WILLIAM T FRANKE - EO3
- DATE OF BIRTH:
- August 19, 1949
- DATE OF CASUALTY:
- February 20, 1969
- BRANCH OF SERVICE:
- South Vietnam
William T. Franke was born on August 19, 1949. His home of record is Williamstown, NJ.
He enlisted in the US Navy and attained the rank of Equipment Operator Third Grade (EO3).
Franke was killed in action on February 20, 1969.
August 19, 1949-February 20, 1969
EO3, Navy Williamstown, NJ
There is a big house on Cross Keys Road between Washington Township and Cross Keys, NJ, that sits on a hill with enough land to support some horses. It still evokes the memory of an unfulfilled promise.
"Billy always told Mom that when he got out of the service and was making good money, he would buy her that house," says Cheryl Truszkowski of Williamstown, NJ. "He thought Mom deserved more than what she had and he loved riding horses. 'I'm going to make it better for you, Mom', he would always say."
Billy Franke was one of eleven children that Al and Wanda Franke raised in Williamstown on Washington Avenue. There never seemed to be enough money to go around. Billy's passion for horses led to a huge disappointment when he was fourteen.
"For some reason, he was convinced he was getting a horse for Christmas," Cheryl says. "Even after we opened what few presents we had, he was waiting for someone to spring the surprise on him. He was devastated when it didn't happen."
Bill Taylor, also of Williamstown, remembers his best friend. "We were good kids," he says. "Not hell-raisers. We spent a lot of time together in our junior and senior years camping out at Hospitality Creek. He was kind of private and shy until you got to know him. He was someone you could count on in good times and bad."
"He was a lifeguard and loved water sports," Taylor continues. "We used to have informal diving competitions at the lake, with categories like, 'Craziest Dive' and 'Scariest Dive'. We would do front flips, back flips, 'Horse and rider' dives. He was a real daredevil."
Cheryl was two years younger than Billy. "He would always check on me at school," she says. "He made sure I was okay and that no one was bothering me. He was tall; about six feet two inches and was built like a swimmer. He could swim like a fish and was a qualified SCUBA diver. He weighed about 180 pounds and had broad shoulders and a thin waist. And dark red hair. He always thought he had big ears but he was very popular with the girls at Hospitality Creek."
"Billy was athletic but not a good student," Cheryl continues. "He was good in shop class and anything to do with your hands. But he didn't like to read and struggled in class. Looking back now, he was probably dyslexic. He did a lot of odd jobs in the neighborhood and everyone liked him."
Racial tensions often ran high in the sixties and Williamstown High School had its share of problems. "Billy was caught in the middle several times because he had many friends who were black," Cheryl remembers. "He never caused any trouble but he didn't run from it either."
Bill Taylor and Billy Franke became interested in the Navy's Sea Cadet program when they were sixteen. "On Friday nights, we would take the '13' bus out of Williamstown to Camden for the meetings," Taylor says. "We had to stop for a cheese steak sandwich on the way home. It was part of the ritual. Once in a while, we'd get some guy to run into the liquor store to get us some cheap wine. We never caused any problems. We'd drink our wine, eat the sandwich and get on the bus home."
The Sea Cadet program consisted of basic military and naval training, with some weekends spent aboard ships at the Philadelphia Navy Base. "We wore regular uniforms and were required to always be neat and sharp," says Taylor. "We had hands-on training. Neither one of us had to go to boot camp when we joined. We went straight to school. Billy went to the Seabees and I went to engineering school."
The Franke family has a rich tradition of military service. Both Al and Wanda served during World War II. Albert, 'Buddy', was the oldest son and joined the Navy in 1965. Cheryl, Brian and Eric also joined the Navy while Karl enlisted in the Army. There was never a question about Billy. His senior photo in the 1967 yearbook from Williamstown High School is captioned, "It's 'Anchors away' for Bill".
Billy entered the Navy two weeks before graduation. There was an empty seat at the ceremonies. His parents received his diploma while Billy trained in California. "He wanted to be a Seabee," Cheryl says. "He wanted to drive the heavy equipment and get licensed on each one so when he got out of the service, he could get a job in road construction. He loved the experience. And Billy wanted to go to Vietnam. He knew it was his job; he knew he had to be there. He was determined to serve his country."
Bill Taylor echoes Cheryl and adds, "I'm sure Billy felt the same way I did. We went to Vietnam because our government asked us to. And we did the job to the best of our ability. We couldn't wait to get out of Williamstown. To get out on our own. But then we couldn't wait to get back. Believe me, I took life a little more seriously after I came home. Billy's love for his family is just one thing I remember about him. I knew he was planning on coming back to Williamstown and buying the family a new home."
Buddy was already in Vietnam at the major base in Da Nang, when Billy got his orders. One of the reasons Buddy went to Vietnam was so Billy would not have to go. But Billy signed a waiver when he volunteered and was also sent to Da Nang. The two saw each other frequently.
In November of 1968, they co-produced a reel-to-reel taped letter home. On the tape, there is humorous banter about the newly acquired family cat and how each hoped it would be gone by the time they came home. They ask about their baby brother, Eric, and the new television that they jointly purchased for their parents. Buddy breaks out his guitar and performs his rendition of 'The House of the Rising Sun'. Billy thanks his little sister, Megan, for the multi-page letter and explains that he hoped to soon have time to read it.
