40 years later, family learns truth of soldier’s Vietnam War death

MSGT William E. Lawson

PADUCAH, KY- The Wall That Heals is coming to Paducah in October. There are nearly 58,000 names on the traveling replica Vietnam Memorial. They are the men and women who never came home.

MSGT William “Bill” E. Lawson is one of them. Bill was in the U.S. Army Special Forces, a Green Beret. The work was hard and dangerous. He was one of the country’s best. Bill was killed in 1967, but it would be 40 years before his family learned the truth about the secret mission that took his life.

“It’s somebody I never knew, although I carried the pride,” Mike Lawson said of his father.

He was just 4-years-old when his dad died, but he knows him. He’s heard the stories and there are moments that live in his memory.

This is the last family photo of the Lawsons before Bill left for Vietnam.

“I remember the 21-gun salute at the burial,” Mike said. “It’s very difficult to think of what my dad faced and knew what the environment he was going to, and to get on a plane and fly into that known, yet unknown situation. I can’t imagine what strength it took.”

“He had the prettiest blue eyes,” Joyce Roper said, remembering her husband clearly, even after all these years. “A couple of my children have got his eyes.”

“That was the last family photo we were able to take before he left,” Lynn Russell, the oldest of Bill’s three children, said of a family photo with her dad.

Mike and Lynn remember when their dad flew out from Paducah’s Barkley Airport for Vietnam. What they didn’t know at the time is what Bill felt as he said goodbye to his family.

Mike Lawson holds a letter in his right hand sent to his family in 1967 explaining the circumstances surrounding his father’s death. In his left hand is the document with the true story, finally declassified in 2008.

“When he left he told me he wouldn’t be coming back,” Joyce said. “He knew that he was gonna’ get killed over there.”

 

Bill was right. Pictures show the Lawson family accepting awards Bill earned with his sacrifice. As for how he died, the government sent a letter in 1967.

“Gives a pretty vivid description that he was killed in Vietnam, and this was the events surrounding his death,” Mike said, showing the letter.

It was their truth for 40 years, until Mike got a phone call in 2008.

Bill is pictured in the book MAC V SOG: Team History of a Clandestine Army, Volume 5.

“The person on the other end of the line asked, you know, if I was Mike Lawson. If I had a father who was killed in Vietnam in 1967,” Mike said.

The author of the book “MAC V SOG: Team History of a Clandestine Army Volume 5”, Jason M. Hardy, was looking for information on Mike’s dad. He also had declassified information about how Bill really died. There were stark difference between the 1967 version and today’s explanation.

“Number one, he wasn’t killed in Vietnam. He was killed in Laos,” Mike said. “All members of the group that day weren’t killed. There were two that survived.”

Bill was part of a special operations group called Spike Team Michigan. The group of U.S. and indigenous soldiers conducted secret missions into Laos.

This picture shows Bill in the middle of a mission, wearing a uniform that bears no ties to the United States.

“There’s no identification markings on his uniform,” Mike said, pointing to a picture of his dad in the jungle during his time in Vietnam. “You know, what I’m told is that, because of the secrecy of the missions, is that they went in with nothing that could tie them back to the U.S.”

The two men who survived and were there the day Bill took the shrapnel that killed him told Mike about the hell they lived through.

“That day when they went into Laos, um, I think number one, it was a, a day that you hear about the nightmares of Vietnam, and I think that was one of those days for those gentleman,” Mike said. “Apparently there were about 50 of the North Vietnamese that had, their position had been given away to. And so, they were under, well on the run is the way he put it, all day. Going through a lot of bamboo, a lot of cane, trying to fight their way to a location where they could be extracted.”

But the enemy was too intense, too close.

“They essentially had to call the air strike in on top of their position,” Mike said.

Joyce Roper, Bill’s widow, holds a picture of the family receiving an award for Bill after his death.

It was ultimately friendly fire that killed Bill. Knowing the truth doesn’t bring him back, but it does give the Lawsons something important.

“Well, it just brings closure,” Mike said. “And uh, it means the world.”

“I’m proud of him. I always will be,” Joyce said.

“Time is getting late, and we are supposed to leave camp again tomorrow for a few days, so I’ll close for now and write more when I get back. I love and miss you terribly,” said Mike, reading letters his dad sent back home the day before he was fatally wounded. “Kiss the kids for me and hope to see you before too long.”

Mike has gotten to know his dad through those letters, through his words.

MSGT William E. Lawson

“It’s all I’ve got,” Mike said.

A man Mike and Lynn never really got to know has somehow given them so much.

“The strength that his memory gives me and what he sacrificed I think is, I could not have not benefited from that,” Mike said.

“It’s something we missed, but we know we would have had it and he’s been with us, even though not physically,” Lynn reflected on the relationship she and her siblings never had with her father.

They’ve watched their own children grow. Bill didn’t get that chance, but there is meaning in the loss.

“I’ve heard him say it once, that he was going to protect back here. Protect all of us here,” Lynn recalled.

When The Wall That Heals comes with more than 58,000 names, they’ll find their father’s and appreciate the immensity of what it means for William E. Lawson to be etched in black granite: sacrifice, freedom, and healing.

“That’s what he died for, as so many others have,” Mike said. “I mean, you can’t take for granted the freedoms of this country.”

Mike Lawson extended interview

Mike Lawson extended interview — Joyce Roper

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