Arthur Wiknik, Jr. was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 at the age of 19 and served with the 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War. During the famous battle for Hamburger Hill, he was the first in his unit to safely reach the top during the final assault. As a community volunteer, Arthur is a founding member of the Haddam Veteran's Museum, is a 17-year member of the Haddam Memorial Day Parade Committee and is a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Patch chatted with Wiknik, who is also the author of Nam Sense, a memoir of his Vietnam War experiences, in advance of his upcoming program at the Killingworth Library.
PATCH: Why did you write Nam Sense?
Wiknik: I always wanted to write a book and when I got out of the service I had a story I wanted to tell people but most people didn’t want to hear it because the Vietnam War was very unpopular. I still thought I had a pretty good story to tell. Every time I went to a party I started telling people what some of my experiences were and they told me I should write a book. I started jotting things down and had notes laying all around the house that I just started putting together.
PATCH: Did you have background in writing or a degree in English?
Wiknik: No, I was not a strong writer but I became politically active and wrote a lot of letters to the editor. As I saw them appearing in the newspaper, I thought I better improve my technique a little bit because they’re pretty poor. I also had articles that appeared in national magazines that I had to rewrite and rewrite. After you get so many rejections, you start to have a revelation. I just kept practicing and had people read it. I wanted people to be brutally honest because that’s the only way you perfect anything.
PATCH: Did you grow up in Higganum?
Wiknik: Yes, I’ve lived here my entire life.
PATCH: How did you come up with the title of the book?
Wiknik: I wanted a simple title people could remember. The original title was “Platoon” but a movie came out with that name. At lunchtime when I worked at Pratt & Whitney the guys and I would come up with names – the bamboo shooters, the bamboo blues – but nothing seemed to have that draw. One day one of the guys said “this isn’t making any sense, we’re not getting anywhere,” and another guy said “yeah, it’s nam sense.” We all looked at each other – that was it!
PATCH: How many years after you returned home did you write Nam Sense?
Wiknik: I actually started writing six months after I returned because I didn’t want to forget. Once I got married I told my wife “now I got a typist.” We built a house, had kids, so it took a long time ... almost 30 years to get the book into print. I rewrote it six times. It was rejected 32 or 33 times before a publisher finally took it. I always knew I had a good product and I didn’t want to give up on it.
PATCH: How did you deal with challenges of your experiences?
Wiknik: That’s one of the misconceptions people have. Some people do have emotional problems but I just kind of slipped back in. The guys I hung around had just returned from the Navy or Vietnam so we were able to talk to each other and talk about our experiences – not specific incidents but things like what it was like being in the military, being away from home, missing events such as the major holidays. I had a good circle of friends.
PATCH: After receiving the draft notice, how were you assigned?
Wiknik: When you first go into the army, you fill out the “dream sheet.” In other words, if you had your ideal job in the military, what would it be. I put down that I wanted to be a chaplain’s assistant. The interviewer asked me if I ever had seminary training – no. He asked me if I was going to take any seminary training after the military – no. He said you can’t be a chaplain’s assistant.
My second choice was pastry chef. He asked me if I had any training – no. He asked me if I was going to take any training after the military – no. He said, “You’re going in the infantry."
PATCH: Is writing your full-time profession now?
Wiknik: There’s no money in writing. I’m a job recruiter right now. I worked at Pratt & Whitney for 28 years and got laid off and then I knocked around a couple of small job shops for about 15 years. I’ve always liked to write but there’s no money in it.
PATCH: What did you think about the film Hamburger Hill?
Wiknik: It’s about 60 to 70 percent accurate. Because I took part in that battle, I have a special attachment to it. The battle scenes were pretty accurate. The hill looked pretty accurate. The general attitude of futility trying to go up that hill day after day – I thought it was fairly well done. When you first see that movie, there's a couple of soldiers in a hot tub; in all the time I spent in Vietnam I never saw a hot tub so some of the things you have to take with a grain of salt.
PATCH: Tell us about your appearance on Discovery’s Military Channel?
Wiknik: Prior to that I was on the History Channel on a show called Vietnam in HD. It was very exciting to be selected. That was probably the most honor that I had been given – to be selected for that six-hour series was quite an honor. I thought that was it for me – my book was out and I couldn’t imagine anything else happening to me. Then I got an email from the Military Channel! There was “here’s some plane tickets, bring your wife down and you’ll be interviewed by Lou Diamond Phillips.”
He’s such a real person and grew up living on naval bases so had a lot of military background. He was around it enough as a kid to understand how important the military is to our country.
PATCH: What are the ingredients for a great leader?
Wiknik: No one has ever asked me that. You have to be flexible. You have to know your subordinate’s strengths and weaknesses. You have to have compassion and be able to think fairly quickly.
PATCH: What did you, personally, gain in serving the 101st Airborne Division?
Wiknik: It doesn’t matter where I served. You learn patriotism, self-sufficiency, how to follow orders, how to depend on others and how to let others depend on you.
His writing credits also include stories in five different Chicken Soup for the Soul books and he also had articles in Army, Soldier of Fortune, Players, North American Whitetail, Rural New England and Heading Out magazines.
In 2008, Arthur provided commentary for Lionsgate Films 20th Anniversary DVD on the making of the movie Hamburger Hill. In November of 2011 he appeared in the History Channel special Vietnam in HD and in 2012 he appeared on Discovery’s Military Channel show An Officer and a Movie with actor and host Lou Diamond Phillips.
As part of the Killingworth Library’s Author Series, Higganum author Arthur Wiknik, Jr. will host a program on Thursday, October 11 at 7 p.m. in the Meeting Room.
Please sign up at the Killingworth Library or call 860-663-2000.