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Willis Abrams: U.S. Army Special Forces (26 years)
Willis Abrams, Jr. was born on March 23rd of 1939 in Alexander City, Alabama similar to the size of Canton, Texas. He was an only child. His dad’s name was Willis D. Abrams, Sr. and his mom’s name was Anna Laura Walker. His dad served in WW2 as an engineer in the Army. He was 33 in late 1944 when he was drafted into the military. His mom was a telephone operator.
“I went to school in Alexander City until about the 2nd grade when my father got out of the service and the family moved to Bainbridge, Georgia and eventually to Columbus where he went to junior high.
I always worked hard as a young boy. While all the other kids were playing I was out delivering newspapers. I started out with about a hundred papers and after a year I built it up to 500-papers. I delivered them on a Schwinn Black Phantom bicycle with the spring shock absorber on the front end. I had a wire basket on the back and designed another basket to fit over the absorber on the front of the bike. Even at that, the bicycle wasn’t strong enough. So, for $10 I found a used delivery bicycle made by Schwinn. Grocery stores used them for deliveries. They would be worth a fortune today,” laughed Willis.
The family moved to Atlanta where I attended O’Keefe high school for a year then transferred to Grady High School and graduated in 1958. “When I got into high school this is when I really started to blossom. I worked at Miss Georgia dairy from 4:00 in the afternoon until 12:00 at night. I would have to do my homework either on the job or after I got off from my job. There were also two motorcycle police officers that would stop by the Dairy store every night to check on me. Their names were Dimsdale and Martin. Dimsdale told me, “son, the best thing you can do is get in the military because if you are going to stay around Atlanta, you are going to get into trouble.”
I also ran the 2-mile course in cross country at O’Keefe,” said Willis. The funny thing about cross-country was I didn’t like anything about it,” he laughed. “I did it because I could do it. That is the story of my life.
I have always pushed myself way beyond what my capabilities would have been. Unfortunately, I did get into some trouble as a youth. I had some run-ins with the law at around 13-14 years of age and was hanging around the wrong crowd. I had to overcome and develop skills to overcome all that business and I did,” said Willis looking back at this childhood. “I didn’t really like high school but I promised my mom I would graduate. College was not an option for me. However, I really did want to go to Emory University in Atlanta for medical school. That was a pipe dream, it was never going to happen.
My high school had an Army ROTC program and I joined. It was here that I started to learn some skills. Motivation, discipline, core values spirit de corps and I learned them all from a former WW2 and Korean veteran. This Sergeant gave me the inspiration to do what I wanted to do. I wish I could remember his name. I do remember he had half of his scalp missing. He was an extremely influential person in my life,” said Willis.
“When I turned 17, with my dad’s permission, I joined the 81st Infantry Division of the Army Reserves. It was called the Wildcat Division, which was in Georgia. I liked the structure of the Army Reserves. I was drilling twice a month and two weeks active duty during the summers. I graduated from Grady and applied for 6-month active duty,” Willis said.
ACTIVE DUTY IN THE ARMY
Willis went to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina for basic training. When his six-month was over he requested to go active duty as an RA unassigned. That was regular Army unassigned. “The Army sent me to a tank unit in Ft. Hood, Texas. From that day on I have hated Ft. Hood, Texas,” Willis laughed. “It is the most worthless place in the state of Texas. I think that there was a severe lack of leadership at Ft. Hood. I was not happy at Ft. Hood. I knew nothing about tanks. I NEVER got one day of training in tanks, not one day. I had no say whatsoever of what MOS would be. When you are RA unassigned, they send you wherever they want to send you. I was eventually sent to the “post transportation” which I wrote out transportation orders for people coming and leaving Ft. Hood, Texas. I was bored to tears. I found out how to request for reassignment. I put in for overseas. I didn’t care where, anywhere,” he laughed. They sent Willis to An Yang Ni, which was very close to Seoul.
Willis shipped out on the MSTS General Edwin D. Patrick. It was a troop ship headed to Ft. Lewis, Washington. “I waited there for shipment for two weeks. It was raining and a miserable place. I was assigned to skullduggery on the ship, working in the galley. I washed pots and pans the whole trip. The only saving grace was they gave me the top rack. Everybody that was not a sailor got seasick. There was vomit everywhere,” laughed Willis. “I was allowed to go up on deck once in a while and that is where I often slept. At least I got some fresh air on deck. We got off the boat in Yokohama. I fell I love with Japan. They had color TV, samurai movies and great food. I tried foods I had never eaten before. I fell in love with Oriental food. All too soon we were back on the boat headed to Inchon.
