Dr. Dabbs: John Walton—The Walmart Warrior

We’ve all wondered what it would be like to be this guy.

What would you do if you came into some serious money? I don’t mean you inherited a couple thousand bucks from crazy great-aunt Mildred. I mean what would you do if you were suddenly just filthy rich?

When I win the lottery I’m buying myself one of these.

We’ve all pondered it. Last week some unidentified person in California won more than $2 billion in the Powerball lottery. Before that guy walked away with all that cash I admit that I entertained myself in quiet moments imagining what I’d do with such a windfall. I’d bless my friends and family, to be sure, but I’d also buy an island along with my own vintage Spitfire. Anyway, considering I have never bought a lottery ticket, the chances of my winning the lottery are pretty small. Of course, the odds wouldn’t change a whole lot had I actually bought a lottery ticket, either. That’s honestly the point.

This is Sam Walton 18 days before he died of blood cancer. Thanks to the dynasty he created, at one point half of the top ten richest people in America were named Walton.

Some folks are born into money. Others work really hard or are just plain lucky. As the second son of a dime store owner from Arkansas named Sam, John Walton wore his wealth well. In great part, this is likely because young John had known some proper suffering before he got rich. Much of that hard experience he got while in uniform.

The Sam Walton family was, by all accounts, a pretty decent mob.

John Walton was the second of four kids born to Sam and Helen Walton. In High School, John was a dichotomy. He was a star football player who also enjoyed playing the flute. After graduating from Bentonville High School in Bentonville, Arkansas, he attended the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. In 1968 he dropped out of school so he could better his skills as a flutist. After reading about the Tet Offensive, John Walton enlisted in the Army.

Sam Walton’s son John (on the right alongside John Meyer) was indeed a steely-eyed warrior. Photo courtesy John Stryker Meyer from his book Across the Fence.

John Walton had good genes and a killer work ethic. In short order, he was a fully qualified Special Forces medic assigned to the Studies and Observations Group in Vietnam. He saw combat in the A Shau Valley as well as in Laos and Cambodia. During his cross-border forays, he was assigned to Spike Team Louisiana operating out of Forward Operating Base (FOB) 1 in Phu Bai. These stone-cold SF warriors would insert via helicopter to monitor movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail and call in air support to interdict enemy formations as the opportunities arose. Such stuff required simply legendary bravery and epic fieldcraft.

SF teams operating deep in enemy territory in places like Laos, North Vietnam, and Cambodia wrote the book on modern special operations. Photo courtesy John Stryker Meyer from his book Across the Fence.

August 3, 1968, was a Saturday. SP4 Walton was deep in the suck in the A Shau Valley alongside five other members of his recon team. His unit was compromised and attacked by a numerically superior NVA force. In short order, the team was surrounded and immobilized. With the incoming fire now utterly overwhelming, the team leader called a Prairie Fire mission for any nearby strike assets. Prairie Fire meant that an SF team was about to get annihilated. Anything with a gun or a bomb was expected to answer the call. 

These tight-knit SF teams were formidable agents of chaos.

The NVA knew that Americans had access to overwhelming firepower and that the key to success was to get in close and stay there. With automatic weapons fire and grenades raking their position, the spike team leader reluctantly called in an A-1 Skyraider to drop on their own position. The strike killed one member of the team, severely wounded the team leader, and blew the radio operator’s right leg off. To make things worse an NVA soldier got a clear line of sight and shot the fourth Green Beret four times with his AK-47 before being killed by John Walton, the only team member still intact.

SP4 Walton, shown here on the right, was a natural-born warrior. Photo courtesy John Stryker Meyer from his book Across the Fence.

John was an SF medic, and those guys could do some amazing medicine in the field. SP4 Walton assumed command of the team and went to work stabilizing the wounded while also manning the radio. Amidst everything else, SP4 Walton continued working the Tac Air, calling down fire on the tenacious NVA troops.

The H-34 Kingbee was obsolete compared to the more modern designs operated by the US military. Note the orientation of the landing gear.

Three rescue helicopters answered the call. The first onsite was an antiquated H-34 Kingbee flown by a South Vietnamese pilot named CPT Thinh Dinh. The H-34 was, by the standards of the day, a piece of crap. Powered by a reciprocating radial engine rather than the jet turbines that drove American aircraft like the UH-1 Huey and OH-6 Loach, the H-34 was woefully underpowered, particularly in the thick hot environment of the A Shau. Despite suffocating ground fire, CPT Thinh bravely brought his aircraft into a nearby clearing and set it there as enemy rounds chewed through the airframe.

SP4 Walton organized his wounded team members and got them onto an evac aircraft under fire.

