Newton Digital Collections

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Bill Tumbleson Interview


Bill Tumbleson Interview


Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Veterans--United States


Audio interview with Vietnam veteran Bill Tumbleson, an Army helicopter mechanic


Tumbleson, Bill


Newton Public Library, Newton, Kansas








Tumbleson, Bill, “Bill Tumbleson Interview,” Newton Digital Collections, accessed October 3, 2022,

Kristine Schmucker


Bill Tumbleson


Schmucker: This is Kristine Schmucker interviewing Bill Tumbleson on June 13 at the Harvey County Museum. Do you want to say your name?
Tumbleson: Bill Tumbleson, 320 Wills Lane, Halstead, Kansas.
Schmucker: Can you tell us a little about yourself before you went into the Army, like where you were born, parent’s names, that kind of thing.
Tumbleson: I was born in southern Minnesota. My parents were Ernest and Marjorie Tumbleson. And, I was farming with my dad before Uncle Same said, You have been selected.
Schmucker: How did that come about? Did you…
Tumbleson: Everybody was thrown into a draft pool, and, when your number came up, you got that wonderful letter that said: Your friends and neighbors have chosen you. And, as my dad said, when he was in World War II, everybody wanted to know who those blankety-blank neighbors were.
Schmucker: So, was it viewed as a positive thing to get called, or how…
Tumbleson: In retrospect it was a good thing. I was fortunate. I was never directly shot at. I was indirectly shot at. I was one of those people called “support personnel.” I worked on helicopters. I stayed on the base most of the time. So, it was a good experience for me. I had some friends who did not make it back., but that’s part of being in a war zone.
Schmucker: Any stories you want to share about that or do you want to wait a little bit, that’s…
Tumbleson: I have two stories. I guess they ca come at any time in this process. One of them is in-country and the other one is when I came back.
Schmucker: Okay.
Tumbleson: And, the in-country story—and I will simply preface the stories by saying that when my dad told stories about his World War II experiences, they were always humorous. Maybe not laughing, laughing humorous. And, so both of these fall under that category as well.
In the in-country story, occurred when a friend of mine, who also worked on helicopters, came into our barracks one night, and I was one of the “old guys” –all of twenty-one—so I was considered a mature person.
Schmucker: Chuckling.
Tumbleson: He came over to me and he said: Bill, I have a problem. He threw on his bed a stack of thirty letters. He said, What do I do with this?
Well, it turned out that in his home town, the third grade teacher at the school decided that it would be a good class project for all of her students to write to a GI who was serving overseas, and his name came up. So, the class sat down and they each wrote a letter and they all came in on the same day, which explained the stack of thirty letters.
And, His question was, What do I do? How do I respond? Do I send a letter to the local newspaper? Do I send it to the teacher? Do I send it to each one of the students, or what? I think eventually we wound up saying he was going to write this to the teacher, a single letter to all the members of the class that had written to him. But, the reason that that event stayed in my head was because of all those thirty letters, only one stood out. Most of them, you could see, had copied the letter right off what the teacher had written on the blackboard except for one, which simply said: Dear Soldier, I don’t want to write this letter. But my teacher made me do it. And, it was signed, “Your friend, Joshua”.
Schmucker: Laughing.
Tumbleson: So, that’s that story.
Schmucker: Mu-hum.
Tumbleson: One that occurred when I got back to the States. Like a lot of us that came back, it was a very quick transition. We didn’t come back as a group. We came back individually. Typically, within 24 to 36 hours you went from a combat zone to where ever you were returning to, in my case, back to the family farm.
So, I got this wonderful thing called an early out, which meant that I came back from Vietnam with less than six months of my two-year commitment. And, Uncle Sam said, We don’t need you around for six months causing havoc with the troops, so we are going to send you home. So, they did.
I came back to the family farm and, about a week later, I was setting the supper table for my mom. I had been doing this every night since I got home. As part of the process, I was setting the silverware, plates, glasses. On that particular night, my mom stopped me and she said: Why are you doing that? What she was asking me about was I would take the glasses and turn them upside down and tap them against me hand and then I would set them on the table. Then, I would take the next glass, turn it upside down and tap it twice on the palm of my hand, set it on the table,
Schmucker: Chuckling.
Tumbleson: My mom said, Why are you doing that? Without even thinking, I answered her: That’s to knock the dirt and the bugs out.
