Veteran stories: Kennewick man flew state flag over his bunker in Vietnam


KENNEWICK -- Wearing nothing but his skivvies, a flak jacket and his helmet, Tom Whitney ran for cover.

It was 1967, and he had just arrived at Phu Bai, Vietnam, when the base came under mortar attack -- not 15 minutes after settling in to sleep.

"I come running out when the rounds started hitting and there's nowhere to go. Everywhere I looked was full," the Kennewick veteran said of the sandbagged protective bunkers outside his "hooch," a plywood shack that served as his sleeping quarters.

He ended up crouching down next to the hooch and waiting out the attack.

"That was a welcome to Vietnam."

Whitney enlisted in the Marines at age 16, wanting to get out of the Tri-Cities and find some adventure. His mother reluctantly joined his father in signing the enlistment papers.

With an aviation guarantee, Whitney thought he was going to become a pilot. Instead he was assigned as an ammunition technician, building ammo dumps. The closest he got to an airplane was on the flights overseas. He often was under siege -- five of his ammo dumps were destroyed by enemy fire during his deployment.

"It was a good target for them," he said. "Either the rockets would get us, or up in the north where I was at, they'd roll the guns out of the mountain, fire a few rounds at us, back 'em in and hide 'em. Roll them back out and fire them again."

But Whitney was young and invincible.

"As a kid, you're not afraid of anything," he said. "We used to sit on the bunker and watch the rockets come in."

In spring 1968, his mom sent him a Washington state flag to remind him of home. He found a pole and represented the Evergreen State atop his bunker at LZ Stud in Ca Lu.

A few weeks later, LZ Stud came under attack. Whitney ran to a neighboring bunker to rescue four new arrivals who had only one layer of sandbags to protect them. A direct hit from a 140mm rocket leveled it a few minutes after they evacuated.

"They would have been dead. Every single one of them," he said.

Shrapnel from that blast tore through the flag, and when he left Vietnam a month later, he stuffed it in a bag.

Whitney had enlisted with plans to stay in the Marines, but his year-long deployment changed his mind.

"If I would have stayed in, I would have gone back again. (Just about) every one of the guys I knew that did that got killed," he said.

He came back and was able to finally become a pilot with help from the G.I. Bill. He was working on getting his commercial license when the gas shortage hit in the 1970s. With the war ending and plenty of pilots coming home, he ended up working construction for a more steady paycheck to support his family. He remembered his friend's wife marveling at how calm and normal he seemed after everything he went though in Vietnam.

"But inside I was turning," he said. "My hands were sweaty for two years after I came home."

He'd hear a loud noise and hit the deck, remembering one instance in the 1980s when a helicopter flew overhead as he played softball.

Today, those triggers still rankle his nerves, but he's past the reflex.

"I can't get down there quick enough anymore," the 64-year-old said, laughing.

Like the torn flag, he kept most of his experiences socked away through the years. For him, Veterans Day was just another day.

"When you come back and get spit on in San Francisco, you kinda get mad at the whole world about it. It makes you kind of bitter about things," he said.

A couple of years ago, he found the old flag. With the current conflicts in the Middle East creating more battle-hardened veterans, he felt the flag should be seen. He turned to his friend Khris Judy of Richland, who had been the project manager for the veterans monument at Washington State University Tri-Cities in Richland.

U.S. District Court Judge Ed Shea stopped by to meet Whitney after the display was installed.

"The U.S. Courthouse and the Federal Building are the heart of the federal presence in the Tri-Cities. It's an appropriate reminder of the sacrifice that was made to keep this country free," he said.

Judy, herself an Army veteran, worked with Whitney to design the display, which is now on display in the lobby of the Federal Building in Richland for the next three years. The glass case housing the flag is supported by replicas of the 140mm rockets that tore through the flag.

"I was thrilled to do it and I felt very fortunate," she said.

And though she was hooked from the beginning, seeing Whitney's reaction when he unwrapped the finished piece gave her goosebumps.

"That's when the true meaning of it hit me, how much it meant to him," she said.

For him, it's a way to pay tribute to his generation's veterans while tying it to the current generation.

"I thought it would be a good fit and people should see it," he said.


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