OU ROTC grad credits training for Vietnam valor

Paxson Haws / For the Transcript

Lt. Col. William A. Hamilton speaks after being inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame Nov. 3 at the Embassy Suites in Norman.

Hamilton started his military career in Norman with the OU ROTC program.

A little over a year ago, famous documentarian Ken Burns debuted his latest masterpiece, "The Vietnam War," on PBS stations across the country.

In it, there's a line, provided by narrator Peter Coyote that illustrated the difference of Vietnam by explaining "contact," the Army's name for the sudden explosions of gunfire soldiers experienced while patrolling the unknown jungles.

"War is hell," Coyote explained, "but contact is a mother."

Few people in Oklahoma understand that more than Lt. Col. William A. Hamilton.

"We were in contact constantly," Hamilton said. "So it's hard to remember many years later the exact details. There were times in Cambodia where every company was in contact all at once."

On Nov. 3, the weekend before Veterans Day, Hamilton was one of 10 veterans inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Embassy Suites in Norman. His honors include a Silver Star for Gallantry and a Bronze Star Medal with "V" Device for heroism, both from his years in Vietnam.

Hamilton was born just to the south in Pauls Valley and graduated from the University of Oklahoma. There, his 20 years of service began with the OU ROTC, of which he is also a Hall of Fame inductee.

"In those days, every male was supposed to complete two years of ROTC and you could elect to continue onto your final two years, and you could qualify for your commission," Hamilton said. "I did that and qualified as an infantry officer."

Hamilton completed his years and then went onto OU Law school. He was about halfway through it when in 1958, he said, the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis led to his division being called up as a precaution.

They didn't go into that fight. Hamilton's time came later as the U.S. presence steadily increased in South Vietnam.

"By the time I got to go to Vietnam, I was captain," Hamilton said. "And my goal was to become a company commander in combat. So I was fortunate to be assigned to the 1st Calvary Division."

Calvary in this sense meant the helicopters. Huey's flew American soldiers into areas quickly, a way of navigating the thick jungle terrain of Vietnam to chase an opposition that already knew it well.

"We were fighting an enemy that didn't want to give us battle unless the circumstances really really favored them," Hamilton said. "The 1st Air Cavalry Division owned 453 helicopters that were ours to use, and so we could chase the enemy at 90 knots, or 100 miles per hour. All of the other infantry divisions over there, they were lucky to make 3-4 miles a day through the jungle."

And it was in a helicopter that Hamilton earned his Silver Star Medal. In 1970, Hamilton was a battalion operations officer and part of the command patrol team overseeing five rifle companies.

The fighting was fierce. At one point, Hamilton said they ran out of available medevac choppers, so his team proceeded to conduct those operations, as well.

"We were going into the jungle with our command control ship, evacuating people and doing things we would normally not be doing," he said.

During this time, his command control helicopter was constantly being shot at, and it was forced down six times. During one of these times, the crew had been wounded so badly that Hamilton was the only one able to fly.

"I'm not an army aviator," Hamilton said. "I had training as a fixed-wing pilot. One of our charlie crews offered to teach me how to fly a Huey, which wasn't all that difficult."

So he took control and flew the crew back to safety.

He earned his Bronze Star Medal while leading a five-man group to assist a South Vietnamese unit. It was spotted by enemy soldiers that far outnumbered the group, and Hamilton knew they would quickly be overrun.

After unsuccessfully trying to contact an artillery unit to provide support, he quickly thought to contact aircraft in the area who were then able to reach out for artillery support. It eliminated the enemy threat.

To this day, Hamilton credits his OU ROTC training for his accomplishments.

"At OU ROTC, we had really skilled officers who were veterans of Korea," he said. "So, after four years, I had a good understanding of what an officer was supposed to do."

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