Letters from war help some remember a fallen friend

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SHERIDAN — Next weekend, Jim Shell and the members of the Sheridan High School class of 1965 will gather to celebrate their 50th reunion. Many will come back for the first time in a long time to swap stories with old classmates.

But for Shell, it may be difficult to see his old classmates because one of his good friends will not be among those attending.

His friend’s name was Walter J. Washut, and it was Washut’s sacrifice to his country that allows the class of 1965 to meet next weekend.

Washut was a Marine corporal who was killed in action during the Vietnam War in 1967.

“If you talked to anyone, they would all say he was honest, kind and reliable,” Washut’s cousin Larry Aksamit said.

Raised in Sheridan in an era when all boys wanted to be John Wayne, Aksamit said he and Washut grew up playing Army in their backyards, shooting BB guns, hunting and fishing in the Bighorn Mountains.

“He was a real responsible person,” Washut’s sister, Wanda Jones, said. “He was always working; every summer he had a job.”

But Washut had a tough home life. His father, a World War II veteran, had seen action during his service, and took to drinking to ease the pain.

“There was lots of turmoil at home,” Jones said.

Despite this, Washut excelled in school. His dream was to go to college to become a pharmacist. However, his college aspirations were put on hold. His family moved to California his senior year. In response to this, Aksamit recalls that Washut immediately drove to Billings, Montana, to enlist in the Marines before he had finished high school.

“He didn’t tell us anything about joining up at first,” Aksamit said. “Once his folks moved his senior year … he stayed here until graduation then went into the Marines.”

••••

“Walt was just kind of a feisty little guy, he wasn’t a big fella,” Shell said of his friend. “He wasn’t what you would picture as one of those big Marines. But he had one of those personalities that when he got steamed up, he’s the guy you want on your side.”

Washut and Shell, along with a few other of their classmates, were attached at the hip from eighth grade through high school, and that friendship continued even thousands of miles away in the jungles of Vietnam. Shell stayed in Sheridan to attend Sheridan College on scholarship.

Every so often, Shell would receive a letter from Washut, covered in mud and wrinkled with water damage of a war zone.

The letters described the horrors of Vietnam, the miserable conditions, the battles and the constant threat of a seemingly omnipresent enemy. Washut urged his childhood friend, with every letter he wrote, to stay in college and avoid getting into the war. He also promised Shell that once he got back to Sheridan, they would “go out and raise Cain.”

“He was in a lot of hot action,” Shell said of Washut. “Every letter described another battle he had just been in. He would write stuff like ‘this (battle) was a big one, and you will surely be hearing about it in the newspaper.’”

But even describing the most intense battles, Washut never once said he regretted joining the Marines. In fact, he told his cousin that he was planning on reenlisting after his service was up in order to pay for his college education.

••••

The Battle of Hill 881 was among several skirmishes now referred to as The Hill Fights or the First Battle of Khe Sanh. The battle took place over two-and-a-half weeks spanning from the end of April to the beginning of May. More than 150 Marines were killed and 435 wounded in the First Battle of Khe Sanh.

According to Navy records, on April 30, 1967, Washut’s unit was engaged in combat against the North Vietnamese regulars, who were deeply entrenched in their positions. As gunfire and bullets filled the air, several dead and wounded Marines were stranded in an open area. Upon seeing this, Washut disregarded his own safety to help his fellow Marines.

He maneuvered his way around the machine-gun fire in the open field to reach the casualties. He made several trips back and forth until all of the casualties were safely evacuated.

Less than a month later, Washut distinguished himself again.

His platoon was navigating the thick underbrush of the Vietnamese jungle on the night of May 20. While separated from the main body of his unit, Washut’s platoon was ambushed by North Vietnamese soldiers. The first round of motor, machine-gun and small-arms fire killed and injured several in Washut’s unit.

Washut immediately deployed his platoon. Directing their fire toward the enemy, the platoon was able to break contact and fight their way back to the company position.

Once Washut reached the company position, he moved from position to position directing his platoon’s fire toward the North Vietnamese.

The Navy records state that when he discovered an enemy mortar post firing rounds toward his fellow Marines, he procured an antitank assault weapon. He exposed himself to enemy fire and shot a round toward the mortar post — single-handedly taking out the position.

Then, he heard the cries of wounded comrades trapped outside the perimeter near the enemy line. Washut rushed to the aid of the casualties while under heavy fire. He then summoned for aid and directed the evacuation for several of the fallen Marines, but stayed behind to administer first aid for one man.

However, in the midst of giving aid to one of the wounded, he was injured. He died that night in the jungles of Vietnam — two days before turning 20 years old.

••••

“We were living in California at the time,” Jones said. “We were living with a woman who was our foster mother, when a Marine officer came to the door. (The officer) told us our brother was killed in action. … It was very, very hard.”

“I didn’t find out until I came home from college,” Aksamit said. “I walked in the kitchen and my folks were pretty upset. They told me Walt had been killed. … I was upset. I just turned around, walked outside and went back to Laramie.”

“I had heard from one of his cousins that he was killed,” Shell said. “Sure enough, it was in the papers that same day.”

No one was surprised to hear that Washut sacrificed himself to save others — that was just who he was.

For his acts of heroism, Washut was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal, the third-highest military decoration for valor awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

“From the time before he even shipped out, I knew he would be that kind of guy,” Aksamit said. “I’m sure most of the guys in the Marine Corps would have done something similar to help his fellow Marines, but I know Walt would never have thought about leaving anyone behind.”

••••

Shell still has the letters from Washut. Every Memorial Day, Veterans Day and on other days throughout the year, Shell will pull out the words of a hero and read them quietly to himself.

But Shell said his friend’s story needs to be told. Washut, he said, was an exceptional man who gave all. He will never have a chance to speak for himself. He will never attend a high school reunion and reminisce about the good old days over a cold beer.

“These reunions, we all get together and share about what we’ve done with our lives; but people like Walt, they don’t have that opportunity,” Shell said. “He gave up everything for us.”

By |July 17th, 2015|

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