I could smell Korea about one day out. I could be anywhere in the world and if I woke up from a coma I could tell you if I was in Korea or not. They put us on trucks and took us to Ascom City, which was actually a barbed wire enclosure. We had no contact with any Koreans. The year was 1959. There were hundreds of women at the fences asking for handouts. This was a big awakening for me. I had never been out of Alabama or Georgia. I realized what poverty was and what we had in America and what others did not have. I thought I was poor. I was a young kid and this really got my attention,” Willis continued. “It made an impression on me that I still have today.”
Willis was assigned to an ordinance unit in An Yang Ni. Based there was a nuclear ammunition storage site as well as conventional ammunition. I pulled security watch on the mountains surrounding this ammunition site. I was introduced to some guys in the infantry and the 82nd, 101st Airborne and so I started to get an idea of what they did. I was also selected as a classified courier. I got a secret clearance. I would transport classified documents from point A to point B all over South Korea.
On one occasion, I was at KIMPO Air Base and I went into the mess hall to eat lunch. There were two Sargeant’s sitting there with no insignias in plain fatigues eating lunch. They looked odd to me, but I sat down at their table. We struck up a conversation and they told me they were in the First Special Service Force. What is that? I asked, and they said “Oh, we do stuff over here in Korea and we are based out of Ft. Bragg,” and then he wrote down an Army regulation on a piece of paper that dealt with their unit. They said, “look this up when you get back to your unit,” so I did.
When I got back I requested to be assigned to that unit. First, you had to have a secret clearance, you had to have a Colonel or above recommend you and a few more. I checked them all off. It was signed off from higher command and sent forward. Meanwhile, I finished my tour in South Korea. I was then assigned to Ft. Ord, California, to another ammunition unit, the 576th. I knew nothing about them. A week later the first Sargeant called me and said he was sending me over to Presidio Monterey. I am going to send you to the 6th Army NCO Academy. Two days after graduation I was standing in front of two Sargeants from Special Forces based Ft Bragg. They said they were there to administer physical fitness and written tests to accept me for evaluation for Special Forces training. I passed and TDPFO orders were cut and I drove my Volkswagen from California to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. I was assigned to the United States Army Special Forces Training Company. This was early 1961. I stayed in an old WW2 barracks. At 0330 we were up and in formation in the street, asked to strip down to our waist at attention, right face, march. They force marched us to Camp McCall. If you didn’t make it, you are out. Four out of fourteen of us made it to the Camp. I was about 6-foot-tall and weighed 126 lbs. I fell down a few times and received my share of punches and kicking’s but I made it. I had no idea what I was being trained for. All I kept hearing was, “We don’t want you here, we don’t need you, why don’t you just leave and we will be happy.” I had to prove them wrong. They finally, at around 5:30 fed us, put us on a truck and brought us back to Ft. Bragg.
When we got back there were more recruits and we began grass drills, or heavy PT. There were about 15 of us again including a man in his 50’s. He joined us a day before we went to parachute school.
Lionel Pinn was an American Indian and he had holes all over his legs, in his back and sides from Korea and WW2. He was our leader. For three weeks, 16-hours-a-day, seven days a week we did grass drills. The sole purpose of this drill was to WEED you out, physically and psychologically. It was much tougher back then. They had no problem depriving you of sleep, water and continued psychological punishment. You would go to sleep at 10 and they would wake you up at 11 at night, and run you someplace. You were constantly wet, cold and tired. The mental part was tougher for me than the physical. You NEVER quit, NEVER give up. They wanted to see if you could work under difficult and stressful conditions,” said Willis.
GOING TO PARACHUTE SCHOOL
Willis graduated from the rigorous three-week grass drill school and the next assignment was parachute school with the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg. “I was beginning to realize what the mission of Special Forces meant. I had no idea who they were or what they did. It was something different and that is what got my attention,” he told me.
Willis went to jump school and was in great shape. If the Sergeant said drop and give him 10. I gave one to the Sergeant, one for his mother, his baby brother and even him. Willis was starting to become a hardened soldier in the United States Army Special Forces.
“I really had fun in jump school. I found a home in the Army. I saw them jump every day at Bragg. I thought, I can do this and I am in control. I loved it. You control your fate and you can master your fears. I did everything they told me to do, exactly the way they told me to do it. I even loved jumping out of the 34-foot tower. They grade you on your body position, how you exit the door and things like that. My last name was Abrams, so I was first in everything. They used me as the demonstrator. You had to jump out of the towers so many times and then you went on to the next phase. I was SF ( Special Forces ) but was integrated into the 82nd Airborne to attend their jump school. We would run 6-7 miles in the morning and 6-7 miles in the evening. I eventually made my 5 jumps and graduated.
His first jump was from a C-119, a flying boxcar. Willis was more afraid of the airplane than jumping out of it. “It was hot and they would rev up those big engines at the end of the runway. They would run down that pad until they had speed and then raised the landing gear. The rivets in the roof would rattle. Being the first jumper, they put me in the doorway for about 10 minutes. They did it on purpose, thinking they were going to psyche me out. I loved it. All I wanted to do was get the hell out of that airplane,” laughed Willis.
