“Ask not…”

An autobiographical piece by Bill Hilliard about his induction into the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War

By Bill Hilliard

Anxiously, he looked out the window of the plane. Below he saw the green jungled edge of the land neatly jagged and bordered by a thin line of beach jutting into the blue of the ocean. From 18,000 feet the earth takes on an unreal quality. Height causes large areas of the earth to blend into almost distinct patches of color. Looking into the cloudless sky, he found himself suspended, saw the sun staring down with an unfelt heat.

The inside of the plane was dank while in the light outside the engines droned on without change as the plane imperceptibly crossed the boundary of sea and land. Looking down once more, a small chill started at the base of his spine and quickly tickled the hairs on the back of his neck. Thoughts floated back to that late fall day, two years ago: November 22, 1963.

Sitting at his desk in the small insurance agency where he had worked for the past three years since graduating from high school, he reached in the top desk drawer and took out the letter that had arrived in that morning’s mail and read “… you will report for induction into the U.S. Army, at 0530, 5 DEC, 1963 at the County Building.”

This can’t be real. He put it back in the drawer for the fourth or fifth time, thinking of the discussion with the professor of his political science course at the local junior college. The Viet Cong in Vietnam raided small villages to get young men to add to their “forces,” under threat of death to them and their families. How barbaric.

Taking out his “Greetings” once more, he read: “Persons failing to report may be fined not to exceed $10,000.00 or may be imprisoned for not more than five years, or both.” Not much different from the jungles of Vietnam, he mused. He had thirteen days to decide what he would do. Time for lunch.

After lunch the radio brought the tragic news that shook him as well as the rest of the world: President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. As soon as the radio confirmed the President’s death, he made preparations to close the office. He went upstairs to his studio/apartment which was in the same building. In his studio he found what he was looking for in an old copy of Life magazine, a large full page picture of the President, with which to make a sign for the front door of the office. On the opposite page were the words of the now late leader: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

He pasted the picture on a large piece of posterboard and carefully outlined it with a thick black line of India ink. At the bottom he printed in large plain block letters:


He looked up at the painting he was working on: a large bird could be seen flying free from the abstract patterns of color on the canvas. He looked at the now torn copy of Life magazine. He went downstairs.

After carefully taping the black bordered sign to the glass of the front door and pulling the blinds, he walked back into the office, now darkened by the pulled blinds. Everyone else was gathered around the radio listening to the aftermath of chaos. Picking up the telephone book he flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for – Navy Recruiter – and dialed the number listed. No answer. Air Force Recruiter. He dialed again: “U.S. Air Force Recruiting Office,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

Five days later he was in “Boot Camp” at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. After a few months of school in communications electronics he was assigned to Japan.

He liked Japan. In fact, he didn’t mind the service too much. His work was interesting and required that he travel a lot: Korea, Hawaii, Okinawa, Taiwan, and various other small islands in the Pacific.

One day his name was on the bulletin board: “Report to the Rifle Range the next day at 1400 hours for training with the M-16 rifle.”

It was a warm late summer afternoon— Indian summer it was called back home. The qualifying consisted of firing the rifle from various positions (standing, kneeling, and prone) at a target with the black silhouette of a man on a white background. His rifle was already “sighted in” as he scored ten bull’s-eyes out of ten practice shots. He shot sixty more times (twenty in each position), not missing once.

The target had a large gaping hole ripped from its center. “You could have killed seventy men,” said the range sergeant. Or one man seventy times, he thought to himself. It was only a cardboard target. Not a real live human. The orders came a week later.

The plane shook a little as it started its landing approach. The green ground now broke into small, square water-filled patches of rice paddies. They rushed by, faster and faster. The plane touched down almost gently and taxied to a stop. Picking up his rifle, he stepped into the hot, wet, blinding sun of south Vietnam.

“Ask not…”

Bill Hilliard is a Vietnam veteran. He is the former head of NeoVision Productions, a special and laser effects company for motion pictures and theatre. Bill is also knowledgeable about South Pasadena, serving as a docent for the South Pasadena Historical Museum. He has also been involved with the South Pasadena Public Library, South Pasadena Senior Center and Farmers Market.