Dedication of the SFC Joseph Bailey Bridge in Lebanon, TN
Daniel H. Shea, MD
May 1, 2003
Thank you Colonel MacFarland for asking me to send my reminiscences of S.F.C. Joe Bailey.
As I started to write this I thought to myself that I wish I were a writer or poet or had more facility with language so I could better explain who Joe Bailey was to us: his teammates on A217 Plei Me. Some of his surviving teammates have been in touch over the Internet and have shared their memories of Joe with me. They are: Nick Walsh, Falls Church, Virginia, Cornelious Clark, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Dr. Lannie Hunter, Flagstaff, Arizona. Vaughn Binzer of the Plei Me Society, Lexington, Kentucky also helped us. We wish we could be there with you today. We recall Joe as an older brother, a humorist, a friend and teammate, and a hero. Actually we don’t like the word hero. The word has been perverted and abused, separated from its meaning. A baseball player who hits a home run is a hero. A fictional novel is a heroic epic. Even an opera tenor can be a heroic tenor. We would like to recapture its original meaning for Joe.” A man distinguished for exceptional courage, fortitude, or bold enterprise.” A man of great nobility”
When Nick Walsh and I first arrived as replacements at Plei Me, a Special Forces camp in the highlands of South Vietnam close to the Cambodian border, we were green, fresh from “the land of the glass door knobs” as we used to say. Joe took us under his wing. He had been there for months and he knew everything and everybody. He introduced us to the local people, called Montegnards. He showed us around the camp. It was just a simple triangle shape about 100 yards on each side with barbed wire fences, sand bags and trenches. There were perhaps a half dozen structures with bamboo walls and tin roofs. There were twelve of us Special Forces soldiers whose job it was to train about 200 Montegnards as soldiers. We went on patrols with them through the Ia Drang Valley on the border of Cambodia at the terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We were truly “a band of brothers”, twelve Americans of diverse background: city boys from Boston, Baltimore, New Jersey; country boys from Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Kansas, Illinois and Tennessee. Black, white, Hispanic, Native American: a microcosm of our great country and Joe Bailey was the catalyst who held us together in a hostile environment.
Cornelious Clark still has a cherished photo of Joe from their trip over the rutted trail from Pleiku. When he arrived at Plei Me, Joe insisted that they become roommates. He remembers Joe’s smile. When Joe smiled he revealed a bright gold tooth cap with a fluorescent orange center. This he got from a so-called dentist in Plei Me. He recalled that Joe convinced him to get one too. These tooth caps seemed to be popular at the time. Cornelious still doesn’t know how Joe talked him into it.
Joe was fearless. Cornelious recalls going on many patrols with him. One time, approximately five kilometers west of Camp Plei Me, they found a battalion-size, freshly abandoned camp. They were out of radio contact in the mountains. Joe insisted on continuing the pursuit while Cornelious and some Montegnards went back for reinforcements.
Nick Walsh remembers that: “ The biggest thing Joe did for us was to show us how to survive in our surroundings.” He treated the Montegnards as he would like to be treated. They were very primitive people but they had an instinctive ability to pick out the people they could trust. And Joe Bailey was at the top of the list. When the Luc Long Dac Biet, who were the Vietnamese Special Forces, tried to cheat the Montegnards out of their pay, Joe had fire in his eyes when he went to the Vietnamese to insist his men be paid. They were paid.
Joe had a great sense of humor: when we complained that the dry season dust was choking our throats, he told us to wait a few weeks and the mud would stick to our boots. He was right.
Joe Bailey was a proud son of Tennessee. We heard a lot about the “Volunteers”. Joe Bailey was a “Volunteer” too:
He volunteered for the Army.
He volunteered for Airborne.
He volunteered for Special Forces.
Joe Bailey was also a proud father. He showed everyone pictures of his baby daughter. He kept that picture in his pocket. He had that picture in his pocket the day he died.
Little did we know that Plei Me, an insignificant speck on the map of South Vietnam, was the objective of an entire division of North Vietnamese Regulars, intent on driving through the length of South Vietnam to the South China Sea and thus splitting the country in half. Up until this time, October 1965, the North Vietnamese Army had not been involved in the south. Then, one moonless, pitch-black night in late October, our camp came under attack and was quickly surrounded by two North Vietnamese regiments. A third regiment was dispatched to the highway that led to Pleiku. This road would not be called a highway anywhere in Tennessee. It was an unpaved dirt track about as wide as a jeep with potholes and washes and surrounded by jungle. But it was the only route a relief column could take to our threatened camp and a perfect spot to set up an ambush. This was their plan.
Plei Me came under attack. For eight days we were surrounded. We would have been overrun were it not for the Air Force, Navy, Marine and Army aircraft which bombed and strafed enemy positions and supplied us with water, food and ammunition.
One of our helicopters was shot down. Captain Moore, Joe Bailey, a few Montegnards, and I tried to go to their rescue. We left the camp and directly assaulted the entrenched enemy position. It was a desperate, dangerous attack. Joe knew it was risky. I remember he turned to me and said: “We’re going to get our asses shot off.” He went anyway. He gave his life for his comrades.
He was a brave man
a proud father
a true Tennessee volunteer
a good friend and teammate.
We remember Joe as a man of dignity who had respect for all people. He made the ultimate sacrifice for us.
It is altogether fitting that a bridge is dedicated in his name in his home state. It is long overdue. And we have hopes for this bridge: the SFC Joseph Bailey Bridge.
We hope it is as straight and tall and strong as he was.
We hope it takes people safely on their journeys.
We hope it brings them back safely to their families.
Joe would like that. It’s a part of life he never got to live.
We hope this bridge takes away some of the pain and loss of his family, especially for Connie who grew up without a father. This loss can never be replaced but we hope this bridge will be a source of pride for his family.
We hope that in their busy lives- people who travel over this bridge will look up and see the name of a true American hero:
Joseph Bailey S.F.C.
And say a little prayer for him. Let God protect him and keep him.
We know God is protecting him because it says in His Book:
“Greater love than this no man hath
Than he lay down his life for his friends. “