“That first jump was the most exhilarating feeling like I had never felt in my life. I felt like I had complete control over everything in that jump. We jumped using a regular T-10 parachute, which is a 36-foot parabolic parachute, non-steerable. You have risers that can help to turn the chute. It basically follows the wind and not steerable at all. They are designed for mass parachute drops at low level.
We were jumping at 1,250 feet. I landed on the ground, jumped up and felt like I was 10-foot tall. I screamed, packed my chute and double-timed it back. We made two jumps that day. I was more afraid of the second jump than I was the first one because I knew what to expect. Remember, when your parachute opens, you are surrounded by other idiots. The first five were all day jumps and some with equipment field packs and a rifle. I graduated and received my parachute wings in 1961.
TACTICAL AND TECHNIQUES TRAINING
Willis went back to “Smoke Bomb Hill” which was a Provisional Special Forces Training Company. Here Willis went thru Tactical and Techniques Training for sixteen weeks. All his jumps for the next year were night jumps. He now understood his mission and what they were training him for. All the training now was for unconventional warfare, guerrilla warfare and tactics, raids and ambushes. In 1961 Special Forces were training in Central and South America as well as Europe and Southeast Asia.
His first night jump took place just northwest in the mountain areas of Ft. Bragg. “We jumped in a small hay field, two at a time, until we got a total of 12 men on the ground. That is considered an SF team. The mission of Special Forces is to organize, equip and conduct “guerrilla warfare” and “counter guerrilla warfare.” We have to identify the assets, train and equip people, conduct guerrilla or counter guerrilla warfare. We spend hours and hours studying about guerrilla warfare. About the third week into the guerrilla warfare training I realized I was part of a unique special forces unit. A Sargeant stood up in front of us one day and said, “forget everything you learned about the Army to this point. Forget about your rifle, the drilling ceremonies….this is where you start learning.”
One thing Willis hated about the regular Army, there was no since of urgency. “There was no dedicated mission. There were a bunch of people who thought they were in control, but they weren’t in control, and a bunch of people goofing off. That is not what I wanted to do,” said Willis. Special Forces was not like this at all.
“Special Forces identifies a target or a mission. You go into an isolation situation where nobody can get in or out except selected people and you study the area you are going into. It is called “Area Study.” You spend two, three, four weeks or whatever it takes studying that one target. Avenues of approach, escape, assets, resupply area like who is and isn’t friendly to us. You know everything about that area. The names of the doctors, the mayors, postmaster and a lot of other intelligence workup. The Special Forces is more than a fighting unit. They train others how to fight, intelligence gathering and more importantly to teach somebody how to do something. You teach them everything they need to know to do their job. Special Forces does an excellent job of this. We are still reaping the benefits of this training today in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “Tactics and Techniques” today, are still the same, they are just called a different name.
SPECIAL FORCES Medical School – 1961
The Special Forces skills include Operations and Intelligence, Medical, Como, Demo and Weapons. I qualified for Medical and went to Ft Sam Houston for medical training. It was called 300F-1 course. He met his wife while in San Antonio. He went with a buddy to Lackland AFB NCO club to go dancing. “There were these two girls sitting by themselves at a table. My eye was on the younger one but I asked the older one to dance,” laughed Willis. “Her name was Olga and Olivia was her sister. Olivia was the one I was after. The whole dance conversation was about her sister. I finally got enough nerve to ask Olivia to dance, and that was it,” smiled Willis. I saw her every day until the day we got married in April of 1962. I remember driving to Ft. Bragg and our 1959 Volkswagen had a bad cylinder and replaced it overnight. The owner of that place only charged me $90. We got to Ft. Benning and I reported to work the next day,” he said shaking his head.
There were about 14 Special Force personal that started the class. “The course was very difficult,” Willis said. “We had to learn nursing care along with emergency medical care. We did our training at Sam Houston then were sent to hospitals all over the United States for more training. I was sent to Ft. Benning. We were assigned to Doctors and we did whatever they told us to do. I worked there for about 16-weeks with an orthopedic surgeon. I spent a lot of time in the emergency room too. This was before I got to the Special Forces medical lab.
At Ft. Bragg, Special Forces, had their own medical school. It was much more advanced than Ft. Sam. It is divided into a medical and a surgical part. The medical part is all classroom work and they had about 8 or 9 doctors. They talked, we took notes. The class ended when they got tired, it could be 10’oclock at night.
Most lived in the barracks but I and my wife lived in Spring Lake, North Carolina in a $60 a month apartment. That was the happiest time of my life,” smiled Willis. My money would run out before my next check came. We lived on beans and rice. But, we were happy.”
