Yankee air museum to honor Vietnam veterans

“I carry all your letters in the top of my helmet, and I was able to scrounge up an envelope,” wrote Army Private First Class John Price, a Virginian who placed his boots on Vietnamese soil in December 1965. “I’ll close this now and [it] will go out on the resupply chopper. Don’t worry, and I’ll write first chance I’ll get. Love, Johnny.”

Price, who was serving with the 101st Airborne Division, was killed by small arms fire in South Vietnam on Feb. 9, 1966. Before the letter to his mother, Dorothy Dobrinksy had a chance to be mailed.

The Yankee Air Museum at 47884 D Street in Belleville Mich., intends to honor America’s fallen service members with a tribute and ribbon cutting ceremony for the grand opening of the Vietnam War exhibit. This event will take place on Memorial Day, Monday, May 26 at 9 a.m.

There are displays of small arms weaponry used throughout combat operations and enlarged photographs taken from Vietnam veterans’ private collections on display. The exhibit will also include multiple aircraft from the era such an F-4C Phantom II fighter and Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, known as a “Huey.”

Former “Huey” pilot and retired Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles said Memorial Day is uncelebrated by the majority of American society.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think Memorial Day gets the attention it deserves,” Kettles said.

He lives in downtown Ypsilanti and usually attends the Vietnam Memorial in Ypsilanti Township to commemorate Memorial Day but plans to attend this year’s ceremonies at the YAM.

Kettles said the general public does not have a strong presence at most Memorial Day events.

“It’s mostly the same people who are veterans or are associated with veterans, which is fine, but where’s the youth?” he said. “Most youngsters see it as a day off to go have a barbecue, which is unfortunate, because it’s a time to recognize those that served their country and died in combat.”

Many veterans said recent generations might feel disconnected from the holiday.

“Unless they were directly involved with a particular war then they may show interest, but if there is no association, Memorial Day is simply a holiday,” Kettles said.

In preparation for the Korean War, Kettles was drafted into the Army in 1951 but didn’t see combat until the war in Vietnam. He was decorated while serving as the leading officer of an assault helicopter company during a voluntary mission on May 15, 1967. After a distress call was received from American infantryman pinned down by a well-coordinated Viet Cong ambush, Kettles led flights of “Hueys,” helicopters into a firefight. His helicopter and crew received damaging hits from bullets and a closely placed enemy mortar rounds during the rescue mission.

“My door gunner took a .51 caliber round in his right leg and eventually had to have it amputated,” Kettles said. “He spent over a year at Walter Reed.”

Kettles returned numerous times to the ambush site in attempts to extract his fellow soldiers. While heading back to friendly lines, a message came through that eight soldiers were still left behind.

Kettles flew a lone helicopter back to the ambush site and recovered the soldiers amidst a hail of gunfire and mortar explosions.

“You’re so engrossed with what’s going on you really don’t have time to get scared,” he said.

For his heroism that day Kettles was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, a combat decoration ranked second only to the Medal of Honor.

Kettles retired from the military in 1978 and completed undergraduate and master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University. He also developed the aviation management program at EMU’s college of technology.

Kettles said there was a lot of social turmoil resulting from the Vietnam War.

“It was an unpopular war, but most wars after World War II, with the communication advances, became very unpopular,” he said.

Jerry Towler is a volunteer at the YAM and also flew Hueys into combat during the Vietnam War. He agrees the era in American history was fiery and complicated.

“There was a lot of upheaval about the Vietnam War. I flew home into New York and there were demonstrators. People with signs and yelling and spitting, calling us baby killers,” Towler said. “I changed out of my uniform in the men’s room so I wouldn’t be harassed anymore.”

Towler said the social climate did not allow the majority of veterans to express feelings or share their experiences.

“That’s why I really didn’t speak about Vietnam after I returned,” he said. “It was not a popular war.”

Towler piloted more than 700 combat operations in “Hueys.” The enemy had to fire upon the aircraft in order for the missions to be deemed combat operations. Towler said the Hueys could take a beating and keep flying.

“I usually stopped counting bullet holes after 30,” he said. “But, I was shot down three times. Fortunately someone was there to pick me up and haul away my aircraft.”

Towler will also be in attendance for the Vietnam War exhibits grand opening. The ceremony will include guest speakers and tributes focusing on honoring the memory of those who gave their lives while serving their country. A singing of the National Anthem, buglers playing Taps and a WWII bomber flyover are scheduled.

The YAM’s “Huey” on display at the exhibit is adorned with the markings of Towler’s old Army unit, Bravo Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion. While reminiscing on Memorial Day at the museum, Towler said there will be different thoughts running through his mind.

“I think back a lot to the good and bad times, and to the few friends I lost. To have the museum dedicate an aircraft to the unit I flew with was very emotional,” he said.

Business major and EMU freshman Alex Plouff said he would attend the ceremony at the YAM but will be out of town for the wedding of his old platoon sergeant. He said Vietnam veterans in particular deserve appreciation on Memorial Day.

“It’s a little bit of back-pay for the respect they didn’t get when they came home from the war,” Plouff said. “I would say 99 percent of veterans are extremely proud of their service, so just saying thank you or talking to them about what they did overseas could show them people actually do care.”

Plouff served nearly eight years in the Army as an infantryman and deployed once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan. He said the majority of today’s youth don’t go out of their way to honor the casualties of America’s wars.

“A lot of kids see it as just another long weekend,” he said.

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