KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The photograph is the only one taken of the moment Hattie Ford met the man who played a role in killing her husband 50 years ago during the Vietnam War.
It was taken in a clearing, on the spot where her husband died.
The photograph shows Ford, a retired Kalamazoo math teacher, her second husband Jim Ford, and two men from the tiny village of Thon Ba, which straddles a winding river.
The man in blue was the enemy back on Jan. 15, 1969, the day Ford’s first husband died.
But the day the photograph was taken, Jan. 15, 2019, exactly half a century later, he was no longer an enemy.
“I never expected to find somebody that could give me the details he gave me of my husband’s final hours,” she said. “I just really appreciated having that.
“To me, his taking us to that spot was his way of acknowledging, ‘You deserve to know what I know about your husband.'”
Ford had married her first husband Deane Taylor Jr. in June 1967. By November 1968, he had been drafted and was fighting in Vietnam.
“He was a fine young man and I’m sure that he and I would have had a good life together, but it didn’t happen,” Ford said.
1st Lt. Taylor, a native of Atlanta, was a U.S. Army helicopter pilot on a mission with two others in a Hughes OH-6 Cayuse chopper when heavy clouds forced them to fly low. The helicopter took gunfire, forcing Taylor to make an emergency landing. Once out of the helicopter, he and the rest of the crew were shot and killed, their bodies later recovered.
At age 22, Hattie was a widow.
Her second husband of 43 years, Jim Ford, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, also served in Vietnam — reluctantly, he said. Last year, the retired attorney started planning this trip.
“I asked her if she wanted to go and see the spot, and she did,” Jim Ford said.
Using military records and old maps, he came close to pinpointing the spot where his wife’s first husband died.
“I was convinced that there would be some people there who were still alive who would remember it,” he said.
They drove to the small village with an interpreter, who eventually led them to the man in blue.
“The possibility that the man who did it was still there and that we would find him, I thought was just one in a million,” he said.
“I suspect he was as surprised by our appearance there as we were to find him,” Hattie Ford said.
Through the interpreter, the man led them to the exact spot, confirming details they knew and filling in details they’d never heard: that low clouds had forced the helicopter to fly low and that one of the crew had injured his leg.
“He told us he burned the helicopter, considered looting the bodies for treasures, for keepsakes of his own,” Hattie Ford said.
Their interpreter was convinced the man in blue had even more to do with it.
“When we left, he said he was the man who shot them,” James Ford said. “Our interpreter was convinced this was the man who shot the crew.”
The man in blue didn’t ask for forgiveness. He didn’t have to. It was war. The U.S. was the enemy. But no longer.
“Everybody seems to expect that I would be overcome with emotion, that I would be distraught, that I would feel angry perhaps at this man, and I didn’t at all,” Hattie Ford said. “That war was a big mistake on the part of our government. And I guess if there was anybody I would be angry at, it would be our own government for getting involved in something like that, to take the life of these fine young men.”
Hattie Ford, now 72, would like to return to Vietnam and find the man in blue once more.
“I would really love to talk to that man again,” she said.
But she learned Thursday that she has only several months to live. Her intensive treatments for years of cancer would take her life.
Now she wants to share her story, she said, “to keep Deane’s memory alive, in a simple statement, to make sure he’s not forgotten.”
“I think it’s an extraordinary story of forgiveness, reconciliation, recognizing how utterly foolish not all wars, but most wars, are,” Jim Ford said.