Last week, while going on my daily five mile walk, I bumped into Tom Hemphill who lives on the next street over from me and our brief chat along with a bit of persuasion led him to agreeing to meet for an interview. So, we recently met in his beautiful home where we carried on for several hours. I hope that you appreciate his story as much as I did.
High School Letterman
Thomas N. Hemphill was born October 22, 1947, in Carlinville, Illinois, where he grew up graduating from his town’s only high school, Carlinville High School in June 1965. Tom is a 5th generation Hemphill who was born and raised at that small town. In high school, Tom lettered in basketball and track and he also played Alto Saxophone in their band. By the way, Tom’s hometown is the only town in the World named Carlinville. Following high school, Tom attended Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where he aspired to continue playing basketball. However, due to Bradley’s immense superiority, making the team was simply not possible so he left to play and pursue his education at Blackburn College, a smaller college in his hometown.
Tom began noticing that a number of friends were either being drafted into the U.S. Army or were enlisting in the military, so three months after attending Blackburn he volunteered for the draft as he grew weary of having it hanging over his head. On December 12, 1966, Tom arrived at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he took Basic Training in the dead of winter. He thought conditions there were just miserable, until going through Advanced Infantry Training at the notorious Fort Polk, Louisiana, nicknamed “Tigerland”. A portion of Fort Polk contains dense, jungle-like vegetation and that coupled with Louisiana’s heat, humidity and precipitation (similar to Southeast Asia) helped acclimatize new infantry soldiers for combat preparation in South Vietnam. Following AIT, Tom was promoted to Corporal and placed in “hold over” status as he had qualified for Officer Candidate School. Two months later, Tom declined OCS and following a two week leave of absence visiting his family, he flew in a commercial airliner to Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon, South Vietnam, arriving at Long Bien Army Base on July 4, 1967. Tom next received orders to serve with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division where their horses were actually Huey Helicopters.
After several days at Long Bien, Tom reported to Delta Company at An Khe in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam as a light weapons crewman, however his entire tour of duty he was actually an infantry rifleman grunt. Delta Company’s mission was to seek and destroy Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army communist soldiers, which kept them on long patrols in the mountainous terrain near An Khe. Tom said, “Our patrols were extremely rugged and seriously dangerous”. They had but two showers in the six months Tom served with Delta Company before getting terribly wounded by a Viet Cong’s hand grenade. During a routine patrol searching a suspected Viet Cong hamlet, a typical brief firefight erupted and Tom suffered the brunt of that action. He was wounded by shrapnel and every part of his body, including his face and neck, was hit except his left arm and his right arm was mangled and paralyzed. 32 puncture wounds all told. Tom was 20 years of age. He said, “Thanks to our medic’s hasty action and swift evacuation to the nearby field hospital at Landing Zone English in my Battalion Commander’s helicopter, I somehow survived. To this day I still think it was a miracle”.
36 Inches of Scars
Following that firefight at an old abandoned French village in the Bong Son Plains, Tom experienced many months of painful medical procedures that included over 1,000 stitches and many with stainless steel wire. Tom’s body has 36 inches of scars and it took over five years before he had natural use of his right arm but later on he was finally able to play his beloved basketball again. His final hospital care concluded after four months at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. After recovering, Tom was assigned to Fort Ord, California, for his final 8 months of service as a rifle range drill instructor training new recruits to use the M-16 rifle, M72 Law (Light Anti-Armor Weapon) and Starlight Scope. At Fort Ord, Tom was promoted to Sergeant E-5 and was Honorably Discharged December 11, 1968.
Back In the World of Round Doorknobs
Once back in civilian life, Tom didn’t have time to grouse about his Army service or his combat experiences and serious injuries as he promptly resumed continuing his education and working. First, Tom attended Los Angeles Harbor College and earned his Associates in Arts Degree in Theatre Arts and by 1975 he earned his Bachelor’s Degree at UCLA also in Theatre Arts. During his college years, Tom worked at Carte Blanche Credit Card Company as a computer operator and for Datsun Automobile Company as a Data Processing Clerk. Following college, Tom worked for Disney Studios in Burbank, California, for over two years and then he was a car salesman for another two plus years before landing a job at Pacific Bell in 1980. Tom retired from Pac Bell in year 2000 and was self employed working part time selling healthcare insurance.
It’s a Great Life
While at Pac Bell and teaching classes, Tom saw the love of his life, Susan, a striking beauty whom he knew he just had to meet. And so, with an absolute brilliant line, “Don’t I know you”, he soon introduced himself and they immediately began seeing each other and they’ve been together ever since. Tom and Susan Hemphill were married at SCV’s Le Chene Restaurant September 8, 1994. Together they have three children, five grandchildren and one great grandchild. Tom first moved to Newhall in 1985 and since 2014, they’ve lived in Valencia. Tom had spent much time caring for his elderly mother until she passed away but these days, he’s busy with his Grumman Tiger Airplane flying out of Santa Paula’s airport and he loves golfing. Susan’s hobbies are quilting and embroidery of which she creates beautiful works of art. Susan grew up an Army brat as her father served in artillery during WWII, Korea and Vietnam and he retired as a Sergeant Major. Her brother was a medic. And it’s noted that Tom’s dad served in WWII and departed at war’s end a Captain. I would say that these great patriots, Tom and Susan, achieved their American dream.