Today is Veterans Day, a day in which we honor our veterans, past and present, for their service and sacrifice. One aspect of the Museum’s mission is to commemorate the past. Today, especially, we are doing that by telling the stories of our veterans.
We have created a space—Stories of Service—where you can share your experiences as a veteran, or on behalf of the veteran in your life.
To kick off Stories of Service, we asked the many veterans among our volunteers to share their own stories. These are the same volunteers you might encounter on a tour—tours where our volunteers often weave in their own personal experiences. We are pleased to share their stories below, and encourage you to send in your own.
What does Veterans Day mean to you? How do you honor Veterans on this day?
Bob G. — U.S. Army
Sometimes in the press of everyday activities, one tends to forget past events. Veterans Day brings back many memories both good and bad. But being fortunate enough to be a volunteer at the National Air and Space Museum, I am constantly reminded of my service to my country. Frequently I like to take a minute and walk past the Huey helicopter on the floor. While it is but a machine, it constantly takes me back to my days as a helicopter pilot and the many experiences I had with this wonderful flying machine.
I first learned how to fly the Huey at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in 1961. We were one of the first two units to get the HU-1A, Iroquois and we thought they were pretty special. But then in 1962, I was reassigned to Germany and ground duty so I soldiered on as an infantryman and struggled to get my required flight time by doing test flights on other helicopters.
Then we began to hear about the buildup of forces in Southeast Asia. In late 1963, I was moved to an Air Cavalry unit and when we got brand new 1963 UH-1B gunships it turned out that I was the only one who was qualified in Hueys, so I got to become an instructor pilot and put in many hours checking out members of D Troop, 3/8 Cav. In 1965, I returned to the U.S. and after completing the Infantry Officers Career Course at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I was on orders to Vietnam. I was blessed to be assigned to the 121st Assault Helicopter Company located at the southernmost airfield in the Vietnamese Delta. I arrived in July 1966, close to my birthday. Because of the rapid buildup of forces, many aviators were pulled from non-flying or fixed wing assignments, given a quick Huey checkout and sent to Vietnam. Fortunately my prior experience stood me in good stead and soon I became an instructor and a platoon leader. The 121st had been at Soc Trang since the summer of 1963, so it was well experienced and well led. The members of the unit were a wonderful team. As is so often true, in war intense personal relationships develop under the pressure of combat. To this day some of my best pals are from that time. When I departed the 121st, I had experienced much and accrued 1,100 hours of flight time.
After 18 months as a flight leader of an instructional group at Ft. Rucker, I returned to Vietnam as a battalion operations officer then a company commander. While I didn’t log as much flight time (800 hours) there were many interesting and sometimes terrifying experiences. It was during this assignment that I was asked to help rescue a half-battalion of the 2/27th Regiment who had been pinned down in a rice paddy by laying down a smoke screen between our troops and the VC.
I returned from Vietnam in February 1970 and became an advisor to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. At the end of that assignment in 1973 I stopped flying. So you can see the images and stories that run through my mind when I walk past our Huey at the Udvar-Hazy Center. I have written some of them down, but have so many more to go. After all I’m only 80!
Ed M. — U.S. Air Force
I have always had a special interest in aircraft, particularly bombers and aircrews of the Second World War.
My father, Edward, was an aircraft mechanic in World War II, stationed in England and France. As a boy I collected bubble gum cards with photos of World War II aircraft, built models, and collected WWII aircraft magazines. In July 1964, shortly after I graduated from high school, I enlisted in the United States Air Force. At that point in time the war in Vietnam was ramping up and the chance that I might be drafted into the Army was very high. My Air Force Specialty was accounting and finance. In July 1967, I was sent to Tan Son Nhut AFB, Republic of Vietnam where, with the assistance of two Vietnamese women, prepared the payroll for the 8th Air Force in Vietnam. My unit was the 377th Combat Support Group. During the Tet Offensive the base received nightly incoming rocket and mortar fire and at one point the base perimeter was penetrated by several hundred enemy troops.
Following my discharge I attended the College of William and Mary and chose museum object conservation as my profession. From 1987 to 2008 I was the chief conservator for National Air and Space Museum. Artifacts from the Vietnam War in the collection have always had a special meaning for me. Following my retirement I decided to become a volunteer with the Museum where I work with the staff of the Conservation Unit on an as-needed basis.
Recently I received documents and photos from my time in the Air Force and I am now in the process of organizing a history of that period in my life.
Paul F. — U.S. Coast Guard
I always knew that I wanted to be in the Coast Guard. From a young age, I would feel the distinct thumping of a low-flying helicopter and glance around in the sky to spot the white and orange-colored source. There was an air station in the small town on Cape Cod that I grew up in, and although I am the first in my family to join the military, I felt instantly drawn to the humanitarian missions of the Coast Guard and knew it was my calling.