At about the half-way point in the tape, Buddy's voice is heard in the background. "Tell them about the rocket attack last night," he says.
Billy obviously whispers his answer. "No, we can't tell them. They'll get worried."
He goes on with the recording, talking about his upcoming R & R in Bangkok, and thanking the family for the electric fan that he received. The roar of jets flying close by obliterates all other sound, and after it subsides, Billy remarks, "Well, Johnson stopped the bombing strikes and now they have nothing better to do than fly around here and waste fuel. The bombing halt was a bummer...they really pulled a good one this time."
The tape closes with Buddy discussing his plans to drive home from California when he leaves Vietnam in December. Billy cheerfully adds, "See ya when I get there!"
When Buddy left Vietnam on December 23rd to begin his trip home, Billy still had about three months to serve. With Buddy still en route, the family received horrible news on Christmas Eve.
"We heard a car door and looked out," Cheryl says. "A man in uniform was headed to the door. My mom and all nine of us kids ran out the door. He told us that Billy had been wounded and was already being flown to the Philippines, then to Hawaii, and then to the US. He had broken his neck, only had the use of one lung and was paralyzed. We screamed and we cried...and then we prayed for him."
When Buddy arrived home, it was not to the celebration he expected. "We all laughed and hugged and kissed at first," Cheryl recalls. "But when he went up to his room to unpack, my Dad went up to tell him. I can remember his scream, 'That's impossible! I just saw him!' He then flew down the steps to read all the telegrams that, by that time, had arrived, updating us on Billy's condition. That was Buddy's welcome home from Vietnam."
On January 14, 1969, Billy finally arrived at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. The whole family was there but only the parents and oldest three children could visit. "We couldn't understand why the rest couldn't see him," Cheryl recalls.
It was only then, in the cruelest of ironies, that the family learned the truth about Billy's injury. "They told us it was a diving accident," Cheryl says. "Not that he was wounded. The doctor said he had broken his neck and the water had filled his lungs. He had pneumonia to the point where he lost one lung and the other was in such poor condition that he would have to stay on a machine. His head was immobilized and he was placed in isolation. We had to wear gowns and masks when we went in to see him. The doctors guessed that he would only live a week or two. They told us evidence of his dying would begin at his feet and move up."
The letter from Rear Admiral Emmett Bonner, Commander of the Naval Support Activity in Da Nang, to Albert and Wanda Franke is dated January 2, 1969.
Your son was attending a Christmas party sponsored by the night cargo section of Public Works Transportation Division, Public Works Department, U.S. Naval Support Activity, Da Nang. The party was held at the China Beach R&R Center, China Beach, Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam. The injury occurred at about 2:15 p.m. when your son attempted to dive into shallow water and his foot slipped in the sand. He entered the water at such an angle that his head struck the bottom causing fracture and displacement of the cervical vertebrae.
Someone from the family visited Billy every day. Vigilantly, Cheryl and her mother would make the drive to the hospital. "Our sister, Megan, would come up but she cried too much and Billy wouldn't let us bring her in. The rest of the kids were too young."
Bill Taylor wore his uniform the first time he went to see Billy. He had returned from serving on a riverine patrol boat in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam.
"I came upon these two officers," he says. "One said, 'Sailor, are you a friend of that sailor?' I said, 'Yes, I am, sir. We joined the Navy together'. And he said, 'Let me warn you. The sight is not pretty'. And he was right. All I saw was a body with Billy's head on it. He had lost weight and was so weak he could hardly talk. What a shock. It was tough to see the guy you had clowned around with and grew up with, just laying there."
In February, Billy's promotion orders to Petty Officer Third Class arrived. Taylor brought his own Petty Officer 'crow' stripes to present to Billy. "I asked permission from the Commanding Officer there at the hospital to 'pin' his stripes on," remembers Taylor. "I said, 'Billy, congratulations. You made third class and you know the rules. I have to tack it on'. He just looked at me so I laid the patch on his arm and gave him a little punch. I don't even know if he realized what was going on."
Cheryl remembers February 20, 1969; it was the day she took her qualification tests for the Navy. "I went to Woodbury for the testing and just as I finished, I heard the recruiter's phone ring," she says. "I knew that Billy had passed away. The funeral was held in town and it seemed everyone showed up. The guest register was filled. He was buried with full military honors."
Bill Taylor adds, "It was almost a blessing when he died. I felt the loss but also a measure of relief."
Cheryl became a dental technician in the Navy and remembers being stationed in Washington, DC. "We processed and fixed up many sailors and Marines on their way to Vietnam," she says. "I knew many of them were not coming back. I had already lost my brother and found myself working on all these...they were babies. It was tough to deal with."
Cheryl has been married to John Truszkowski for over twenty-five years. He served with the 1st Marine Division in Phu Bai and is reluctant to talk about his experiences, unless it is with another veteran. He and Cheryl live with the impact of Vietnam on their lives every day, and are grateful to have had each other along the way.
Bill Taylor has visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington five or six times. He always finds, and lightly rubs, Billy's name. "When you stand there it seems you hear them talking," he says. "You remember something they said or did. It's tough to explain but something clicks. It's eerie...compelling. I think everyone should visit there at least once."
Excerpt from They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam
by John Campbell
Used with permission of author
Sources: John Campbell and NJVVMF.
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