On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
There Is No “I” In Team
Funny how sometimes the choice of a default template from which to begin a chronicle turns out to be a common thread that stitches other stories together. The first choice as a story template for this current chronicle happened to carry the title, “The Terminals and The Tarmacs”, referring to a past story about airplanes and flying out of various terminals around the world.
This chronicle is also about airplanes, flying, and fliers. The template used to start it may have been chosen coincidently, but the following chronicle is very much about flying machines and those brave souls who were in them.
The first theme is a non-starter as a story. It was going to be about a man who flew 29 missions as a bombardier/navigator in a B-26 over Germany in World War II; and lived to tell his story. The story was aborted at the request of his wife who did not want to have him anguished by reliving the past. As one of the quiet heroes in our neighborhood, the former bombardier/navigator himself didn’t think there was a story there; and summed up his feelings by telling the Footloose Forester that as only one member of a crew, he was simply doing his job as part of a team; and there is no “I” in the word “team.” Sadly, my neighbor passed away early in 2017 and his story never got published.
The slower and equally vulnerable aircraft models flown by Chief Warrant Officer Mike Vandeveer in Viet Nam were part of his personal legacy and the source of many vivid memories; and more than a few hair-raising stories. But as another one of those quiet heroes who may never bring up the subject unless pressed, he may well blend in unnoticed at the local shopping mall; and might choose to remain silent when the subject of war comes up. Yet, his legacy of patriotism deserves to be shared with his family and people who are proud to know him. All soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen have stories to tell; even if they don’t always tell them.
A UH-1 Huey Gunship In Action
When asked if his Huey UH-IB helicopter gunships were ever hit by ground fire, Mike Vandeveer replied in the affirmative. His first response related to the occasions when he noted the presence of bullet holes in his craft when he conducted his post-mission inspections. He said that he had not heard the bullets hit his ship or feel their thud as they impacted. Then, and without emotion in his voice, he acknowledged that the most he had adsorbed on a mission was 54 bullet holes, but managed to fly his crippled ship back home. That statement was made without any display of passion or animation. He went on a combat mission; he got shot up; and he returned to fight another day. Cold ice water in his veins? Maybe. But the reader should be aware that Mike Vandeveer has not yet not come to grips with the prospect of a visit to the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. He tried twice, but verged on breaking down even before getting close. Real men cry and Mike Vandeveer is a real man. General Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged weeping when he visited the American Cemetery at Normandy. Tears in a man’s eyes are a sign of humanity.
CW4 Vandeveer joined the US Army to be a medic. He was well qualified to assume that role, since he had been working in a hospital since the age of 14 and was well aware what might be expected of him as a soldier. Only one month to the day after getting married, he was inducted into the Army in Detroit and shipped off to Ft. Knox, Kentucky for basic training. But he got bounced around and landed up in Ft. Ord, California to complete his training. After basic, he was sent to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas for AIT (Advanced Individual Training) as a medic. Because of his unique earlier hospital experience, he also qualified for additional schooling and training at Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania. He loved the experience and valued the additional training. Soon afterward, Mike was assigned, in early in 1967, to a battalion aid station near Cat Lai, Viet Nam.
Mike Vandeveer’s posting to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade headquartered at Phu Loi was under the command of a Brigadier General, a bit unusual since most brigades were commanded by a Colonel. As a detached unit that was outside the regular chain of command, the role of the 199th did not fit the mold of a standard infantry brigade. It was composed of three battalions of infantry, one battalion of artillery batteries equipped with 105mm howitzers; and the support group of a forward area field hospital, headquarters section; and transport vehicles. Some of the facilities were fairly comfortable, including buildings with windows and even air conditioning. But that was not always the case, especially for the adventurous Mike Vandeveer. He volunteered for more dangerous duty.
At that time he was a foot soldier and was happy to be doing his patriotic duty, in addition to helping in saving lives. Near the end of his tour in Viet Nam, however; he did something that he now reflects back on as somewhat foolish. He volunteered to join a special jungle recon group known as the LRRPs, for Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols.
