How Bill the Soldier Became the Bill You Know

From Vietnam to the Ins and Outs of the Mailroom

Bill Gilchrist, a resident worker of the Colorado College mailroom, was born and raised in a suburb of Chicago. This coming May marks Bill’s 12th year at CC. Although referred to as the “Rainman” of mail operation by his co-worker Andy, mail has only been a small part of Bill’s adventure. Growing up in Chicago, Bill spent most of his time playing for the drum core in the city. “I played intramural sports because drum core was my first priority…and we travelled around the U.S. a lot,” he said. The U.S., however, was only the beginning of Bill’s travels, “I was there until the draft came,” he said.

Photo by Daniel Sarché

Bill’s three brothers were all in the military at the same time: one in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, the eldest in the Navy, “in the rivers in Nam,” and the second oldest in the Air Force. I wanted to join the navy,” Bill said, “and they didn’t show up, so I went and took a test for the Air Force and did alright.” In February of 1971 Bill did his pre-induction physical, and was listed 115th in the draft, so “I knew I was going,” he said. Bill was called in on a Tuesday, and left the following Wednesday. “I left and saw the world.”

In 1971, Bill was sent to Okinawa, Japan, where he stayed on an island halfway to Taiwan. During this time, Bill worked as a radar operator. “It was a resort island,” he said, as he describes the 18 hole golf course, movie theatres, and 26 lane bowling alley that existed on the small island. “Real rough remote tour,” he laughed.

Here, Bill was also faced with the realities of corruption and the impacts of war. “I learned humility there,” he said. Bill talked about doing volunteer work with the local guards in the area. “One had a sugar cane field,” he said, “and every year at harvest time, NCO would organize volunteers…I went out and helped the one guard, and his son rode his bike out from school and brought us lunch…it was a can of soda…and he gave me his, because I was helping him, so he didn’t have lunch.” he said teary-eyed, The next time Bill went to work in the field, he brought the lunch.

After a year in Japan, Bill was sent to Germany, where he was victim to a tent fire. “The stove in the tent erupted like a volcano,” he said. Two weeks later, when Bill was in a hospital, a scab found on his head led him to believe that during the fire the tent fell, knocking him over, and exposing the entire left side of his body to the flames.

After seven weeks in a hospital at a German army camp on the border, Bill was finally moved back to the U.S., where he spent a year in hospital doing skin grafts. “There was no fire extinguisher in the tent,” he said, as he shows me the burn scars running all the way down his left arm. Bill was lucky, however, as another soldier in the tent at the time became stuck in his sleeping bag, and did not make it out.

After he recovered from the burn injury, Bill was sent back to duty at another mobile unit in Phoenix, Arizona, where the heat opened up his new grown skin, preventing him from working out in the sun. He thus became a tool monitor, “I sat where the soda machines are by the picnic tables issuing tools,” he said, but this too was only temporary for Bill.

Next, Bill transitioned from “hot Phoenix, to cold Iceland,” where he worked as a radio operator before the existence of duel transmitter receivers. “I worked real world hijacking up there,” he said, referring to flight from New York to Chicago that was hijacked in 1976.

The plane was brought to Nova Scotia, with the intention of eventually reaching England, where it let off 120 passengers, and then flew to Iceland to stop and refuel. Bill served as a kind of middle-man between the hijackers and England.” He described the concentration of glaciers, volcanoes, and other natural attractions that cover Iceland, and the frequency in which accidents occurred. “That was my best assignment ever,” he said, “I worked about 2,000 rescues in the year.”

“From there, I got my first choice,” he says, “Australia.” Why Australia?, “Olivia Newton John.” He moved in February of 1977. On July 3rd, he went to an enlisted dining facility in the outback, 300 miles out of Adelaide. “I asked this young lady to dance,” he says, “and she clung to me, and that was it.” In December of the next year, Bill married this woman– a wedding with only one other American. He whispered to me, “I thought she liked cards… No, she liked me.”

For the next several years, Bill and his family moved from Denver, CO, back to the outback, and then eventually to the Springs. He ultimately worked as a rule carrier at a local post office before accepting a job in the CC mailroom in 2005. “I like doing mail, it’s not stressful,” he said, as he approaches retirement. “All these kids come up and they got all these ideas and it’s fun…that is why we stay.”

 

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