Schmucker: Mu-hum.
Tumbleson: If anyone doubts you can modify your behavior very quickly, that was an example of behavior modification.
Schmucker: Un-huh.
Tumbleson: I no longer did that.
Both laughing.
Tumbleson: So, those are the two stories. If there is another one, I guess it would have occurred several years later when I was serving on a school board, which I did for nine years.
Every year we would go to the school board convention in Milwaukee Wisconsin, which is always held in January. You know school board members are cheap when they get rooms in January. They are cheap in Milwaukee.
Both chuckling.
Tumbleson: As a part of that, there was always a banquet for all of the attendees. It was usually on a Friday evening. They would have a speaker. On that particular event was the first time that I had ever been where there was recognition to Vietnam veterans.
Schmucker: Mu-hum.
Tumbleson: There’s been a lot of that over the past few years, which I think is overdone with the use of hero and all that stuff, which it kind of meaningless. But, at that point, that was the first time I had ever encountered it.
Before the speaker was introduced, the MC simply said, Could all the Vietnam veterans in the room please stand up? My first memory of it was how reluctant everyone was. There were a lot of us; I guess forty percent, men and women.
Schmucker: Yes.
Tumbleson: As you looked around, you thought, Well, I guess they’re standing up, maybe I can get up, sort of. Very cautiously, we just stood up.
Schmucker: Mu-huh.
Tumbleson: And then there was, I don’t know if there was applause or something, and then we just sat down. And, that was it. There were no speeches about being heroes and all that. It was just recognition that you did serve. What struck me was the number of people who had chosen to continue to serve in things like school boards.
Schmucker: Mu-huh.
Tumbleson: So that was kind of a neat memory.
Schmucker: Yes, it is.
Tumbleson: So that’s the three I have to share.
Both laughing.
Schmucker: Yeah. Yeah. Those are very good stories. Do you have any thoughts why people were cautious? Any reflection on that?
Tumbleson: Oh, I think it was very much the times. I remember talking to a gentleman not too long ago who said that he remembers being out-processed. He had come back from Vietnam and he stopped. Oh, I think I was in Fort Washington (inaudible). I forget the name of the fort, but it was in Washington State. He came back through California, and as he was
being given his final instructions before heading out the door, they said, Don’t wear your uniform. Basically, don’t advertise hat you are a veteran because it was not very popular at the time.
Schmucker: Mmm.
Tumbleson: You were not welcomed back with open arms. So, yeah, there was a cautiousness there.
Schmucker: Yes.
Tumbleson: Is this okay to be recognized?
Schmucker: Do you know about when that school board story was? Was that about five years later, or…?
Tumbleson: Probably fifteen years later.
Schmucker: Oh, that much?
Tumbleson: It was a long time. It was not something that was gonna; it wasn’t on my radar. It was a surprise. It was like, Oh, we had almost forgotten about it. That wasn’t something you brought up.
Schmucker: Maybe you could tell the story you recorded earlier about how you knew you were in Vietnam?
Tumbleson: Oh, one of the questions we were asked in these interviews is what are your dates of service. It appears from talking with other veterans it is not uncommon to not remember. Now, there are some dates that we remember, such as wedding anniversaries. Some of us have help doing that.
Both laugh.
Tumbleson: But, dates of service just wasn’t something that stuck with me. The reason I can remember when I came in the country was it was the same day that America landed a man on the moon the first time, which was July 20, 1969.
Schmucker: Mmm.
Tumbleson: So it’s a kind of a juxtaposition, looking back at it, that I was stepping foot into a combat zone at the same time that the country was landing people on the moon.
Schmucker: Yes, lots going on right then. Before you went to Vietnam, when was the process after you got your letter?
Tumbleson: Well, like everybody who went into the service, you went to basic training and everybody does that. And you wind up learning that your new mother and father is the drill sergeant, as they are prone to say.
After that, at the end of basic training, everyone is given their next duty assignment and 11-Bravo, or 11-B, is the designation that everyone knew, that meant infantry man. That was not one you necessarily wanted to get. So, when they came around and handed out
some 11-Bakers, 11-B’s, and they came to me and said, You’re going to be a 67-November and you’re going to Fort Eustis Virginia. I went to the one person who, after eight weeks, knew everything under the sun, the drill sergeant, I went over. I said, Drill sergeant, what’s a 67-November. He said, I haven’t got a clue. I said, Where’s Fort Eustis, and he said, I haven’t heard of that either. I thought Oh, Lordy, what am I getting into?
Schmucker: Chuckles.
