The Billionaire Green Beret
Former SOG soldier, John Walton, could have traveled the globe on luxury jets. Instead, the Wal-Mart fortune heir loved to take to the skies in an experimental plane built from a kit. On June 27, 2005, while a Cessna business jet he used sat on a runway at the Jackson Hole, Wyoming Airport, he took off in the plane, powered by a gas engine similar to those in snowmobiles. A third of a mile from the runway, the craft went into a steep dive and crashed in Grand Teton National Park, killing the 58-year-old educator and outdoorsman.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation indicated that the crash was caused by the incorrect installation of a piece of airplane equipment. At the time of his death, Forbes magazine had ranked John Walton as the 11th-richest person in the world, tied with his brother Jim. The brothers then each had an estimated net worth of $18.2 billion.
Walton was the son of Sam Walton, who founded the Wal-Mart discount store chain that became one of the world’s biggest companies. Unlike his father, Walton didn’t pursue a business career. He attended the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, dropping out after two years. He then joined the Army and served in Vietnam. But his duties were far from ‘regular.’ He was a Special Forces soldier in a unit code-named the Studies and Observations Group, or SOG (cover for “special operations group”), a secret, elite military unit that often operated in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam in what had been called America’s “Secret War.” Walton joined the unit in 1968, right after the Tet offensive.
He became a member of a SOG “Hatchet Force” which consisted of small cross border teams generally made up with two or three Americans and up to five Indigenous troops; sometimes South Vietnamese, sometimes Montagnards and sometimes Chinese Brue, but always very capable, loyal and fierce warriors who knew how to operate in the jungles with stealth and outstanding bravery. On almost every mission there was a firefight. A particularly horrifying battle occurred in the A Shau Valley in Laos while he was assigned to ST (strike team) Louisiana. The team mission was to find a fellow Green Beret who had been separated from his team when it was forced to evacuate after running into a large enemy force. John was the commando team’s No. 2 as well as its medic.
In the low light of early morning, ST Louisiana was dropped from Sikorsky H-34 helicopters onto a ridge near the DMZ and was attacked by North Vietnamese army soldiers. In a memoir titled Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam, fellow Green Beret John Stryker Meyer gives an account of that day: “Four of the NVA’s rounds struck the tail gunner, wounding him severely. As Walton swung his CAR-15 [a submachine gun version of the M-16] toward the enemy soldier … [his] rounds hit the NVA soldier and drove him back in the jungle.”
The account goes on to say that Walton’s commanding officer, Wilbur “Pete” Boggs, called in a napalm strike that landed yards away from John. Soon the six-man team was surrounded. One was dead and three were wounded. John tended to casualties, including Boggs, who was knocked semiconscious by shrapnel, and Tom Cunningham, who was badly hurt with a knee that was blown out and started hemorrhaging very, very severely. Walton applied a tourniquet to his leg to stop the severe hemorrhaging. With Boggs down, Walton was now in charge. He picked up the radio and called in two choppers for extraction. As the first Sikorsky H-34 (King Bee) dropped in and lifted off with some of the men, the NVA intensified its assault. A second chopper was needed to get all the men out, but the landing zone was too hot to make it in. Walton and his team thought they were doomed, but suddenly the first chopper came back down, even though their added weight might make it too heavy to take off again. With the enemy advancing into the clearing, firing at the helicopter, and Walton trying to keep Cunningham alive, the King Bee took off and barely made it over the treetops.
Cunningham and Boggs survived, though Cunningham lost his leg. That night while John was playing poker, someone pointed out that he had a flesh wound across his right wrist. A round fired by the NVA soldier John had killed had creased his skin. Later John was awarded the Silver Star.
To many who called him a friend, he was a Renaissance man who didn’t really care about the trappings of inherited power. When he returned from Vietnam he worked as a crop duster and a ship builder. He was known for choosing jeans and a T-shirt over a suit and tie. He preferred a beat-up truck over a shiny new car. Among his hobbies was flying, skiing, scuba diving, mountain biking and hiking and fulfilling his obligation on the Wal-Mart board. Aside from his passion for spending time with his family and playing various sports, he spent his adult life promoting education reform and throwing his considerable financial support behind efforts to educate low-income children.