Why have so few Americans ever heard about Billy Walkabout?
The Vietnam War had its heroes, no less than any other American war. The problem with Vietnam is that so few people have ever heard of most of those heroes. Last March, one of the most decorated soldiers of the war died, and almost nobody had ever heard of him. Billy Walkabout was not only a great American hero, he was also a Native American hero, reportedly the most decorated American Indian of the Vietnam War and one of the most decorated ever. In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, Walkabout was awarded an incredible five Silver Stars; 10 Bronze Star Medals (five with the V Device); 10 Army Commendation Medals (five with the V Device); seven Air Medals; and six Purple Hearts.
Walkabout was only 19 years old when he earned his DSC serving with the 101st Airborne Division’s Company F (long-range reconnaissance patrol), 58th Infantry. During a reconnaissance mission southwest of Hue on November 20, 1968, his 12-man patrol found itself pinned down and under fire for several hours in an enemy battalion’s rear area. Three of the patrol were killed during the firefight, and another later died of his wounds. According to the Distinguished Service Cross citation: “Maneuvering under heavy fire, Sergeant Walkabout positioned himself where the enemy were concentrating their assault and placed continuous rifle fire in the adversary….Although stunned and wounded by the blast, Sergeant Walkabout rushed from man to man administering first aid….When evacuation helicopters arrived…he worked single handedly under fire to board his disabled comrades. Only when the casualties had been evacuated and friendly reinforcements had arrived, did he allow himself to be extracted.”
After Walkabout was evacuated, he spent almost six months in a coma. Following a long recovery, he returned to Vietnam, serving a total of 23 months in theater. Eventually he received a commission as a second lieutenant and a disability retirement from the Army. After the war, he struggled for years with post-traumatic stress disorder, failed marriages and self-isolation. He once said, “War is not hell, it’s worse.” He was only 57 when he died from renal failure, brought about from exposure to Agent Orange. He was waiting for a kidney transplant when he died.
Walkabout was a Cherokee of the Blue Holley Clan. He grew up in Oklahoma but he was living in Connecticut at the time of his death. The one anchor point in his life was the spirituality of his Native American heritage. He once said: “I wanted to serve my nation and protect my people. I found myself in the jungles of Vietnam, ten thousand miles from home.” And: “I couldn’t wear an eagle feather on my steel helmet or tear that peace sign away. My war shirt had blood all over it. I had blood on my hands. I saw people die. I saw medevac helicopters lift them out. Those guys would remain in my memory. I didn’t have time to grieve then. Firebase on the distant mountain. The jungle was full of mountain ghosts….”
Billy Walkabout, American soldier, deserves to remain forever in our memory.