A letter written by 12-year-old William “Tip” Koehler Aug. 26, 1968. (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK– On a late August afternoon in 1968, trolling for bluefish off Block Island in Rhode Island with his family, 12-year-old William “Tip” Koehler was bored. 

To entertain himself, he went below deck and composed a letter “To whom it may concern,” introducing himself, and asking that whoever found his letter please include “where, when” and who found it. Printing his address and his name at the bottom, he slipped it into an empty Coke bottle, covered the top with plastic wrap, hammered the cap back on, added another layer of plastic wrap, and secured it with a rubber band, just to be safe. Then, he tossed the bottle overboard. 

William “Tip” Koehler showcases a newspaper article about his message in a bottle in a 1969 issue of The Newtown Bee. (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

Fifty-one years to the day he tossed the Coke bottle into the ocean, Koehler, now a Brunswick resident, thinks about the state of the world that summer and the summer after, when his letter returned to him from a whole world away.

“It was a confusing time to be 13,” he said. His father was a World War II veteran, and to a young boy, his father was a hero, returned home from fighting against the enemy “in a real and justified war,” he said. 

In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, soldiers were returning home, not to a heroes welcome like his father had, but to angry people, spitting on them and throwing rocks. 

In the middle of this confusing climate, Koehler’s note found its way back to him in the mail: from Vietnam. 

Dick Allen, an employee of the U.S. AID Mission returned his letter from the US Embassy in Vietnam. A Vietnamese fisherman had hauled the letter up with his nets in the South China Sea, Allen wrote, and brought it to the embassy to make sure the letter really was written in English.

Allen wasn’t sure how the letter had ended up all the way in Vietnam, he wrote, but suggested it could have come by way of the Panama Canal (Koehler expects it really came from the Gulf Stream up the North Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea). 

“For me, it was very ironic,” Koehler said Monday, that the letter ended up in Vietnam. “Every day I’d ride into school and the guy on the radio… we’d listen to the body count. Hundreds were killed.”

Now, Koehler wants to honor the troops who fought in Vietnam and were not welcomed home with open arms, he said. 

To hear it had been pulled up by a fisherman was a realization that “there was a guy out there fishing for his livelihood in the middle of a war… People still had to survive,” he said. 

After receiving his response from Allen, Koehler did an interview with the Newtown Bee in Connecticut. Months later, the Associated Press caught wind of the story and asked to interview him, but his mother had promised exclusive rights to the Bee. It became a joke in his house.

“My God, he could have been on Carson,” his father was known to say, referring to the former “Tonight Show” host.

Koehler threw one or two more messages in a bottle out to sea over the years, but he has yet to hear back. Koehler never reached out to Dick Allen, but has wondered if he might still be alive. 

Just last week, a 50-year-old message in a bottle from Soviet Russia washed up in Alaska. The man who found it has since connected with the sailor who found it over social media. 

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