MURRAY — It is a question that has been asked of many objects: “If it could talk, what would it say?”
In the case of a 1965 Dodge military ambulance that arrived Thursday in Murray after being retrieved from east Tennessee – where it had served as a fire-rescue vehicle until 2005 before being retired – it could probably tell enough stories to fill a book or two. It was one of four vehicle models Dodge manufactured that year for use in the Vietnam War.
It is now in possession of Billy Lane Lauffer American Legion Post 73, named for a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who died in that war in 1968.
“I was originally told that it was from the Korean War. That’s why I was so interested in getting it,” said Post 73 Executive Committee member Jim Clemons. His interest only intensified when he realized it was from Vietnam. Not only had Lauffer, who had lived in Murray for a short time before joining the U.S. Army, served in that war, but so had Clemons.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” he said, recalling how he acted as a pilot for helicopters that took injured soldiers out of the field and to hospitals. “I also helped with (establishing intravenous lines) and tourniquets, but that was about as far as it went with me as far as actual medical work. I hauled over 1,000 patients during my first tour, which was with the 57th Medical unit.
“I never was injured, but I was shot down six times. Once was when I was with the 57th when a mine went off in a tree. The other five times were when I was with the 191st Assault Co. when I was flying a gun ship and shooting at things, instead of hauling people off.”
Clemons said the ambulance appears to have served several years as a utility vehicle for a rescue squad in the Pikeville, Tennessee area, near Chattanooga. However, it seemed to have been destined to spend its remaining days in seclusion. He said when he saw it for the first time a few days ago, it was barely visible as it was parked in an area of trees; branches were still attached Thursday when it arrived in Murray after a brief stay in Benton with Ed Ward, a military veteran with 30 years of service.
Eventually, Clemons, along with Lynn Johnson and Ron Malone, also of Murray, were able to gain possession of the ambulance and brought it to Murray, where another Vietnam veteran with a story to tell – Eddie Cook — will spend the next several months returning the machine to how it once looked.
“My goal, as a matter of fact, is to get it back to how it would’ve looked in 1965. You call that ‘showroom ready,’” said Cook, who, like Clemons, did not spend any time in the back of one of the Dodge ambulances. He needed a chopper for transport to a Tokyo, Japan hospital after contracting malaria four months into his tour of duty with the Marine Corps, which came only a short time after he received a serious arm injury from an enemy mortar explosion.
“I was given the job of radio operator, which pretty much meant you were going to get shot at it, and probably hit,” he said. “With the radio detail, you had to carry this rather tall antenna with you, and that made you an easy target for the enemy. They pretty much knew where you were at all times, so one day, in comes a mortar, and it messed my left arm up so bad that I had to have three operations on it.
“That wasn’t what took me out of the war, though. That was malaria. When my arm was hurt, all I had done was getting patched up. I was then sent out to blow up mines when we’d find them (to pave the way for American troops to safely engage the enemy). That was going OK, but then I got malaria so bad, I had to be in the hospital for three months.”
He would not know it for many years, but Cook was sent to the same Tokyo hospital as another Marine, current Post 73 service officer Mark Kennedy, who had been massively injured in a firefight with the Vietcong and would be hospitalized for nine months. Cook said Kennedy was on a different floor.
“I didn’t find that out until 1993 when Mark hired me for a job with the post office here,” Cook recalled. “I noticed that Mark had on a Marine Corps tie tack and when I saw that, I knew I had the job. However, we started talking and it was amazing how much we had in common.”
Cook has gone on to establish Cook’s Corvette Shop in Murray. That is where the ambulance will receive its makeover, one that Cook said, despite appearances, might not be too extensive.
“I was looking at it closely (Friday morning) and it’s in really good shape, except for the tires. Those are dry-rotted. However, the rest of it just looks like it needs some new paint,” he said, adding that the probable paint scheme will be olive green with the familiar white field and red cross on the sides so synonymous with these vehicles. “If you see the opening of the TV show ‘M*A*S*H,’ where one of the ambulances is entering the compound, that’s what I think this is going to look like when I’m done.
“I’m looking forward to working on it too. It’s just ugly right now. It’s going to look cool.”
Cook said his goal is to have the ambulance ready for participation in the Murray Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11. Kennedy said plans are for the ambulance to be eventually displayed at the Post 73 headquarters, as well as during various events.