This week’s Veterans Spotlight feature subject is a prime example of humility in its finest form. Bill Sutcliffe served his country with extreme bravery in the US Army from October 1968 to March of 1970, during the Vietnam War.
Mr. Sutcliffe grew up in Newton and was drafted at age 21. He went to basic training at Fort Gordon then to an infantry battalion at Camp Crockett, where he lived in Quonset huts with other soldiers.
Sergeant Sutcliffe was sent to Vietnam in May of 1969. “We flew to Bien Hoa, which was part of Saigon. I was assigned to a Ready Reaction Force of infantry-trained soldiers. We were Bravo Company…1st of the 8th of the 1st Cavalry Division,” he remembered. “I was in Vietnam just two days and we got ambushed…it was a hit and run…that’s what they did…we fought the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and they were just brutal…every time we saw action, it was with the NVA.”
Sergeant Sutcliffe’s missions would take him deep into the dreaded jungle west of Saigon, at the bottom of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “I was assigned to Quan Loi and Song Be…we were constantly in firefights and had to be on guard against the threat of NVA ambushes,” he recalled.
I asked Sergeant Sutcliffe what it was like to be under constant threat of attack. He offered something that tells you he was in heavy day-to-day combat: “You knew quite well the sounds of an AK-47…it makes a very distinctive sound…the clicks…makes a crackling sound…in a firefight, nobody aims their weapon because you can’t see anything…you point and shoot…it’s kill or be killed.…Our platoons were very close…really depended on each other…it was life or death.”
What were missions like in the jungle? “We were helicoptered in and out…we went out three weeks at a time…we protected the LZ (landing zone) with Delta, Charlie and Alpha companies…we were on a rotating basis. Our company was about the size of 90 to 100 men…front guy was always chopping away at bamboo, trying to clear a path…canteens would rattle.…If the enemy wanted to ambush us, they would do it,” he remembered.
I was going to ask Sergeant Sutcliffe about a mentor in Vietnam; he beat me to the punch. “...had one captain…Captain Hottell…Rhodes scholar…came from a big military family…there was greatness in this man…he’d zigzag with troops to keep the enemy confused…when this man said he was going out (on patrol), nearly everybody wanted to go with him…really admired him…he was accessible…we were out on patrol and I happened to be next to him…he looks at my helmet and says ‘Boston?’ I nodded. He said, ‘Great city…I want to go back there’.”
I asked him about being away for the holidays and he responded, “It’s the last place you wanted to be…but you still had to be on guard like any other day…there was supposed to be a truce but nobody really honored it because we would get into small firefights.”
When Sergeant Sutcliffe got out of the jungle he was assigned a company mail clerk’s job. “It was terrible…had to put KIA (Killed In Action) in envelopes and send them to soldiers’ parents,” he remembered. “I’ll tell you this. When I got back to Boston I knew I had to make a decision…I could have dwelled on Vietnam or move on…chose to move on…never talked about it and my family stopped asking me…I’m very happy for the recognition that current veterans receive when they come home…personally, I hated every single second…every single minute of my military experience.”
Of all the medals Sergeant Sutcliffe has received he is proudest of his Air Medal, Combat Infantry Badge and Bronze Star. At 72 he spends his time in Falmouth and Newton with his wife and family.
Sergeant Bill Sutcliffe, thank you for your service to our great country.