As I entered my junior year of college at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the academic faculty was buzzing with the news that Captain Dan Burbank, the second-ever Coast Guard astronaut, would be teaching engineering classes at the Academy. Realizing the opportunity I had to learn from an active astronaut and also knowing he was a fellow Cape Codder, I approached Captain Burbank with the idea of potentially sponsoring me as a cadet-intern at Johnson Space Center for the upcoming summer. I understood that it was a shot in the dark and that there were insurmountable budgetary constraints outside the control of a 20-year-old, but thankfully the stars aligned and my proposal was accepted!
After five weeks in Key West, serving on a Coast Guard cutter involved with the eye-opening mission of migrant rescue and interdiction, I flew to Houston to start what would be a month and a half internship working in the Astronaut Office. I was given the problem of developing interactive training videos for the astronauts that would provide a step-by-step, methodical way of operating various payloads in the International Space Station (ISS). Although a far cry from my background in naval architecture, the problem was no less technical. Four years of astronaut training is surely a daunting task, and presents difficulties in information retention. These videos had to be quick, digestible packets of information that were available for instant viewing on the ISS, should there be any question about how to operate a specific payload. Although it is not quite known if my voice has resonated throughout the hull of the ISS, I am very thankful for the opportunity I was given, and it will always remain a fond memory in my military career thus far.
I lastly want to thank all the veterans past and present for their military service. Your sacrifices do not go unnoticed.
Richard L. — U.S. Navy
I have been a volunteer at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, on Wednesdays, since the day it opened. I served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific in World War II. I was on Landing Ship Medium 252. The ship was based in Okinawa Island in preparation for the Japanese homeland island of Kyushu when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima from the Enola Gay.
Peter H. — U.S. Army
Just before landing in Vietnam, being transported on a DC-8-62 (designed for 185 passengers, but with 211 GIs on board), we were at about 10,000 feet altitude, and the Captain made the following announcement:
"We will be landing momentarily at Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon, the weather there is 92 degrees Fahrenheit, the humidity is 87%, with light ground fire.”
He said that with a very straight voice, but the message sunk in eventually. He then announced that we would be making a special approach to minimize our exposure to the ground fire, and proceeded to slip the aircraft (left rudder and right aileron, cross controls to make the aircraft descend most rapidly), from approximately 10,000 feet to about 1,000 feet above the ground.
I've done this maneuver in light aircraft many times, I even teach it to new student pilots, but never have I seen it done in such a heavy plane. It was an amazing ride, but quite astonishing, considering the size and weight of the aircraft. The pilot did an excellent job and landed very smoothly. After this I spent 376.25 days in Vietnam with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment ('68-'69).
Major Jeff J. — U.S. Air Force
I was privileged to serve in the United States Air Force for 20 years, retiring in 2003. I spent my Air Force career working with military space systems (satellites and launch vehicles) and always considered myself something of a “Space Cadet.” My first assignment after being commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1983 was to the “Blue Cube” in Sunnyvale, California. The “Blue Cube,” officially the Air Force Satellite Control Facility, was built in the 1960s for the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. After the MOL program was cancelled it became a control center for Air Force satellites. Two of the computer systems I worked on at the Blue Cube (CDC 3800 and Univac 1232) are now on display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. You know you’re getting old when the technology of your youth is now in a museum. The Blue Cube was torn down in 2014.
Veterans Day is not so much a chance to remember my time in the Air Force but to honor the military service of friends and family, some of whom gave the ultimate sacrifice. I am proud but deeply humbled to have ancestors and relatives who fought in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Their stories have always been an inspiration to me. And as a guide in the Museum, I’ve been thrilled to meet so many veterans over the years. Escorting a group of World War II, Korean, and Vietnam veterans visiting with an Honor Flight is by far the best time I have at the Museum.
To all veterans and active duty military my final thought is one of deepest gratitude.
Colonel Nick A. — U.S. Air Force
Serving my country in the military was a great privilege to me and a boyhood dream fulfilled. I always had a strong fascination with airplanes and spacecraft and the Air Force seemed the logical service of choice. Following graduation from Georgia Tech with a degree in aerospace engineering, a variety of positions and advancement in rank led me to assignments supporting President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Mockingly called “Star Wars” by the press, the nickname stuck; but, it came to be a source of pride to the supporting workforce—both military and contractors—as the concept became proven reality.
While serving as Chief of Staff in the Pentagon for what became known as the Missile Defense Agency (originally called the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization—SDIO), I met with a representative from the National Air and Space Museum to offer models of various missile defense system prototypes and experiments. The reason for the donation was that we were literally cleaning out our spaces in the Pentagon as we prepared to move to a larger facility across the street in the Navy Annex. I never knew if these artifacts of the early days of SDIO would ever see the light of day again until I happened to see some of them on display at the Museum. Of course, I was very gratified.
The move to the Navy Annex served the Agency very well by enabling the consolidation of the previously fragmented portions of the organization scattered around Northern Virginia that totaled around 3,000 military and civilians. The Air Force Memorial Foundation noticed the prime real estate location of the Navy Annex with its high elevation symbolizing the “high ground” and a view for traffic coming and going to DC and soon erected the beautiful spires now honoring those that served on this site. The Missile Defense Agency is now headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.