Dave Bakke: Wounded Vietnam veteran finally finds lost love

Dave Bakke

In 1968, Lee Oakley was far from his home in Mattoon. Staff Sgt. Oakley was in Vietnam with the Army’s 9th Infantry Division. On this particular day, his platoon members were sweeping a treeline south of Saigon, looking for the enemy.

“We did that all the time — constantly,” Lee said.

As Lee and his men walked out of a rice paddy and into nearby trees, a booby trap exploded. Lee and four others were wounded; he took the blast in his hand. They took Lee for surgery to the nearby Third Field Army Hospital.

After surgery, he was taken to a recovery area where he saw her. She was a nurse — the first American woman Lee had seen in months. Of course, he fell in love immediately.

“She came up and asked me ‘Where are you from?’” Lee recalled. “I said Mattoon, Illinois.” The nurse replied that she was from Illinois, too.

Lee was at the field hospital for four or five days. He eventually returned to duty and never saw the nurse after that. But she made an impression.

In the years since, Lee could not always remember for certain what Illinois town she was from. It wasn’t a town that he was familiar with. And he never did get her name.

Lee returned to Mattoon after the war, married and got on with his life. But he kept the memory of that nurse in his heart.

Lee comes to Springfield each year for ceremonies at the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He is the non-commissioned officer in charge during the ceremony.

Ellen and Bob Lally of Springfield attended the ceremony about a month ago. Both Lallys are Vietnam veterans. Bob noticed the sergeant who led the color guard in and remarked that the guy looked a lot like the drill sergeant he had at Fort Bragg.

Afterward, the Lallys asked the man about that possibility. No, Lee Oakley said, he wouldn’t have been at Fort Bragg at the right time. By the way, Lee asked, where were the Lallys stationed in Vietnam? They said they were at the Third Field Army Hospital near Saigon. In fact, that is where they met.

Lee said that was a coincidence, since he was there, too. I was wounded near Saigon, he said, and that’s where they took me. 

“I’ll never forget my nurse,” Lee told them. Then he told the story about his wound and the nurse who took such good care of him.

By now, Lee had found the name of that town the nurse said she was from. The town was White Hall.

“I’m from White Hall! It’s me!” Ellen said. There weren’t any other nurses at that field hospital from the tiny town of White Hall. It had to be her.

“You should have seen my face,” Ellen said. “We shared hugs and tears. It’s remarkable.”

“You ain’t a-kiddin’” Lee said. “What would that have been, 39, 40 years ago?”

Lee and Ellen talked and exchanged addresses and phone numbers.

“Hey, man,” Lee said, “and I told her husband this, too, I just fell in love with that nurse.”

“My husband had to share me with lots of people,” Ellen said, “because they just always love the nurses that took care of them. I might not even be the one who took care of them, but I represent the ones who did.”

In this case, she was the one.

Ellen and Bob weren’t even going to go to the ceremony at the memorial that day. But they happened to see in that morning’s paper that it was the 20th anniversary of the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and they decided to attend since it was going to be special. They just didn’t know how special.

“I think I was supposed to be there,” Ellen said. “It’s karma or something.”

Dave Bakke can be reached at (217) 788-1541 or dave.bakke@sj-r.com.