Long search over: Vietnam vet finds mother of his lost friend
A mystery confronted Bill Gillingham when he came home from Vietnam in 1970: What happened to his tall, handsome friend, John W. Telford?
He searched, but could not find John's mother. He asked friends, but no one knew. Finally, he contacted the Marine Corps commandant and learned the awful truth. His friend, who had dropped out of Millcreek's Skyline High School to enlist at age 17, had died just weeks before he turned 21.
"It took me three whole years to learn I didn't have a buddy anymore," says Gillingham, 65, who lives in West Valley City.
It would take more than 40 years to realize he did not mourn alone.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Gillingham embraced John's mother, Alice Telford, 89, in an emotional reunion at her downtown Salt Lake City apartment.
Telford had appeared in the front- page story in The Salt Lake Tribune in February with a photo of her son, which she donated to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund for its Faces Never Forgotten project.
The fund is in the middle of a campaign to gather as many photos as possible of Utah service members who lost their lives in the war. Since February, 41 new photos have been submitted, bringing the total to 191 of the 364 who died in Vietnam. They are available online and will be in the fund's Education Center at the Wall.
The fund's founder, Jan Scruggs, also asked The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to help find photos and information on Mormons who died in Vietnam. That effort has produced photos of 34 Latter-day Saints for whom the fund previously had no photos, including 11 from outside Utah, said spokesman Lee Allen.
"You're still alive" • For hours at their recent reunion, Gillingham and Alice Telford swap stories: about John ("He was so tall!"); of how John, a radio operator, died in an attack after he alerted a U.S. ship of the enemy's position; of how their lives unfolded after losing a son, a friend.
Gillingham remembers sitting in a car in the parking lot of the old Granite High, drinking copious amounts of beer the night before John shipped out for Vietnam.
He was trying to persuade John to desert and flee with him to Canada. "It was serious talk. People were passing out pamphlets telling you how to do it.
"He gave it a little bit of thought, but said, 'I can't do that. It's not honorable,'" says Gillingham.
Telford happily recalls the time she spent with her strapping Marine, one week touring Southern California when he was at Camp Pendleton and another in Hawaii during the year he spent there.
His letters home from Vietnam were a lifeline, she says. "Every time I got a letter I'd think, 'Oh! You're still alive.' "
After he died on Aug. 17, 1967, and she buried him in her hometown of Kaysville, she never reread the letters. She keeps them in a shoebox.
Gillingham keeps the letters John sent him, too.
But it is another letter he now gives to John's mother, one he wrote and left in the vase holder on John's grave on Aug. 17, 2007. He retrieved it a year later.
"It's hard to believe we lost you 40 years ago today," he wrote. "How I wish I had a photo of you."
John's mother grants his wish, giving Gillingham a framed photo of her son, taken in Hawaii shortly before he left for Vietnam.
"That's the John I knew," says Gillingham, gazing at the blond young man, whose baby face belies his lanky 6-foot-5 frame.
"The only thing I can do" • Telford tells how she coped with losing first her husband, when their son was just 4, and then John when he was not yet 21.
On the day she buried her son, an exhausted Telford packed a lunch, went to Brighton and spent the day napping and hiking alone.
"I thought, 'Well, I can't change what's happened. The only thing I can do is take him and my husband with me,' " she tells Gillingham.
And that she did, crafting a life of enterprise and adventure. She left her human-resources job and got into the real estate business, eventually developing 30 acres of her parents' farm in Kaysville into a subdivision in the 1970s.
She also took up bicycling, training on rides up Farmington Canyon in Davis County and touring twice along the Great Wall of China and also in Russia.
Horses were part of her life growing up. She got reacquainted, joining weekslong trail rides throughout the mountains of the West.
In 1988, she founded the Little Red Riding Hood women-only bike ride in the scenic Cache Valley, which she had loved since her and her husband's undergraduate days at Utah State University.
Under the umbrella of the Bonneville Cycling Club, the ride raises money for cancer research each June. She took up skiing at age 64 and did that until she was 76.
Though she suffers constant headaches from a car accident in 2011, Telford climbs 20 flights of stairs every day and works out in her apartment building's exercise room.
As she nears her 90th birthday, she continues to work at Zions Bank, where she is benefits representative for members of the President's Circle.
Telford says she would have supported her son if he had fled to Canada as Gillingham had suggested. After all, she had opposed the Vietnam War from the beginning.
"I was really mad when [Robert] McNamara came out and said what he said," referring to the former defense secretary's late apology for mistakes in waging the war.
"I thought: 'And you were willing to let all those lives be lost!' "
"I never came back all the way" • Gillingham tells Telford about meeting his wife, Lidia, a native of Paraguay, in a hiking club in Colorado, where he lived for 16 years. He hikes above Skyline High every Saturday. In winter, the couple snowshoes.
But he feels like the war stunted his life, much as it did other veterans he meets at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City. He goes there weekly for group therapy. "They just don't know where they fit in," he says.
He gets a small V.A. pension stemming from an anxiety disorder connected to his service.
He earned a degree in wildlife biology at USU but found that field wasn't for him. He later earned a geology degree, "but that didn't pan out, either."
The longest profession he ever had was as a high school science teacher, and that was no more than eight years.
"I spent a lot of time unemployed. There are a lot of things I never got around to doing. I never fathered a child," says Gillingham. "It seems things would have been different if I'd never gone over there. I never came back all the way."
Gillingham says he "chickened out" from dodging the draft; his own father, a World War II veteran, convinced him it was a bad idea.
But even today, he regrets that he didn't persuade his friend, John, to desert the Marines and take refuge in Canada.
"He made the honorable decisions," Gillingham says. "But look what it cost him."
Find a photo?
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is seeking photos and memories of service members who died in Vietnam.
To submit online, follow the uploading directions at http://www.vvmf.org/submit_other.
To provide a photo by mail, print out the photo submission form from that website, and make an 8-by-10-inch copy of the photo at the highest quality possible with a glossy finish. Mail the envelope, noting that a photo is enclosed, to: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Attn: Call for Photos, 2600 Virginia Avenue, NW, Suite 104, Washington, D.C. 20037.
More information about how to add a photograph to the collection is available at 202-393-0090 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Salt Lake Tribune also welcomes copies at email@example.com.
Utahns in Vietnam
See a gallery of photos of Utahns who lost their lives in the Vietnam War at http://www.sltrib.com.
Armed Forces Day
Vietnam veterans will be honored during an Armed Forces Day event from 2 to 4 p.m. on May 18.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert will make comments in the Capitol Rotunda at 2 p.m.; an exhibit and reception in the Hall of Governors will run from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. and a moment of silence will be observed at the Vietnam Memorial on the Capitol's west lawn at 3:45 p.m.
The event is co-sponsored by the Utah Department of Veteran Affairs and KUED.