Tom Taylor, veteran, dies at 82

David Briggs
Tom Taylor and his wife, Pamela, photographed in their Seahaven home in 2013. A decorated veteran, author, triathlete and world traveler, Tom died last October.  
03/29/2018

Tom Taylor, a decorated veteran who would pin his Purple Heart onto racing shirts while competing in triathlons into his 80s, died on Oct. 1, 2017 at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco. He was 82 years old.

Tom and Pamela, his wife of 49 years, moved to Inverness, where they built a home overlooking Tomales Bay, in 2008. His time in Seahaven was marked by a daily regimen: rise, read, write—he authored several books that explored the person behind the soldier—eat lunch, nap, exercise, dine with Pamela and wind down with either the news or an episode of “Dancing with the Stars.” Tom was a polyglot and conversationalist who entertained guests with his vast knowledge of history and nature.

“He was a walking, talking history book,” Christopher Brown, his godson said. “He’d know things in great detail that the average person would not. He’d talk about a paper he wrote on Shakespeare being an imposter and then he’d look out the window and explain why the tree branches grew in right angles. His interest was the pursuit of history and truth.”

Thomas Happer Taylor was born on Dec. 11, 1934 in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. to Maxwell Taylor and Lydia Happer. His father was the renowned army general who went on to become a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

A military brat, Tom spent his early childhood in Tokyo, where he learned to speak Japanese before English. (He’d ultimately add Mandarin, French, Spanish and German to his list of languages.) The week of his seventh birthday, Tom heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio and delivered the news to his father.

While his father served in North Africa, Tom lived in Fort Bragg, N.C. and Arlington, Virginia with his mother, who worked for the Office of Price Administration and handled the gasoline ration card program. Tom attended St. Albans High School in Washington, D.C., where he was captain of the basketball team and a member of the religion club. His page in his class annual featured a cartoon of Tom dunking a basketball while casually flipping through a physics book.

With military service in his crosshairs, Tom attended West Point, where he graduated with a degree in engineering in 1960. (His father said of him: “He did something at the Academy that I could never do. He made the choir.”) Tom flew through paratrooper and officer training before volunteering to serve in the 10th Special Forces Group. He’d eventually join the unit that was among the first to go to Vietnam for a combat role, in 1965. 

A chance mechanical problem with a plane forced Tom to divert to Hawaii for a couple of weeks for some R&R. It was there he met Pamela Borgfeldt, a stewardess on layover with Pan Am, on Waikiki Beach. The couple became so engrossed with one another during their first encounter that they didn’t realize their raft had been swept up in a rip-tide, which required a rescue. They continued to date (“I’d fly to Saigon with little time except for a kiss,” she said) and would marry in 1968.  

In Vietnam, Tom was with the first brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles.” His father had commanded the same division during World War II. Tom’s experience in special forces training led him to the front lines, and in September 1965, he was involved in the first encounter between United States and Vietcong battalions. Two company commanders were killed in combat and Tom inherited their units. He would go on to receive a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for valor and a Purple Heart after he was shot in the leg.

“A-18” was Tom’s first book, published in 1967. The novel told of a special forces raid to kill Ho Chi Minh and it earned Tom a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. 

He went on to publish seven books, including “A Piece of this Country,” which told of a black sergeant who found he was more respected in Vietnam than at home. His later books were nonfiction military exposes, such as “Lightning in the Storm,” which described the 101st Airborne Division’s role in the Gulf War. A historical novel about a famed British officer was optioned several times by Hollywood executives, but was never produced.  

David Sobel, a longtime friend, was impressed by how Tom defied political labels.

“Although his viewpoints on many political and social issues were liberal, they were always grounded in a very real life experience in what war is and the importance of defending freedom and values,” Mr. Sobel said. “It’s very easy for armchair, intellectual liberals to espouse what they think the world is like, but Tom knows what the world is like.”

Following his military service, Tom attended the University of California, Berkeley. It was 1968 and he was a fresh Vietnam veteran in the nucleus of an anti-war movement. One of his classes was disrupted by a rock thrown through the window with shouts from protesters condemning him. “It was like facing the Vietcong on a second front,” he once wrote. 

He persisted, earning a master’s in sociology at Berkeley and then later a J.D. from Hastings School of Law. He was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1978 and began working for Bechtel in Saudi Arabia, negotiating contracts with the Bin Laden Group and defending colleagues who had been caught drinking.

Tom’s “Tennysonlike” poetry—as it was described in his high school yearbook—never faded. He wrote and illustrated a poem for a friend’s wedding in the 1980s that included the line: “And let the spell of Inverness be woven in a nuptial kiss.” A few years ago, he wrote a haiku for Pamela:

 

Too few words to say 

All the things you mean to me 

More in years to come

 

Throughout their marriage, Tom and Pamela were united in their enthusiasm for travel. She continued to fly with Pan Am while he worked, but together they traveled to Kenya, Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan and India. They would see all seven continents together. 

They moved to Washington, D.C. in 1991 for 14 years, where Tom honed his craft as a military historian. In 2003, General David Petraeus tapped Tom to accompany him in Iraq, resulting in the book “Lightning in the Storm.”

Tom and Pamela had visited Inverness since 1969, but didn’t purchase property until 2004. A few years later, they moved into their home, where Tom had a side office to continue his writing and indulge in his passion for exercise. 

Whether running on trails or swimming in Shell Beach, Tom seldom missed a day of exercise. He was a U.S. National Triathlon Champion in his age group in 1982, 1985 and 2010. He was nicknamed the “hikemeister” by friends for his elaborate plotting of hikes that sometimes lasted well past nightfall. Pamela said his presence is still felt on the trails near their home.

“When I’m hiking on the Johnstone Trail, I see Tom running through the trees,” she said.

Tom also helped Tomales High School students with their college essays and was adamant about feeding his resident woodpeckers and crows. He adored classical music and would lovingly quiz his wife on the names of composers when a song came onto the radio. His singing in the shower was warmly received. 

Mr. Sobel noted Tom’s wry sense of humor and ability to connect with anyone. “You’ve seen those commercials for the most important man in the world? Tom was one of those kinds of people,” he said. “We went to Yosemite to go hiking and my son brought along a bunch of his friends, and what amazed me was how interesting these 25-years-olds found Tom. I have to say that’s kind of magical. Tom was utterly captivating and fascinating to these people. And he asked as many questions as he answered.”

At 78, Tom logged a new goal: to join the cast of “Dancing with the Stars.” Talking to the Light for an article in 2013, he said, “Just like the military, I will keep giving it and going at it until I succeed or fail.” Although he was unable to land a spot on the show, his pursuit connected him with Inverness writer Murry Suid, who helped Tom write his page on Wikipedia to help boost publicity. 

“I’m sure there were people who thought it was ridiculous, but he’s the type of person who set his sight on something and was determined to do it,” Mr. Suid said. “I think he had a very balanced view. He never tried to make things seem better than it was. He was certainly confident that he had a life that would interest people.”

Tom was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of prostate cancer toward the end of 2016, but he refused to slow down. His longtime friends John and Geri Droutsas visited him often in the hospital and said that, up until his passing, Tom had an impact on those around him.

“Doctors would walk in with their white coats and Tom would say he was not going to give up. He was always upbeat and sure he was going to fight it. I had never witnessed something like that before,” Ms. Droutsas said. “At the end of it all, the doctors said he was the most interesting man they had to deal with. He was so charming and smart, we just loved him.”