This article appeared in the Roots of Collin County segment of the Dallas Morning News on January 21 and 22, 2004, as well as the Farmersville Times, "Harborsite" the 3rd Recon Battalion Newsletter, and on the website "Warriors of Hill 881 South." Pictures are at the bottom of this page..
CPL. BILL BRYAN & TEAM BARKWOOD
On January 20, 1968, Corporal Charles W. "Bill"
Bryan, Bravo Company, 3rd Recon Battalion, was killed as he
tried to save the lives of two fellow Marines during a fierce battle with
an estimated battalion size force of NVA on Hill 881 North, about five
miles northwest of Khe Sanh. Bill was the leader of Team Barkwood, a
seven-man reconnaissance patrol, assigned the mission of retrieving a lost
radio and code sheet. The two seriously wounded Marines were assistant
team leader, Cpl. Lionel Guerra, and radio operator, L/Cpl. Robert "PJ"
Pagano, who were eventually medevaced off the hill at separate times that
afternoon. They were both sent back to hospitals in the states, eventually
being retired because of their wounds, not knowing what had happened after
they had left, and not to see each other or any other members of Team
In May of 67, he came home on leave and married his girlfriend, Deidra Simpson, one of the prettiest girls in McKinney, in the living room of her parentís home. The young newlyweds, she was 18 and he was 19, would spend less than five weeks together before he was sent to Vietnam. Less than four months later, Deidra Bryan would become a widow while still just a teenager.
It was a year and a half after that when I came home. I went to visit Billís mom and she cried the whole time I was there. I went back a few weeks later and it was the same. I felt very guilty for making her feel that way. I also felt guilty that I came home and my buddy didnít. I wanted to see Deidra, who had since moved away, but was afraid of putting her through the same misery. I became a musician and spent the next few years traveling all around the country. When my son was born 28 Sept. 1978, the day after Billís birthday, I took him to see Mrs. Bryan. I had named him Bill Bryan Foster, and she was so proud, saying they looked very much alike. She broke down and cried and cried. I felt terrible and decided that I could not put her through that again. I spent the next twenty five years keeping my thoughts and memories to myself.
In early 2003 I was at the American Legion in McKinney talking to some guys I knew but had not seen in quite a while and the conversation turned to Vietnam. I was shocked when I realized they didnít remember Bill Bryan. How could that be when I thought about him every day of my life? I guess it was something I just took for granted. That was when I decided to write a book about Bill and the other twenty forgotten heroes from my home county who had also died in Vietnam.
In late July of 2003, only a couple of months after I had started posting my search for information on Vietnam related internet bulletin boards, an E-mail popped up from an unfamiliar address. It said, regarding Charles Bryan" I quickly opened it. I served with Charles Bryan in Vietnam. I have been trying for many years to locate his family. Please call me. Lionel Guerra.
I just sat there and stared at it for the longest. I had been in contact with Lt. Col. William Dabney from the 881 South website. He did not know Bill personally, but knew a lot about him and certainly remembered the recon team that was attached to his company on that day. He had said the chances of finding any survivors from that battle were very slim as that was the eve of the seventy-seven-day siege of Khe Sanh. In the ensuing days there would be many more casualties among those who had been in the fight on 881 North on 20 January, 1968. And now, after all the time I had spent in looking for someone who knew Bill, I had succeeded. But I was scared to death. I didnít know what to say at first and I guess I was a little afraid of what I might hear. I took a long deep breath and called him thirty minutes later.
Lionel: "I had gone outside and was working in my yard when the phone rang. My wife answered and told me who it was. I couldnít believe it. I had just sent the E-mail. I started shaking and couldnít talk. My wife took the number and said I would call back shortly."
Lionel called me about fifteen minutes later. I learned later, that like me, he had to compose himself a bit after that initial shock. It was a bit awkward at first, but as soon as we started talking about Bill the words flowed. They had been together when he died. I could tell he was really touched as he told me things he had never told anyone before. He said it was easy to tell me since I was a Marine and a friend of Billís.
He was shocked at the irony of the situation as well. Just the day before he had read in a Seattle newspaper the story of a woman who took the name of a soldier killed in Vietnam from a tombstone and thought it would be interesting to research his life and see what it was like. Her experience was very positive and heartwarming. Lionel said that reading the article had fired him up so, that he was on the verge of flying to McKinney, Texas, and finding Billís family. But first he got on the internet and went to the Virtual Wall website she had mentioned in her article, and found the name Charles William Bryan. That is where he saw my posting.
