A documentary honors a Tulsa filmmaker’s brother-in-law and all Vietnam veterans.
Clark Wiens made “Bill’s Thud” as a thank you to all Vietnam veterans, especially his brother-in-law Bill Pachura. Above, Wiens at the Circle Cinema with the film’s poster and the artificial horizon device from Pachura’s plane.
The Vietnam War. More than 40 years after the conflict ended for the United States, it still evokes raw emotions and memories of a time when the country was bitterly divided and its young soldiers were scorned.
Clark Wiens remembers well the atmosphere of the period. Living in San Francisco at the time, a bastion of antiwar and countercultural sentiment, he saw firsthand the mistreatment of returning veterans by fellow citizens.
“It was just terrible,” Wiens recalls. “The name calling, the abuse, I saw it all, and I was upset by it. They didn’t deserve that.”
It was especially painful for Wiens because his brother-in-law, Lt. Col. Bill Pachura, had served in Vietnam as a combat pilot.
“These veterans never got the respect and love they deserved for their sacrifice for this country,” Wiens says. “I understand that many people were against the war, but you should damn the war, not the warrior.”
Pachura flew an F-105 Thunderchief on a 129-mission tour that took him over the most dangerous targets in North Vietnam. As low-flying, high-speed attack bombers, the F-105s — nicknamed Thuds (see below) — were particularly vulnerable to enemy antiaircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles. One in three Vietnam War-era Thunderchief pilots didn’t make it home.
For his excellent service, including a mission in which his accurate bombing allowed another downed pilot to be rescued, Pachura was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the highest honors any military aviator can receive.
Although the F-105 had a mixed reputation among its pilots, Pachura developed a keen respect and even fondness for his aircraft that saw him safely through so many missions. He named his aircraft the Red River Queen, in recognition of the three Red Rivers in his life — one in his childhood home in Illinois, Oklahoma’s Red River and the Red River near North Dakota’s Grand Forks Air Force Base, Wiens explains.
Though honored by the military for his service, Pachura returned home, like so many veterans, to a less-than-enthusiastic welcome. He quickly discovered it was better just to get on with life and talk little about his combat experience.
“He was the kind of guy who never made a big deal of his service,” Wiens says. “But I thought it was heroic.”
Fast forward three decades after the war, and Pachura was facing terminal cancer. Wanting to honor his brother-in-law before he died, Wiens approached him with a fantastic idea. How would he like to be reunited with the Red River Queen? Pachura loved the idea.
There was only one question: Did it even exist anymore?
Wiens pledged to Pachura he would find out. After a few phone calls, he traced the Red River Queen’s location to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio where the plane was displayed on the tarmac with other F-105s.
Ecstatic, Wiens quickly arranged a reunion for Pachura and his beloved bomber at Lackland. He decided to film the event, and this was the beginning of his decade-long documentary project, “Bill’s Thud.”
In San Antonio, Wiens captured the emotional reunion of a man and his war machine. Not long after the 2002 reunion, Pachura died from cancer.
Though his brother-in-law was gone, Wiens’ work was far from finished. In addition to reuniting Pachura and his plane, Wiens made a commitment to acquire the plane and put it on display in Pachura’s childhood hometown of Centralia, Ill.
At first, things went well. Lackland’s base commander agreed to let Wiens take Pachura’s aircraft. That good news, however, soon turned sour when a new commander arrived on base and countermanded the order.
Why? It turns out that Pachura’s plane, as part of the lineup of F-105s, was not on the end. To take his plane would leave a gap in the display. The commander was willing to let Wiens take one of the other planes on the end. Wiens said “no go.” It had to be Pachura’s or nothing.
What followed was a four-year battle with Air Force bureaucracy to secure the release of the Red River Queen. Simultaneously, Wiens managed his wholesale lumber business, Cedar Creek, and oversaw the ongoing development of the Tulsa nonprofit Circle Cinema. Finally, his dogged persistence paid off and — with help from the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio — Lackland’s base commander relented and allowed Wiens to take the plane.
“I promised Bill that it would be his plane and no other,” Wiens says. “I made that promise, and then he died and I couldn’t take it back.”
Next came transporting the plane. The F-105 is a behemoth for a single-seat fighter-bomber, and it easily took up the entire flat bed of an 18-wheeler. The wings and other components were transported separately on their own 18-wheelers. The plane initially came to Tulsa and was displayed for a few days at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum before making its final journey to Centralia, where city officials enthusiastically welcomed a Vietnam War relic once flown by a hometown hero.
Today, Bill’s Thud sits on display in a park in Centralia, a city of about 13,000. The plane is maintained by a fund established by Wiens, who also bore the significant costs of transporting the aircraft nearly 1,000 miles.
Wiens, along with documentary partner and cinematographer Leo Evans, filmed the long journey of Bill’s Thud over many miles and many years. Along the way, they interviewed numerous Vietnam War veterans and a host of others who reflected upon their wartime experiences and the fact that these servicemen were never properly honored.
It is a theme throughout the documentary, which runs approximately 74 minutes, trimmed down from an estimated 60 hours of raw footage.
“When you do a documentary, you have to film it all because you don’t get a chance to redo it,” Wiens says.
The documentary kicks off with black and white newsreel footage of President Lyndon Johnson declaring, “We will not be defeated,” and proceeds to tell Pachura’s story while framing it in the context of soldiers who sacrificed for their country only to be rejected after returning from the battlefield.
Wiens says the documentary is still not in finished form, and he often thinks of adding to or improving it. He would like PBS to show the film, but would need to edit it down to a slimmer 54-minute running time.
“Bill’s Thud” will be screened at the Circle Cinema Nov. 9 and 11.
“The film grew into something with a bigger purpose,” Wiens explains. “It became a labor of love to give Vietnam veterans the respect they didn’t have at the time. Many served out of patriotic duty whether they wanted to go there or not. If people start saying ‘thank you’ to them, then I’ll be satisfied. That’s what makes it worth it.”
WHY A THUD?
For an aircraft that could split the sky at 1,400 mph and carry 14,000 pounds of munitions (enough to destroy a city block), the nickname “Thud” seems an odd fit for the F-105 Thunderchief. But the plane could be tricky to fly and was prone to mechanical failure.
As a result, early F-105 pilots derisively nicknamed the huge fighter-bomber “Thud” because of the sound it made after plunging out of the sky and into the ground.
Eventually, most problems with the early F-105s were worked out and the Air Force assigned more mature, experienced pilots to the plane. In 1968, 35-year-old Bill Pachura was one of them. He was older and already had a wife and four children at home.
“A lot of the pilots, like Bill, were older — in their 30s or even 40s. They felt it took more mature pilots to handle the plane. It was one of those planes where you couldn’t make mistakes. If you made a mistake, you died,” Wiens says.
Resembling a rocket with swept wings and a big tail fin, the F-105 was sleek, fast and hard hitting. Measuring more than 64 feet long, it was used primarily to knock out military, industrial and infrastructure targets over North Vietnam. Originally designed to carry a nuclear bomb to a target by flying fast at low altitudes, the F-105 was adapted for conventional warfare in Vietnam, and the aircraft remained in service in some places until the early 1980s.
Pachura and his fellow F-105 pilots flew their craft out of airbases in nearby Thailand, streaking into the combat zone, dropping their payloads and then racing back to base.