Fifty years ago, Billie Markos was sitting in a laundromat thumbing through a magazine article about the widows of soldiers slain in Vietnam.
Her thoughts immediately turned to her husband, Army Capt. George Markos, who was stationed at Camp Holloway near Pleiku and was just a month from returning home.
“I asked myself if this was a warning of some sort, but then I just put it out of my mind,” she said.
But those thoughts came rushing back the next morning — Feb. 7, 1965 — when she picked up a newspaper at her mother and stepfather’s home in Melbourne, Fla. The headlines talked about an attack near Pleiku that had killed eight soldiers.
“I just went, ‘Oh, my God. I hope it’s not George,’” Billie Markos said. “I think it just went through my mind that if I can get through this day, I’ll be OK. But of course, I didn’t.”
About 3 p.m. came a knock on the door, and her worst fears were confirmed.
She was handed a Western Union telegram — a death notice — that said “his compound came under a grenade attack from hostile forces,” but it offered few clues to how he had died.
George Markos, who would have completed his combat tour in March, was 25 and Tarrant County’s first death in the Vietnam War. By the war’s end, 212 Tarrant County residents would die.
The attack on Camp Holloway, 250 miles north of Saigon, killed Markos and seven others, partly igniting the rapid escalation of the Vietnam War.
A month before Markos’ death, about 23,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam. By the end of 1965, more than 184,000 troops were there. And Operation Rolling Thunder, the U.S. bombardment of North Vietnamese targets, would begin just days after the attack on Camp Holloway and last for more than three years.
His death would change the life of Billie Markos, who was suddenly a 23-year-old widow. She had met George at Carswell Air Force Base when she was 15. He graduated from TCU on an ROTC scholarship and joined the Army in 1961. He was sent to Vietnam in 1964.
“I was angry with God when I first got my telegram,” she said. “How could God let this happen? This was my life. I had a child that was 18 months old. I had a high school education. That was it. But as you get older, you begin to realize God didn’t do this. Man did this.”
In a prelude to the divide the war would cause, Billie Markos received an anonymous call from someone who said, “He got what he deserved.”
“I’ll never forget that an individual was saying that to a widow whose husband had sacrificed his life so that he had the right to free speech,” Billie Markos said. “It was wrong. I was in shock that another human being could be so cruel.”
She and her daughter, Mary, returned to Fort Worth, and Billie Markos enrolled at TCU. She would become an elementary school teacher in Benbrook, supporting Mary and herself.
“From that day on, I was the breadwinner,” Billie Markos said.
She briefly remarried but spent most of the next half-century on her own.
With her daughter, Mary Markos-Jian, by her side at her far south Fort Worth home, Billie Markos talked this week about her husband. She spoke from the sunroom that serves as a shrine to him and her brother, Aaron Yielding, who served two tours in Vietnam and died last year.
The room features a “warrior wall” of medals and photos of both men.
‘A healing experience’
The last 50 years have also been about learning the details of her husband’s final days. Two years ago, she went to Vietnam with her granddaughter Sarah Jian to retrace his last steps.
“It was healing,” Billie Markos said. “That’s what I found there. It was a healing experience for me.”
The journey included a visit to Pleiku and a side trip to Hong Kong, where George Markos had gone on leave about a week before his death.
Billie Markos said spending a few days in Vietnam brought her closer to her husband. It also forged a bond with her granddaughter, who was born Feb. 7, 1988 — 23 years to the day after George Markos died.
“I was following him for a certain amount of time and trying to recapture what he had seen,” Billie Markos said. “I felt his spirit was there. It was an awesome feeling.”
In the months leading up to his death, George Markos had been grappling with the growing war.
His letters to his wife showed it was taking a toll.
At one point, George Markos asked for something to comfort him, and she sent him a quote from Psalm 23 to help him cope: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
In one letter back home, he talked about what he was seeing in Vietnam.
“I wish the Americans at home could only realize what a dirty, cruel war this is,” George Markos wrote. “I know it’s changed me — I just hope for the better.”
But George Markos believed he was helping the South Vietnamese fight for freedom.
