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Vietnam crew returns to helicopter's W.Va. home

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MARY WADE BURNSIDE,Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) — Tom Feigel spent a year in Vietnam as the crew chief of a Huey helicopter, flying out on night missions that would have the aircraft called into battle or going over into Cambodia and Laos to drop off and pick up soldiers.

"You fly that helicopter every single day," said Feigel, a Webster, N.Y., resident who was an Army Specialist 5 as part of the 366th Assault Helicopter Co. out of Soc Trang, Vietnam.

"It's your home. You do have attachments to it, and to the crew, because of some of the situations and firefights you were in with them. So there is a special bond between the crew and the ship."

These days Feigel's Vietnam "home" now resides in Fairmont as part of the Marion County Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located at the entrance to East Marion Park off the Gateway Connector.

For a long time, Feigel had no idea that the "ship" he spent so much time on actually still exists, and is located only about a seven-hour drive away from where he lives in New York.

"I had tracked the helicopter from Vietnam back to Fort Hood, Texas," Feigel said. "Apparently, the helicopter was transferred from Fort Hood to Fort Rucker. This was 15 years ago."

Feigel lost track of the helicopter — dubbed "Super Slick" — and figured it had been parceled out. But in January of last year, John Brennan, an author working on a book on military choppers, contacted him and another member of the crew, Tom Wilkes, and informed them that the ship was in Fairmont.

The helicopter had made its way to Fairmont after Alfred Knoll, an area veteran, spent four years working with the military to get a piece of equipment to display at the Marion County Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He drove to Fort Rucker in Alabama to pick it up and learned that the aircraft he had been promised already had been given away.

Instead, they gave him the fully restored Super Slick, which he hauled back to Fairmont.

When Wilkes, who lives in New Milford, Conn., learned that the helicopter was in Fairmont, "I almost fell off the chair," he said. "The vast majority of helicopters were destroyed or crashed."

Coincidentally, Wilkes had reconnected with Feigel about a year before, after spending 40 years trying to avoid thinking about Vietnam.

That all changed when his wife and his mother encouraged him to be proud of his military service.

"They talked me into going to a Veterans Day Parade," Wilkes said. "Forty years later, it felt pretty good."

And he also got in touch with Feigel. "It was exhilarating to kind of share memories and feelings that I had locked away for a while and not really discussed with anyone for 40-something years."

After the two learned that their helicopter, a Bell UH-1 (originally HU-1) Iroquois, known in the military as a Huey, was in Fairmont, they traveled to West Virginia in April 2012 to see the aircraft.

The visit, in which the two met with Jeff Greene of the Marion County Vietnam Veterans Memorial, resulted in another reunion taking place over the recent Memorial Day weekend.

This time, not only had Feigel and Wilkes returned to Fairmont, but other members of their crew — including one from Texas and another from Washington State — also made the trip to the Friendly City.

Those who gathered in Fairmont, in addition to Feigel and Wilkes, included helicopter pilot Randy Olson, door gunner Robert Sandwith, co-pilot Dana Brown, and platoon leader Capt. John Leandro.

"What are the odds that this particular helicopter we flew made it back from Vietnam and now it's at a memorial site and all the crew members are still around and healthy?" Feigel said.

A documentary crew also followed the men around during their visit, which culminated in the group's participation in a service at the memorial site.

The weekend also was captured on film. Feigel's cousin, Don Feigel, owns a production company called AudioEdits Productions in Rochester, N.Y., and so he and two other film crew members filmed the men at the helicopter site and also spent about an hour with each of them getting their personal stories.

"It was pretty emotional," Tom Feigel said. "There were a lot of emotional people, to the point of crying."

As crew chief, Feigel was responsible for maintaining the helicopter on the ground and then served as a door gunner on missions, he noted.

Usually, the helicopter had four crew men — the pilot, a co-pilot, Feigel and an additional door gunner. The door gunners, including Wilkes, were responsible for maintaining the weapons that were on board the ship.

"The aircraft was equipped with a lot of firepower," Feigel said. "There were spotlights on it and a lot of weaponry."

Every night, the crew would go out on missions in the Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam, often providing airfield defense to outposts that needed backup.

Then there were the times the helicopter crossed the border into Cambodia and Laos to drop off South Vietnamese soldiers, whose mission was to clear the sanctuaries that the North Vietnamese had established in those countries.

The crew would make a quick landing so soldiers could jump out and then return to pick them up.

Even though the helicopter had a lot of firepower, including a .50-caliber machine gun, the ship took its share of hits too — as did Feigel.

"I got shot in the back once," Feigel said.

Luckily, he only was bruised. Both he and the helicopter were out of commission for about a week, after which both returned to duty.

As Wilkes recalled, "The thing is, you're never scared in the heat of battle. It just seems like the adrenaline kicks in and your training takes over.

"It's more the before and after when you are really afraid, when you are flying to the mission, not knowing how bad it's going to be and what you're going to get into, realizing you might be killed or wounded or your ship could crash; and returning from the mission realizing what you had been through and how close you had been to losing your life or something else not so nice happening."

Don Feigel hopes to have a 90-minute documentary finished by Veterans Day, with the idea that maybe a public television station might be interested in the film.

"It's going to be a nice piece," he said. "I have a lot of material to go through."

Author Brennan, who contacted Feigel and Wilkes about Super Slick, has written a series of books on Vietnam helicopters, including one on the nose art that decorated many of the aircraft.

When Feigel first found out about the helicopter's new home, he had the ship's original nose art — a GI in camouflage fatigues along with the aircraft's nickname — digitized into a decal from a photo and sent it to Greene, who put it on the helicopter.

The nose art also features the names of the four permanent crewmen, who, in addition to Feigel and Wilkes, included Olson and Sandwith, said Wilkes, who before the visit was looking forward to seeing his combat buddies again after more than four decades..

"I don't know how many times in the past 40-something years I've thought about them and wished I would be able to tell them how much respect, admiration and just plain love I have for them," Wilkes said. "I was thinking I'd never get a chance to do it. Now I'm going to get that chance."

___

Information from: Times West Virginian, http://www.timeswv.com

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.