Lionel found a phone number for PJ Pagano in New Hampshire, who was the radioman, and the only other living person from that patrol, Team Barkwood. Once again I made a phone call being very nervous as not knowing what his reaction would be. I still had Mrs. Bryan on my mind. It turned out to be very similar to the conversation I had with Lionel. Here was another guy who also thought about Bill every single day. It was another very emotional conversation. The story they each told me was almost identical except when it got to how Bill had died.
They had both been severely wounded and were lying in thick elephant grass less than ten feet apart. Bill had just left Lionel to reach PJ who was losing a lot of blood when he was hit under the arm by an AK-47 round and died almost instantly. It was where he went down that their stories differed, and it bothered both of them that they remembered the same most important event in their lives so differently.
Two weeks after talking to PJ, my friend Linda Phillips who is helping me do research, found a phone number for Deidraís father who was living in another city. He was glad to hear from me and said Deidra would be happy to talk to me as well. She had since re-married and had raised a family, including eight grandchildren. He gave me her number and address. Once again with Mrs. Bryan on my mind, I thought it would be better to write, instead of after thirty-five years suddenly appearing on the phone wanting to talk about Bill. I wrote the letter and planned to mail it the next morning. That night my phone rang and it was Mr. Simpson, Deidraís dad. He asked me if I would please hold up on mailing that letter, his youngest daughter, Shelli, Deidraís little sister, had died that very afternoon.
About three weeks later Mr. Simpson called and said he had talked to Deidra and she was expecting my call. My hand was shaking as I dialed the phone. It would be especially hard for me to want to talk about Bill so soon after she buried her sister. I donít know if she sensed my nervousness but she certainly made me feel very comfortable. It was great to talk to her after all this time and as we talked a lot of my guilt went away. She didnít know much at all about the details of her husbandís death, mainly what it said on the Navy Cross Citation. She thought she was the only one who still thought about Bill. I told her to go to the 881 South website and she would see there are an awful lot of people who not only remember him but hold him in the highest esteem. I also told her there were two close friends of Billís who would like to talk to her. She said she would love that.
Lionel called her that night. He called me the next day, and sounding as excited as a kid on Christmas morning told me he was coming to McKinney. Two promises he had made to himself years earlier, was to meet Deidra and visit Billís grave. PJ talked to her the next day and to Lionel that night. He called me at 6:30 the next morning and said he was on his way to Texas as well; he wouldnít miss this for anything.
It just so happened that all of this came to a head on the weekend of the Marine Corpsí 228th Birthday. Imagine that. The last time those two had seen each other they were on the verge of death on that bloody hillside, January 20, 1968, with the body of Cpl. Bill Bryan lying between them. They had been medevaced on different choppers, never to return or see any of their buddies again. Lionel was sent to a hospital in the state of Washington, while PJ returned to his home in New York. It was a wonderful reunion between those two that I had the honor of witnessing. Deidra came from her home in central Texas and that night we sat around my kitchen table and for the first time put the complete story of Bill Bryan together. All of us had spent so many years trying to forget things, and here we were now trying to remember everything.
Deidra: "I had always, and still do, have dreams about him. The dreams are always the same. He is hurt and needs me but I can never help him. I was so worried that he died among strangers feeling all alone. That thought has haunted me so much."
It was a very comforting feeling for her to now know he was with two guys who were as close as brothers. And as Lionel and PJ told the story again, they realized that although they had thought they had seen Billís death differently, in actuality had seen it the same. PJ was higher on the hill lying flat on his back and looking down, while Lionel was face down looking up. There was much confusion. They were in the midst of the NVA fighting positions and were caught in a crossfire between them and the Marines down the hill, not to mention the close air and artillery pounding the hilltop all around them as well. Plus they both had lost a lot of blood and were in shock. PJís lower leg was shattered by rifle fire and his face and hands were littered with grenade shrapnel as well. Lionel had been hit in the arm by an AK-47 round which traveled through his arm and came out his shoulder and was hit by grenade shrapnel in the back and legs after that. Lionel was rescued first, and for all these years PJ had been unaware of the seriousness of Lionelís wounds.
Compared to the thirty-five years that had elapsed, that reunion seemed to have come together in a heartbeat. Once the momentum started it took on a life of its own. It was a very emotional and fulfilling come together for all four of us. All of our questions had been answered, old promises made had been kept, and we could put an end to that chapter in our lives. We could now all remember Bill Bryan as we knew and loved him with that big grin he always seemed to have on his always friendly face.
Pagano: "The most powerful thing that happened to me in Vietnam was Bill Bryanís death. He died while trying to help me. I think about him often, especially when I get down in the dumps for one reason or another. He is still an inspiration to me and always will be. Other than family matters, this weekend has to be the second most important event of my life."
May the name and memory of Bill Bryan live forever, Semper Fidelis, my brother. ĎTil we meet again.
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