The father/son energy of the co-authors works very well within the pages of this book. Joshua and Wilbur Bowe take the reader on a journey with visual words and muted emotions through a tour of duty during the war in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. The reader can well picture what had happened there. Shared with a well-written narrative, historic background notes, and commentary aided by the addition of old letters sent home from that war. The personal letters add a very human element to the retelling of that life experience. Emotionally well done! The authors hit the target!
As a Vietnam veteran myself during the same time frame of the war, I found the book both credible and historically factual. I enjoyed it. I think there is a more broad appeal beyond just readers of war genre—a good history book told from the point of view of those who were there and well worth having on my bookshelf.
Review by Bill McDonald (April 2019)
Weeks. That’s how long soldiers serving in the Vietnam War would wait to read a letter from their loved ones. With only so much paper and time, each letter was important to both those serving, and their friends and family.
Wilbur Bowe sent his family about 100 letters while he was living in Vietnam from 1966-67. The small pieces of paper traveled across rice patty farms, swaths of jungle and into the Bowe family farm’s mailbox in Tilden, Wisconsin.
Wilbur’s worried mother, Millie Bowe, kept every letter.
Fifty years later, those notes archive notable operations and personal events — some that have been long forgotten by Wilbur.
Those letters are now part of a book, written by Wilbur’s son, Chaska resident Joshua Bowe, called “The Ground You Stand Upon.” The father and son will be releasing the book and hosting an open house 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15 at VFW Post 1791 in Chaska.
“I thought it was great, it was easy to read. It flowed well with my letters,” said Wilbur of the book. He noted that his son spent a lot of time researching all the events.
When Joshua decided to research his father’s experience during the war, Wilbur thought it was going to be a skinny book. A trip to the National Archives, interviews with other sky troopers and two years later, the book is now 286 pages, filled with nearly 200 photos from the war and letters Wilbur wrote to his family while he was serving.
Joshua, who currently serves in the National Guard, said his curiosity into his father’s experience inspired him to write the book.
“I started thinking about it. I didn’t know much about it, but it was a big deal,” he said. “As I started looking up information I just wanted to know more and more.”
The book also tracks each battle and contains first-hand accounts of soldiers in various platoons.
“I started figuring out where they were going and why things happened,” Joshua said. “It was like a puzzle coming together.”
Wilbur was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965 and after boot camp, was assigned to the Alpha Company, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry, as a sky trooper.
Stationed in the Central Vietnam Highlands, their main objectives were to search for the Vietcong and destroy homes they may have been hiding in, said Wilbur. His unit was trained to fly helicopters and would jump from ladders hanging off the aircraft and onto the ground or into rice paddies.
They were constantly on the move.
“They’d let us off close to the ground and we would jump out and run for cover — that was pretty normal.” Wilbur added he thought he was relatively safe throughout the war, since he was in charge of carrying the mortars — a weapon used to fire bombs.
He was injured once, when an explosive went off earlier than he expected and a rock became stuck in his arm. Wilbur’s 5-6 day hospital stay was a break from the battlefield and he was allowed to have a clean bed and pillows.
“That was a good thing for me,” he said.
Coming back home was one of Wilbur’s best days of his life, second to only the day he married Carol. The worst day was Thanksgiving 1966.
Alpha Company was in the An Lao Valley, advancing through a large rice paddy toward about 20 small huts, believed to be occupied by the enemy.
“The company formation wheeled to the right as they searched the village thoroughly, finding nothing but the usual women, children and old men. It was unusually neat and tidy, however, with the earthen floors of the huts packed smooth,” according to “The Ground You Stand Upon.”
When most of Alpha Company was about 300 feet northwest of the village, wading through another rice paddy, machine gun fire erupted. Throngs of civilians evacuated the village as the deadly fight took place.
Two fighter jets descended upon the chaos, firing their guns at the enemy and dropping several canisters of napalm in and around the village. A third jet’s bombs landed short of its target and landed on top of another platoon “sending mud, helmets and men flying in all directions,” according to the book.
When it was over, six in Alpha Company had been killed. A man from another company was also killed in the fight.
After they brought the men to helicopters, Alpha Company had a Thanksgiving dinner with a turkey, Wilbur recalled. “There wasn’t much to celebrate.”
Alpha company started with 120 people in its company. Thirty-four were killed and many more were wounded, Wilbur said.
Though many of Wilbur’s letters describe battles and the group’s movement throughout the country, he was also an average young adult trying to stay in touch with his family, located over 8,000 miles away.
“He was a typical 19-20 year old,” Joshua said. “He was concerned about beer, girls and when they were going to have fun between training and travel.”
Wilbur also gained much wisdom during the war and at the young age of 20, gave his little brother, Mike, advice: “That Mike better be good in English in school. I wasn’t and it sure shows in my letters, in spelling and vocabulary,” Wilbur wrote in an April 6, 1967 letter. “I only wish I had made more use of it. So Mike, don’t ever let sports deprive you of your education. So cool it. Hop along when Ma says that most hateful ‘S-T-U-D-Y.’ You’ll never regret it, OK?”
In one letter, Wilbur teased his younger brother about a new girlfriend, Joshua noted. She ended up being my Aunt Donna, he added with a chuckle.
Looking back at the experience, Wilbur said he was proud to be able to serve his country.
“I’m glad I was able to serve my country. When I was first drafted I thought ‘Geez I should run to Canada.’ Then I thought about the soldiers that gave their lives in the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I and II,” he said. “How could I live in this country if I didn’t serve? I wanted to live in America so I figured I better do my part.”