'I saw some real valor': Geneva Marine vet turns his Vietnam War notes into a book
From his pilot perch in the busy cockpit of a workhorse CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, Marine 1st Lt. Harold G. "Hal" Walker witnessed the horrors and heroics of the Vietnam War.
"I was an observer, almost more of an observer than a participant. Front-row seat," Walker, now 72 and living in Geneva, says softly in the slow, easy drawl that remains from his days growing up on a cotton farm near Bragg City in the boot heel of Missouri. Hauling men and supplies in and out of combat zones, Walker earned 69 air medals for completing more than 1,300 sorties from November of 1969 through November of 1970. He tells those stories in his new book, "The Grotto: Phu Bai Vietnam, 1969-1970."
"At that time, I knew if I didn't make notes of what was going on, then I may forget it, it may get lost or whatever, and I think there were some really important things going on," Walker says. "We took guys out alive. We brought them back dead. I sat in the zone and watched napalm maybe a quarter of a mile from me, A-4s (attack jets) coming over the Que Son mountains, dropping napalm on the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). Right after that came helicopters with Marines in them. One of them was shot down. And I was watching that because I was the guy who was supposed to come in with maintenance crews. How could I not write that down?"
In the 1970s, his handwritten notes were typed into a bound volume for his wife, Kathleen, and their sons, Matthew and Lucas. Painstakingly verifying details through the release of once-classified documents, military records and new interviews, the retired Lt. Col. Walker spent part of the past three years in the basement of his Geneva home, turning those stories into "The Grotto." He's working on a second book about how the Marines' mission evolved during his final months in Vietnam.
"I knew Vietnam was a war, but it had nothing to do with me," says Walker of his senior year at Southeast Missouri State University before he learned that his college deferment no longer prevented him from being drafted. He enlisted in the Marines and persuaded them to allow him to graduate before sending him off to pilot training.
He landed in Vietnam on Nov. 10, 1969, the 194th birthday of the Marine Corps. "I remember every moment of it. The sound of the door opening. The smell of the air, a spicy smell," Walker says, adding that the heat and humidity were more oppressive than anything he felt in rural Missouri. Before the week was out, a Marine he knew had been killed. On Nov. 28, 1969, Walker spent his 24th birthday nursing a badly shot-up helicopter back to the base. The helicopter he piloted could haul 15 Marines and featured two .50-caliber machine guns.
"I saw some real valor. I saw some real heroes," Walker says, adding that he so admired the fighters on the ground that he insisted on capitalizing their nickname as "Grunts" in his book. "These guys are just so precious to me."
Flying through difficult terrain in all kinds of weather, at times when the flashes from enemy muzzles "looked like popcorn popping," Walker says he never had a moment when he thought his life was over.
Adhering to the motto, "Don't kill yourself. Make them kill you," Walker says he became one with his crew and his tandem-rotor chopper. "The air was full of metal and you might fly into it. I never had a scratch, not a scratch, and that's just luck."
More than two dozen of his friends who weren't as lucky have their names etched into the Vietnam Wall. A room in Walker's basement, not far from the bar where a bottle of Chivas Regal blended Scotch whisky is mounted for easy pouring, serves as an archive and museum for his HMM-62 squad known as the The Flying Tigers. Next to all the photographs and plaques hangs a uniform shirt of an NVA soldier.
"The guy who owned that was killed attacking my helicopter," Walker says. After his active service, Walker remained with the Marine Reserves, was stationed in the Philippines in 1991 during the first Gulf War, and served as commanding officer at the Glenview Naval Air Station for 10 months in 1993.
The youngest of three children born to Fred and Glenda Walker, Walker used the G.I. Bill to earn his master's degree and become a high school principal in the small Missouri town of Wardell. Seeking a bit more adventure, he and his family came to Chicago so he could work as an undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. According to the notes he took from those days, Walker and his partner spent much of their time driving their 1968 Plymouth Barracuda into the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago to find out who was buying and selling drugs and guns.
"I was a lot closer to getting killed there than I was in Vietnam," says Walker. Once, he recalls, he was walking down an alley when two armed thugs confronted him, Walker held his gun to the gang leader's head until the gunmen retreated. Then Walker came home to bucolic Lisle, his wife, who taught first grade in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, and their sons. He left that job for the relative safety of being an ATF arson fraud investigator. In 1982, he became a senior special agent for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He retired in 1998 and worked as a private investigator until 2010.
"But I was always writing," Walker says. His first book in 2014, "Murder on the Floodways," tells the true story of a horrific crime that happened on his farm when he was 12. A young man, Donald "Hokey" Busby, killed his best friend, Harry "Fats" Shell, and Walker returned to the area last week to put tombstones on their unmarked graves. He worked on that book with other members of the St. Charles Writers Group.
"I've got more stories," Walker says. "I don't think I've ever stopped writing."