SP4 Walton dragged his teammates out to the aircraft one at a time until the antiquated helicopter was as heavy as it could be and still fly. Walton, for his part, would have to wait on the next bird. As soon as the young medic was clear CPT Thinh lifted off and nosed over toward the nearest field hospital. Then he heard over the radio that the next two rescue aircraft had turned away due to the overwhelming volume of ground fire. With that, CPT Thinh torqued his overloaded Kingbee around and headed back into hell.

SPC4 John Walton, right, was nearly killed fighting in the A Shau Valley in 1969. Photo courtesy John Stryker Meyer from his book Across the Fence.

Thinh landed his fat aircraft in the same spot and stayed there until Walton could get on board. However, now the old helo couldn’t hover. With enemy automatic weapons fire chewing the aircraft to pieces, the brave South Vietnamese pilot got the aircraft teetering up on its forward landing gear struts. In this awkward configuration, he pivoted the machine around until it faced a nearby draw. He then allowed the helicopter to roll downhill until he could take advantage of effective translational lift and actually break ground and clear the jungle. In this sordid state, CPT Thinh nursed his stricken aircraft to safety, saving Walton’s life in the process. Once the dust settled SP4 Walton was awarded the Silver Star for his courageous actions in saving his team from certain death.

Like all soldiers in a combat zone, SPC4 Walton had big dreams that helped sustain him until he could get home.

In the aftermath of this particular mission, Walton confided to his friends that, if he lived to get home, he planned to buy a motorcycle and travel. Along the way, he hoped to learn to fly and explore Mexico, Central, and South America. For many to most folks, such stuff would never get past the dream phase. However, this was Sam Walton’s son. As we discussed before, he had good genes. 

Walmart went on to become one of the most successful businesses in American history.

While John was in Vietnam, his father Sam had been busy. By the end of 1967, he had 24 Walmart stores operating in Arkansas. The following year he opened his first stores in Missouri and Oklahoma. By 1975 Walton had 125 stores and 7,500 associates with total sales of $340.3 million.

John Walton helped revolutionize the way crop dusters operate.

Soon after John got home he was flying for his father scouting out new locations for Walmart stores. In short order, he left Walmart to work six months out of each year as a crop duster. The rest of the time was spent in a VW bus exploring Mexico and places further afield. Along the way, he co-founded Satloc, a crop-spraying company that pioneered the use of GPS in aerial chemical applications. He then moved to San Diego and founded Corsair Marine, a company that built trimaran sailboats. He also founded True North Venture Partners, a venture capital organization that used money to make even more money. By then he had accumulated some proper resources.

John and Christy Walton threw themselves into philanthropic causes.

Despite his newfound wealth, John Walton apparently remained a really nice guy. He started a philanthropy called the Children’s Scholarship Fund that provided low-income kids with money to attend private schools. Like his dad, John still appreciated a modest lifestyle. While he and his wife Christy split their time between their trimaran sailboat and a historic beach house, he nonetheless drove an inexpensive and efficient Toyota hybrid car.

When a group of former SF guys got together to swap lies in Las Vegas, John Walton made sure the South Vietnamese pilot who saved his life could be there with his family.

In 2003 his old Special Forces team held a reunion in Las Vegas in honor of the pilots who had supported them in Vietnam. By then CPT Thinh, the stone-cold South Vietnamese pilot who had saved his life in the A Shau Valley, had successfully relocated to Fargo, North Dakota. He and Walton had remained close for thirty years after the war. However, Thinh lacked the resources to make it to the reunion. John Walton flew his jet up to Fargo, retrieved his old friend and his family, and took them to Vegas for the event.

John Walton ultimately did quite well for himself.

By 2005 John Walton was worth $18.2 billion. He was the 4th-richest person in America and the 11th-richest person in the world. At 58 he had led a truly extraordinary life. He kept himself fit and healthy and enjoyed skiing, hiking, skydiving, flying, motorcycle riding, and scuba diving. 

That the 11th-richest man on the planet died at the controls of such a cheesy little airplane is surprising to me. It’s not like he couldn’t afford anything better.
John Walton made a mistake repairing his little Hawk Arrow ultralight airplane that cost him his life.

On June 27, 2005, at around 12:20 in the afternoon, John Walton lifted off from the Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming in a CGS Hawk Arrow homebuilt ultralight airplane. Walton had performed a minor repair on the aircraft previously and improperly installed a rear locking collar on the elevator control torque tube. This allowed the torque tube to slide rearward after takeoff and produce slack in the elevator control cable. The cumulative result was a loss of pitch control. Walton was killed in the resulting crash.

John Walton was the archetypal renaissance man.

