I should begin by saying I know all the principals in this story pretty well. My friend, Leo Evans, and I have done a feature movie and half-hour documentary together. The relationship between Dennis King and me goes back nearly 30 years, to our long tenure together as Tulsa World writers. (We both retired on the same day in 2006.) And I have long known and admired Clark Wiens for his tireless work as co-founder and president of Tulsa’s Circle Cinema, a fiercely and commendably independent theater operation in an age of homogenized entertainment.
On top of all of that, I’m a Vietnam veteran.
Let me note that I had it relatively easy over there, stationed on a helicopter carrier transporting ground troops and a Marine Air Wing to the Gulf of Tonkin, and later sweeping mines out of Haiphong Harbor. But my year in the war zone left me with a deep interest in literature – including documentary films – about the war and the deeply divided home front, which often treated returning Vietnam servicemen with indifference or even hostility.
That’s where these three guys come in. With Wiens producing, Evans directing and King scripting, they’ve created a feature-length, Vietnam-related documentary, Bill’s Thud, that’s not only coming to a theater near you, but to venues all across the country. The purpose of the picture, says Wiens, is simple: “It’s about honoring Vietnam vets. We honor all veterans, but particularly that group, because they weren’t treated with the same respect the other ones were. If we can get one person to see this film and then say they’re going to go home and tell their neighbor, who’s a Vietnam veteran, ‘Thank you for what you did,’ then we’ll have our reward.”
Bill’s Thud wasn’t always about Vietnam veterans, however. At its genesis, some 10 years ago, it was about one vet. His name was Bill Pachura, and he was Wiens’ brother-in-law.
“After he married my sister, he became my brother – for almost 47 years,” says Wiens. “We were very close. He went to Vietnam in the worst year, 1968, when two-thirds of the people on the (Vietnam Memorial) Wall died.”
A pilot, Pachura was tasked with flying bombing runs from Takli, Thailand, to Hanoi in an F-105 Thunderchief, one of the fighter-bombers nicknamed “Thuds.” After 129 missions, he went on to other assignments, finally retiring from the Air Force and moving to Baltimore with his family.
Years later, Pachura was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Wiens began flying to Baltimore every few months to visit, and it was during one of those trips that Pachura’s son-in-law brought out a book that listed every F-105 ever made.
“There were only 722 of them, and most didn’t make it back to America,” notes Wiens. “They were either shot down or ran out of fuel on the way back to Thailand and were ditched in Cambodia. Maybe 50 or 100 were brought back, and they were used for Air National Guard training.”
It didn’t take Pachura long to find his plane in the book. And armed with that knowledge, Wiens spent a day making phone calls, trying to see if Bill’s particular Thud still existed. When he found out it was sitting on the tarmac at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, being used for security training, Wiens knew he had to reunite his brother-in-law and the plane.
By this time, Wiens had met Evans – via a documentary class at Tulsa Community College taught by King. So the two decided to make a video record of the terminally ill Pachura’s trip to Lackland, accompanied by many of his family members, including Wiens. Wiens and Evans also traveled to Nevada to interview some of Pachura’s war buddies.
“So while he was alive, through Leo’s good efforts, we finally developed a 30-minute film,” recalls Wiens. “I made up a poster and a little book, and I flew to Baltimore and walked through his neighborhood, telling people about the film. So, in his basement, for our first showing, 50 or 60 people were crowded in, watching the movie, seeing his grandchildren touching the airplane. I’d never seen Bill Pachura cry before. He told me later it took him seven times before he could watch it without crying.”
Wiens’ next idea was to have Pachura’s Thud hauled to his hometown of Centralia, Ill., where it would serve as a Vietnam Memorial. That happened, too, with Evans chronicling it all. But it didn’t happen quickly. In fact, it wasn’t until four frustrating years after Pachura’s death that Wiens was finally able to jump through all the Air Force’s hoops and get the deal done. Along the way, however, he and Evans grew to realize that Pachura and his airplane had become the catalyst for a larger story – and a full-length documentary.
“At first, we did it for nothing but the family,” Wiens explains. “But we had Vietnam vets come over to the Circle and watch that short film, and there were enough tears shed to clean the floors forever. And Leo and I said, ‘Wait a minute. If it’s impressing people like that, why in the hell are we limiting this? Why don’t we take this thing national?’”
“As all of this was going on,” adds Evans, “Clark and I spent a lot of time together. At first, when we went to Las Vegas and Reno, we weren’t thinking about all Vietnam vets. We were just thinking about Bill’s friends and fellow pilots. We were thinking about a real documentary, but what we were trying to think was, ‘What is this about?’ We went around and around with it, and we first came up with the idea that it was about heroes.
“But it finally came to me when we moved the plane,” Evans continues. “I thought of how that plane rolling across America was like Lincoln’s funeral procession – a healing process. And that’s when I said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to interview a lot more people. We’ve got to get a broader view.’”
That’s also where their old friend King – a Vietnam vet – came in, providing, Evans says, “another perspective, and someone we could bounce ideas off of” in addition to his scriptwriting.
Now, after lots of tweaking and “at least three major recuts,” according to Evans, Bill’s Thud is ready to go on the road, even as its namesake rests comfortably in Centralia, its own travels ended. Interestingly enough, a couple of years after the filmmakers figured out what the picture was about, they found their theme echoed by none other than the President of the United States.
“The speech President Obama gave at the Wall on Memorial Day this year summarizes exactly what the movie is about,” explains Wiens. “That’s how we end it now, with the President speaking and our credits running to one side. The only reason we didn’t show the film before Nov. 11 is that we didn’t want people to think it was a tool to get votes for him.
“But now that he’s elected,” Wiens adds, “we’re hoping to start a movement for a one-time ‘Thank a Vietnam Vet Day,’ during his term, perhaps to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, which was on Jan. 28, 1968. We’re not politicians, and it’s going to take politicians to do it, but to have a day in which everyone in America would thank a Vietnam vet – that’s our goal.”