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Kentucky by Heart: The sacrifices of Vietnam’s ‘Sons of Bardstown’ have had lasting impact on community


By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

It’s probably safe to say that most communities of Kentucky were affected in some way by the tragedy of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, an era generally considered stretching from 1962-1975. The Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial website reports that 1,108 Kentuckians were among the approximately 58,000 Americans who died in the conflict. There were also thousands who were wounded in action and hundreds are still listed as missing in action (MIA).

For the townsfolk of Bardstown, with a population of only about five to six thousand in those years, and along with the surrounding environs, it was an extraordinary hit, one that touched most citizens in some way. Through the course of the war, at least 16 were killed, and in one enemy attack, on June 19, 1969, five from the area died and another passed a week later from injuries. One was killed a week before the battle.

I recently read The Sons of Bardstown: 25 Years of Vietnam in an American Town, published in 1994 and authored by Jim Wilson. The book makes a strong effort to portray the significance of the effect Vietnam had on the Bardstown community, and I believe it was largely successful. After reading and quickly gaining interest, I corresponded with Don Parrish, a Bardstown survivor of the fateful night of the attack, and Gilly Simpson, whose father was part of the unit but was on emergency leave at the time. I also contacted former WHAS (Louisville) television journalist Rachel Platt. In 1995, she traveled to the attack site in Vietnam and reported, along with Bardstown veterans who served there, about their experiences returning to the place where so much pain intruded into their lives and families. Years later, Rachel additionally wrote an insightful article in Kentucky Living in 2019, recalling the “Band of Brothers” of the Bardstown area.

I also watched the 1989 CBS-TV “On the Road with Charles Kuralt” episode featuring the story, along with John Coulter and Gilly Simpson’s (and others) recently released (2019) stirring documentary, Firebase Tomahawk.

For sure, there is a compelling historical, military narrative in these parts usually most known for its beautiful downtown and amazing bourbon economy. Some five decades after Vietnam, the local carnage still brings difficult reflections to many in their daily lives.

Firebase Tomahawk was the military site in Vietnam where National Guard soldiers from Bardstown’s C Battery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery landed in service to support the 101st Airborne. Their deployment happened only a bit longer than a year from when the unit was unexpectedly called to active service; until that point, it had been unusual for the National Guard to serve outside US borders in war. And according to a 2009 article in Bardstown’s newspaper, The Kentucky Standard, only 12 of 117 in C Battery were from outside Nelson County.

Specialist E-5 Don Parrish, raised in Bardstown, was chief of Fire Direction Center at Firehouse Tomahawk on a fateful morning when the North Vietnamese Army attacked under cover of heavy rain. Despite the loss of members of the unit on that day and one later in the week, Don praised the unit’s overall performance. “Charlie Battery did its job extremely well, resulting in everyone needing our support would contact us if they were within ten miles of our location, as that were our maximum range. We had six self-propelled 155 mm howitzers and were able to bring major devastation upon the enemy.”

Vietnam veterans upon their return from the war (Photo courtesy Gilly Simpson)

But on the early morning of June 19th, shortly before 2:00 a.m., Charlie Battery was sorely in need of help for themselves when they were engaged by a surprise enemy attack. A large number of North Vietnamese soldiers, buoyed by their own heavy artillery support and the torrential rain, invaded the American firebase by crawling through small openings in the barbed wire fence barriers. Ironically, many of the invaders removed their clothing in order not to be snagged and slowed down. They were armed with satchel charges or small packages of TNT that would explode as they were tossed. Rachel Platt, in her Kentucky Living article, reported that in the early morning of the intrusion, the satchel charge explosions provided the only light, and quoted Don Parrish as recalling: “It was utter chaos. It was completely dark, like the inside of a cow, no moon or stars.”

With counter fire from the American 101st, the attack was over about 5 a.m. Though the Vietnamese army incurred more casualties, it was a severe blow to the Americans, with nine artillerymen dying and 44 injured. Bardstown’s aforementioned five National Guardsmen were part of the nine who died, and another died less than a week later with severe burns. Those and others involved in the Vietnamese Conflict from the Nelson County area would become known as “The Sons of Bardstown.”

Today, it is often a time of reflection of the sad time in Bardstown’s past, but also a time of dealing with it in a positive way. Gilly Simpson, son of Mike Simpson, a Battery C soldier, wondered what would have happened if his father had not been called back to the United States on emergency leave to be with Mike’s father while he battled cancer. Mike Simpson was not on the base when it was attacked. “David Collins, who was on the same gun as Dad, was killed,” said Gilly. “It was an eye-opening experience to learn that as a teenager, as the realization hit me that had just one of a number of circumstances gone even slightly differently, I might never have been born.”

