After serving a tour in Vietnam, Capt. Ben Arp exited the military.
“I got out of the Army on Tuesday, went to (teacher) pre-planning on Wednesday and the kids came Thursday — that was a shock,” said Arp, who began his education career in 1971 in Pickens County. After two years, he landed at the old East Ellijay Elementary School and eventually became the principal while still teaching all day long.
After serving, and then retiring, as Gilmer County's school superintendent, Ben has made hundreds of friends through the years here and around the state. But it was a good friend in the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, Headquarters Troop of the 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) in Vietnam that he'll never forget.
“Burton Keeney Philips Jr. and I became fast friends, even though we had little in common,” he said. “Burt had lived in many places growing up in a military family. My life had been in the small community of Epworth. Burt’s past included leading roles in Shakespearean plays in college, then he had a career as a solo folk singer and was a part of a trio that had included Goldie Hawn. At the University of Georgia, my theater consisted of seeing every James Bond movie and Clint Eastwood spaghetti western that made it to Athens.
“What we did have in common was Binh Duong Province in South Vietnam in 1969.”
Ben recalled vividly the night of Nov. 23 that year. His unit was in Lai Khe, the division’s forward base camp, where he and Burt talked until around 3 a.m.
“That was not normal,” he recalled. “Normally, we would have been out in the jungle on an ambush that night. But I was going out the next day and Burt was off that night. We had a captain who was also along, and he was the one out with the ambush. I was manning the radios. It was very unusual for us to be able to just talk until 3 o'clock in the morning. There wasn't anything deep about it, we were just talking about home and growing up.”
In a few hours, Ben would be climbing into a helicopter. Burt would be getting into a jeep to do a recon of the area.
“At that time our job was mostly setting up ambushes at night, but we had a man wounded about a week before and he had not been 'dusted off' (med-evacked) to the Big Red One's field hospital,” said Ben, who was a first lieutenant at the time. “We couldn't find him, so the lieutenant colonel was giving me his helicopter that day and told me, 'Don't come back till you find him, Arp.' He had been shot in the foot and ended up in the 25th Division hospital, but they shipped him right off to Japan because of his wound … so I did find he had already been shipped to Japan.”
That afternoon as the helicopter touched down back at Lai Khe, Ben tensed up — his captain, George Figula, was waiting in a jeep.
“I hopped in the jeep and through clenched teeth, George said three words: 'Philips is gone.'”
Stunned, Ben helped box up his best friend's belongings to ship to his family and learned what happened. Burt’s jeep had detonated a mine and he was wounded by several pieces of shrapnel. He bled to death in the dust-off chopper. Burt was from Clayton, Missouri, but had moved around because his father was career military.
“I think one of the reasons we bonded like we did was we were within a year of each other's age, we were both first lieutenants, and it was just an easy bonding between the two of us,” Ben said. “I think about Vietnam — I won't say daily, but let's put it this way — there's not a week goes by that it's not with me a couple of days anyway.”
How do those thoughts impact him?
“One way I've noticed is the older I get, I can get emotional about it probably easier than I did 40 years ago,” he replied. “The first couple of years after I came home from Vietnam, I had nightmares every now and then. A strange thing (over there) was I could hear a helicopter before anyone else could hear it … and (hearing) a helicopter always took me back. It doesn't today, but it did the first two or three years home.”
Traveling back to Southeast Asia has been cathartic.
“Between 2010 and 2017, I went back every year to either Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam (twice to the latter),” he shared. “Being over there was what pulled me back. But once I went — and Cambodia was my favorite place to go — they were so gracious and love Americans, and that sorta surprised me the first time I went … they called me Poppa. I looked up some missionaries there my cousin knew and I asked them why the people called me Poppa and they said it was because of my age, because 'You're old!'”
He still thinks about that one night, and the next day.
“It's been over 50 years since that November day in 1969,” Ben said. “There have been few days that Burt and others who served in Vietnam have not been in my thoughts. Thanksgiving holidays are bittersweet. There are two days each year where Burt’s memory always closes in on me — certainly Nov. 24 is one of these days. The other day, in this year of 2021, is May 31 —Memorial Day. Burton Keeney Philips Jr. would have been celebrating his 77th birthday.”
Burt is “forever young” on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
“Beginning in 1982 at the Wall’s dedication, I have visited him several times,” Ben revealed. “Burt lives on Panel 16 West, Line 118. Lest we forget, I wear a bracelet that proclaims '1 Lt. Burton K. Philips Jr. 24 Nov 69.'”
Mark Millican is a former staff writer for the Daily Citizen-News.