, "I Protest," which I couldn't find anywhere. I'd given my copy away and I was on my way to a Khe Sanh Veterans Association Reunion in Chicago, and I had promised to find a copy for a buddy there. Duncan wrote me that he remembered that encounter at Khe Sanh, and sent me five boxes of "I Protest," gratis, to be shared at the reunion.
The book was precious to me because it contained photos of the fiery destruction of the only C-130 the Marine Corps lost in Vietnam. And aboard that aircraft on Feb. 2, 1968, was a Marine who meant a great deal to my wife and me, Staff Sgt. George Wilcox Walbridge. George had been in country only a few days or he would have known better than to get on an aircraft carrying six bladders of aviation gas into besieged Khe Sanh Combat Base. The C-130 was also carrying two pallets of emergency resupply.
When the ill-fated C-130 came in for a landing it was hit by enemy ground fire, bullets going through the bladders of aviation gas and splashing onto electrical equipment that set the C-130 ablaze. Pilot CWO-4 Henry Wildfang, a legend in Marine Corps aviation, managed to bring the flaming plane into a landing, which allowed five of the 10 aboard to survive. George wasn't among them.
Anyone who has seen Duncan's book of photos, "I Protest" has to be impressed with the documented efforts of the Marines in the crash crew, still under fire, attempting to knock down the fire and get Marines out of those flames.
Later, friends told me George was intent on reaching Khe Sanh because he had heard that I and another buddy, Gunnery Sgt. Chuck McCormick, were attempting to get in there. Chuck was there and saw the crash. I got there a day later, and he told me of George's death in the charred skeleton of the aircraft. Killed with him that day were Lance Cpl. Daniel Ralf Devik, Staff Sgt. William Leo Brown, Staff Sgt. Glen Henry Calvin, Master Sgt. John D'Adama Jr. and Col. Carl Elving Peterson.
While George was only three months senior to me in age, he had a "16" serial number and one year more in the Corps than my nine years. But George was also one of those guys the Company Gunny loves, a slick talker, knows everyone and can find a way to "get" anything.
He was far more than any of that to me and my wife, however. While attending the Navy's Journalism School at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in 1964, George had introduced me to the most gorgeous brunette WAVE in the class. The younger sailors in the class had "locked up" all the other WAVES with dates far beyond the class graduation date. I was having enough trouble keeping up with the rules of journalism and operation of the old black box — the Speed Graphic camera — and figured she wouldn't be interested in this hardcore Marine, anyway. I didn't count on George inviting me to a drive-in movie with him and his WAVE girl friend.
I declined his invitation, not wanting to be a "third wheel" on their date, but he reminded me I owed him for a favor, so I accepted. When his car pulled up in front of the Marine Barracks, with him and his girlfriend in front, there was my future wife sitting in the back. The rest is history. Forty-eight years, five grown children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren later, she's still gorgeous.
To this day I've never been able to find out where George is buried. In 1967 I had dinner with his Marine wife and him at Camp Pendleton before I shipped out to Vietnam duty. It was a pleasant dinner in their home with a great reprise of memories George and I shared. But when George left the room for a moment, she fixed me with a stare like a bayonet, came closer and quietly informed me that several of George's friends had come through the Combat Correspondent School there at Camp Pendleton run by Master Sgt. Walt Stewart, but even though George kept requesting to go to Vietnam, the Marine Corps wouldn't let him. "Don't you make him feel bad about that," she ordered.
Feeling as I did about George, and under that wifely glare, the only sensible answer, as I heard George coming back, was "Yes, Ma'am!"
Much later after George's death, I could find no one who knew what happened to her, or where she had gone. I have to admit it was a while before I could begin looking for his grave site, or her. Upon returning I was a bit messed up, especially after the second tour in Vietnam and a minor wound.
Since Duncan could not have known how much his book, and his kindness, meant to me, I felt compelled to write him a personal thank-you note, and tell him the story of Staff Sgt. George Wilcox Walbridge.