To Don Parrish, the experience of his military experience and Firebase Tomahawk is seldom free from his mind. “Not a day has gone by in the last fifty-plus years that I have not had at least a fleeting thought of the history we were part of, and many others are the same,” he said.

Both Gilly and Don talked about the positive way the community has treated the veterans. “Bardstown was the antithesis of the rest of the country when it came to the treatment of the men when they returned home,” said Gilly. “They were greeted at the airport by several thousand people in the middle of the night.”

Community members gather to welcome Vietnam veterans home form a 2019 Honor Flight (Photo courtesy Honor Flight Bluegrass)

More recently, another touching outpouring of appreciation occurred, noted Don. “About four years ago, I contacted a gentleman in Louisville with Honor Flight (a program that arranges veteran air trips to Washington, D.C. memorials) and asked if it would be possible for our battery to be included on one of their flights. He said he had never heard of anything like this ever taking place. He re-contacted me several months later and said there is no record of such a thing ever happening in the Honor Flight program in the country, but that we would be the first.

“We had to launch a fund-raising effort to finance this trip to Washington and we raised about $50,000 from our community with gifts running from individuals at five dollars to one business with $5,000 and many in between. The project was a success and we had about 45 guys with guardians travel to D.C. for the day. Unfortunately, it rained the entire day, but the trip was a success. Our community has responded quite well to our involvement and we are proud of this fact.”

Kelli Oakley, Honor Flight Bluegrass board secretary, was a huge part of the endeavor. “As with all Honor Flights, we feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to escort WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans to Washington, DC . . .and, we are grateful to see the healing that takes place with so many veterans,” said Kelli. “This was the first time we have had the opportunity to take a unit, and they were truly a ‘band of brothers.’ The weather was not the best, but there was never a negative word from these gentlemen because they had been through a whole lot worse than rainy weather. There were tears and smile throughout the day, and the best part was to see their expressions at our “Welcome Home,” and they were definitely tears of joy.”

Rachel Platt’s Vietnam reporting on the Sons of Bardstown was especially authentic, as her father served his country in Vietnam, though he wasn’t able to make the 1995 trip because of health issues. “So these men took his place and we became fast friends because our frame of reference with Vietnam came with connectedness. They were completely open with us in every aspect of the trip; we were joined at the hip, but there was also healthy respect that came with it. When they no longer wanted the cameras running, we turned them off to give them personal space, as well. The trip was about healing for them, and we wanted to make sure they got that. When we visited the site where they lost so many friends, we videotaped most of it, but then we shut our cameras off and moved away so they could have their private time. I am a reporter, but you have to recognize the humanity in every story, and we did that with these veterans who needed their space in that moment.”

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

The journalist sees the need to keep recognizing their sacrifice going forward. “I think the recognition of what happened is kept alive by those veterans and the families and the families of Battery C, who lost so much, and gave so much,” she said. “I certainly hope that recognition will continue long after we’re gone. History matters because it teaches us to be diligent and vigilant about the future. I also think programs supporting veterans are essential. Many veterans will struggle, and we owe them help and continual support.”

In tribute and remembrance, following are the names and dates of death for those from the Bardstown area who served and made the ultimate sacrifice for America in the Vietnam War:

Raymond Sylvester Ford-February 20, 1966

William Russell Taylor-August 28, 1966

William David Price-March 18, 1968

James Raphael Norris-November 3, 1968

Harold M. Brown-June 11, 1969

David Burr Collins-June 19, 1969

Ronald Earl Simpson-June 19, 1969

Joseph R. McIlroy-June 19, 1969

Luther Chappel-June 19, 1969

James Thomas Moore-June 24, 1969

Barry Neal Thompson-June 25, 1969

James Allen Wray-July 2, 1969

Paul Allen Johnson-August 4, 1970

Nicholas G. Johnson-August 13, 1970

Charles David St. Clair-January 16, 1971

James J. Crawford-February 3, 1972

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Copies of the DVD, “Firebase Tomahawk,” can be purchased by visiting www.tunnellmillpictures.com, emailing tunnelmill@gmail.com, or by calling 502-507-2798.

Sources: kentuckyguard.dodlive.mil; history.ky.gov; The Sons of Bardstown (book), by Jim Wilson (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1994); Kentucky Living article by Rachel Platt, Oct. 19, 2019; Kentucky Standard article June 19, 2009; WDRB.com article June 13, 2019; Victories for Veterans video (CBS “On the Road with Charles Kuralt”); Victories for Veterans Facebook page; Firebase Tomahawk (DVD)


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