On March 23rd I attended a Pathfinders’ reunion at Fort Benning as a guest of Clete Sinyard. I had no idea the base is home to a 240 foot replica of the Vietnam Wall. It was a traveling memorial for 23 years until its 2014 dedication.
Five of us paused to pay respects to James Robert Taylor. The group included Clete and Deborah Sinyard, plus Kim Taylor Farris and her husband Greg. Kim was only four when her Uncle Bobby was killed in action, but tender memories remain.
Darwin, Clete’s middle name, is how he was known growing up. That’s what his best friend Bobby Taylor called him in letters he wrote home. December 31, 1965, was one of the last. “Darwin is sitting in here writing letters too. I think he just wrote you all one. If you get a chance please answer it. He would really like to hear from you all.”
Clete and Bobby met at the Army’s reception station in Fort Jackson during processing. Both had quit school to partner with Uncle Sam. Clete was 17 and looking for adventure. Bobby was bored and wanted a change.
As they stood in line for shots, dog tags, and uniforms, the alphabetized system placed them near each other. Two kids sporting flattops were amused as long-haired boys lost their locks to enthusiastic barbers.
They rode a bus to Fort Gordon for basic training where they began hanging out together. One of Clete’s brothers, Jimmy, lived in Augusta with his wife JoAnne, so Clete and Bobby used weekend passes to visit them.
Bill Taylor, Kim’s father, took his wife and two daughters to Augusta to see Bobby. They rented an extra hotel room for Bobby and Clete. The friendship of two young soldiers kept expanding to other family members. Cookies in care packages were gladly shared.
Parallel paths took Clete and Bobby through Advanced Infantry Training, Jump School, and Pathfinders School. Then they boarded a ship bound for Vietnam. Rappel ropes were used to tie cooking oil cans to the back of the U.S.S. Darby. Bouncing targets were ideal for M16 rifle practice.
A typhoon offered unplanned excitement. The bow and stern were like a giant seesaw in the storm. Soldiers were instructed to stay put, but Clete couldn’t resist opening a door to sneak a look.
The spot where he’d been standing while shooting cans was pointing upward at an angry sky. Clete slammed the door, locked it, got in his cot, and stayed there.
Clete’s onboard assignment was to guard the food cooler. He was stationed beside it with keys. Bobby was a runner, fetching whatever the cooks requested. That providential pairing is how they managed to reallocate two cafeteria-size cherry pies. Sharing sweet bounty with fellow Pathfinders made the risk of getting caught acceptable.
Bobby Taylor seemed okay for a while in Vietnam, until he came back from one of the missions with a somber assessment. “I’m not going to survive this,” he said to his friend. Clete told him to stop that crazy talk, then showed him a picture of a Volkswagen Beetle he planned to buy when he returned home. They stayed up all night talking.
On January 28, 1966, the helicopter Bobby was aboard unknowingly landed on a Viet Cong bunker. A bullet grazed his forehead and knocked his helmet off. He was airlifted out by another chopper. Bobby reached up to touch the wound, saw blood on his hand and died. Clete believes shock, not the bullet, killed him.
Bill Taylor died November 15, 2020. Kim discovered a stash of letters from Bobby which her father had quietly kept. Most were to his parents with some to siblings. The mention of his friend Darwin led to a search. She found Clete and asked if he would tell her more.
Kim and Clete knelt by the Vietnam Wall at Fort Benning, each pointing to a name that’s important in much different ways. To Kim he was the gregarious uncle she loved as a toddler and wishes she could have known longer. To Clete he’s the best friend who thought he wouldn’t survive and was tragically proven right. But to most of us, he’s one of 58,000 casualties we only know through the reflections of others.
James Robert Taylor was 20 years old when he died in Vietnam. To those who knew him best and loved him the most, I suppose he always will be.
there always seems to be something like “the things I wished I had said”
So many losses in that war and all wars to young men like Bobby. So sad!