R. A. Long High School Class of 1963

In Memoriam: William P. Wagner III

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William Peter Wagner III, 2nd Lieutenant, US Army, was born on April 29, 1945, and was killed in action near Dak To, in Binh Dinh Province, South Vietnam, on June 21, 1967. While he did not graduate with our class (he graduated from Mark Morris in 1963), he did go to Monticello with us part of the way, until his parents moved him to the Cedar Gates area on the top of Columbia Heights and he had to transfer to Mark Morris.

Readers of the fictionalized account of my military experiences, A Bad Attitude: A Novel from the Vietnam War, know that I spent several years avoiding the draft. The local draft board kept calling on me to do my patriotic duty and I kept finding legal ways to weasel out of it. They kept me pretty busy going between Longview and the Induction Center in Portland, and on one of those fateful trips, in early fall 1965, I ran into Bill Wagner, who had been called up at the same time. I hadn't seen him in several years, but we recognized each other immediately.

I don't recall now what kind of shenanigans I pulled that got me out of being drafted on that particular day, but I skated away from it successfully. Not so for Bill Wagner, who was inducted that day. I heard nothing more about him until June 1967, when I was in Basic Training at Fort Lewis myself (having run out of ways to say no), and got the sad news that he was a casualty of the Vietnam War.

It's one of those "There but for the grace of..." etc., stories. I've thought about Bill a lot over the years, and it's always with great sadness and much regret for his sacrifice. When I was in Washington DC on one of my numerous trips (my job took me there twice a year for several years) I took the extra time to seek out his name on The Wall, and there it was, Panel 21 East, Line 27:

The Wall: Bill Wagner

The way The Wall is set up is that the names are inscribed in chronological order by date of death, so you have to look in a directory (or online) to find the panel and line for the person you are looking for. But there are generally volunteers available to help you, and to provide shoulders to cry on if you need it. (If you have not been to The Wall, you won't understand the profound effect it has on people.)

See Faces from the Wall -- June 1967 and The Wall -- William P. Wagner III for more information on Bill Wagner's service, and see the Cowlitz County, Washington Casualties in Southeast Asia During the Vietnam War on my Chairborne Ranger website. I couldn't find a citation for Bill Wagner's Posthumous Purple Heart for the action that day, but I did find a narrative concerning three others in his unit during the same battle, two of whom earned the Medal of Honor for their actions that day. It's a chilling, sobering and ultimately tragic story, and it can be found on the B Company 1st Battalion 5th US Cavalry memorial page. A total of 76 men died that day near Dak To, in Binh Dinh Province. We would do well to remember and honor their sacrifice.

Here's the Daily News story of Bill Wagner's death:

Mark Morris Graduate Killed Leading Patrol in Vietnam

Lt. William P. Wagner III, 22, a former Longview resident, was killed in action in Vietnam Wednesday, according to word received here late Friday

He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph H. Shaw of Asheville NC, and lived in Longview from 1957 to 1963. His stepfather has been employed by the Longview Fibre Co.

At the time of his death, Lt. Wagner was commanding a combat patrol with the 1st Air Cavalry Division.

He graduated from Mark Morris High School in 1963 and was in the top eleven students of the class academically. He also won honorable mention in the National Merit Scholarship Examination.

Lt. Wagner participated in basketball, football and tennis at Mark Morris. He attended the University of Washington for two years prior to entering the service.

He was born in Thomasville GA on April 29, 1945. Survivors include his parents and three brothers, R. Adden, an officer candidate; Thomas A. and Scott Wightman, Asheville; an uncle, Robert W. Player of Toledo, Wash.

Funeral services will be held in Charleston SC under the direction of Stuhr's Funeral Home of Charleston.

Source: The Longview Daily News, June 24, 1967, page 1


And here's the Associated Press account of the battle:

Deadly Crossfire Kills 76 U.S. Paratroopers
By George Esper

SAIGON (AP) An American infantry company on a search--and--destroy mission was caught in a deadly crossfire of North Vietnamese automatic weapons and small arms and lost 76 killed and 24 wounded high in the Central Highlands, the U.S. Command disclosed today.

Although some U.S. officers at the scene estimated that as many as 450 North Vietnamese troops were killed, an official communique issued in Saigon said, "No firm enemy casualty count has been reported."

The Communist troops were identified as a battalion perhaps 400 to 500 men of the 24th North Vietnamese Regiment. It was the first time that this unit has been reported in action in South Vietnam.

The bloody action near Dak To, 270 miles north of Saigon, took place Thursday, the command said, but the news was held up for "security reasons."

The badly mauled company of perhaps 150 men was part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the first Army combat unit to arrive in Vietnam, in May 1965. The company included many newcomers sent as replacements for the men rotated out of South Vietnam. It has been looking for the enemy since last Sunday but had had no contact until the surprise Red assault Thursday.

PLATOONS TRAPPED

The company's two lead platoons apparently were sucked into a trap and isolated halfway up a heavily forested 4,000 foot ridgeline. The North Vietnamese attackers reportedly wore black berets, indicating they were elite troops.

The two platoons, totaling about 80 men, apparently became confused and disorganized. About 75 of these men were found dead on the battlefield, the others wounded, spokesmen said.

The heavy fighting raged for seven hours.

Two other companies maneuvered to reinforce the embattled and battered unit. The 59 men accounted for at the time the reinforcements linked up were evacuated to the base camp at Dak To.

Fighting was reportedly so close that air strikes on the Communists had to be greatly limited; even so, fighter--bombers flew what tactical strikes they could and armed helicopters were pressed into action.

Early today B52 bombers, each of which carries 60,000 pounds of bombs, blasted the area where the airborne troops took a beating Thursday.

Troopers sweeping over the area Friday reported skirmishes with small groups of North Vietnamese troops. They said they found 75 Communist bunkers, more than half of them spattered with fresh blood.

U.S. headquarters said no significant fighting had been reported since midnight Friday.

Source: The Longview Daily News, June 24, 1967, page 1


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