Ken Wade's 2012 Veterans Day Speach
Veterans’ Day, November 12, 2012
Speaker for the day: Ken Wade,
Thank you, Paul (Veterans Affairs Officer for Sevier County), for that very nice introduction (that I wrote?)…as a member of HMM 364 and a Purple Fox.
Veterans, Friends, All gathered here today:
It is indeed a privilege to be with you on this stage on this Veterans’ Day, 2012. We are here to recognize those who have served and thank those who have supported those who served. We honor the men and women who served our country in our great Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and all Reserve units and the men and women and children, parents, brothers, sisters and whole family & friends who supported those on active duty in their time of calling.
Some years ago, I stopped a veteran who was wearing a WWII cap in one of our IHOP restaurants, and I thanked him for his service. In return, he asked me if I had served. I answered, “Yes”, and feeling a little less not being a member of The Greatest Generation, I answered that I had served in Vietnam, but I added, “you can’t pick your war”. The Vietnam War was not as supported as WWII. However, you just volunteer to serve when your country calls, and you are only young once. You can’t pick your war.
Now, before I get to the subject matter of my speech, I must remind you that while we celebrate Veterans’ Day today, a very important event took place two days ago. I’m an old Marine. You know… Once a Marine…Always a Marine. Well, I’m one of the worse to remind folks of that. But two days ago, it was the 237th Marine Corps Birthday. So I say to all Marines present, Happy Birthday Marines! I love it that the Marines first recruited in a tavern…Tun’s Tavern in Philadelphia. It just adds to the folklore of the Marine Corps.
A few years ago, the Mountain Press interviewed me, among other veterans, for their annual Veterans’ Day edition of the newspaper. I’m sure I said more than they wanted to hear, but the only question I remember was “On Veterans’ Day, do you remember your military buddies with whom you served?” I said, “Yes, and I remember them on 364 other days of the year.” Those memories never fade.
My message today is a story I heard at one of the Marine Helicopter and Air Crew reunions I attended in Reno, Nevada in July, 2004. I remember it for a couple of reasons. First, my daughter, Alexis, accompanied me. She got to meet many of my Marine buddies. Now that was a little scary, but I was proud for her to be there to meet my aging Marine brothers. One of my buddies said, as long as we show up at these reunions and see each other from time to time, we stay young. I remember telling my secretary on my way out of the office, “There may not be much of me left on Monday when I return. I’m going to try to act like I were 25 years old again all weekend.” I was almost 60 and wondered if I could keep up the pace of former reunions. It turned out that we had all mellowed a bit by this age. The pace was more subdued, and we survived.
The second reason I remember that reunion was its motto: “The First Liar Doesn’t Stand a Chance” and that there were copies of the May 2004 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette available. The Gazette normally features articles about Marine Grunts. But each May issue features an article or two about the Marine Air Wing. All other months it typically covers stories of all the famous Marines grunts and the not so famous grunt…the ground pounders, not air wing guy. It has covered stories of some of our greatest heroes like Lewis “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated commandant; John Basilone, Medal of Honor winner; Smedley Butler, awarded two Medals of Honor; Dan Daly, also winner of two Medals of Honor and who when ordered to charge straight at the Germans lines at the Battle of the Bulge called to his men as he climbed out of the trench, “Come on you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?!” And it covered stories about a lot or “ordinary” Marines.
But, there have been a few Air Wing Marines heroes mentioned over the years who are in the Halls of Fame. Pappy Boyington, leader of the Black Sheep squadron VMA-214 in WWII; John Glenn, first American to orbit the earth; and even Ted Williams, the famous baseball player who volunteered twice to fly fighter aircraft in both WWII and in Korea. And, even some of our own Purple Foxes in Marine hero halls around the country have made the Gazette.
But in this May issue, the Gazette featured not one, but two articles about my old squadron, HMM 364, The Purple Foxes from 1969. In one of the articles it reported that there were 171 medals awarded to squadron personnel from the lower Single Mission Air Medal up to the highest Navy Cross during the squadron’s service in Vietnam. This was quite an accomplishment for one squadron. Many of my contemporary officers and men were awarded numerous significant medals. And, I had been awarded a Single Mission Air Medal, one of the 171 medals mentioned, but I had never thought much of it because it was at the bottom of awards list…not like a Distinguished Flying Cross. So, now I thought, “Maybe that was a bigger deal than I thought.” But there was a story I would hear two nights later that I will always remember that put that medal back in perspective and in a drawer where is has been for some 40 years and, I will share it with you today.