He was still a medic at Cat Lai; and the occasional LRRPs assignments were conducted by on-call orders by the field commanders. LRRP assignments were 3-4 day missions conducted by five-man teams that operated in the open, far beyond established perimeters. In Viet Nam the medics were considered by some as the doctors of the front lines; and Mike Vandeveer knew that his LRRPs comrades were counting on him for every bit of medical assistance that they might need. In addition, and since the LRRPs were combat mission oriented, Mike was expected to be armed and fight, if needed. The 5-6 man LRRPs patrols got to choose whatever weapon they wanted to carry, as long as there was sufficient ammunition available to them. Mike chose to carry an unusual French-designed BAR that fired .45 caliber rounds in a 28-shot banana clip. That stainless steel automatic BAR might have been unconventional in the ranks of combat soldiers, but the .45 caliber ammo was plentiful enough.
Due to his long hospital experience as a civilian, Mike was designated as Chief Medic in his LRRPs unit. When he was back at base camp, he was just one of the regular guys who wore hospital smocks and did not carry a weapon. On LRRPs missions, however; the memories of the silence of the jungles where they hid manifested into vivid recollections that are difficult to put into words.
One of the most gratifying stories told to the Footloose Forester by a smiling Mike Vandeveer was about his frequent visits to the Tu Duc Orphanage outside of Saigon. There were over a thousand kids at that orphanage; and Mike and other medical specialists did as much as they could to provide drugs and other needed medical supplies to the Catholic nuns who ran the orphanage. The American soldier medical staff even held sick call there, whenever they visited; and stayed forever long it took to see everyone who needed assistance. On Mike’s second tour of Viet Nam in 1971-72, he re-visited the Tu Duc Orphanage. The nuns saw him coming and burst into tears upon the return of the caring and compassionate man they had known. Sadly, that time around there were no needed drugs to share.
Mike Vandeveer left Viet Nam in 1968 as a SP-6 medic; and returned in late 1971 as a Chief Warrant Officer and helicopter pilot. During the interim he had qualified as a rotary wing pilot at Ft. Walters, Texas and later at Ft. Rucker, Alabama.
When he did return to Viet Nam, Mike was coincidentally assigned to the II Corps region near Phu Loi and could identify places from the air that he had known intimately on the ground. He was assigned to the 128th Helicopter Assault Company of the 11th Aviation Battalion.
Undoubtedly there are many stories about his missions in Huey gunships that Mike has not shared with others. He is devoid of braggadocio and boastfulness. The Footloose Forester, however; pried just enough information out of him to share with others a sense of how dangerous it was to direct a heavily laden gunship with 12 rockets in each pod toward an enemy position; and not knowing what kind of return fire was waiting for him; and then coming back again and again; and in the following days and months.
The Hueys were capable of carrying cargo and troops; and in that configuration were designated as “slicks” but in the normal configuration as gunships they were equipped with either rocket pods or 20mm miniguns. The gunships were so heavy that all of the risk was borne by the pilot, who was also the gunner, or the pilot and co-pilot when the mission called for it. They were up there alone—in the midst of enemy territory. In Viet Nam, everything was enemy territory.
Over a 21 year Army career, Mike Vandeveer flew other helicopter models, including the sophisticated Blackhawks that he said were smarter than he was, but he was in love with the rugged and dependable Hueys that would fly even when full of bullet holes. In addition, he later qualified in the Cobra gunships after they came on the scene. CW4 Vandeveer retired from active duty at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky in 1988.
A third story about combat veterans personally known by the Footloose Forester also turned into a non-starter. When retired Master Sergeant Mike Ward visited our house more than a year after the interview with CW4 Mike Vandeveer, the prospects of a good story seemed imminent. Mike was accomodating enough to mention that his military service spanned 28 years and included combat in Korea in 1950-51, he mentioned the wounds to his lower left arm from a burst of machine gun fire, and the shrapnel damage to his upper left arm, on another occasion. He stayed in the Army to become an instructor in parachute training and small arms at West Point, interrupted by deployment to Viet Nam (three tours) and finally his retirement at West Point in 1977 or 1978.
What made the potential story a non-starter was his reluctance to re-live some of the events that were buried in his memory. That makes him the second person in this quiet community who shut down on describing his military service, as dark memories began to escape from within. He said that he didn't want to talk about it anymore.