Tumbleson: It ended up being helicopter training. And, that was a very good experience as well. Served me well.
I read someplace in the articles about this Vietnam thing I’m doing right now that one of the memories that people have is the sound of Vietnam is helicopters. The whop, whop, whop, whop.
Schmucker: Mmm.
Tumbleson: The helicopter blades.
Schmucker: Mu-huh.
Tumbleson: And, that’s true.
Schmucker: Un-huh.
Tumbleson: I hadn’t thought about it, but, to this day, I can hear a helicopter and I know it. That’s a sound you don’t forget.
Schmucker: Yes.
Tumbleson Yeah, that was a good thing. I had some good people to work with.
I guess another story I have is of a warrant officers typically a grade in the service, who were the pilots, the test pilots. Our test pilots were very good. They also understood how to train people. The way you train people to (inaudible) aircraft was you say, Okay, sir, it is ready for a test flight. And he said, Get in. And, if you hesitated, he said That’s alright, let me know when you’re ready.
Both laughing.
Tumbleson: It doesn’t tend to focus your efforts.
Schmucker: Yes. (laughing)
Tumbleson: I had excellent officers to work with that understood that. They didn’t shove it in your face. It was like this is a learning experience; this is why you need to pay attention. (inaudible) bring it home.
Schmucker: Yes, it does. So, do you have a sense on how you were chosen to do this?
Tumbleson: Well, yes, actually, when you go in the service, again there’s nothing unique here, you are given a battery of tests. I’m not the brightest guy in the world, but when they ask you questions on this test like: Do you like weapons? Do you like camping? Do you like the outdoors? And you would say: no, no, no. Do you recognize a screwdriver? Do you recognize a hammer? Yes, yes, yes. That may have helped direct me into; maybe they thought I was a little bit mechanically inclined. To recognize a screwdriver two out of three times. And, I didn’t like to go camping.
Schmucker: Laughing.
Tumbleson: Now, whether that actually affected it, or it was just someone throwing darts at a board, I have no idea.
Schmucker: No way to know.
Tumbleson: No way to know.
Schmucker: Do you have any thoughts on what the hardest part of the training might have been? You said they were all good, but…
Tumbleson: I suppose it wasn’t specific to what I had been trained on, but it’s the shift from the individual to the group mentality. That’s really the emphasis that you are a part of a group. You are always supporting somebody else in whatever capacity you are. You are not doing it as an individual. And, that’s a shift.
Schmucker: It is a shift, then, when you come back?
Tumbleson: Yes, to a degree. I think part of that thinking benefits you when you go into the corporate world, too. In my career, as a civilian, I worked a one-man territory, but I worked for a large company. So, you still had to keep in mind you were part of a larger group when you were out there doing the thing as an individual. So, the military probably helped with that a little bit.
Schmucker: What did you do as a civilian? What was your job later?
Tumbleson: I was a computer tech.
Schmucker: Oh, okay. You still knew what a screwdriver was.
Both laughing.
Tumbleson: Yes, I did. Yeah. And the other thing, nothing unique, but the GI Bill that helped me buy a house. It helped me get education. So, there are a purpose to it.
Schmucker: Yeah.
Tumbleson: But you have to take advantage of it.
Schmucker: What type of education did it allow you to do?
Tumbleson: I went to a two-year tech program, a vocational school. I got what they call an associate’s degree in electronics. Then most of my training came from the company I worked with. As the equipment came out, you were trained on it and all that stuff.
Schmucker: I think we have kind of talked about it: how did the experience change you? Is there anything you want to add?
Tumbleson; At the time, probably not a whole lot, or very reluctantly. I’m very much a different person now than I was when I was in school. I’m not one who goes back to high school reunions; they’re not good memories for me. I was very much a wallflower. If I could just melt into the floor through my entire school career, I could be happy. Probably the school board service helped more than anything, learning how to interact with people. That was difficult. That was not something that came naturally to me. In a sense, I’ve taken leadership roles in different organizations and the military may have helped some with that.
Schmucker: Okay, you talked about when you came home. Do you know what the date was?
Tumbleson: It would have been 413 days after that July 20, 1969.
Both laughing.
Schmucker: Yeah, that’s okay. And, when you came back, were there any other experience besides what you shared earlier?
Tumbleson: Nothing that comes to mind, no. That was the only…I guess the other one was… (laughing) Language in the military is not something you would probably share with a date, let’s put it that way, politely. There’s certain words that get entered into your vocabulary which are not appropriate for mixed company.