Many folks die peacefully in their beds after a long life lived in obscure anonymity. Others may go out violently or at the mercy of some disease or other. John Walton lived life to the full. Warrior, medic, pilot, husband, father, and philanthropist—John Walton packed an awful lot of living into his 58 years. 

Addendum–I draw these projects from whatever I can find online. They are obviously only as accurate as the original source material. A teammate of John Walton’s named John Stryker Meyer reached out about some technical inaccuracies in this piece. Meyer is the character giving the finger to the photographer in one of the previous photos. After a delightful phone conversation I have made the changes. Based upon his personal descriptions, John Walton was clearly a truly extraordinary man.

Meyer authored a book on his experiences with MACV-SOG In Vietnam titled Across the Fence. It is available on Amazon. If the book is anything like he is it is likely a superb read. Thanks, brother.

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  • TUC June 9, 2023, 11:27 am

    A bloody good plane that Spits is old chap.

  • Big Al 45 June 8, 2023, 9:45 am

    A Spitfire?! How about a P-38?

  • Hub Whitt June 6, 2023, 3:29 pm

    Thank you, Dr Dabbs! I hope I get to meet you in person before I kick the bucket. I believe we could swap some great stories!

  • Bill Enderland June 5, 2023, 2:29 pm

    John Walton has had a remarkable military service history. I have lived in NW Ar. since I got out of my Vietnam
    service in the Navy in 1973.
    I can truly say that the complete Walton family are as down to earth as any family could be expected. What wonderful stories this family has accumulated over the years. An antidote story is, I owned a rental property In the north portion of Bentonville. I was contacted by a real estate agent a few years ago asking if I would sell the
    property. I asked questions and found out that Helen, Sam’s wife was building a historical museum in the form of a park. I was aware of all the philanthropy their family has done. This rental house was located where the entrance to the park was located. I told him to have it appraised and I’ll accept that. The moral of the story:
    You don’t take advantage of the good people on this earth. Thank-you Waltons

  • Tom June 5, 2023, 12:34 pm

    I’m glad that Dr. Dabbs has grown out of one of his bad habbits: jumping out of perfectly good aircraft. When I was in the Navy flight school, they emphasized keeping the number of take-offs and landings the same.

    • Walleye June 5, 2023, 4:50 pm

      As veteran pilot, I can attest to the fact there are no such things as a “perfectly good aircraft”.

      • Tom June 7, 2023, 5:31 am

        Well, some are better than others.

  • George M. HOOD June 5, 2023, 12:21 pm

    Doctor Dabbs: I sincerely hope that someone nominates you for a Pulitzer Prize! Your tremendous skill with words, plus your determination to thoroughly research each report you write, combine to make reading a Dabbs Documentary a fascinating, educational and emotional experience. Whenever my e-mails contain a gunsamerica.com message I open it first and immediately seek your by-line. I thank you, Sir, not only for your significant service to our country, but also for your allocating your precious time to the medical profession AND to providing worthwhile reading for your firearms fellowship following! G. M. Hood, USMC till 1963

  • John Stryker Meyer June 5, 2023, 10:55 am

    I need to speak with Dr. Dabbs regarding the numerous factual errors in his June 2, 2023 article on John T. Walton.
    I welcome stories on John’s heroism, thus I was disappointed in reading Dr. Dabbs’ story, as I served with John in Vietnam and spoke to him on Aug. 3, 1968 following that horrific mission in the A Shau Valley as a member of Spike Team Louisiana running a top-secret mission in Laos under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group.

    • Will Dabbs June 5, 2023, 12:51 pm

      Made the changes. Thanks for reaching out, brother.

  • Jerry June 5, 2023, 9:02 am

    The lil bird mentioned en passant, o.h.6, is an l.o.h., light observation helicoptor; the cayuse, the hughes 500 that tc flew on magnum.
    The h34 kingbee was the sikorsky s58, aka choctaw, could carry 10-15 troops, and was not used by the us in the ‘nam, but a number of them were sold to the rnvaf. Helos have a thing about not wanting to fly in thinner air, and heat makes for even less air density. You can fly ‘way up to someplace with a load and land, but may not be able to hover (not noticed if you were concentrating on landing) and may not even be able to take off after you are unloaded. The tailwheel rotation maneuver in ground-effect was a verry neat trick and wouldnt have worked without the downslope, and the updraft in the draw.

  • Richard Wayne June 5, 2023, 8:18 am

    Rest In Peace.

  • Bill Carter June 2, 2023, 8:15 pm

    After reading his biography, John Walton sounds like one hell of a guy; someone we’d all be proud to call a friend. RIP Trooper Walton!

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