Kevin Riordan: He's telling the other side of war

Terrell with children from the Mang Lang orphanage. Terrell, of Delran, is working on a proposed documentary about his experiences. "It's a phenomenal honor for me to tell the story," he says.
Terrell with children from the Mang Lang orphanage. Terrell, of Delran, is working on a proposed documentary about his experiences. "It's a phenomenal honor for me to tell the story," he says.
Posted: August 13, 2012

Like many Vietnam vets who came home with a wounded soul, Billy Terrell rarely spoke of the war.

But after reuniting with his Army buddies in the last decade, he began to talk about all the good they did together for some orphans near a place called Tuy Hoa.

"It's a phenomenal honor for me to tell the story" of the 226th Service Company and the Mang Lang orphanage, says Terrell, 67, who recently did so at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial complex. A few weeks later, he was at West Point to be interviewed at its Center for Oral History.

Terrell, of Delran, also is working with producer Laurence A. Caso on a proposed documentary that has won the support of a top executive at NJTV. The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress is interested in what he has to say, too.

"There's a generation coming up that wants to know about the war," says Terrell, a longtime music producer and comedian who lives with his wife, Liz, in a pleasant neighborhood east of Route 130.

"It's important to finally . . . get away from this 'baby-killer' [stigma]," the blame his era's GIs carried for the atrocities of a famous few, he says.

A slender man with a soft, sandpapery voice, Terrell has been disabled since the war. He suffers from what he says have been diagnosed as the lingering effects of exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.

In the last seven months, he's undergone heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer ("I'm in remission"). And in July, an emergency procedure for a perforated small intestine turned up another malignancy.

But Terrell, who produced disco and pop hits in the '70s and who still writes songs, is pursuing his career as an oral historian with a young man's passion.

His recent presentation, which he calls "The Other Side of the War," was "very powerful, very touching," says Sarah Hagarty, education coordinator for the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation.

"As he told the stories, he was back there" in Vietnam, adds Mark Frankel, who conducted the West Point interview.

Born William Torsiello in 1944, Terrell grew up in a working-class family in Newark. He had just been hired as a $50-a-week songwriter at Kama Sutra Records when he was drafted in 1965.

A year later, he was in Vietnam, where he became fast friends with Chicagoan John Scheer and Jordan Klempner, a Brooklyn boy.

Near base camp, "there were 100 orphans and six nuns, and the nuns came begging for food for the kids," says Scheer, 69, from his home in Waldorf, Md.

Scheer, a second lieutenant in charge of the food depot, organized an effort to help the sisters and the children. Soon Terrell, Klempner, and a dozen other GIs also were donating money and time. Several became close to the youngsters; Terrell's photos of the orphans and soldiers are particularly poignant.

"Nice stories like this about Vietnam never got told," Kempner, 66, says from Woodland Hills, Calif. The TV project "could be one of the coolest things in my life."

"It has all the makings of a tremendous television documentary," says Caso, the producer, whose previous work has been shown on the History Channel.

"These three guys and the fellow members of their unit did something so positive," says Caso, who believes the film can be made for less than $800,000.

John Servidio, general manager of PBS-affiliated stations on Long Island and in New Jersey, also is committed.

"It would be a wonderful documentary," Servidio says. "I told Billy that I personally, and the station, will help him raise funds for it."

When the three friends go back to Tuy Hoa for the first time, possibly next year, a film crew will be on hand.

"I want to dignify the American soldiers who did good things," Terrell says. "Finally, after all this time, I can do that."

I salute him. I salute them all.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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