The medical classroom was brutal for Willis. “They could dismiss you on attitude alone,” he said. “There was a lot of psychological pressure. We lost a lot of people. We lost half of them on the first written test. You got below 80%, you are gone. We had one guy ask, why are we doing this for? They didn’t like his attitude, he was gone. It was bad, but I learned we were just getting started.
We finished the medical phase of the training with oral boards. They would ask you anything you had learned over the last 12 weeks. We would be keeping wounded for long periods of time, so we had to know how to treat them. You had to know the drugs or the antibiotics. You had to memorize it all. I finished that brutal part of training and then went into the surgical phase.
The medical phase was bad, but the surgical phase was ten times worse. We used live patients, dogs. We shot them with a 7.62 Russian carbine and inflicted a high velocity gunshot would on them. We administered anesthesia to the patients and they had no pain. Today, they use goats, back then we didn’t. You had to know anatomy and physiology. The surgical phase was called the “dog lab,” and lasted four weeks. Only the instructors and students knew this was going on. At the time, that was the only way to reproduce a high velocity wound and be able to be taught how to surgically treat it. We had five operating rooms at the old wooden hospital area at Ft. Bragg. Each team had a surgeon, the assistant surgeon, anesthesiologist, the scrub, the outside scrub and other jobs within the operating room. We would rotate thru all of those. Each of us was issued a dog and we would have to take care of that dog until he recovers. You do a physical on them and submit a summary. It was very meticulous. It you didn’t annotate something, you are gone. This goes on seven days a week. My graduating class was seven people. We got nothing, no certificate, nothing. It was all classified. I am the only one still alive of that class,” said Willis.
FIRST SPECIAL FORCES GROUP, OKINAWA
“My first assignment after graduating was First Special Forces Group in Okinawa,” laughed Willis. “I was happy. I took Olivia back to San Antonio to stay with her mother. I went to Okinawa for a 30-month tour. She would team up with me there once I was quartered and settled in. I checked in and had to report to the Group Sargeant Major. There were two-line companies and a group headquarters. George Dunaway, the Sargeant Major looked at me and said, “don’t unpack your bags, you will be going to Vietnam.” I said, “Where is that?” “I am going to adding you to ‘A’ Company and your team Sargeant is going to be Stanley, “Boxhead Reed.” “What, I had never heard of all these names. He was hard core, never smiled.
I was assigned to A-114, operations, detachment A. I was the first senior medic assigned to the team. I was an E-5 at this time. A few days later I was sent a Spec-4 as a junior medic. I had never met him. He was in a class behind me. My team leader was a Captain and West Point graduate. His name was James Brodt. We had a radio operator by the name of McFadden, Neal McKiver and some older guys on the team including Frank Guill, a former Lt. Colonel in Korea. He was a weapons expert who liked to drink and loved the women. He was in trouble all the time. Joe Sharp was another member. He was an expert rifleman. Ed Corpus was an intelligence specialist. Lt. O’Collum was another of the group. We all became a close family and many of them were legends in the Special Forces.”
The Special Forces Group started training and were told they were headed to Vietnam the first of January. The mission was ALL classified. I was in Isolation.
“I had rented an apartment for my wife in Okinawa. On Christmas Day, I received a telegram that, “I was a daddy, your son was born this morning. My wife was ok, she was in Ft. Sam Houston. The family was taken care of. Four days later we left for Vietnam. I could not tell my wife where I was going.”
The Detachment went to Nha Trang for orientation. We were inserted with an SF team already in the Central Highlands. We had to have consent of the South Vietnamese. This was before American troops started arriving in Vietnam.
We were with this Det for a few days until the Agency got permission from the Vietnamese to go into Ha Thanh in Quang Nhai province We were to train the Montagnard tribes people. They were not Vietnamese. These are the mountain people who lived in Vietnam. They were Malay Polynesian people. I learned a lot from them.
They live in these “long” houses. It may be 100-foot long, where a family has been there a long time. They start out with a small house and the family grows and so do the houses. There were several tribes who had their own language. Those were the tribes I worked with, who used crossbows as weapons. They had smaller ones used for the monkeys and the larger ones were about six foot long. You had to have an interpreter that spoke their dialect and Vietnamese. Our SF went in there and set up “Perimeters,” along with the (LLDB) “Luc Luong Dac Biet,“ the Vietnamese Special Forces who were previously trained in 1957. We started building a “fortified position.” The first night was foxholes.
The Montagnard village people protected us. Within days we started getting airlifts of supplies using CIA aircraft. They were dropping all type of supplies. We started building camps. I started building a dispensary and got volunteers and started training nurses and medical technicians. We were not conducting any operations at this time. We were teaching the montagnards how to shoot weapons, tactics, and mortars. How do you teach someone how to sight your mortars in if they don’t have numbers in their language? Ed Corpus taught these mountain people how to lay in a mortar and how to figure azthmus by stakes in the ground.
