Bill McDermott of Lake Suzy, east of Port Charlotte on the way
to Arcadia, Fla. wound up as a 1st lieutenant in the 11th Armored Cavalry
Division based in Three Corps in the northern jungle of Vietnam. He
was a graduate of DePaul University and a member of the school’s ROTC
“The 11th Armored Cav was a search and destroy outfit. It was the best,” the 65-year-old former soldier recalled. “We were either ‘Jungle Busting’ or taking convoys from point A to point B.”
Much of McDermott’s time in ‘Nam was spent in a armored tin box called an APC.”It had a driver and there was a guy up on top with a .50 cal.that rotated. In the back were two guys with two-M60 machine-guns on the left and the right,” he explained. “My job was to be on one of those guns. If we got hit I’d call in the field artillery.”
The 11th Cavalry was an outfit with a lot of fire power. It not only had tanks and APC, it also had a couple of 155 howitzer batteries and air cavalry troops that flew into battle in helicopters supported by gun ships..
“We’d just go into the jungle in our armored equipment and knock stuff down looking for the bad guys. We never snuck up on anybody. They could hear us coming,” McDermott said.
When they weren’t ‘Jungle Busting’ his unit was providing convoy security. “The roads over there were about the size of an alley. While on this duty we hit mines buried in the road 27 days in a row,” he said. “A mine could blew the tread off a Sheridan tank, but it could destroy an APC.”
“The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were very good soldiers. I had a lot of respect for the North Vietnamese,” McDermott said. “I don’t like to talk about fire fights with the NVA because they were very intense. You could always tell where the firing was coming from because they had green tracers and we had red.”
There is one incident he doesn’t mind discussing involving a fire fight in the jungle of Three Corps. Out of a clear plastic freezer bag filled with old, faded color pictures he took while over there, McDermott pulled out a tiny prayer book with a dark blue paper cover.
“When I got to Vietnam this guy who was on his way out gave me this little Bible. He told me to take it, keep it with me and give it to the next guy when I left,” he said. “I put it in my breast pocket and kept it there. One day during a mortar attack by the enemy a piece of shrapnel struck the Bible that was in my shirt pocket.”
McDermott held up the little prayer book with its nicked cover from a shrapnel hit. It saved him from injury or possible death.
“I guess I’m a lucky guy,” he said with a smile while telling the story sitting at his kitchen table 40 years later. “When I left I was suppose to give the Bible to the guy who replaced me. I couldn’t do that because it was too special. I brought it home.”
There is one other firefight McDermott doesn’t mind talking about. They had a newspaper report embedded with them for a week while the 11th Cavalry was fighting its way through the jungles of Three Corps.
“One of our guys in our APC had gotten killed in a fire fight so we put the reporter on an M-60 machine-gun in the rear of the vehicle. The reporter told me, ‘I’m not going to shoot anybody.’ I told him,
‘If you don’t I’m going to kill you.’
“We get in a fire fight with the NVA. I told the reporter to fire the M-60 with two second bursts. When we got hit he opened up on them and held the the M-60 trigger down burning up the barrel and running through 400 rounds of ammunition in no time. There were rounds flying through the air all over the place. It was like the 4th of July.”
During half his year-long tour in Vietnam McDermott served in an APC. The other six months he was the executive officer of a 155
millimeter gun battalion supporting the 11th Cavalry’s jungle operations.
“We had six guns that fired about 12,000 rounds a month. Each round weighed 100 pounds,” he said. “Everything you had was on that gun. It went with you everywhere you went in Vietnam.”
He spent the first two months of his war in Cambodia. “Our unit, the 2nd Squadron, was the first American ground unit to go into Cambodia. And we were the last American unit out of Cambodia,” McDermott said. “While there we found an enemy cache of 90-pound rice bags. The bags were stamped ‘Portland, Ore.'”
After his year in Vietnam, McDermott joined the 8th Infantry Division headquartered in Chicago. He retired a lieutenant colonel decades later.
Before he got in the Army and after he returned from Southeast Asia he was a golf pro at several golf courses in and around Chicago. With their first baby on the way he decided he needed something more financially rewarding than swinging a golf club. He joined the Chicago Police Department, just what his father, a 30 year veteran of “Chicago’s Finest,’ told him not to do.
“I wound up loving it. I spent the first five years on a beat and the next 25 as a detective working the midnight shift much of the time,” McDermott said. “My partner was a Marine. We got along just fine.”
He and his wife, Dianne, have three children. Their oldest, Bryant, is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, Sean is an Army Ranger who works in civilian life as a policeman. Kelly, their daughter, is an attorney.
The McDermotts’ moved to their home in Lake Suzy several years ago.
Name: William John McDermott
D.O.B: 21 Feb 1946
Hometown: Chicago, IL
Current: Lake Suzy, Fla
Entered Service: 27 April 1969
Discharged: 12 April 1971
Rank: 2nd Lt.
Unit: 11th Armd CAV RGT USARPAC
Commendations: National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Bronze Star Medal w/2 OS Bars
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, April 21, 2011. It is republished with permission.