Oh, God, how it hurts to write this
A grieving mother writes to the son she lost in Vietnam
The following letter was written on this day in 1984. It can be found in the book, Letters of Note: War. Many thanks to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission.
On 13th February 1969, US Army Sergeant William Reed Stocks was killed when the helicopter in which he was travelling crashed in Vietnam. He was 21 years old. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., his name can be found engraved in the granite of panel 32W, line 29—a permanent reminder of his service and the life he lost so early. For some time1, at the same panel, one could also find many unmailed letters addressed to Billy, written over the years by his grieving mother, Eleanor Wimbish, and placed beneath his name. This is just one, written on the 15th anniversary of her son’s death.
Today is February 13, 1984. I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name, and as I do I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother’s heart. A heart broken 15 years ago today, when you lost your life in Vietnam.
And as I look at your name, William R. Stocks, I think of how many, many times I used to wonder how scared and homesick you must have been in that strange country called Vietnam. And if and how it might have changed you, for you were the most happy-go-lucky kid in the world, hardly ever sad or unhappy. And until the day I die, I will see you as you laughed at me, even when I was very mad at you, and the next thing I knew, we were laughing together.
But on this past New Year’s Day, I had my answer. I talked by phone to a friend of yours from Michigan, who spent your last Christmas and the last four months of your life with you. Jim told me how you died, for he was there and saw the helicopter crash. He told me how you had flown your quota and had not been scheduled to fly that day. How the regular pilot was unable to fly, and had been replaced by someone with less experience. How they did not know the exact cause of the crash. How it was either hit by enemy fire, or they hit a pole or something unknown. How the blades went through the chopper and hit you. How you lived about a half-hour, but were unconscious and therefore did not suffer.
He said how your jobs were like sitting ducks. They would send you men out to draw the enemy into the open and then they would send in the big guns and planes to take over. Meantime, death came to so many of you.
He told me how, after a while over there, instead of a yellow streak, the men got a mean streak down their backs. Each day the streak got bigger and the men became meaner. Everyone but you, Bill. He said how you stayed the same, happy-go-lucky guy that you were when you arrived in Vietnam. How your warmth and friendliness drew the guys to you. How your [lieutenant] gave you the nickname of “Spanky,” and soon your group, Jim included, were all know as “Spanky’s gang.” How when you died it made it so much harder on them, for you were their moral support. And he said how you of all people should never have been the one to die.
Oh, God, how it hurts to write this. But I must face it and then put it to rest. I know that after Jim talked to me, he must have relived it all over again and suffered so. Before I hung up the phone I told Jim I loved him. Loved him for just being your close friend, and for sharing the last days of your life with you, and for being there with you when you died. How lucky you were to have him for a friend, and how lucky he was to have had you.
Later that same day I received a phone call from a mother in Billings, Montana. She had lost her daughter, her only child, a year ago. She needed someone to talk to for no one would let her talk about the tragedy. She said she had seen me on television on New Year’s Eve, after the Christmas letter I wrote to you and left at this memorial had drawn newspaper and television attention. She said she had been thinking about me all day, and just had to talk to me. She talked to me of her pain, and seemingly needed me to help her with it. I cried with this heartbroken mother, and after I hung up the phone, I laid my head down and cried as hard for her. Here was a mother calling me for help with her pain over the loss of her child, a grown daughter. And as I sobbed I thought, how can I help her with her pain when I have never completely been able to cope with my own?
They tell me the letters I write to you and leave here at this memorial are waking others up to the fact that there is still much pain left, after all these years, from the Vietnam War.
But this I know. I would rather have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all.
Eleanor Wimbish’s letters now sit safely in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial museum collection, alongside the countless other items left at the memorial over the years by loved ones of the departed. Thanks to the efforts of the museum’s archivists, many of these items can now be seen online at the virtual Wall of Faces. Simply click on a person to be taken to their profile page, and then look for “Associated items left at the wall.” William R. Stocks’ page can be found here.