They became good at it. After about 60-days we conducted our first operation. We started clearing the Viet Cong and the infiltrated North Vietnamese out of that area. We showed the montagnards how to protect their villages. I was going around to the different villages and treating the kids. The key was treating the kids for the various sore throats or chicken pox, give them candy and so forth and then you had the parents coming to help too. We had several thousand volunteers. We had a huge standing army in the central highlands. They were absolutely loyal, as opposed to the Vietnamese. If we went out on patrol we had the montagnards as our bodyguards. They would NOT run, they would stay with you no matter how bad it got,” said Willis.
“I made four trips to Vietnam and every team I went with were different. We had an op where we had about two Americans and thirty Vietnamese. We would go out on patrols and if we got into some bad areas in Cambodia, they would run. They had no loyalty to their country. Too much politics and changes in their government. We would end up with two Americans by themselves in the middle of nowhere. That happened to me several times. We also trained some Cambodians. They were like the montagnards, they would not abandon you. We repatriated many of the montagnards and there is a large colony of them living in North Carolina today. They are American citizens now. Of the four tours to Vietnam I went and worked with the montagnards twice and the Cambodians once and the Chinese Nhung once. I was with a B Det recruiting and training the Nhung’s who were best known as the most-feared fighters of all the minority groups trained by the Americans, and very loyal. We trained them as agents for the North. We gave them parachute, guerilla warfare and intelligence training and dropped them in the North.
Right outside our camp was a First Division Unit and they had a water point down on the main highway. We had advised them not to let Vietnamese kids inside the perimeter. The kids were not in there to be nice to American soldiers. They were gathering intelligence for the enemy. The kids were threatened that if they did not help, their families would be killed. About two months later they were hit by the Viet Cong killing about four Americans. They brought one of the wounded to my table and he died. He was the only person, outside of Special Forces, that I lost. The First Division never did correct that problem.
PANAMA AND 4TH TOUR OF VIETNAM
After his third trip to Vietnam, Willis went back to Bragg to work in the Special Forces Medical Lab. The SF like to have their senior people to be instructors. He ended up teaching SF medicine.
“While at Bragg the conversation kept coming up about Panama,” said Willis. “I volunteered for Panama as a medic. I had to go to language school in Washington, D.C. (NOTE: There were a lot of ops Willis was not able to talk about in Panama). There were some he can talk about like Puerto Rico and Central and South America. The 8th Special Forces Group trained the Rangers in Bolivia to specifically to hunt down and kill Che Guevara. Those were some of the missions they did in this area of the world.
The tour in Panama was outstanding. Olivia and I did a lot of fishing and my wife became an excellent fisher person. Our favorite place to fish was at the “Gatun Locks.” At a certain time of year, the 18-20 lb. SNOOK run thru those locks headed to Lake Gatun and spawn in the fresh water. My favorite fish to catch and eat is catfish. I am from Alabama and Georgia, we know how to clean those catfish,” laughed Willis.
We set up a “goat lab” out of Ft. Sherman and four of five of us made it into a medical and surgical school in Panama. We were refreshing our medical teams with the newest technology in the medical field and keep their skills up. We would shoot the goats to train in the surgical skills.
The “jungle warfare school” was turned over to the SF. Our group Sargeant Major, Paul Dorsey, picked me as one of the instructors for the “escape evasion survival” course. I taught a lot of land navigation like maps, compass and navigation. I also worked in the jump school we ran in Panama. I did a lot of things other than the medical field,” Willis continued.
“My wife is now eight-months pregnant with our fourth child living in San Antonio. I get a call from Paul Dorsey. He said, “I have to ask you to volunteer to go back to Vietnam. He said, we lost a lot of medics last month. I need a senior medic in Vietnam right away. I have to ask you to volunteer, because I can’t make you go. So, I volunteered for my fourth tour of Vietnam. It was January of 1970,” said Willis.
“My wife was the bravest, most courageous, dedicated Special Forces spouse you could ever imagine. She was that way until the day she died,” said Willis. “She backed me in everything I did and was a leader in the community. Everything she did was for the family. When we lived in Okinawa she was teaching our local friends how to cook American and Mexican food and they were teaching her to cook Japanese food.
