DENVER – Jim Hamlyn still has the “lucky” silver dollar an aunt gave him to wear around his neck in Vietnam.
He emerged from a 12-month tour of duty there in 1966-67 with that silver dollar, a Bronze Star for valor in combat, some haunting memories — and his life.
Some of his comrades, some of them Waterloo West High School students he walked the halls with in the 1960s, weren’t as lucky.
“It was a real bad deal,” said Hamlyn.
He also brought back a large amount of rare 8 mm home movie footage. It, and he, will be the subject of a half-hour documentary to be aired on public television stations around the nation this year.
It will be shown in Waterloo at West High’s Kersenbrock Auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday, free of charge. The documentary is dedicated to his fallen buddies and schoolmates, and its title came right out of Hamlyn’s mouth.
It’s called “A Bad Deal: My Vietnam Story.”
It was produced by Illinois public television station WSIU at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in cooperation with Iowa Public Television. It’s being picked up by roughly 100 public television stations around the country through American Public Television.
“Our documentary is going national, to almost 200 million potential viewers. We’re so very excited,” said WSIU production specialist Mark St. George, producer and director of the documentary. “Sixty-seven percent of all the PBS stations have said yes.”
Hamlyn is a 1965 West High graduate who lives in Denver, Iowa. He is retired from John Deere. He served in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam.
St. George said the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Carbondale made him aware of Hamlyn and his film as WSIU was interviewing Vietnam veterans in that area.
The documentary actually sprang from the West Class of ‘65’s 50th anniversary reunion in 2015. For that event, Hamlyn and classmates Barb Hessel and Linda Cain produced a video, “Fallen Heroes,” about their fallen classmates and the spouse of another. Hamlyn digitized his old 8 mm footage from Vietnam and used some of it in that video. He also began to show it to veterans groups. Word spread, and WSIU officials eventually caught wind of it.
It was originally intended to be used in a compilation of local and regional veterans’ stories, concurrent with a national airing on PBS of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick film “Vietnam.” But Hamlyn’s footage was so compelling WSIU wanted to do an individual documentary on it. They also asked Hamlyn to be interviewed for it at IPTV studios in Johnston near Des Moines.
Hamlyn’s footage is “amazing,” St. George said. That, and the narrative from Hamlyn’s interview, “really tells the story of the soldiers on the ground.”
Hamlyn stressed he agreed to the documentary, without compensation, on one condition.
“I said, ‘I give you rights to that film if you make notice that it’s dedicated to the West High School students that were killed in Vietnam,’” he said. They are acknowledged at the end of the film and on its website, wsiu.org/abaddeal. Production was completed and submitted to American Public Television in January for nationwide distribution.
“Jim is doing this for the benefit of his community and to educate others,” St. George said. “This was all about education. For me to be able do that for Jim and to show that we honor all these servicemen, it was a nice opportunity.” The documentary features an original musical score by Joe Maddock.
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Hamlyn noted he surprised himself during the interview at IPTV, when he was overcome with emotion as he recalled his first day in combat. He heard machine gun fire at the front of his convoy and later saw the bodies of a half dozen of his fellow soldiers.
“We started advancing forward, and when I got up there, I saw these guys, they were laying with ponchos over their front and their boots were just sticking out,” he told the Courier. “I hadn’t thought about that for 40 years, and I teared up an started crying” during the interview.
He also recalled the engagement for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. A four-man land mine detection crew ahead of his unit was caught under enemy fire in an ambush. Hamlyn, a reconnaissance scout manning an M-60 heavy machine gun, was assigned to cover them from his position on a Jeep.
“There was shooting going on everywhere. These guys were up front and they were pinned down,” he recalled. He grabbed two 200-round ammunition belts, ran up to the mine detection crew’s position with the machine gun and laid down covering fire so they, and he, could fall back to the main body of soldiers.
American planes called in by a superior officer then took out the enemy positions. As the shooting subsided, Hamlyn picked up his camera and filmed the air strikes, which are captured in the documentary.
While he saved those soldiers’ lives, another saved his. One of his buddies fell on an enemy grenade while they were on night watch. He and two other soldiers were on night duty, each taking turns standing watch while the others slept.
Hamlyn was trying to sleep when he heard the thud of the grenade hitting the ground.
“I’m laying flat and it lands near my right foot,” Hamlyn said. “The guy yells ‘Grenade!’ and jumps on top of me. It blew him all to hell — the lower part of him. And the guy to the left of me, it knocked him out. They evacuate both of them and I’m still there. I get scratches and some hand grenade fragments in my hand. My left hand. Which is the furthest point from where the grenade went down on the ground. How in the hell?”
Hamlyn doesn’t know whether his comrade who fell on the grenade survived.
“I think so. But I never, ever saw him again,” he said. “I’ve done searches and everything to try to find him.”
Hamlyn hopes the documentary will help him find such long-lost comrades.
“I want to thank him so bad,” he said. “This might give me that opportunity.”
Waterloo Schools spokesperson Tara Thomas, who will introduce Wednesday’s screening at West, said Hamlyn is also donating a shadow box in honor of West High’s Vietnam fallen.
It will hang alongside a painting artist and classmate Stephen Levey did from a photo that appeared in the Courier in May 2017 from an Honor Flight several West Class of ’65 alums made to Washington, D.C.
The photo, taken by classmate Dave Allbaugh, shows classmate and Vietnam vet Matt Nutt at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – “The Wall” – pointing out the name of a fallen classmate. That painting is to be dedicated at 1 p.m. Friday at West.
More information on the Hamlyn documentary, including future broadcast dates, is at wsiu.org/abaddeal.