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Hometown Hero: Vietnam vet Tom Bailey always up for a challenge, earned two Purple Hearts

Local News

Sheboygan, Wis. (WFRV) – Tom Bailey grew up in the Sheboygan area, he admits college just wasn’t for him. 

“I majored in partying,” Bailey said. 

That’s why at age 22 in 1966, Bailey dropped out of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and challenged himself to enlist in the Marines.

“If you challenged me to do something, I would do it,” said Bailey. “The owner of the bar (where I worked) had been a Marine, and he said, ‘You’re a big tough guy Tom, why don’t you go join the Marines?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, okay maybe I will.’”

Growing up in the small town of Sheboygan, Bailey had never even flown on a plane before. Now, he was 22 years old and on his first flight to Vietnam.

“Physically, I was a big strong guy, but mentally, I was still a teenager,” Bailey said. “Six months prior I had been drinking beer and chasing girls and listening to Rock n’ Roll, and all of the sudden there you are, 10,000 miles away from home.”

Bailey first stopped in Okinawa for staging with a motor transport unit.

There he suffered third degree burns in a cleaning accident, delaying his deployment for three months. That accident is what earned Bailey his first Purple Heart.

Eventually, he was shipped to Northern Vietnam with a battalion landing team.

He spent seven months there, guarding artillery on the perimeter lines.

“We didn’t run patrols like you see in movies, where guys are out looking for trouble,” Bailey said. “We waited for trouble to come to us, and it did.”

That trouble came in the form of a satchel charge, an explosive device filled with shrapnel.  

That trouble is  what earned Bailey his second Purple Heart, and a few scars.

“The only thing that saved my butt is that it landed so close to me that most of the shrapnel went over the top of me,” said Bailey. “One piece hit me in the chest.”

Bailey was med-evaced to a hospital ship, and sent back to his battalion after he was patched up. He recalls that his doctor was from Sheboygan falls.

Little did he know though, his trip in Vietnam would be cut short; He was sent home after learning his mother had fallen ill.

“I was wounded in Vietnam, lost both of my parents, married my wife and started working in a prison all in one year. So, I grew up real fast.”

Since that flight home, Bailey has taken just a few others. One of those was an Honor Flight with other Vietnam veterans in 2019 to Washington D.C., an experience he’ll never forget.

It reminds him why he enlisted that summer back in 1966.

“I’ll never be ashamed of the fact that I was there, I’m glad I survived, and I’m glad I was not mistreated when I got back . I’ll always be proud to be a marine.”

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