On my fourth tour of Vietnam I was with the “C” team as a medic in our own (CIDG), Civilian Irregular Defense Group hospital. I was stationed at Bien Hoa as one of the surgeons. We would treat gunshot wounds, fragmentation wounds and other injuries. We would do maybe one a day and sometimes 16 or more a day. Infection rates for war wounds was pretty bad. After ten years of being deployed to Vietnam we started seeing more field hospitals popping up. The gap lessened from the time a guy was wounded until he was in the operating room. The death rate went way down as opposed to WW2 and Korea. We were caring for the casualties in the smaller “A” SF camps. In those camps we conducted, trained, equipped and conducted counter guerrilla warfare. Some ops were for 2-3 days and some 30-days or more. If you were out 60-days you would drink water from “shell holes,” because there was no water available,” said Willis. “Later I was assigned to an “A” team running special ops and at this time we started backloading everything as the war was winding down. Special Forces were getting out of Vietnam.”
Once again, Willis gets volunteered to run special ops our of Laos, Cambodia. Paul Dorsey offered me this SPECIAL job. “I found out later they had a real a high casualty rate. Laos is the most bombed country in the world. More bombs were dropped on the eastern sector, which was the Ho Chi Minh Trail, than was dropped in Germany in WW2. Lots of scrapped steal in eastern Laos. I turned down the Laos job,” quipped Willis.
BAD TOLZ, GERMANY (1971-1974)
“The best job I ever had in the Special Forces was in Bad Tolz, Germany,” said Willis. “That was in Southern Bavaria. I went there twice. When you look at a picture postcard of Germany, you always see the picture of the beautiful Alpine Village and the snow-covered mountain, that’s Bad Tolz. It was absolutely beautiful. I was assigned there to an “A” team. All were combat veterans except one or two. We had training missions all over Europe. At this time our main threat was Russia. We had several missions to Greece running a parachute school, small boat operations, guerrilla warfare in the mountains and a medical school. In the boat operations the first thing we had to do was teach them how to swim,” laughed Willis. “You would think the Greeks would know how to swim. We also taught them submarine and waterborne infiltrations. I spent three tours with them along with three tours in Italy. In the wintertime, we skied everywhere we went. In the Italian mountains we trained with a couple of Seals. I had met these guys before and it was kind of like a family reunion. Every country we trained in I was awarded parachute wings from that country. I liked the Greek parachute wings the best because it was comical getting them. We had given the Greek Airforce a lot of C-119’s. We flew down to Greece in a C-130. None of their C-119’s would fly. So, we used our C-130 to drop students and train. We only had the one airplane so it took twice as long to train.
We were training in Germany with “scout swim suits.” It is a suit we bought from the Norwegians. It had three holes in it. You go in thru the neck. You wear an insulated suit inside this, like a “bunny suit.” It is made for cold water. You wear wetsuit gloves and a facemask. It is a unique way of infiltration. You lay on your back and flutter kick with these really long and wide fins. We did a lot of this training in southern Bavaria from C-130’s and helicopters. We would swim around for hours. We would parachute into the way day and night with RB-15swhich was a 15-man rubber boat. We would drop out a few miles off the Italian coast and sneak in and penetrate the coastline. We would move inland from there. This was all done clandestine, not observed. We did this two or three times with the Italian saboteur force. That is where I learned about a place called Livorno, Italy. It is on the western coast of Italy, right down the coast from the leaning tower of Pisa. I found this nice little camping place right on the beach. Six dollars a day to camp there. Olivia and I and the kids would stay there 30 days at a time. It was a great place.
Willis was an E-5 when he went to Okinawa and had two combat deployments there. There were no promotions on Okinawa. The SF was a bastard outfit at that time. The Army didn’t want to have anything to do with it. It was rare for a Special Forces soldier to get promoted.
“I went back to the 6th Special Forces Group in the states in 1965 and my Company Sargeant Major was John Pioletti. He was the best soldier I had ever known. He had more impact on my life than anybody I have ever known. He was spit and polish by the regulations guy. He told me one day, “Abrams, why aren’t you an E-6 or E-7, you have two combat tours, you have a lot of time in grade, are you a mess-up?” “No Sir,” I said. “You are going before the promotions board next week.” “I had to go out and get a set of Class A uniform and went before the promotions board, and he was on it. I made E-6. In December of 65 I volunteered to go back to Vietnam. No promotions. I can’t talk about that tour. I went back to a training group at Ft. Bragg as an instructor. The SGM sent me to the E7 promotion board and I made E7. When I was assigned to Bad Tolz, CSM Pioletti was the new incoming Group CSM and offered to drive me in his staff car to supposedly get some new issued uniforms for guys getting back from Vietnam. I rode along. I knew Pioletti pretty good, but he never gave me any favors. He was getting his uniform fitted and asked me what he thought about how his uniform fitted. I told him, no sir, they are too loose, you need to have some tight ones,” he started laughing. “He came back a second time and once again I said it is too loose and I started laughing and told him, no Sargeant Major, now I know why they fit too tight, you got your ass shot off. He looked at me and called me a couple of names,” and Willis burst out laughing telling this story.
