BEMIDJI -- Nearly four years after Wendell Affield wrote a blog post about the deaths of six U.S. soldiers in a muddy Vietnamese river, he received an emotional email from North Carolina.
It was from Kathleen Wiglesworth Perdue, whose older brother Ernest “Skip” Wiglesworth Jr. was one of the men who died on March 14, 1968.
Kathleen was 13 years old when her brother was killed. The patrol boat he was on hit a mine on the Cua Viet River, a major waterway for delivering supplies to the front lines in the bloody Vietnam War.
Affield was on another boat 50 yards behind. The Bemidji man first wrote about it in his 2012 memoir, “Muddy Jungle Rivers.” But it was that blog post from 2017 that found its way to Kathleen and affirmed Affield’s understanding of how important it is for veterans to share their stories.
“When she emailed I just really reflected right back to the morning it happened,” Affield said. “I know how important it is (for veterans to write about their stories), and this lady discovering about her brother really drove that message home.”
Why our stories matter
Here is Affield’s account of the email exchange with Kathleen:
“Over the past 20 years I have become a strong believer in writing our stories. Less than 10% of the population has served in the military, so each story is unique — whether peacetime or war. If you are a veteran, I encourage you to share your story. It is a gift to your family — children and grandchildren, and it is a page of our collective history. Three years ago I wrote a memorial post on my blog at wendellaffield.com titled, 'March 14, 1968. Remembering Tango 7.'
“As I write this from my loft in northern Minnesota, it’s already March 14 in Vietnam. While patrolling the Cua Viet River just south of the DMZ, Armor Troop Carrier 112-7 (Tango 7) was mined. I was driving our boat about 50 yards astern Tango 7. In my Memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers, I wrote, ‘Suddenly Tango 7 was out of the water, sun glittering on the red-brown bottom of the wet hull, her propellers still spinning. A geyser of water shot skyward, the boat hidden for an instant. In a slow motion ballet, Tango 7 became visible as she flipped upside down, the bow lifting up over the stern, the capsized boat returning to earth, settling to the river bottom.’ Six sailors died in that instant and I listed their names in my blog post.
“Last week, on Nov. 3, 2020, I received this email message; an excerpt:
“Just wanted to thank you for your personal insight regarding ATC-112-7. My brother Ernest W. Wiglesworth Jr. (aka “Skip”) was the boatswain’s mate on that sweeper. Our hearts were broken when the uniformed men came to our home and informed our parents that he had been killed. Although it has now been 52 years the heartache remains. I was 13 at the time but was very close to Skip. He was the oldest of six kids. I wrote to him often and each letter he wrote to me always asked that I help our mom and to please write to his young wife. They were just weeks away from meeting in Hawaii for R&R. Our parents were very proud of him of course, but the loss of their 22-year-old son was great. In closing I just want to thank you for the remembrance and thank you for YOUR service. We honor you and we will NEVER FORGET! Sincerely, Kathleen”
“Hi Kathleen, I received your message yesterday evening and have been reflecting on it. I did not know Ernest personally, only as a member of another boat crew. When we were up on the Cua Viet River (where Ernest was killed) all the boat crews would gather in the evening in a Marine beer hooch to unwind. I’m sure I shared a beer or two with your brother. It must have been very traumatic for you as a 13-year-old to lose your brother. You mention that the heartache remains after 52 years; yes, I know the feeling all too well. My younger brother was killed in a Naval airplane crash in 1978 and I lost my son in 2015 — yes, the heartache is always there.
“Five months after Ernest died, I was wounded in an ambush and medevacked home. I was diagnosed with PTSD in the early 1990s and for me, a significant issue is survivor guilt — why I lived when so many others died. Over the years, I’ve learned many things about coping with trauma; helping others is redemptive; I discovered that in writing my ‘memory stories’ I was able to make some sense of my Vietnam experience — there is a term for it — Written Exposure Therapy.
“Your family has a compelling patriotic legacy with both your parents, WWII veterans and your brother paying the supreme price for our country. On this Veterans Day, remember Ernest as that happy young man who loved his little sister.”
A message for all veterans
“Holidays and anniversary dates always bring trauma memories to the forefront,” Affield said. “For me to remember her brother, lightened the grief a 13-year-old girl was burdened with. Our stories do matter. My story touched a total stranger.
“To all veterans, have a peaceful reflective Veterans Day and think about sharing your stories over the next year.”