I do have one memory about answering my dad about something. It was not anything nasty. It was just a question to do something. I answered, Sure I’ll take care of the blank thing. My younger brother was there and my younger brother was seven years old. I remember him repeating that. That’s another one of those behavior modification things. You can purge those words from your language if you choose.
Schmucker: Yes.
Tumbleson: It can be done.
Both laughing.
Schmucker: Give us a sense about your family. Are you the oldest? Youngest? What?
Tumbleson: I’m the middle. I have an older sister. She passed away a number of years ago. I have a younger brother I just mentioned, seven years younger than I am. I don’t know if it ties into this, but he went into the military and put in twenty years; so, he is a career guy. He’s been out a number of years now. He was fortunate, I guess. He served in the quote-unquote peace time. We did have the one, down in the Caribbean, the invasion, it
lasted a week, but has had never seen combat. He was in a support role. We share experiences, but his experiences were very different from mine.
I know I’ve I mentioned I get a little upset at the overuse of the word hero, and people standing up and running off at how wonderful everyone is. We were in Branson one time, and this wasn’t too long after nine-eleven. There was a gentleman standing up and going on and on about this. We were sitting in the back row. When we left, my brother said if it hadn’t been for someone who was with us who was a little disabled, he would have got up and walked out because, as a veteran, he found that offensive. I said, I would be walking out right behind you. And, I think that, I don’t know how to say that. These days, I think you would get probably crucified. Everyone is supposed to be Rah! Rah!
NO. If you don’t learn that war isn’t good, you haven’t learned anything.
Schmucker: Yeah.
Tumbleson: But, how do we say that?
Schmucker: Yeah. But, you are the voices to be listened to, since you know.
Do you have anything you want to share about when you were in Vietnam and anything like that?
Tumbleson: I was trying to think, as I said earlier, I lost some people I knew. I remember the first one that didn’t come back from a mission, young kid, younger. I was the old guy at twenty-one. I think he was maybe nineteen. He was already married and had two kids. He wanted to fly. That’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to be given a ship that he could fly in, an aircraft. I was ground support. I repaired them. I went on test flights. I didn’t go on combat missions. And finally, he got his chance and he became a crew chief. I think it was his second flight. He didn’t make it back. That one hit home because we talked. We had become friends. He told me about his wife, his kids. He wasn’t coming back.
Schmucker: Just hearing about your experience, but…
Tumbleson: You’re over there to do your job; that’s part of it.
Schmucker: Maybe telling his story, too, is keeping…
Tumbleson: Yeah.
Smucker: …to some extent…
Tumbleson: Yeah.
Schmucker: So, you weren’t married at the time?
Tumbleson: Nope. I was a late bloomer, let me put it that way.
Both laughing.
Schmucker: Okay. Do you have any friendships that have continued, that you’ve…?
Tumbleson: No.? Once, I think a part of that was, when you left, you came back separately, so, and you weren’t encouraged. That wasn’t something you shared back then. So, in my case, no. A lot of folks do; I did not.
Schmucker: Was there a VA, I’m not very good on all the lingo. Was there a veteran’s organization where you were at that…?
Tumbleson: There was an American Legion club which, unfortunately, they seemed to focus a lot on, how should I put this, on keeping the beer flowing. And, I was one of those odd guys. I’m a teetotaler, not for any. I used to be asked by guys… (chuckles) There’s a brief story: Someone once asked me, he said,
Bill, you don’t drink, do you?
I said, No.
He said, You don’t swear, do you?
Not any more than, I try not to.
Jeez, you don’t do anything, do you? Do you have kids?
I said, Yeah.
Well, thank goodness you do something!
Both chuckling and laughing.
Schmucker: Yeah. You said your dad had been in World War II?
Tumbleson: Yeah.
Schmucker: Did you ever talk with him…and your brother…did the three of you ever talk about differences?
Tumbleson: No. It simply did not come up. And, matter of fact, when I came back he was already in, probably, the early stages of Alzheimer’s, although at that stage, they didn’t know what to call it. So, we really never had those conversations. And my brother, no. It’s just not; we have more interesting things to talk about, I guess.
Schmucker: Yes, that’s fine. I understand. Well, those are the general questions I had. I don’t know if you have anything else you want to share?
Tumbleson: Nope. I’m just kind of surprised that I wanted to do this because this had never been on my radar.
Schmucker: You tell great stories, so I’m glad you did.
Both laughing.
Schmucker Thank you very much for doing this.
Tumbleson: You’re welcome.

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