Prior to celebrating Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and July Fourth, the Nathaniel Witherell team often asks if there are any veterans among its residents who would be willing to share their stories about servicing in the armed forces.
Last month, Bill Vasu volunteered to share a couple of his experiences in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, in the 1960s.
Bill was born in Detroit to a father who was a funeral director and a mother who was a homemaker. At nine years of age, he won the City of Detroit swimming championship for the 25-yard free style. He recalls that he wasn’t much of a student, however.
“I wasn’t paying enough attention to my studies and was a little rambunctious,” he said. “But I had a father who loved me and told me I was ‘good stuff,’ so he thought it important to put me in a place where I’d learn some discipline and settle down. He insisted that I attend the Catholic Military School near Monroe, Michigan where I was raised.”
The experience was invaluable and eventually he was accepted at the University of Notre Dame. While there, Bill majored in philosophy (as in, syllogistic reasoning and metaphysics), and earned his BBA in business finance in 1963.
Good in math, the school encouraged him to head to Wall Street, which he eventually did, but not before he decided to enlist with the U.S. Army. He had, after all, signed up for ROTC during his college and felt it was his patriotic duty to serve.
A thoughtful gesture leads to a helicopter thrill
“I was stationed at Fort Hood (Texas) where I went through basic training,” he recalled. “Then I was assigned to a medical detachment at Darnell Army Hospital.”
There, as a second lieutenant, Bill’s first job was to track the comings and goings of the enlisted men who served overseas and needed hospitalization.
“I remember making lots and lots of charts,” he recalled. “Eventually, I became the Officer in Charge on weekends. I had to make sure the soldiers were registered with the registrar’s office and I had to track their belongings. I also was the one who contacted the families, and in many cases, had to make arrangements for the families to visit their sons or daughters.”
He recalled that one time, a helicopter pilot who had suffered significant wounds during combat was admitted.
“He was shot down in Vietnam and brought back to Fort Hood in pretty bad shape,” Bill said. “So, I took it upon myself to find out where his family lived, and I brought them to Texas to see him.”
The pilot was tremendously grateful and promised Bill that, one day, when he could function properly, he would take him up in a helicopter to show him what it was like to pilot one.
As Bill described it, “Eventually, the pilot regained his mobility and could fly again. That was pretty amazing. Really dramatic. So, he took me up. He explained that in Vietnam, he would fly his copter as low to the ground as possible, making it more difficult for the enemy to take it down. So, when he took me up, he flew as close to the ground as he could get. As he explained to me, when you fly low like that, it’s very fast for the person on the ground shooting at you. It’s like trying to shoot at a bird that’s flying up close to you. But if you’re high in the sky, you become an easy target.”
“I honor the people who served, regardless of the time of year.”
Bill said that same pilot offered to fly him to Dallas Love Field when his duty ended, which he did. By then, Bill had attained the rank of First Lieutenant. He headed to New York City where his career in finance began at Smith Barney. Shortly thereafter, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve in New Jersey. He later worked for Salomon Brothers Investment Banking London, where he developed mortgage-backed securities.
Bill married, had two children, and moved to Bedford, New York where he took up golf and tennis. Later, he moved to Connecticut. He enjoys classical music, is a big Beatles fan, and said his favorite car is an Alfa Romero coupe.
In May, when we asked what Memorial Day meant to him, Bill replied, “I have an ongoing love for the military service, so for me, Memorial Day is not just one day but it’s all year. I honor the people who served regardless of the time of year.”