By Paul Wood
MAHOMET — Phil Wilhelm’s body still carries within it shrapnel dating to his two tours of duty in Vietnam.
The sergeant, now 72, primarily led groups of fellow Marines on recon missions to find the Viet Cong — though on a couple of occasions, he succeeded too well.
Vastly outnumbered in those instances, he and his comrades could only hide from the enemy.
He also counts among his experiences being caught up in the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Before the war, the future Champaign police officer attended schools in Camargo and Villa Grove, where he played varsity football and baseball.
Wilhelm pre-enlisted in the Marines a few months before graduation and went active on June 13, 1965. Wilhelm wanted to be a Marine in part because an uncle had been in the Corps.
His boot camp was in San Diego. There, Wilhelm said, he learned that you have to rely on the next guy, and he’ll do the same for you.
Overall, it was a tough experience.
“It was rough,” he said. “They said ‘If you can get through Marine boot camp, you’ve got it made.’”
In December 1965, Wilhelm was deployed to Okinawa, a major U.S. military staging point, for a month of jungle warfare training.
At the time, the Marines in his unit trained on World War II rifles, he said, because they would afterward be training Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers on how to use the weapons.
“The World War II rifles were still brand new in their crates,” Wilhelm said.
Later, still in Okinawa, he trained U.S. troops on the newer M-16s.
He said he expected to be “a basic grunt” when sent into the war, but he was instead assigned to more dangerous reconnaissance duties as a replacement, which required leaping out of H-34 helicopters and running along jungle trails.
He said he had previously learned some skills hunting, and even from being a Boy Scout, which may have helped.
And when he wasn’t walking a trail, his job was to reinforce M-422 “Mighty Mite” lightweight jeeps.
While out and about in 1966, he and his men were playing a cat-and-mouse game with the enemy when he was slightly wounded. He earned a Bronze Star from that experience but, though wounded in the line of duty, he did not seek a Purple Heart.
“We ran for most of three days,” Wilhelm said of that particular engagement. “You just have to keep your eyes open.”
He was wounded again during his second tour in 1968, not long after the Tet Offensive, this time much more seriously.
He said he was on patrol when he tripped an enemy booby-trap, which sent shrapnel into his hip and also severed his femoral artery. He also sustained injuries to an arm and his head. And only a medical corpsman’s quick work saved his life, he said.
“The rest of my life, that has slowed me down,” said Wilhelm, who later needed work on his other leg because he’d been using it improperly to compensate for the wounded one.
He was returned to Naval Station Great Lakes and left the service after a few months.
Back in the U.S., Wilhelm got married to his wife, Linda, and together they had two sons, Chris and Jim.
“I was married, and had a kid, and I was not going back,” he said of a decision not to re-up.
Wilhelm said it was a natural step for him to move from doing recon in Vietnam to being a patrolman in Champaign, a job he held from 1971 to 1997.
He left the Champaign Police Department because his old wounds had slowed him down enough that he could no longer meet the running requirement for patrol work.
He has continued to work at other jobs. And as often as he can, Wilhelm said, he and his wife travel to 3rd Recon Battalion reunions.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at email@example.com.