My story is about a then Marine Captain and little known CH-46 Helicopter pilot from Dothan, Alabama, who has turned out to be one of my personal heroes. He served in the squadron in mid-1967 and early 1968 when the siege at Khe Sanh was under way, almost a year before my time in Vietnam. I met now Lt. Col, Retired, Al Chancey, at that reunion in 2004. I asked him, “Al, didn’t you fly with the squadron during the Tet Offensive at Khe Sanh in 1968?” “Yes”, he answered. Remembering the story about all the medals, I said, "You must have been so weighed down with medals that you couldn’t stand up straight. How was it flying into Khe Sanh?" He looked at me for a few silent seconds and said “Ken, let me tell you what a typical day was like flying essential resupplies and Marines to the Marine Khe Sanh Air Base and to the six hill-top fire bases around Khe Sanh that could be reached only by helicopter for resupplying.”
To paraphrase… Al and his fellow pilots and crews flew out of Phu Bai at zero dark thirty every morning…up at 0400 and flying out by 0500 before the chow hall opened. The flight crews had to leave Phu Bai before the Perfume River fogged up from the water-air temperature inversion. The resulting fog closed the air base for hours beginning about sun rise. It was both winter and the monsoon season. They flew without breakfast to Quang Tri Marine Base some thirty minutes north, refueled, found some chow, and received their briefing for the day. Then they proceeded, some times two to a section and sometimes four helicopters in a division, to Dong Ha to pick up cargo nets filled with resupplies. The six fire bases around the Khe Sanh base and the base itself required 58,000 tons of resupply each day. A single helicopter could carry maybe 2-3 tons per trip. They hauled in water, ammo, food, mail, new recruits and picked up the wounded or dead or maybe empty water containers for reuse.
There were as many as 30,000 North Vietnamese well trained regular soldiers surrounding the air base and hill top fire bases. Anti-aircraft, heavy machine gun, and small arms fire plus rockets and mortars usually greeted their arrival each trip. When weather was bad with clouds hanging low over the valley and the air base, which was often, they had to fly under instrument conditions to a rather crude landing strip at Khe Sanh and then go low level flying in heavy enemy fire up the hills into the clouds to attempt to resupply the fire bases. On those days, it was near impossible to resupply all the hill top fire bases. But they were a determined group.
Typically, under decent weather conditions, Al and his crew flew four round trips each day. They got back to their Air Base at Phu Bai on those short winter days long after dark. All they wanted was a cold beer, hot food, a shower and some rest because flying began again at zero dark thirty the next morning. They performed these missions under siege conditions for 77 days.
He said, “Ken, by the time we got back exhausted from the strain of combat flying and exhausted from the long hours, writing up an award for bravery or valor was just not on our minds. Valor was so common. We just didn’t have the energy to think of medals.”
My message is that during intense, long combat situations, a few deeds of valor are occasionally recognized and awarded and deservedly so. Most deeds are not observed nor thought of as anything unusual. They just thought this is how it is.
Last month I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA. Reagan provided my favorite quote about Marines. President Reagan said, “Most people go through life wondering if they made a difference. Marines don’t have that problem.” I doubt that Al Chancey and his Purple Fox brothers of early 1968 wonder if they made a difference.
By the way, Al and his fellow pilots and crew did eventually earn combat flight medals for valor, but few were awarded when flying during their worst and their most demanding flying in the first three months of 1968 at Khe Sanh.
American soldiers, sailors, marines and air men have served our country well for over two centuries having performed many valiant acts of valor in the past, and they still do today. We will never read about most of these acts in the news paper nor see them reported on television nor will many even be recognized by our military awards and honors system. It is to these brothers and sisters that I salute today this Veterans’ Day. If you served, you are a hero. If you supported those who served, we are grateful.
Thank you and have a great remainder of Veterans’ Day today and remember a Vet every day of the year.