FARGO — There are countless numbers of people who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. They were brave and valiant, and answered the call when their country asked them to do so.
This is the story of one of them. His name is Bill Crary. He died in the Vietnam War 50 years ago, at age 25.
Bill grew up in a house at 615 Ninth St. S. in Fargo. He was a graduate of Shanley High School and Saint Louis University and a student at the University of North Dakota School of Law.
“He was a happy guy, smiling all the time,” said Maura Morberg, Bill’s sister. “He had an optimistic look on life. Everyone gravitated around Bill. He had this natural thought process about doing the right thing.”
“He was a terrific guy,” said Sarah Malone, Bill’s former girlfriend. “He had tremendous depth and was very funny. We connected on a pretty deep spiritual level. He was very honest and had great integrity.”
Bill and Sarah met in 1965. She was a 16-year-old high school student, and Bill was a 20-year-old college student. They met when Bill was on a date with Sarah’s older sister, Mary Clare. Sarah’s sister didn’t have a driver’s license, so Sarah, who just obtained her license, became the driver of that date.
That date didn’t go so well, but several days later Bill called to ask Sarah out. She agreed. Their first date was to the Saint Louis University Winter Ball. After that, they dated for five years.
“We had a deep friendship and he had deep feelings for me,” Sarah said. “I loved him.”
After his first year of law school, Bill was drafted. He had a hard time deciding what to do. Bill was opposed to the Vietnam War. He didn’t believe in the cause. He strongly thought about going to Canada.
However, Bill received a lot of pressure from his family to join the Army. They warned him that he would be shunned for life if he didn’t report. Many members of Bill’s family had served in the military, and some told Bill it was his obligation to serve.
When Bill was drafted, his younger brother, Mike, was already fighting in the Vietnam War. Unbeknownst to Bill, things had been brutal for Mike in Vietnam. He had been under fire there for 300 days. The most horrific battle came at night, as 1,500 North Vietnamese soldiers launched a surprise attack. Mike was the only member of his squad to survive.
“Mike was never the same after the war,” said his sister, Maura. “He had PTSD, was frightened of loud noises, jumped to the ground when he heard those noises and became a heavy drinker.” Mike died in 2000, at age 52.
Feeling a sense of obligation and duty, along with love of his country, Bill reluctantly reported to boot camp on June 18, 1969. He made clear that he didn’t want to be a combat soldier.
“Bill would never pick up a rifle and shoot someone,” Maura said. “He would not kill anything.”
So, Bill was trained as a combat medic. He was still conflicted about the war.
“I don’t like this war… I intend to make the best of this though,” Bill wrote to Sarah from training camp. “If I don’t discover a better reason for allowing this country to demand of me what I think is so wrong, I should face up to the truth and go to Canada.”
Bill also told Sarah of his deep affection for her.
“I’m afraid I’m very lonely for you. I miss you more than I’ve missed anyone Sarah,” he wrote. “Sarah, you mean so much to me… You know I love you more than I’ve loved any woman.”
Bill arrived in Vietnam on March 3, 1970. He was a member of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, Company D.
“I was frightened for his safety,” Sarah said. “I feared he would be killed. I knew people who were killed in Vietnam.”
Bill’s best friend in Vietnam was Sgt. Ken Decker.
“We had a lot of great talks," Decker said. "He was smarter than hell.”
The company’s orders were to go on search and destroy missions. To find the enemy and kill them.
“Most of the time in the field is spent getting from one place to another, setting up camp, taking it down," Bill wrote. “Actually, I’m feeling well adjusted since the routine is so stable.”
There were many horrible obstacles for Bill’s company. They included severe heat, heavy rains, crossing creeks, dirty and sweaty uniforms, leeches, mosquitoes, carrying 50 to 75 pounds of equipment, thirst, hunger, lack of sleep and trying to avoid booby traps.
“To say that I’m safe would be absurd,” Bill wrote. “The enemy is very mobile and their booby traps could be anywhere.”
“We really feared those booby traps,” Decker said. “One of our guys stepped on one and was instantly blown up. All we could find was his left foot.”
Bill also made clear his disdain for the war.
“Our interference is impractical, inefficient, uninformed, nondirected, nonproductive and inflationary,” he wrote. “We all realize that we will not win this war or be here for the end of it.”
Bill’s job was to treat the wounded. He also treated heat cramps, stomach cramps, muscle pulls and diarrhea, supplied and administered drugs, took part in guard duty and helped the South Vietnamese. Despite his animosity toward the war, Bill was loyal and devoted to those he served with.
“He took his job very seriously. Everybody liked him," Decker said. “He would do anything for his fellow soldiers... I remember watching him bandage a young Vietnamese boy. He had a gentle touch.”
Bill also developed an affinity for the Vietnamese. “They are extremely kind to each other,” he wrote.
The longer Bill was in Vietnam, the more disillusioned he became. He was horrified to see the harassment of the villagers. That included shooting them, shooting their animals, torching or blowing up their homes and beating up old women.
“For seven years we have been beating up mamasons (adult women with children), burning their homes and killing their livestock,” Bill wrote. “We have turned into a bunch of marauding Huns terrorizing the people, and we wonder why they don’t like us.”
On May 27, 1970, Bill’s company was assigned to recover several bodies from another unit. Suddenly and unexpectedly, North Vietnamese troops started firing at them. The point man was shot down in an open area. Bill immediately dropped his backpack and ran toward him, carrying only his medical bag. Bill checked to see if he was breathing and tried to lift him up. At that time, Bill was shot and killed.
“What Bill did was stupid, but also incredibly brave,” Decker said.
Besides Bill, three other Americans had been shot dead. Because of the intense fire coming from the North Vietnamese, Bill’s company had to withdraw. They couldn’t safely return to the scene for two days. Decker found Bill’s body. He had been shot in the head and chest. The stench at the sight was overwhelming.
“It was heartbreaking to find him,” Decker said. “We had really connected as buddies. I was pissed off at him, but that was what he was trained to do as a medic. I will never forget what I saw. The sight of those bodies and the smell.”
On the next day, Saturday, May 31, at about 7 am, there was a loud and constant pounding on the door at the Crary family home in Fargo. A uniformed army officer was at the door, and demanded that everybody in the house come downstairs. He told them that Bill was missing in action, saluted and left.
"I was stunned,” Bill’s sister Maura said. “I was in a state of shock. Still, I was hopeful they would find him, or thought he might have been taken prisoner.”
Three days later, a telegram came to the house with the worst possible news. Bill was killed in action.
“I started crying,” Maura said. “I was a wreck. I knew I also had to find his girlfriend, Sarah.”
Sarah was studying in Spain, and received the news in a phone call from her mother.
“I was just devastated. I went to my room and collapsed, “ Sarah said. “I would have married him. He was my soulmate.”
For his bravery and determination, Bill was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and the Silver Star. Now, 50 years after his death, it is still painful for those who knew and loved him.
“I think about him all the time,” Decker said. “The war was a waste. Bill would have made many good things happen in the world.”
“I miss him a lot, “ Maura said. “We were so close. He was someone I could always turn to.”
Maura keeps a bag of dirt from where Bill was killed on the kitchen counter in her house.
“I pat that bag every day,” Maura said. “It gives me comfort. It makes me feel connected to Bill.”
“I wish that I had said go to Canada. It would have saved his life,” Sarah said. “It is the loss of possibility. I have never gotten over this. The hurt is still there.”
Bill Crary is buried at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo. His headstone says, “Bill Crary, 1945-1970, He died for the country he loved while fighting a war in which he did not believe.”
Shaw is a former WDAY-TV reporter and former KVRR-TV news director. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.