Blaine Murphy had a “bad feeling” when he received his Army draft notice in January 1969 at the age of 21. Murphy had paid scant attention to the war in Vietnam until the death of a fellow Sheridan native, Walter Washut, in 1967.
“That got my attention, so I started watching what was going on,” he said. “That is what gave me my first litmus test that this thing is serious.”
And with two of his friends already in the service, Murphy figured it was just a matter of time before his draft letter arrived.
“I had finished that ‘40 Packard coupe, and I found a home for it in a garage, paid it up for three years, jacked it up on blocks and oiled all the cylinders,” he said. “I made out my will, and put it in the hands of a teddy bear I had won at the carnival and put it behind the steering wheel on the seat and left. I just had really not good feelings about it.”
'Bad things' happen
After basic training at Fort Lewis in Washington, Murphy arrived in Pleiku in the central highlands of Vietnam in May 1969. He received additional training in Pleiku and then joined a small infantry unit making regular patrols in the thick jungles, gathering intelligence, engaging the enemy and working to disrupt supply lines.
Almost immediately, his intuition of “bad things” happening in Vietnam came to fruition. On his first afternoon in the field, after a search of a village had unearthed a machine gun, his small group came under attack.
“We got a mortar, probably three mortars,” he said. “I was down behind a tree because I was really fresh meat. And there was stuff flying everywhere. I think I got a little chip out of my forehead from that stuff. It scared the hell out of me because they bleed pretty hard you know, those head wounds.”
Interaction with Montagnard
Murphy’s missions sometimes brought him in contact with the Montagnard, an indigenous tribe native to the highlands. He noted they were simple people, living as hunter-gatherers and stuck between two sides in a war they didn’t understand.
“They were way more reliable than the South Vietnamese as far as allies,” said Murphy. “But you have to understand too that they were friends of us in the daytime, and they were required, forced to support the enemy forces with food and information and whatever else could be gained from them at night. That’s a hard row to hoe. I don’t know how they did it. They lost a lot of people. Most of the young men were forced to be Cong.”
“We weren’t using force to get them to do anything, and we did try to help them with things but no good deed goes unpunished,” he continued. “One of the units got a load of tin which is like gold here for those people to put on their roofs. And they (Viet Cong) cut the village leader’s head off and let it float around in the village pool for a couple days just to make sure no one else thought about using American aid.”
This experience and others led Murphy to begin keeping a journal to record the things he saw and felt in Vietnam, and even create some poetry.
“The country was so contradictory to everything I had known before that I felt impelled to write it down,” he said.
The attack that resulted in Murphy’s Purple Heart came on a morning during the first week of October. It began with a grenade.
“You couldn’t hardly breathe for all the dirt and the dust and sticks and crap in the air,” he remembered. “It was crazy. You are trying to find your weapon, you’re trying to locate the enemy. … They thought they’d killed the whole of us with grenades. And that didn’t happen. But the reason why I think that is because they just started walking in on line. I could see their silhouettes coming through the crap in the air, maybe 20 meters out. So we started hitting them with what we had left.”
Though he didn’t notice it at first, a bullet had gone through his right arm and entered his chest, stopping in the wall of his lung. In addition, multiple pieces of shrapnel had penetrated his legs.
“For a while, I didn’t even know I had been hit in the arm until I reached down to pick up another belt of ammunition and all this shit started draining out of my sleeve,” he said.
Death knocking at his door
Murphy was medevacked out of the area, along with another soldier. Upon arrival at the field hospital, he saw body bags, and realized later that one of them had likely been put out for him.
“One of the corpsman came by and said ‘Hell, this is a live one,’ and I said ‘Yeah, let’s talk about this shit!’” said Murphy.
He was immediately taken into surgery, and later, a corpsman come out with a piece of paper and noted that it should have been a death certificate.
“Then I asked him ‘Why did you even stop and check?’ And he said ‘Because you were messing up my floor,’” said Murphy. “I said ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ He said it (blood) was still dripping off the gurney so I figure there still had to be a pump going somewhere.”
Though his significant blood loss resulted in few recollections of the time, he does have a distinct memory from the field hospital.
“I remember looking at my pack, and it was like Swiss cheese,” he said.
That was the last time Murphy would see his pack, including his journal, and its loss remains upsetting to this day.
Murphy spent two weeks in the hospital in Vietnam before being transferred to Japan for a month of treatment and then to Denver for six more weeks of follow-up care. He was finally flown to Fort Hood, Texas, where he remained until the end of his enlistment in January 1971.
Upon leaving Texas, he returned to Sheridan, but he did not resume the life he had left behind two years earlier.
“I didn’t want to talk to anybody, didn’t want to do anything,” he said. “I just hibernated for quite a little while. I was pretty soured on people. I just hurt you know and wanted to be by myself. Thankfully, I got over that.”
Murphy had taken some college courses before going into the Army, but had dropped out and instead worked various jobs and pursued his hobbies. After his return home, he eventually enrolled at the University of Wyoming and pursued a degree in journalism.
After graduation, he worked as a newspaper reporter, including a stint with the Associated Press based out of Pinedale. In 1982, he took a job with the U.S. Postal Service and remained there until his retirement in 2007.
He married a Ranchester woman, and they had two sons, one of whom died unexpectedly a year ago. The other son is a post-surgery coordinator at Children’s Hospital in Denver. After a divorce, Murphy remarried Cassie Sundberg, and their son is now deployed with the Army in Egypt as an Abrams tank commander.
Murphy said he saw many misrepresentations of what happened in Vietnam, including an erroneous report on his own injury, and those experiences have stayed with him through the years, serving him well in his journalism career as well as in his personal life.
“There is always another side to the story,” he said. “And it is just as important as the one you have. And you can’t make a decision about anything until you have both.”