From Udorn to Celina: The End of My Vietnam War

The Vietnam War ended for me on a cold Monday afternoon in late November 2007 at a lonely, windswept graveyard in Celina, Ohio. It took four hours to drive the 270 miles from Grove City, Pennsylvania to Celina, Ohio. That journey, for me, began in Denver, Colorado some 38 Novembers ago, continued to Udorn and Bangkok, Thailand, and then concluded at the North Grove Cemetery on the outskirts of Celina at the grave of the wife I lost during the Vietnam War.

In late November 1969, I met Judith as we processed into the Air Force Air Intelligence Officers course at Lowry Air Force Base, in Denver; newly minted-second Air Force lieutenants training for assignments to Indochina as intelligence officers. When I saw the tall, dark-haired woman, the only female officer in the room, I promised myself, “This is the woman I’m going to marry.”

We dated for a while before one of the instructors, a very handsome Navy lieutenant, noticed Judith’s beauty and snaked her away. While Judith seemed finished with me, this young man in love was determined. Accordingly, when Judith received orders for Udorn, Thailand, I also volunteered because of what I convinced the Air Force was “my life-long interest in northern Thai culture, history and religion.”

In early October 1970, I landed at Udorn. Judith knew I was coming and when I saw her enter the officer’s club that day, my heart jumped into my throat. She walked straight to my table, sat down, waved her left hand in front of my face saying, “No ring. He’s done.” Three weeks later we married. I had followed the woman I loved from Colorado half way around the world … and won her heart.

A war zone is no place to start a life together. I worked nights while Judith worked during the day. One late afternoon in early June 1971, Judith announced she was moving out. We divorced three weeks later. I last saw her in August 1971 in the lobby of the Florida Hotel in Bangkok. She was on her way to a new assignment in New York; I was returning from a trip to the Philippines. We passed on the stairs. I said, “So long, Judith.” She said nothing.

I knew that Judith had married a high school drop out shortly before she graduated from college in 1966. Later, Judith told me that after her divorce in 1968, she committed herself to a psychiatric hospital where, diagnosed with schizophrenia, the doctors treated her with electrical shocks.

Meanwhile, I moved on to my next assignment in Omaha, Nebraska, where in 1973 I met a wonderful woman. In 1974, my wife and I began what has been a very happy almost 35 years together. Meanwhile, I heard through friends that Judith had married an Air Force major named Smith.

In the mid 1980s, I began worrying that Judith’s schizophrenia had returned and that her third marriage also might have failed. Inquiries to mutual friends turned up nothing. It was as if Judith Kaye Smith had completely disappeared. In 1984 or 1985, I began including Judith in my daily prayers. “Where ever Judith is, I pray she is well, safe and happy and that someone loves her as much as I did.”

By then, I was emerging as one of the earlier scholars of the Vietnam War, writing articles and books on air power in Vietnam, hoping that Judith might read them. If Judith ever needed help, I wanted her to be able to find me. My Vietnam War could not end until I knew what became of her.

With the advent of the Internet I searched constantly, finding lots of Judith Smiths, but none fit her profile. Then, last October, while reading an online obituary for a high-school friend’s father, it struck me an electronic obituary might tell me something of Judith’s whereabouts. I soon found her mother’s obituary then gasped when I read that she was preceded in death by a daughter, Judith Smith.

Over the years, I prayed Judith was well, safe, and happy; a gracefully aging wife and mother surrounded by her loving family. While I feared she might be dead, I was unprepared for death’s cold reality.

The obituary also provided the hometown for Judith’s surviving sister. I wrote asking what happened to Judith.

A week later, her sister called to tell me that Judith divorced her third husband when he proved abusive. Shortly thereafter she developed breast cancer which spread to her lungs and finally into her brain. Judith died in March 1981. More than a quarter century passed before I finally discovered what had happened to the woman I followed to the other side of the world.

It is strange to grieve for someone gone from your life for 37 years; gone from this life for over a quarter century. Nevertheless, last October I was in that peculiar situation. My wife, the world’s most understanding woman, suggested I drive to Celina and lay flowers on Judith’s grave to end my Vietnam War.

The American War in Vietnam lasted almost 16 years. My Vietnam War lasted 38 years, from November 1969 to November 2007. It was a life-long journey from Denver through Udorn to Celina, Ohio.

Standing over Judith’s grave the last verse of the song, “The First time ever I saw Your Face,” echoing through my mind, I tearfully repeated the words, “I thought our love would fill the earth and last ‘til the end of time.” Then I whispered, “So long, Judith.” She said nothing.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

All posts by | High resolution photos»