PAWTUCKET – Bill Donnelly has done a pretty good job of putting Vietnam in his rear view mirror.
“I came home from the war and went right back to where I was before,” said Donnelly, a former rifleman with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. “I had been a kid from Pawtucket Vocational who played a lot of sports and was having a good time when I got drafted. I returned home two years later, resumed playing basketball and softball, and began my own printing business.”
Donnelly had a lot of difficult Vietnam memories to suppress. He threw himself into his work and his sports outlets.
“What I had seen in Vietnam, there was no use trying to explain to people when I came home,” he said. “If they can’t hear and feel and smell Vietnam the way we did, they would never understand what I was talking about. You had to be there.”
Along with a million other Americans of his generation, Donnelly got a letter in the mail from President Lyndon Johnson, requesting his presence in the military machine that the government was expanding for a major war in Vietnam.
“I got drafted in September of 1965,” Donnelly recalled. “I had been working for the Paramount Card company in the printing department before I got drafted. I was inducted on Oct. 19 and reported to Fort Dix. Then I was sent to Fort Devens, Mass. for basic training. That’s where they were forming the 196th, a special unit of light infantry. By light infantry, I mean we would have no tanks with us.
“Very few of us knew much about Vietnam,” Donnelly added. “Remember, this was 1965. The United States was dealing with a flare-up in the Dominican Republic and everyone thought we might go there. I went home on leave in the summer of 1966 and when I got back, we had our orders for Vietnam. Some of us had to look on a map to see exactly where Vietnam was located.
“We boarded a troop transport ship in Boston and sailed through the Panama Canal. Then we sailed up to Long Beach, California, where they reloaded the ship. We stayed there two nights and then we sailed across the Pacific. It took us 30 days to reach Vietnam.”
Donnelly smiled at the memory of that ocean voyage.
“I always said I spent more time on the ocean than some of the guys who were in the Navy.”
Donnelly’s 196th LIB set up camp in Tay Ninh, a province capital about 30 miles northwest of Saigon and no more than eight miles east of the Cambodian border and the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply line for soldiers and supplies used by the North Vietnamese army.
“The camp wasn’t even ready yet,” Donnelly said. “We all went on sand bag details. Later, we started going out on operations. The 196th participated in operations called Attleboro, Gadsen, Cedar Falls and Junction City One and Two. We went all through the Hobo Woods and the Iron Triangle. My unit lost 50 percent of the guys I started out with over there.
“The first time we got pinned down, you wonder how you’re going to get out of there. It’s nothing like the war movies we used to watch back home. I talked to an officer one day and 30 minutes later he was dead. It just didn’t seem real. As a soldier, you really started to appreciate everything about life back home.”
Donnelly doesn’t speak to any specific details about Vietnam. Guys who have seen a lot of combat tend to block it out rather than sit around telling stories to their buddies back home about what they had seen in the war. He speaks in general terms, in a quiet voice, when asked direct questions about Vietnam, but there are things he’s just not going to talk about.
“I suppressed my memories about Vietnam,” he said. “I felt so glad and lucky to get out of there alive. I saw so many people who were unlucky and did not come home. They were the heroes. When I got home (in 1967), I felt sorry for the kids I knew who had to go over there.”
The war would last until 1975. Donnelly played softball and ran his printing business shop on Central Avenue.
“I used Vietnam as a crutch,” he said. “No matter how bad things got in my life, I said it can’t be as bad as Vietnam. Going to war makes a man out of you, that’s for sure.”
“I didn’t get involved with any veteran’s organizations until I was around 45 years old,” he said. “I’m a member of the Vietnam Vets Chapter 818 in Cumberland. I am a past commander of the Eugene T. Lefebvre Post 1271. I’ve been a District 5 commander of the VFW and a past state commander of the VFW. I’m also a member of Disabled American Veterans.”
Donnelly lists his involvement with veterans organizations for a very definite reason.
“I think every veteran should register with the VA,” he said. “Just go down to the VA Hospital in Providence and sign up. A lot of veterans don’t even know what benefits they can receive by joining the VA.
“The VA will put you in a priority category. Every veterans’ organization has a service officer who will interview you and find out what benefits you qualify for. They can help out vets who are out of work or are ill.
“My advice to any vets not in the system is to visit the local VFW, DAV, Purple Heart, American Legion or Vietnam Veterans organization and talk to their service officer,” Donnelly added. “If you have a problem, they will help you out. For free. Go down to the VA office on Westminster Street in Providence. The DAV is located there, too. They have a great service officer, Rich Vaccari, who helps out veterans all the time.”
Donnelly’s serious demeanor lightens when he speaks about veterans helping veterans. Vietnam is just a distant memory for him now. Helping fellow veterans is something that drives him 45 years later.
“If I can lead veterans to people who can help them out, then I feel pretty good about myself,” he said.