In Bad Tolz, Germany they had this hallway lined with flags from NATO nations all over the world. Each had to be meticulously lined up one-inch separation from the other. This was the Company Headquarters. They had to be perfect when you looked up and down the line. All the legs had to be exactly the same. The Colonel’s and CSM’s office had to be cleaned every night. I was pulling duty one night and noticed the Sargeant Major would roll the rug back and put a paper clip underneath it. He would check that first thing in the morning to see if you had cleaned his rug.
I had to pull staff duty NCO as an E-7 that Sunday night. We had Inspection the next morning and I was informed I was getting promoted to E-8. When I pulled the rug back I took a WHOLE BOX of paper clips and put them under the rug and patted them down. He came in at 5 a.m. and told me to go home and get dressed in Class A’s and be at that formation. Usually, after pulling an all-nighter, I would go home and get in bed. I went home and told Olivia what was going to happen.
I am standing in formation. Here comes Pioletti. He walks straight to me. He said, “YOU SOB, you blankety blank, you knew you were going to get promoted and there is nothing I can do about it. He was trying his best to keep from laughing. Everybody in that formation knew what was going on. I got promoted to E-8. I was sent to the dispensary, where I loved the work, until I was rotated back to the states.
My next assignment was the 21st EVAC Hospital at Ft. Hood, Texas. That is a LEG, NON-AIRBORNE assignment to a conventional outfit.”
Remember, how much Willis hated Ft. Hood when he first came into the Army. Well, he still hated it. He went to the Department of the Army at the Pentagon to try and get it changed. A one-star General said, Sargeant, you go ahead and take this assignment, we got plans for you. Unless it had anything to do with Special Forces, Willis didn’t want it. “I couldn’t retire because I didn’t have 20-years in the military, so I had to take this assignment. I went to this Hospital and had 300-plus people assigned to this unit. I could not find a soldier in that whole damn bunch. I was way out of my element. I spent sixteen-months at Ft. Hood, Texas trying to get out of that assignment. I called the SF Assignment Branch every week for a year trying to get out. I tried to pull favors in from anyone I knew. I finally got an assignment back to the 45th Medical Battalion in Hanau, Germany. It was the 2nd WORST assignment I ever had. The kids there didn’t want to be there, they didn’t want to be in the Army. It was terrible. A lot of drugs as well as Ft. Hood. Half my time at Ft. Hood was putting people in jail.
I called Bad Tolz almost daily and finally got assigned to operations and intelligence. I worked there for about three months. ( I can’t talk too much about what I did there ). I was assigned to the Dispensary and loved it. I was working with a civilian and two military doctors. After a few months there the two military doctors left and it was just me and the civilian doctor. I would get called all hours of the night like helping deliver a baby for a dependent woman. I did this for about nine months. My wife had some medical issues and had to send her back to the states and I followed. I got back to Ft. Sam Houston and worked at the hospital rewriting medical manuals for corpsmen in the Army.
I was offered several good jobs and was offered a job working for Diamond Shamrock and took terminal leave and went to work for them. I eventually retired from the Army after a 26-year career.
I hate to admit this, but I did receive a Purple Heart. I got caught by a booby-trap on my second trip to Vietnam. It was a foot injury that healed in about three weeks. I didn’t lose any duty from it.
Of my four tours of Vietnam, my most peaceful was in triple canopy jungle where you couldn’t see the sun when it was broad daylight. It was nice and calm and peaceful.
We came under mortar attacks several times. We had people in the wire. The worst time was leaving the camp to go on patrol and coming back to the camp was the two worst times when going out for ops. Over the years the enemy got a lot smarter.
The NVA’s were tougher because they were better equipped and more training. The biggest mistake of the Vietnam War was to let politicians get involved. We didn’t lose the war militarily. We stopped bombing them and that brought on TET and their invasion of the South. It allowed the PT-76’s and tanks Into South Vietnam. They didn’t have that ability until we stopped bombing them. The politicians and the liberal factions in the U.S. was our downfall, still alive in this country today. I have no desire to go back to Vietnam today. We had a standing order in the SF not to allow media into our camps. Sometimes, we forcibly put them back on the choppers. We even stayed away from regular Army because they were bullet magnets. I felt safer, on foot, in the jungle surrounded by people I had trained. I knew the jungle as well as my enemy and I felt safer there. I wasn’t at a disadvantage,” Willis said emphatically.
“The biggest challenge was trying to diagnose what was wrong with somebody. My first tour compared to my last tour was very broad. I had much more medical training from my first to last tours. The biggest problem in that area was emergency medical treatment because it advanced so much in the years I was there. I lost a lot of people because I didn’t have the knowledge, equipment or experience. That was one of the reasons I went back to get an emergency medical degree after I retired from the military. I concentrated on the emergency medicine. That is where you lose the most people. I lost a lot of Vietnamese and a lot of Mountain Yards and a lot of Cambodians. PTSD doesn’t bother me. Sometimes, I remember some of those people but the one that sticks in my mind is that one kid from the 1stDivision. I was absolutely helpless to help that boy. They brought a doctor from the 1st Division and he and I couldn’t do anything for him. I remember him more than all the others and that includes the babies I lost. I do remember my first baby, they named him MINH after me. That was special.
