We didn’t grow up together, go to school and play football next to each other for years; we didn’t go to boot camp or helicopter school together. Actually we knew each other for only a year. So, why have I remembered him all these years–all of the years I avoided talking about Vietnam and tried desperately to get images and faces out of my head.
His name is Kenneth Wayne Wheeler from May, Texas. But to me he is just Tex.
Tex and I first met at H&MS 15, MCAF Futenma, Okinawa when, for some reason only the Corps knows, we and more than a dozen CH-46 mechanics were assigned to a squadron with two UH-34 helicopters. He had a grin on his face most of the time and was easy to like. Well, someone must have told the Commandant what a great time we were having at the best duty station I had in my four years and we were marched into the back of a VMGR-152 C-130 and off to DaNang we went. Most of the other guys stayed at Marble Mountain, and several others were sent to the squadrons at PhuBai. Tex and I were sent farther north to HMM-262 at Quang Tri. Why him?
It was brutal and the heat was humid when we arrived. I was really having trouble acclimating the first few days as we walked the dusty road doing the check-in routine. The drinking water was hot out of a canteen or just warm from the water buffalos sitting out in the sun. Tex kept my spirit up by telling me about how it reminded him of summer back home and he said I’d be putting it out of my mind soon enough, with that big grin on his face. He was so right.
We went our separate ways to different hootches, line sections, and aircraft, but often bumped into each other in the mess hall, line shack, e club etc. And who can forget those long walks up the line through HMM-161 and VMO-6’s revetments in the early morning darkness as across the runway the Seabee compound would come alive and start the day blasting out reveille followed by everybody’s unofficial Vietnam anthem, “We gotta get out of this place” by the Animals.
Time just moved on into unending days and nights of mission upon mission through the heat, cold, wet and, somehow even wetter, back to the dry dust that swirled around and into you. I remember exchanges of xxx days, to which the other would dutifully respond “ and a wake up” eventually dropping to xx days. I don’t like to say you got into a routine and got comfortable, I don’t believe I changed in any way or attitude. Then again I don’t believe that is true.
An example would be the morning of 23April69 as I followed a young Lt. Doss around my aircraft on his pre-flight inspection and buttoned up. We were in the cabin as I answered a couple of his questions, when up the ramp strode the squadron’s newest major on, I believe, his second flight as HAC, a tall Major Whitfield. He looked me up and down and asked, “How long have you been here?”, without thinking I blurted out, “Major, the question is not how long you have been here -it is how long do you have to go?” The young Lt Doss chuckled and smiled which was wiped away with a stern look from Maj. Whitfield who looked back at me as I realized my mistake . He responded, “Okay, how long do you have to go?” To which I replied the forty something it was, SIR! Emphasizing the SIR.
Things got rough the next few weeks and I know I was having trouble personally. One morning I was working on something just outside the hanger and using some phrases that Marines in my day used when nothing else fit. All of a sudden there was an arm around my shoulder and as I turned my head I was looking at that big friendly grin on Tex’s face, as he told me to “relax, we’re getting to be short timers.” He helped me with whatever it was causing me such anguish, which I cannot recall, and that is my last recollection of him.
The word of aircraft down, spread rapidly on 10May69 and when I found out Tex was killed I was devastated . We had a memorial service on 12May69, like too many others the squadron had. Just the week before we lost an entire crew on 2May69 that included a couple of pilots I liked and another crew chief friend, Tim Pyle. Why did they keep getting harder to deal with? Was it this section of “The Hymn for Our Corps” from the program ?
THE HYMN FOR OUR CORPS
Eternal Father grant we pray
To all Marines both night and day
The courage, honor, strength and skill
Their land to serve Thy law fulfill
Be Thou the shield for evermore
From every peril to the Corps!
Lord guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky
Be with them always in the air
In darkening storms or sunlight fair
O hear us when we lift our prayer
For those in peril in the air
I tried my best to hold it together and hide my tears as I spotted Tex’s pilot from that day, Maj. Whitfield. I walked over to him and asked: “What happened?” He started to describe the mission and events but when he said: “He got us out, he went back in ……….” That was all I heard and everything else just didn’t matter. I just stared at the program and said to myself, I have to take this to his family–I have to tell them.
Several weeks later I walked that dusty road again, this time by myself. Turning in my weapons and gear, doing the check-out routine, having my seabag inspected and okayed for shipment home, divvying up anything useful that the other guys could use. As I left Vietnam alone, it may have been the first time to ask myself: Why him?