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'War didn't stop for Christmas': Bemidji man reflects on medevac tours in Vietnam

Jim Williamson served two year-long tours in Vietnam and received two Silver Stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross. It’s estimated that he rescued more than 300 infantrymen, most of whom were barely out of high school.

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Jim Williamson served two tours in Vietnam and received two Silver Stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross. (Dennis Doeden / Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI -- There were no Christmas celebrations for Jim Williamson in 1966 and 1969.

Christmas came and went, but Williamson says he didn’t notice. He was too busy airlifting wounded American soldiers from the jungles of Vietnam.

Williamson, 82, will celebrate Christmas this weekend with his family -- two sons, one daughter and three grandsons -- at his Lake Beltrami home near Bemidji. It will be quite different from those war years, when the young man in his 20s was flying Huey helicopters into combat zones, dodging Viet Cong fire.

“I don’t even recall having any real discussion about Christmas with any of the guys,” Williamson said. “I guess we were just really wrapped up in what we were doing. War didn’t stop for Christmas.”

Williamson served two year-long tours in Vietnam and received two Silver Stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross. His radio call sign was Dustoff 113, an acronym meaning "dedicated, unhesitating service to our fallen forces.”

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That accurately describes the work this Minnesota farm boy did. It’s estimated that he rescued more than 300 infantrymen, most of whom were barely out of high school.

He has great admiration for those young soldiers.

“They may be out there two to three weeks at a time, and I’m going back to our base sleeping on a regular GI bunk with sheets and a pillow,” Williamson said. “These guys are lying on a jungle floor, maybe picking off leeches and swatting mosquitoes. They had a hard, hard job. That’s why I have such tremendous respect for those kids.”

Altitude, airspeed and good luck

Williamson grew up on a farm near Brownton, Minn., and joined the Naval Reserve while he was still in high school. He went to college at Mankato State, majoring in business administration, supporting himself by working at a local hospital as an orderly.

When he found out his college degree allowed him to apply for a direct commission, he applied to both the U.S. Navy and the Army. He joined the Army as a second lieutenant and was assigned to Fort Sam Houston in Texas as part of the Medical Service Corps.

That’s where he took a course in medical evacuation, which led him to flight school and eventually to that first tour in Vietnam in July 1966. He was 26 years old when he flew the first of many Huey missions into the jungle.

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Jim Williamson, second from left, was assigned to the 254th Dustoff Medical Detachment during his first year-long tour in Vietnam starting in July 1966. (Courtesy / Jim Williamson)

“We flew with the doors open most of the time to expedite things,” Williamson said. “The idea was to get them on board as quickly as we can and get out of there. There was no manual to tell you how to do this. In aviation, there are three things you want: altitude, airspeed and good luck. You always need at least two of those.”

On most missions, he would fly at about 115 mph, then slow to 100 on approach. He would call the site to get the recommended direction of approach. The radio operator on the ground would pop a smoke grenade to indicate the exact location.

“We did not want them to tell us what color it was,” Williamson said. “We called out the color from the air.” That was so they didn’t give the location away to the enemy.

“I had to maintain airspeed, turning and descending all the time,” he said. “Then I had to stay low when we were leaving until we got good speed. No one taught it to me, but that’s what I used and that’s what I taught others.”

A Vietnam connection

After that first tour, Williamson was assigned to Fort Rucker in Alabama, where a chance meeting reunited him with one of the infantrymen he had rescued. Jim was assigned to the base hospital as adjutant.

“Sometimes out of boredom I’d get up and walk up and down the halls and say hello to people,” he said. One day while strolling the halls he saw a soldier with 173rd Airborne Brigade patches on both shoulders.

“If you’re assigned to a unit, you wear their patch on your left shoulder,” Williamson explained. “If you served in combat, you wear the patch on your right side. We had exclusive support with the 173rd Airborne.”

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It wasn’t long before the two men realized their Vietnam connection.

“Just out of curiosity I asked him when he got hit,” Williamson said. “He gave me a date and a location. Both of us confirmed that I was the one who evacuated him. So it was a very warm feeling. I’d have no way of ever recognizing anyone we ever evacuated. But I told our crew, I don’t want anyone dying on our helicopter. Do everything you can to keep a heartbeat on the guy, and we’ll get him to a doctor. I really feel confident that because of the approach that we took, there are a lot of people even alive today.”

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In a video interview, Jim Williamson reflects on his tours to Vietnam. That's a photo of Williamson in his Huey helicopter superimposed in the video. (Contributed / David Quam)

Prior to his second tour, Williamson got married in June 1968. He and his wife, Sandra, had their first Christmas together that year, and in June 1969 Jim was sent back to Vietnam. He returned a year later and continued his Army career until 1993 when he retired as a colonel.

After completing studies at the University of Minnesota to become qualified for nursing home administration, he and Sandra moved to the Bemidji area when he got the first job he applied for at the Jourdain/Perpich Extended Care Center in Red Lake. He worked there for 15 years before retiring.

Jim and Sandra celebrated 50 years of marriage in 2018. She died in January 2019.

As Jim Williamson spends the holiday with his family, memories of those two Christmases in Vietnam will remain distant. But he’ll never forget the soldiers he served with and the young men he rescued.

Related Topics: RED LAKECHRISTMASFAMILY
Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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