Wife shares letters from a Vietnam pilot


Mary Dowling hasn't looked at the letters from her husband, Robert Dowling, Lewis County's first Vietnam War casualty, for years.

They've sat tucked away in the back of her bedroom, still stuffed in white envelopes splashed with red and blue colors and a nine-cent canceled stamp.

"He wrote me every chance he got," Mary, now 66 years old, said Thursday from her Tenino log home as she pored over the old stories of camp life during the war, frustrations with protesters in the United States and some plain old longing for home.

At the bottom of each letter — most of which run two or three pages — he signed, "Love, Bob."

"Mary, it is something I have to do — there are too many nice guys getting killed over here — and I feel that I am not doing anything to square accounts." — July 11, 1965

Shortly after Robert arrived in Vietnam in May of 1965, he wrote that he was frustrated that the Army was slow in getting him the equipment he needed to get into the fight.

It was little surprise to Mary that her husband was itching for action. He joined the Army in 1963 because he loved flying helicopters, and he'd already spent seven years in the Marine Corps Reserves.

"He loved to fly. That's all he wanted to do," she said.

Mary supported his decision to enter the Army, and she said she was behind him when his unit was deployed.

But it was still hard. The couple had four children in their home on Newaukum Hill in Chehalis, the oldest barely starting elementary school, and Mary was worried about their dad leaving them.

Today, she said, they have few memories of him. But young Bobby, who was four years old when his father left for Vietnam, does have one vivid memory.

"His dad went up to his room before he left and told him he was the man of the house now," Mary said.

"I'm glad — no, I'm proud — to be fighting the war here so little Bobby won't have to be fighting the Communists somewhere else. I think if we can prevent that, then we have done our job over here. I think I have changed quite a bit since I've been over here. I don't know, but I think we'll both have been changed by this war over here." — Nov. 12, 1965

Mary Garrison met Robert Dowling while both attended Centralia College, where she was studying commercial art and English and he majored in administration. Their first date, she said, was at the old Fox Theatre to see the movie "April Love" with Pat Boone.

The two later attended the University of Washington together, then married when she was 19 and he was 20.

Mary said his sense of humor made him special, which she has seen in her son. He loved mimicking famous people, and he could do a spot-on impersonation of President Lyndon Johnson's Texas drawl. His mother was from Louisiana, Mary said, and sometimes Robert would slip a little twang in his talk when she would call, just to poke fun.

She's kept mementoes — 40-year-old newspaper clippings from just after he was killed, his Purple Heart and Bronze Star and all the letters. Robert's aunt was an artist, and oil paintings of the four children hang in the front room of Mary's home.

Robert's picture, painted from a photograph, hangs above the piano and out of the sunlight. He's in uniform, an eternal snapshot of the man Mary knew before he left for war.

As time moved on and the kids grew older, Mary said she dated a few times but never settled down with anyone else. It was hard with four kids, but that wasn't the only reason, she said.

"That's probably why I didn't get married again. I couldn't find anyone like him," Mary said.

"I'm okay. I gotta admit, I was kind of shook up for a few days. I want to come home so darn bad. Only four more months to go. That feels like such a long time." — Jan. 11, 1966

Robert Dowling spent eight months in Vietnam as a pilot in the Army's 197th Assault Helicopter Company, where he flew the UH-1B Huey. About a week before, he had been injured during a mission, for which he received his Purple Heart. He hurt both his hand and his head.

Mary said he rarely alluded to how bad it was, or how bad anything was in Vietnam, so anytime he did mention something, it stuck out.

On Jan. 12, 1966, Dowling was on a mission over a beach at Tuy Hoa on the coast of the South China Sea when he spotted what he thought was a body.

As he flew overhead, he and his crew discovered it was a dummy, a trap set by the Vietcong. Dowling's helicopter was shot down over the water, and he and two of his crewmates were killed.

The community was very supportive at that time, she said, and the Chehalis VFW post was later named after Robert Dowling. A memorial at the airport also bears his name.

This Memorial Day weekend, Mary took a trip, as she does every year, to Robert's grave site in Fort Lewis. She and her sister put flowers there and on other sites — a way, she said, of letting them know someone cares.

It's a time to remember her husband and all the soldiers who died for America, Mary said.

But it's not the only time for those memories.

"I think of him still all the time. Forty years doesn't change it. It could be five years. It doesn't matter," she said.

Erik Olson covers county government and environmental affairs for The Chronicle. He may be reached at 807-8239, or by e-mail at eolson@chronline.com.