“Grampie” Bill Gibson - Hawaii

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Standing just outside the quonset hut he slept in while stationed in Hawaii is "Grampie" Bill Gibson.

By Lura Jackson

Sometimes life can throw curveballs we don’t expect, sending us in unanticipated directions and inevitably providing us with experiences that shape our futures. Such was the case for Bill Gibson, who signed up for the Army with the intention of heading to Vietnam, but wound up being stationed in Hawaii for two years instead. 

Gibson was born and raised in Calais, and he graduated from Calais Memorial High School. At the time – 1973 – most of his friends were volunteering for the military to be able to serve in Vietnam as a group. Gibson was the manager of the Cracker Barrell restaurant across the street from the Post Office, and joining the service was frequently on his mind. One Monday morning he went in and signed up. A day later he was in Fort Dix, New Jersey.

After basic training in Fort Dix, Gibson was sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for infantry training. Prior to that, he’d only been to Ontario and as far south as Boston. “I’d never been in the middle of nowhere before!” he expressed. The training wasn’t entirely pleasant for Gibson as at one point a fellow trainee failed to throw a grenade far enough. Gibson and three others dove for cover, but not quickly enough, and each of them were hit by shrapnel. “Talk about burning,” Gibson said of the sensation. He counts himself lucky that he was only struck in the side of the leg, though the injury resulted in a partial disability by the time he was discharged two years later.

At the completion of training, the 280 newly-trained men were lined up outside at the base to receive their orders. Each had selected two places to be stationed for their options, and Gibson had selected Vietnam and Germany. When he wasn’t selected for Vietnam, Gibson thought for sure it would be Germany – but he wasn’t called for that either. Alaska came up, and Gibson was hopeful again, thinking it similar to Maine, but again, he wasn’t called. Finally, with few men left, Hawaii came up. There were two spots to fill, and Gibson was the first one named. “I only knew Hawaii was an island out in the ocean that I saw on TV,” he recalls.

As soon as Gibson arrived in Hawaii and stepped off the plane, girls with leis approached him and hung one around his neck. “It really was just like on TV!” Gibson said. He was stationed briefly at Schofield Barracks before being assigned to Fort Derussy on Waikiki Beach. Having had experience lifeguarding at the Calais pool, Gibson was among 87 men selected for the task. He would spend four hours a day on the beach lifeguarding while rooming in a hotel, since the Army did not have sleeping quarters built.

Being in Hawaii at the age of 18 with a less-than-demanding military schedule proved to be fairly amazing for Gibson, who describes his time there as “being in seventh heaven.” Gibson had the opportunity to see the filming of beach movies and shows, including Hawaii Five-O – which he and four other servicemen ran through the set of on a dare. He saw Chuck Norris fight on multiple occasions, Don Ho and his act, and he saw Wilt Chamberlain’s all-star volleyball team. “Being in the military, we could get in for free sometimes, or for just a couple of bucks,” Gibson said. “It was never a dull moment, and I was so outgoing at the time. I loved it.”

On the north shore of the island, Gibson and his comrades decided they were going to try surfing for the first time. “It was very hot, and we covered ourselves in sunscreen. Everyone was watching us.” They were advised to hang on to the sides of the boards, but the task was made more difficult by the copious amounts of sunscreen they had applied. “We tried to get up and went head over teakettle. Everyone was laughing,” Gibson said with a chuckle of his own. He would later become more comfortable body surfing, but he was always wary of the big waves after that. “I knew my limits,” he said. Aside from body surfing, Gibson had the opportunity to do a lot of fishing and snorkeling amongst the “beautiful coral.”

As an accomplished high school track runner, Gibson participated in the running trials and did well enough to be a competitor for the 25th Division’s track team. He competed against teams from Australia, Japan, and the University of Hawaii, running for 10 to 15 miles at a time. While Gibson asserts that he “didn’t come in last”, after three competitions he had had enough.

Gibson also had the opportunity to serve the Army as the guidon or standard bearer whenever highly ranked or prestigious individuals would come to island. He loved the task as it allowed him to express his patriotism for significant events, including the arrival of the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier at Pearl Harbor. 

Hawaii offers a veritable bounty of food options, and Gibson said that he had tried “every food known to man” while he was there. He enjoyed eating squid, noodles, pizza, roasted pig, copious amount of pineapple, and “anything you could imagine” from the international marketplace. 

Not all of Gibson’s time was spent in luxury. He was selected to participate in a Survivor-style assignment where he and his peers were pitted against the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines, and the Coast Guard to see who could live off the land the longest. Gibson and his team were headed by a South Vietnamese sergeant who showed them how to find food, but even still, medevac had to come and retrieve some of the soldiers after a period of time. At one point, he ate a mongoose. “That tasted pretty good, when you’ve got no food.” Gibson and his team made it for eleven days, though the Air Force ultimately won the competition. “That was a great experience. As soon as we got back, we hit the mess hall.”

Some of Gibson’s experiences were much more difficult to bear, including the suicides that would claim the lives of some of his military acquaintances. “That was always hard,” he recalls. On one occasion, Gibson was sent to provide security to a Marine Phantom plane that had crashed on the big island. Gibson stayed in a quonset hut surrounded by a foot of lava ash during that detail. He grimly recalls that it was the first time that he had smelled burning flesh. Another time, he was traveling in a helicopter patrolling over a reef – they spotted a body in the water by the coral, and thought it was a dog, but it was a baby. “That was awful. Couldn’t sleep at all that night,” Gibson said.

“But, the good times outweighed the bad.”

During Christmas of 1974, Gibson was allowed to return home to Calais. At the time, he was darkly tanned and bleached blonde from the sun. He went with some friends to the Motor Inn, which was the Stable Inn at the time. He remembers seeing a “gorgeous little brunette” named Arlene. When he would later get out of the service, he remembers going down the Main Street to Western Auto near where the young lady worked, and she came running across the street. “I would never have dreamed that I’d marry her. She’s the nicest woman in the world, the most kind-hearted woman I’d even met,” Gibson said, exuding affection. They were married May 8th, 1976, and would later have two kids, a boy and a girl, each of whom have a boy and a girl of their own. “I’m really blessed to have that family.”

 

After he left the service in 1975, Gibson went to work at the Woodland IGA for twenty years. He retired at 50 and purchased his own food truck, dubbing it “Grampie Bill’s Place”. He’s been operating it for the past eleven years. The additional income enables him and his wife to host free community suppers, including the upcoming Thanksgiving supper at the Second Baptist Church.