From Green Valley to Vietnam – F
Last week Green Valley’s Dan Markell explained the roles of the crew of his CH-47, “Chinook” helicopter during his tour in Vietnam. We then joined him on a fateful mission in May 1968 when their aircraft was shot down over Vietnam’s Mekong delta. The pilots managed a rough, but safe emergency landing.
Dan reflected on that mission, “It sticks to me every day.”
The mission of the 271st Assault Support Helicopter Company continued notwithstanding the shoot-down. Dan explained, “The next day we flew to Vung Tao — or maybe it was the day after — to pick up a new aircraft.”
Dan and his flight engineer and friend, Jerry McBee, were back on flight status in no time. They were a great team and enjoyed flying with their pilots.
“There were pilots who actually requested to fly with us because our ship was maintained 100%. Even though we didn’t fly together (with the same pilots) every day, we were familiar with each other and it was a great bond”
“A lot of the missions were kind of repetition,” Dan remembered, “They’d just be sling loading ammunition to an artillery base.”
Dan recalled how they commonly drew ground fire while on missions.
“That would be one of the things we would check after each flight — check for sheet metal damage. We were such a large aircraft, we were just kind of a big target. We took enough rounds. If we took a round, we’d paint a purple heart. Some of the aircraft had a lot of purple hearts.”
Occasionally, they drew an unusual mission. He shared a photo of him and Jerry, sitting on wooden crates next to a bunch of barrels.
He explained, “We were sitting on boxes of dynamite here. These barrels are CS gas (tear gas). We’d load about 20 to 25 barrels onto the aircraft on rollers and there’d be a stick of dynamite in each one. When we’d get over the Black Virgin Mountains — the Viet Cong were entrenched in this mountain area — we’d drop these CS barrels with a stick of dynamite on them and when it hit the ground, if the timing was right, they’d explode.”
Dan showed me the cover of a General Mills corporate magazine that had a photo of him eating bugles aboard his Chinook.
He explained, “Okay, everything in wartime is not all real serious. This particular day the pilots were at 10,000 feet. Our typical flying altitude would be like 1,500 feet. One day I think the door gunner had received a care package [with] a box of Bugles. I was on ramp duty that day and, of course, there is no safety harness for that. I sent this to General Mills and they put me on the front cover of their annual magazine. So, that’s my 15 minutes of fame,” he concluded, laughing.
Dan shared that even many non-flying days were work days, “In aircraft maintenance, you have 25 hours of flying time and then you have to do inspections. So, if we weren’t flying and it was time for a periodic inspection, then we were tearing covers off engines and checking over transmissions.”
Dan actually had some off days. He recalled, “There’d be the occasional day off when you could go down to the village and enjoy the food and just kind of see the sights.”
He laughed when I asked what Vietnamese foods he enjoyed and said, “I’m not sure what it was. We’d just kind of point to something on the menu. We really didn’t know what we were eating, but it was pretty good.”
The Army reassigned Dan in September 1968 to another Chinook company farther up the coast of Vietnam at Chu Lai.
“I was up there for a couple months and one of our missions was to fly to an off-shore island. We had an hour of downtime, so we all went swimming. I cut my foot. I didn’t think anything of it until the next day when I couldn’t get my boot on because my foot had swollen. I had stepped on coral.”
Army doctors had trouble controlling Dan’s nasty infection. He was hospitalized in Vietnam for a week before they evacuated him to Camp Zama, Japan. The infection stubbornly refused to improve, so the Army medically evacuated him to Fitzsimmons Army General Hospital in Denver where they performed surgery on his foot.
“When I was at Fitzsimmons, I got Thanksgiving leave and then I had to go back. It still wasn’t any better. I got to go home for Christmas and at that time they said, instead of coming back here, we’re going to ship you to Fort Eustis.”
Dan completed his enlistment where he had trained to maintain helicopters.
“I was sent back to Fort Eustis to be an instructor to the new recruits from AIT. Every week a new class would come through and in one of the classes there was a graduate from Marshall High School who was a year behind me.”
The Army discharged Dan on Sept.18, 1969, and he returned to Marshall where he began attending Southwest Minnesota State College. He ran into an acquaintance and neighbor from his childhood, Arlene Dieken, and the two began dating. They’ve been married now for 47 years.
Dan remained in touch with his flight engineer and friend, Jerry McBee, until Jerry’s death 15 years ago from diseases triggered by his Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Jerry was 59 years old.
When I asked Dan when he thinks about his time in service, he replied without hesitation, “Every day.”
Thank you for your service, Dan. Welcome home.