Reader letters: Tom Whelan

Reader Letters, Veterans, Vietnam


Today, I’m introducing a new feature on my website, “Reader Letters.” Many veterans have sent me their stories since I started publishing articles about the return of veterans to Vietnam. While I’m not able to include these stories in my book, I think they are important and should be shared with a wider audience. So, with their permission, I will publish excerpts of their letters in the coming months.

Do you want to share your story of the war or returning to Vietnam? Send me an e-mail at nissarhee {at}


First up is Thomas Whelan.

Tom and Kim during the war.


Tom as a soldier during the war.


Tom with Thu.


Tom with the “flower girls.”

Tom writes: 

I was a high school senior dating a junior in 1964.  We went steady for 8 months.  We talked about getting engaged, maybe as soon as 1965, but we didn’t make it to ’65.  I even daydreamed about marriage.  I decided we would marry in August 1967 and honeymoon in Hawaii.  Instead, in August of ’67 I got orders for Vietnam.  Forget Hawaii, I was going to southeast Asia.

I was supposed to be an usher at my brother’s wedding in December ’67. Missed that.  But I didn’t miss the Tet Offensive in January ’68.  Still marvel that on the same day as the My Lai massacre (March 16, 1968), Bobby Kennedy  announced his candidacy for president.  I was on R & R in Taipei when a brother told me over the phone from New Jersey that Martin Luther King had been shot.  There was a bar in the lobby of the hotel and the jukebox was playing “For What It’s Worth”*.  Missed a brother’s high school graduation in June ’68.

I was cleaning my rifle on my bunk on the 2nd floor of the barracks when a soldier came running down the aisle yelling that “Bobby and Teddy were shot in San Francisco”.  They say journalism is the 1st draft of history, so I guess rumors are the 1st draft of breaking news.  Obviously Bobby was shot in Los Angeles.  The next day, a friend of mine, a black soldier, came by and shook my hand and shook his head.  I always remember that I was sitting on a bunk cleaning a rifle when I heard Bobby Kennedy was shot.  Cam Ranh was like living in the desert but you were right by the South China sea (China Beach), or the East Sea as the Vietnamese call it.

The war went on, and on some more.  Cam Ranh Village (the Ville) gave us some distraction.  You could nurse a cool beer (cold is better), and flirt with a bar girl.  I don’t think the bar girls wanted to be bar girls any more than I wanted to be a soldier.  But everybody has to be somewhere, doing something.  You don’t always control your circumstances.  Tuy Hoa was a different experience, closer to the action.  In Cam Ranh I pushed papers in a tent, in Tuy Hoa I worked in a make-shift Education Center until a month passed and guys shipped out and I became the guy in charge of the Education Center.  Spec. 4 Whelan at your service, but keep your rifle near by.  Finally September came and I made my first trip to Saigon to catch a plane back to the ‘world’.  Spent a week in San Diego with my brother Bill who was in the Marines, before flying back to New York City.

Funny thing, in the army, with army shorthand, I was a city boy, a city slicker.  But I might as well have been from Nebraska.  The first plane ride in my life was in September ’67 flying to the west coast, and then on to Vietnam.  I was 21.  My first night in a hotel was in January ’68 in Hong Kong on R & R.  I was as worldly as any farm boy.

Returning to America I resumed my American life.  Interesting thing, if you don’t get wounded, either physically or emotionally, and if you didn’t lose your best buddy, then war is a young man’s adventure.  Sure it was a little scary at first, then the routine set in, and finally you were looking for daylight, counting the days until DEROS (Date of Estimated Return from Overseas).  My DEROS was 26Sep68.

So Vietnam was just a young man’s adventure that faded into history and memory as I went about my life.

That is, until 2002, when I returned on a brief 3 day vacation while traveling around Asia.

I have traveled to Vietnam every year since.


Tom founded the organization Burke House to help support the Vietnamese children he’s met on his trips back to Vietnam. You can learn more about Tom and Burke House here.

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