Rotary Minute: Phail Wynn – Hank Williams and the Formation of My Band of Brothers

Most of us know Phail Wynn, Jr. for his current community relations role at Duke or for his earlier role as the President of Durham Tech, where he was  and is an active force in most of the positive trends that have made Durham such a great place to live. This Minute recounts an earlier experience that foreshadows his ability to lead and bring people together. In the picture below we’re pretty sure that’s Phail second from the left in the top row.

2018 marks the 48th anniversary of an event that forever changed my perspective on race relations.

An incident that gave me eternal hope and showed me how artificial racial barriers can be.

An incident that clearly demonstrated once common cultural bonds are identified and/or realized, racial barriers are easily transcended.

The pictures on each table show the Band of Brothers that emerged from this incident.

So, the title of my Rotary Minute is “Hank Williams Sr. and the formation of my Band of Brothers.”

I served in the northern-most military region of South Vietnam (I Corps) as a reconnaissance unit commander (1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry – “Blackhawks”) attached to the Americal and 101st Airborne Divisions.

Shortly after my arrival in Vietnam and my assignment to Forward Support Base  Hawk Hill,  I was summoned to the field office of the unit executive officer, the grizzled war veteran, Major Helton.

My short audience with Major Helton went like this: “Lieutenant Wynn, Lieutenant…his name I can’t remember…was in the field only four days and stepped on a land mine and lost both his legs. You will replace him as unit commander. The unit is still in the field. Get your gear.”

Shortly thereafter I am on a helicopter taking me to the unit’s position in the field.  Upon arrival, the chopper hovered about four feet above the ground, the pilot said “go”, and I hopped out.  My 40- man unit had gathered around as the chopper came in.  As the chopper departed, I noticed that all 40 were white.  For a moment, I stared at them, and they stared back at me.  I was later told by a Stars and Stripes military newspaper reporter that, according to his research,  this was the only known incident of black commander of all-white unit in Vietnam.

Things were a bit uneasy at first, but we finished the mission and returned to base camp Hawk Hill.  However, I soon discovered I had five soldiers from the deep South who refused to acknowledge my presence, my authority, or to accept me as their commander.  Also, they kept to themselves, and did not mingle with the other unit soldiers when we were back at base camp.

After our second  reconnaissance mission, there was no improvement in the attitudes of my five southerners as they continued to give me the silent treatment.  One evening back at base camp, they were sitting together cleaning weapons, drinking beer, and listening to country music on an 8-track player powered by field radio batteries.

I noticed they were listening to music by Hank Williams, Sr.  So, I walked over and sat down without saying anything, and sang along with Hank on “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Half as Much.”   My southerners were shocked and surprised.

“Sir, how do you know those songs?”, they asked.  I replied, “I grew up in Oklahoma and those songs were what I heard on the radio.”

From that moment on, everything changed.  The door was open for developing acceptance and respect, and they became my most loyal troops.

When I asked for twelve volunteers to accompany me on an ambush patrol into Laos, all five volunteered (They are included in the photo).  Thanks, Hank. I will always be a fan of your music.

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  1. […] the town and gown relationship between Duke and Durham.  You can read the story in his own words here. An earlier Rotary Minute, recorded in August of 2014 shares more of his background including his […]

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