5 Dec 2004
A Tribute to my Best Friend,
SGT William E. Hawkins
I first met "Billy" (or "Red" or "Hawk") when my family moved to Waynesboro, Virginia, in the middle of my Freshman year of high school. I know his service records show Madisonville, Kentucky, as his home of record, but he was born, grew up, and lived in Waynesboro his entire life. He was my first friend in a new school and we became best friends there.
He wanted to become a veterinarian, and worked after school and every summer to save money for college. He knew he wouldn't get enough in scholarships to pay all of his tuition, so he worked. He wouldn't be able to get any assistance from his family, as his dad had been institutionalized in a hospital since Billy was a couple of months old. (His father been in the Navy during WWII and suffered from PTS, they just didn't know what that was back then.) His mom, when she had his dad put away, took Billy to his Grandmother's, left him there and walked out of his life at two or three months old and never came back until his funeral. I'm not saying that to hurt her, as a father, grandfather, and soon to be great grandfather myself, I cannot understand how she could do it.
It's easy to see how he could, which was not very often, feel that life was stacked against him. He knew if he was going to have what he wanted in life, it was up to him to take charge of his own life and not expect the help that a lot of us took for granted. His drive and independence was an example to all, but his humility made him the kind of person you liked to be around and knew you could trust him.
He was an athlete. He was the star "miler" on the track team, a great pitcher on the baseball team, and would have been good at football too, but his grandma wouldn't let him play ... too rough. I used to help him work on his "kick" in the mile, waiting for him to run 3 1/2 laps and then sprinting the last 220. He beat me every time. We were so competitive, in baseball we only got to play against each other once. He wanted to strike me out so bad that all he did was "groove" fastballs over the heart of the plate. I went 4 for 4 (triple, double, 2 singles) and the last time I came up his coach made him walk me with the bases loaded. I never told him that all he'd have to have done was throw his knuckle ball ... I could hardly catch it, much less hit it ... he'd have struck me out every time.
He was also extremely jumpy, you could startle or just scare the daylights out of him almost any time. I had a lot of fun with that all through high school. He went to Virginia Tech (VPI back then) and came to Nashville where I was going to school after his money and scholarships ran out. He was on his way to Missouri to visit his mom, and I guess to find out why she'd done what she did. We spent a couple days together before he hitchhiked up there, and we decided that when he got back we'd go enlist together on the buddy plan. I never saw him again until he came home from Germany on 52 day leave, before shipping out for Vietnam. While he was in, we went to look at a car he was thinking about buying Donna (his fiance). He told me that he'd volunteered for Vietnam and that he'd also volunteered for MEDEVAC flying "Dust Off" in choppers. He said he needed the extra pay since he and Donna where getting married when he got back. Remember when I said he was jumpy, at that very moment a car in front of us backfired, and he nearly wrecked his car it startled him so bad. It broke my heart right there right then, as all I could think to myself is he's not coming home. He'll get out there and in the intensity of combat, his heart will just stop.
He proved me wrong in one important sense. When it hit the fan, he had the stuff. He was a hero in every sense of the word, serving with heros. You just don't fly into a hot zone, hover cause you can't land, drop a litter down on the hoist to put some wounded Eagle ground pounder in to try and save his life at the cost of your own. Only heros can do that, scared (?) absolutely, but they were the only hope those seriously wounded on the ground had, so they went. UH-1H (tail# 69-15139) Pilot CW2 Edward Terry O'Brien - Hero; CoPilot WO1 Bruce Elliot Graham - Hero; Medic SGT William Edward Hawkins - Hero; Crew Chief SGT David Keith Johnson - Hero.
There is still a hole in my heart that 34 plus years hasn't been able to fill. I would love to hear from anyone who served Billy, the family of their crew, or anyone who might have information on how to contact those that did serve with them or were medevac'd by them. Billy was not only my best friend, he was my daughter Tracy J. Holcomb's godfather, my first son is named after him (James William Edward Johnson), and in an ironic twist my other son's name is Joel Keith Johnson (look at the crew chief's middle and last names).
Billy is buried in his hometown of Waynesboro, Virginia. That's the trade his Grandmother (who is now buried beside him) made with his mom so his mom could have the Flag and his medals.
Dick Sweet, if you see this, please contact me. I'd love to get to know Billy from your perspective.
There are no words to express the love and deep debt of gratitude that I have for Billy, the other men of his crew, and all that paid the ultimate price, either directly or indirectly, for the freedoms we as a nation hold so dear. Freedom isn't free, and those of us left behind by our loved ones have paid a price as well. I'm grateful that there were, and still are, Americans willing to go into harm's way to protect our way of life. Whoever reads this, when you hit your knees at night, say an extra prayer for those that we left behind ... they're still there and their war (and their families') is not over yet.
A memorial initiated by his best friend,
William S. Johnson III (Corky)