The invisible scars of war remain decades after conflict end –
By Patricia Beech –
The loss of a loved one in war leaves a painful void in a family, even if that soldier dies in an unpopular war like Vietnam. The loss of a son or daughter was something many families from the Vietnam War era had to face.
Every evening Bill Rigdon and his eldest daughter, Judy (Dryden) would sit down to watch the world news. War was raging in southeast Asia, and the newscasts were a valuable source of information for Rigdon, a World War II veteran, whose eldest son Billy was in the thick of battles being fought in the steamy jungles of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
“It allowed Dad to understand where Billy was and what he was going through,” Judy says as she gently pulls fragile yellow news clippings and photos of her older brother from a plastic bag. “We watched it every night, but after Billy died, we never watched it again – we just couldn’t.”
Specialist Four William F. Rigdon – “Billy” to his family and friends – shipped out to Vietnam on Dec. 3, 1968 after a thirty-day furlough home.
The day he left the Rigdon family began marking off the days until his return on a large white calendar that hung on the wall in their farmhouse kitchen – 365 days, 364 days, 363 days, and so on, until Billy returns home.
“We didn’t know it then, but he’d told some of his friends he didn’t think he’d make it back alive,” said Judy.
During his seven months of service in Vietnam, the 21-year old Specialist Four would prove his worth and bravery time and again, risking his own life in battle to save his fellow soldiers.
Terry Rigdon calls his brother an unlikely hero.
“When I read about the things he did while he was over there – and not just the stuff he got the medals for – I was amazed because you would never have thought of him as a hero – as somebody who would put his life on the line for someone else. But, you know some people just have that in their hearts – when someone’s in trouble, they act. That’s the way he was, but that’s not how he was at home – he just wasn’t that type of person.”
During his first four weeks in the embattled country, Rigdon served with a field artillery unit, then was assigned to A Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment – the famed Black Horse Regiment. From February to July his tank unit would face unrelenting front line firefights in the jungles and rice fields of the Mekong Delta.
“In letters my Dad sent to my brother he would tell him to stay out of harm’s way, and if he got hurt to make sure he saw a doctor – he was trying to protect him from a world away,” said Terry.
Sunday, Feb. 23, 1969 – 287 days until Billy comes home.
While at Tay Ninh, where heavy fighting had raged near the Cambodian border since Sept. ’68, Billy distinguished himself and was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the Silver Star for heroic action.
April 17, 1969- 233days until Billy comes home.
While conducting a reconnaissance operation, Billy’s troop came under attack from concealed enemy forces. His tank was ordered forward for an assault on the enemy’s fortification. The vehicle took a direct hit from enemy fire, wounding the commander. After carrying his commander to safety, Billy assumed command of the vehicle.
Spying two enemy bunkers manned by rocket propelled grenade teams, he directed his gunner to turn the vehicle’s main gun on the fortification, and informed the rest of his platoon of the enemy’s location.
Spotting a crew member in a nearby vehicle knocked to the ground by an exploding rocket propelled grenade, Specialist Four Rigdon ran through enemy fire and moved the wounded man to safety.
He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for bravery. His citation from the government reads: “Specialist Four Ridgon’s courage, devotion to duty and concern for the welfare of this fellow soldiers were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”
May 20, 1969 – 200 days until Billy comes home.
While serving as an armored vehicle commander performing a reconnaissance in force operation, Rigdon’s troop suddenly came under intense enemy fire from small arms, automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades. As his men hurriedly moved into assault formation, Rigdon’s heavy machine gun was destroyed by hostile fire.
Spotting a nearby vehicle that had been disabled by the enemy barrage, he ran across open ground to secure the undamaged machine gun. He then carried the weapon back through enemy fire and joined the assault on the enemy position.
He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal. His citation read “Specialist Rigdon’s courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest tradition of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the US Army.”
May 29, 1969 – 191 days until Billy comes home.
Billy was wounded, and earned both the Bronze Star for bravery and the Purple Heart.
Sunday, July 6, 1969–153 days until Billy comes home.
“Dad was worried,” Judy recalls. “He knew it was bad in Vietnam from watching the news, he knew just about where he thought Billy was, and he hadn’t heard from him in a while, so he sat down at the kitchen table to write to him.”
Billy would never receive his father’s letter.
That same day the lead tank in which he was riding was destroyed by a direct hit from the enemy.
While his unit was retreating under fire, he managed to climb out of the tank, but it would be two hours before the badly wounded Specialist 4 could be rescued and taken to a Vietnamese hospital where he passed away later that evening, after undergoing surgery for more than four hours.
He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with First Oak Leaf Cluster for heroism, the Army Commendation Medal for heroism, the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge – all of which were presented posthumously to his grieving parents.
Additionally, prior to his death Rigdon had been awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star, the Vietnam Campaign ribbon, and the Sharp Shooter Badge with Rifle Bar.
Monday, July 7, 1969 – Day 152 until Billy comes home.
Bill Rigdon awakens from a disturbing dream which he shares with his family.
“Dad got up that morning after Billy died and said “I heard Billy calling to me last night in a dream – he kept calling out Dad, Dad”, but at that time we didn’t know that Billy was gone,” Judy says. “I think Dad was so afraid for him because he was in a war himself.”
Tuesday, July 8, 1969 – Day 151 until Billy comes home.
Judy and Terry spot a green car traveling down the long lane that led to their family’s home.
“I’m going to try and sell them the farm,” Terry joked.
The car stopped and two army officials got out and walked toward the house.
“When we saw they were wearing uniforms we knew that something was wrong,” Terry said.
The family gathered round the kitchen table. Bill and Goldie Rigdon were presented a telegram reading “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, Specialist Four William F. Rigdon, died on July 6, 1969, as a result of wounds received while…on a combat operation.”
“Life for our Dad was terrible after Billy died,” Terry recalls. “Our Mom was a person who could get through stuff, she was strong like that, but Dad never got over it.
Friday, July 18, 1969 – Billy comes home.
Specialist Four William F. Rigdon arrived home with an Army Escort who remained by his side until he was buried.
“Time eases pain – but it’s always in the back of your mind – you wonder what he’d be doing today,” Terry says. “It was a sad time, but then it was a sad time for a lot of people in Adams County.”