DIAMOND SHAMROCK, HOUSTON AND RETIREMENT
Willis was making about three times the money he was in the Army. He was working in the Deer Park Plant, which was a chemical plant. He went to work there as a medical technician. “I worked there for 16 years,” said Willis. “I became Supervisor for the Houston Chemical Complex. When Occidental bought us, I was responsible for four plants in their medical program. It was challenging but it was a good job. I was treating chemical burns, inhalations, injuries and OSHA physicals. Some of the chemicals they used involved using Mercury. If it gets into the body it can cause all kinds of problems. You measure that by a urine sample. I missed the military when I got out, and still do,” Willis said. “I am 81 years old and I still miss it every day.”
“I took an early retirement in 1996 We moved to Canton where we had family. My brother-in-law worked for the FBI and he moved to Canton when he retired. We helped them move. That is how I found out about Canton and Olivia loved the area. We eventually moved here. Olivia was hired in Mabank as a school teacher. I was still working in Houston and come up here on the weekends. About two years after she retired from the School District she started losing her eyesight.
She started working for the “LIGHTHOUSE FOR THE BLIND” in Tyler. I was fully involved with her. I drove her back and forth every day. I met the Human Resources Manager and she saw me every day and offered me to work there. She said we need somebody to transport our clients from Point A to Point B. So, I became their driver. They were discussing pay and I said, look, I am not here for the money. Just pay me whatever you want. As I continued working there, I took on the SEEK AND ASSUME RESPONSIBILTY, that I had learned early in the military. I saw where there could be some changes made and nobody doing it. I started making daily deposits to the bank among other things on my list that I took to the HR manager. So, I started doing those. It blossomed from there. It was one of the best places I ever worked. Once a year they had this big banquet for Christmas. It was a profit-sharing organization and any monies they made they would divide equally among all the employees. Each year each employee got a big bonus. No other company that I know does that. When Olivia and I retired from that company I told the President of that company, I wished I had found your company 20-years ago.”
Today, Willis still likes to fish and does some travelling. “My hobbies now are grandchildren and great grandchildren. I have fifteen grandkids, some in this area and around the country.
It bothers me when I see people take our freedoms for granted. I never thought we would come to where we are today. When I was a kid and it came time to stand for the flag, everyone stood. I never saw a kid refuse to do it. It started in the 60’s. I remember driving by Huntsville where the prison is located. I remember seeing fields of produce on both sides of the road. The inmates grew their own vegetables and cattle and process and pay for their own existence. Later in the 70’s nothing had been cultivated anymore.
I just never quit. I keep doing what I want to do. I don’t let things get in my way. I do things that I think God would want me to do. I try not to make the same mistake twice, although I am guilty of it. I never expected to live this long. I never feared or dreaded going to Vietnam. I don’t know why. I was never physically scared or had a fear about going. Maybe it was the training, because I was awfully confident. I guess I learned to control it when I went to parachute school. It is not natural to jump out of an airplane. I know some of me and my guys were afraid, but we never let that get in the way of the mission. There were times when I was shot at that I was afraid and had reason to be afraid. If fear gets in the way, you cease to function.
There are millions of regrets or redo’s over my long career. Absolutely millions,” said Willis finishing up our interview. I did some dumb things when I was a teenager and not proud of. I still wake up at night and remember those two motorcycle policemen in Atlanta, Georgia…Dimsdale and Martin. “Hey boy, you need to go into the Army, get out of Atlanta cause you going to get in jail.”
There are so many things I did wrong it is impossible for me to remember them all. The easiest one is raising my kids. I did a lot of things wrong. I could have achieved a lot more if I had applied myself a lot more. There were opportunities that I could have taken better advantage of.
The one thing that I would do over, and do it better, is to marry my wife earlier than what I did. Married as teenagers so I would have had a longer life with her. A week before she died I told her, “ if I had met you when we were teenagers, we would have been in real bad trouble wouldn’t we?”
God Bless you Willis, and God Bless our Veterans.
Thank you for your time. Thank you for your dedicated service and sacrifices for this country.
“It’s good, that I can find Americans, that were worth doing, what I did for.” Willis Abrams: Special Forces U.S. Army
NOTE: Meet other Veterans from Van Zandt County by going to the top of www.vzcm webpage and click on MEET OUR VETERANS and click one of the (5) branches of services and the veterans last name first and click to read.
“Every Veteran has a story to tell.” Phil Smith
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