It was a day Bobby Thatcher will never forget, even if he’d like to.
“I was crying while I was flying,” Thatcher said Friday, his voice breaking at the memory.
Thatcher was pilot of the helicopter that lowered Marine Sgt. Durward “Butch” Waddill by cable into the deep canopy of a Vietnam jungle in November 1967, with so much flak flying there seemed little hope Waddill would come back up alive.
Not only did Waddill survive, he sent three wounded fellow Marines, a Navy corpsman and a South Vietnamese “Kit Carson” scout back up to Thatcher, who didn’t have room for Waddill.
“The thing is, they couldn’t get themselves into the hoist. They were too injured,” said Thatcher, who had never met Waddill before that day and didn't even know his name. “He tied them onto the hoist with his belt and their belts and whatever. If he hadn’t gone down there every one of those guys would have died. One hundred percent of them would be dead without him.”
Alone in the jungle, Waddill gathered up the team’s rifles and radios and hoped against hope the helicopter would return for him before nightfall. It did. Waddill was dragged through heavy underbrush for hundreds of yards, and he finally climbed into the chopper bloodied and injured. But he was alive and, according to Thatcher, smiling.
Forty-seven and a half years later, an emotional U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., pinned a Silver Star Medal on the right lapel of an emotional Waddill, who has lived in Florence for the past 19 years, in a jam-packed Missoula City Council Chambers.
“This thing that he did,” Thatcher said, “was so brave – I’m going to cry, but it’s OK, I’m used to it … What he did was so important and so unbelievably brave. I’ve seen people get the Congressional Medal of Honor for less than what he did.”
Thatcher came to Missoula from his home in central California for Friday’s ceremony, joining more than a hundred others, many of whom made similar long-distance journeys.
Col. Jimmie W. Glenn of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was Waddill’s platoon commander in Company D, Third Reconnaissance Battalion of the Third Marine Division – Marines whose duty it was to be the “eyes of the division” by patrolling deep into enemy territory.
He wasn’t with the team Waddill saved that day, but Glenn said he was close enough to see and monitor the bomb drops.
“I thought he’d been killed,” Glenn said.
When the battle was over and Glenn got the full story from Thatcher and others weeks later, he obtained permission from his company commander to put Waddill in for a Silver Star Award.
Years later, the two met at a reunion in Kentucky and Glenn learned the medal never came through.
“So we went to war,” Glenn said with a smile.
With the help of Tester, a Congressional delegate from Waddill’s adopted state, the process began four years ago and culminated Friday.
The Silver Star Award is the third-highest military combat decoration accorded to a member of the U.S. Armed Forces. No. 2 on the list for a Marine behind the Medal of Honor is the Navy Cross. That, said Glenn, was what both he and Tester first applied for and still firmly believe Waddill deserves.
Before Friday’s ceremony, Waddill stood at the door to the council chamber greeting everyone who came through with a handshake and thanks. He began his comments by introducing Thatcher as well as Keith Blankenship, the “tail-end Charlie of the patrol” and one of the few who Americans who weren’t wounded.
“I wanted to recognize the two real heroes of that operation,” Waddill said.
Katie and John Wear came to the ceremony from Castro Valley, California, to honor Waddill, who grew up with Katie and her brother, John Rottmar of Stevensville. Both Johns are retired Marines.
“He’s been a good friend for many, many years,” Katie Wear said.
Darlene Schneider was there from Erlanger, Kentucky. Waddill and her husband, Larry, served together in Vietnam. Larry passed away 20 years ago, and Darlene has gone to almost every reunion since.
“That’s how I got to meet these wonderful people that my husband told stories about,” Schneider said. “Sgt. Waddill was an important guy to my husband.”
Nine months after Waddill’s heroic acts in the jungle, he and Larry Schneider were together on “what they call the River Patrol,” Darlene said.
“There were four divers in the river that day, and I believe Butch was the only survivor.”
Tester re-read the tribute to Waddill that he read into the Congressional record last month.
He made it through the details of Nov. 9, 1967, all right, but his voice faltered when he came to the part about Waddill’s "bold initiative, his undaunted courage, and complete dedication to duty.”
Tester muttered a quiet obscenity to compose himself. When he finished and pinned the medal on Waddill, the room erupted in applause, cheers and Marine hoo-rahs.
“This is not about receiving an award really,” said Waddill, who lined up the Bitterroot Detachment Marine Corps League to present the colors. “I guess it’s a selfish way of getting a lot of people together who have been meaningful in my life” both in the service and in his many activities in Montana, including the Big Sky Shooting Club and a vigorous advocacy for public lands.
“He’s an incredible Montanan,” said Zach Porter of the Montana Wilderness Association.
Waddill was platoon sergeant but wasn’t initially with his battalion that fateful day in 1967 when it was jumped by a North Vietnamese patrol. He was preparing to attend Navy diving school in the Philippines, but insisted on joining Thatcher’s Medavac team to go help.
One American died in the firefight, and that loss weighs heavy on Waddill.
"It's great that so many people survived and that means a lot to me," he said. "But still, you regret the losses. To be able to serve with such men who risked their lives for their country is such an honor."
A medal for Waddill’s valor “should have happened a long time ago,” insisted Thatcher, whose tour of duty in Vietnam ended the following day. “This is a very high honor, but it should have been more. It should have been more.”
But Waddill said the level of medal is immaterial.
"It's not about the award. It's about the friendship and the taking care of each other and the camaraderies," he said. "It's just about getting friends and brothers back alive. That's the most important thing."