“He was very proud that he could assist in any way possible,” Billie Markos said.
She wouldn’t learn until 1998 exactly how he died.
‘A fateful mistake’
Mineral Wells resident Jim Irwin was in a helicopter with George Markos when it crashed during the attack on Camp Holloway.
Irwin responded to an Internet inquiry in 1998 and eventually told Billie Markos what happened. The details resolved many of the questions that had nagged her since her husband died.
“When you get a telegram, you’re wondering, ‘How did he die? Did he suffer?’” Billie Markos said. “They didn’t really know exactly what had happened, and I didn’t really find out until I got to talk to Jim.”
The attack began around 2 a.m. when mortars rained shells on Camp Holloway.
Irwin said soldiers scrambled outside in total darkness but were greeted by a hail of gunfire and a number of helicopters on fire.
Irwin, now 79, ran into George Markos as they tried to get helicopters off the ground.
They finally found one that appeared unharmed, and George Markos told Irwin to hop inside.
“”‘You run it up, and then I’ll take over and take off while you strap in,’” Irwin recalled Markos saying. “That would prove to be a fateful mistake.”
The helicopter got in the air but didn’t get very far.
“We took off and we made it about 3-400 meters and something happened to the airplane [helicopter],” Irwin said. “I was still strapping in. It all happened so quick. Just about the time I got strapped in, the airplane hit the ground hard, probably going 60-70 knots.”
The UH-1B Huey helicopter bounced and then flipped upside down.
In the darkness, it took a while to find Markos, who had been thrown from the helicopter. He wasn’t breathing, but Irwin performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until he started breathing again. He would eventually be taken to the 8th Field Hospital, where he died, Irwin said.
“He should be remembered as a hero,” Irwin said. “Everybody who went out on that line was a hero. They mortared us tremendously. As soon as those first airplanes [helicopters] got off the ground, that stopped.”
After the attack, Irwin said, the atmosphere in Vietnam began to change. The soldiers, who hadn’t been attacked previously, now understood they were targets.
“All of the sudden, we realized how vulnerable we were,” Irwin said.
For Billie Markos, the birth of her granddaughter Sarah on Feb. 7, 1988, was a godsend.
“My husband was taken away at a very young age, and later I was given this gift,” Billie Markos said. “A miracle if you will.”
Now working as a physician’s assistant in Wichita, Kan., Sarah Jian is aware of the significance of her birthday. She specializes in psychiatry and counsels Vietnam veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as service members who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She also believes her focus on psychiatry can help her grandmother.
“I do think my birth is what my grandmother kind of needed,” Sarah said. “It makes me feel kind of special, knowing my responsibility if she has any issues, if she needs to talk more in depth about her feelings. I know it gives her some satisfaction that I’m here, and there’s definitely a spiritual connection.”
But the feelings are more complicated for Sarah’s mother, Mary Markos-Jian.
Growing up without a father was difficult, Mary said, and while her emotions have mellowed through the years, she still has questions.
“I have been very angry,” Mary said. “I’m very bitter, to be honest. I know that he did the right thing. I know at the time he did what he thought was best. But I also wonder, Why couldn’t he have been a little bit selfish? Why couldn’t he have thought about his family first or me first, because my whole life changed and went down a completely different path because he died.”
The three generations will commemorate the anniversary in their own ways.
Mary said she will take her dogs to the city park named after her father, George Markos Park, in far west Fort Worth while Sarah plans to see patients in Wichita.
Billie Markos will most likely visit her husband’s grave at Greenwood Cemetery. She hopes Mary and her other granddaughter, Rebecca, will join her.
“We’ll put flowers on the grave, and I’ll probably say a few words to him,” Billie Markos said.
Her daughter and granddaughters say Billie Markos continues to serve as an example for all of them.
“As a mother, she was the greatest role model I could have,” Mary said. “She is the strongest woman I ever met. I could never match her in her emotional strength and endurance. There is no way. She taught me the value of being strong and independent and of getting an education and to be prepared in case anything happened.”
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698