SEABECK — With all due respect, Bill Reeder simply doesn’t look like a war hero.
His genial and professorial demeanor make him seem more like just a regular guy, an older gentleman enjoying his upcoming retirement and, at age 70, starting to think about smelling the roses a bit more.
But his story is anything but a stroll down the garden path. He spent two years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, surviving an experience that tested every fiber of his will to live. It is said that some people simply refuse to die, and Reeder is one of them.
So, naturally, the retired U.S. Army colonel wrote a book.
The tale is both harrowing and inspirational, recounting a slightly out-of-control childhood that he says prepared him for what lay ahead.
“I had a difficult family life, and I was a tough kid,” he said. “I got into a lot of fights.”
Reeder will give a reading from his book, “Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam” from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 17 on board the USS Turner Joy. Of that time, Reeder estimates he’ll devote approximately 20 minutes to readings from the book. The rest of the time will be open for people to chat with the man, ask questions, get a book autographed and find out what it’s like to rub elbows with an honest-to-goodness American war hero (he’s also an inductee of the Army Aviation Hall of Fame).
In 1971, Bill Reeder was a senior Army captain. He was a skilled pilot who flew Cobra attack helicopters. He had enthusiastically signed up for a second tour of Vietnam, knowing the war was approaching an end and wanting to get one last taste of combat piloting a Cobra gunship, one of the U.S.’s most potent high-tech weapons. But his combat ended when his chopper was shot down, sending the aircraft in a flaming corkscrew to the jungle floor. His gunner died in the crash. Despite being badly injured, shrapnel embedded in his leg, Reeder managed for three days to evade the Viet Cong, who frantically searched for him in the dense jungle.
After being imprisoned in tiny bamboo jungle cages for several weeks, he survived a grueling Bataan Death March-style forced march northward to Hanoi, for a stay at the legendary “Hanoi Hilton.” Of the 20 fellow American POWs who began the march with Reeder, eight of them did not survive.
“For a lot of them, I think death was simply easier,” he mused.
Bill Reeder could not resist the urge to get one more taste of combat before the Vietnam War ended. He was an expert pilot in the Cobra gunship. File photo
The details of his experience are almost not suitable for a family newspaper, but he survived.
“As soon as I got to Hanoi, I knew I’d survive,” he said. “All I needed to do was just gut it out for a few months until the war ended.”
The seed for the book stewed in his mind for a very long time.
“It only took me about 40 years to write this book,” he said with a smile. “Maybe I just wasn’t ready to search my soul deep enough to get the book written.”
But the time arrived, and he started the actual writing about three years ago. As his narrative took form, he realized he knew exactly the purpose for writing about such a horrifying experience. “I would hope my own trials and tribulations might inspire other people to persevere,” he said.
Reeder felt so strongly about this that one of the appendices of the book is entitled, “Eight steps for survival in a POW camp.” (The list was originally published in the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery Journal in December 1974.) It’s good advice for anyone trying to negotiate the challenges of daily life.
After he got home, he settled into a more typical routine of getting a doctorate and becoming a leadership training consultant. Most recently, he has continued to work with NATO Special Operations forces.
The work with NATO has forced him to spend the last several summers in Belgium, and not long ago he realized it was time to ease up.
“I said to my wife, ‘I don’t have too many summer vacations left,’ ” so he informed his employer he was officially entering retirement. He and his wife, who is also a retired full colonel, live in Seabeck.
One warning to the reader: the book is, as Reeder puts it, “raw and honest.” That includes the language used by soldiers in combat, and the graphic descriptions of what he endured.
“I don’t think I left too many warts out of it.”