By David Fleet
In July, a small package arrived on the front porch of Jon Newbill.
“I thought it was a table cloth or something for my wife,” laughed Newbill, 72, the older brother of Groveland Township resident David Newbill. “I was not expecting anything.”
Newbill’s lack of expectancy is well founded.
The package contained military medals earned more than a half century ago following firefight in a dried rice paddy in a northern region of South Vietnam on Thanksgiving Day 1967. Among the medals, a Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device—awarded for meritorious service in a combat zone.
Newbill, a Flint native and 1965 St. Michael High School graduate, is the son of Robert and Genieve Newbill. A large family included seven girls and two boys. After high school he found employment at General Motor’s Buick Factory #36.
“I did not like working at Buick,” he said. “I didn’t want to attend college either so at 19 years old I joined the Army.”
Newbill enlisted in 1965 and tested into an Army clerk-typist training program. He received orders to serve at a military base located in Augsburg, Germany. About the same time the United States was rapidly increasing its military forces in South Vietnam. The war escalated as the communist -dominated Viet Cong gained influence over much of the population in rural areas of the country
“Vietnam was hot and heavy then,” he said.
Newbill was supporting his wife Mary and new daughter Stacie on a supply clerk’s salary. The family lived in an apartment near the Augsburg military base.
“I needed to make more money,” he said. “I was doing the work of supply sergeant but wanted to get promoted and paid for it. The only way to get promoted is if I became an infantry sergeant. So, I needed to take the Infantry MOS (Military Occupation Speciality) exam. As soon as they made me a sergeant —boom—they sent me to Vietnam. They needed infantry sergeants over there, many were getting killed at the time.”
Newbill and his family returned to Flint and 45 days later, on Oct. 4, 1967 departed Bishop Airport for Vietnam. His wife and daughter moved to an apartment.
“Before I left for Vietnam I talked to my father—a WWII combat veteran and he said ‘Jon, I was never afraid over there flying those missions, I saw a lot of people die,’” he recalled. “A lot of dad’s buddies never came back. If he got shot down he’d never come back.”
Newbill figured he’d get killed or else make it home.
“It’s very emotional,” he said. “So, my thoughts were, do the best I can in Vietnam—I never thought about getting wounded. That’s how I conducted myself, it took my mind off things.”
Newbill recalls his arrival in Saigon, Vietnam.
“My Pan Am jet lands and boom the humidity hits you in the face,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Newbill’s duties will now be leading eight to 10 men in combat and joining a division of Task Force Oregon in Chu Lai, Southern First Corps, Republic of South Vietnam.
“They flew us up to I Corps from Saigon,” he said. “There was not much action in Chu Lai and a lot of companies were in the area like us. Maybe a sniper or two would shoot at us—but it was pretty relaxed. It was near the famous China Beach too. We flew out on missions in helicopters, hiked around and returned to base. We never moved into a hot landing zone.”
Then came Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, 1967.
“I was going to eat turkey loaf—it’s the crummiest meal you’d ever eat in C-rations,” he laughed. “It’s ground up turkey in a can—it’s terrible. Because it was Thanksgiving I saved a can and I was getting ready to eat it when my platoon sergeant came over and said, ‘Don’t eat, clean your weapons. We are going to a hot landing zone. A company landed on an enemy North Vietnamese Army (NVA) base camp and we need to support them.’”
Soon after five helicopters came in and picked up Newbill’s squad.
“We loaded up and were flying in and I could see some of the NVA big weapons on the ground,” he said. “It was scaring to see all that.”
The helicopters flew into a little valley over a dried up rice paddy.
“I could hear on the radio the (men) in the first chopper had been pinned down and were screaming for morphine,” he said.
Newbill was in the last chopper of the five and was taking heavy ground fire from the NVA.
“Our chopper came down low and I was waiting to jump out the door but we were still about 20 feet in the air,” he recalled. “That’s when the machine gunner said get the f*** out and kicked me from the chopper. I landed on my back and the fall knocked the wind out of me. I got up and along with my men took cover. I, along with my medic, moved forward toward where our wounded men were. I could not tell where the enemy was shooting at us from because the jungle was near the rice paddies. I was behind a rock with my M-16 in my left hand, I turned to wave the ‘doc’ up and I got shot in my left elbow.”
When Newbill woke up he was laying on his back about 15 feet from the rock.
“I could see the rockets and tracers going over my head,” he recalled. “I must be hit, I thought. I started looking at my body and everything looked fine except I could not find my left arm. It was flipped up behind my back and my left hand was behind my ear. I knew it was mine because I could see my wedding ring on it. So, I grabbed my arm and pulled it around and put it on my stomach. At that point blood came shooting out like a faucet. It hurt like hell. I started yelling and could hear people saying where did the shot come from? I yelled, get me a bandage wrapping. The medic that was with me crawled over and put a tourniquet on my arm, then morphine. He saved my life. He left me two more hits of morphine too, if needed. He said, ‘You’re messed up bad.’”
Newbill passed out several times but was picked up by an American Armoured Personnel Carrier.
“The APC commander asked me if I wanted a beer,” he recalled. “I drank one. I was just so thirsty since I lost so much blood.”
Newbill remembers fading in and out of consciousness.
“I ended up in a field hospital and woke up with my arm in traction,” he said. “I remember seeing the tips of my fingers and was happy I still had an arm.”
He was moved to Tachikawa Air Base, Japan then to a hospital in the Philippines. On New Years Eve 1967 he was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md.
“I spent nine months there,” said Newbill. “I have no pronation or supination in my left arm and for long time I could not move my fingers.”
Following nine months at Walter Reed, he was discharged on Sept. 4, 1968. The injures to his left elbow caused 70 percent disability.
Newbill returned to the Flint area and over the next few years earned a Bachelors of Business Administration from the University of Michigan—Flint along with a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration and Community Leadership from Central Michigan. He recently retired from Mott Community College after many years with the Business and Industry Resource Institute.
“About three years ago a member of the Michigan Wood Carvers Association’s offered to create a cane for me,” he said. “They often do that for veterans.”
The project is part of the lean-on-me cane program. Craftsmen across Michigan sculpt and build the canes which are given to veterans, like Newbill. The ornate cane features service decals, some words of thanks along with military rank, in addition to details of their service.
While verifying Newbill’s military records for the cane, the Michigan Wood Carvers Association discovered his original discharge papers did not include his Purple Heart awarded for his injuries. So Newbill requested a correction of his military records and in addition to his Purple Heart, the military determined a Bronze Star for valor was also missing.
“I really did not know I had it coming,” he said. “It was for bravery under fire. My platoon leader, Lt. McDonald had put me in for the Bronze Star when I was in the Japan hospital 50 years ago. At the time I thought he was just trying to make me feel good since I was wounded. Some clerk must have messed up.”
So, in July the small box arrived on his porch included a Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device; Army Good Conduct Medal; Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze service star and Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Unit Citation.
“I regret my father did not see my Bronze Star—that’s the biggest regret I have,” he said. “That war in Vietnam was all for nothing. When we got done with the war we had the same thing as when we started, except 50,000 soldiers died. They knew they could not win.”