Copter pilot wanted to make the best of his Vietnam experience, but didn't get to come home
NORTHUMBERLAND, Pa. — "He wanted to be a helicopter pilot."
By 21, LeRoy Westera had fulfilled his wish.
Unfortunately, a short time later he was gunned down in Vietnam. He suffered third degree burns over 90 percent of his body and died May 25, 1971.
Kathryn Westera said her son was 9 when he became enamored with helicopters. The family had taken a trip to Florida where there was a small helicopter that gave rides.
"That did it," she said.
Her son had always been fascinated by vehicles. She and his father, Henry, were avid motorcyclists. Henry's decision to take a job as a sales representative in the motorcycle industry is what brought the family to Northumberland County from Florida when LeRoy, who had been born in Madison, Wis., Jan. 10, 1950, was 7.
The family resided above the motorcycle shop for five years. Around this time, LeRoy became involved with the Numidia Dragway, first racing motorcycles, then cars.
Kathryn was adamant about her son not using his car, which was his only means of transportation, as a daredevil machine. But she caught him with evidence of his racing habit multiple times.
"He came home with a trophy with a car on it. She said, "Why does it have a car on it?"" said LeRoy's sister, Sandy Westra Arbogast.
Sandy was several years younger than her brother. As with most little sisters, she looked up to and admired her big brother.
"He taught me how to ride motorcycles and shoot," said Sandy.
Kathryn recalled how she caught LeRoy teaching Sandy to ride a motorcycle in the backyard. She thought the rider was just a local kid on the bike until she saw the little girl's pigtails swinging. The memory still makes both mother and daughter laugh.
"He'd make me rub his back for an hour, then he'd take me to ride the motorcycle," said Sandy.
"I told him, "You have to be nice to her — or else,'" added Kathryn.
LeRoy was equally adventurous in his other pursuits. In addition to his involvement on the football and wrestling teams, LeRoy was devoted to Boy Scouts. He was a member of the Order of the Arrow, became an Eagle Scout and eventually served as the assistant Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 307.
As a boy, LeRoy also had the opportunity to travel to Philmont Scout Ranch, the 137,000-acre Boy Scouts of America High Adventure Base located in New Mexico. LeRoy arrived home with reports of carrying another boy's backpack because he couldn't stand to listen to the boy complain about the weight, and how he rescued the boy from "drowning" in an inch-deep waterway. Kathryn said her son was always helping others and was immensely brave; two characteristics she remembers most about LeRoy.
When the adventurous young man realized he would most likely be drafted into the war, he decided to make the best of the situation.
"I'm going to go in and learn something worthwhile," LeRoy told his mother.
Knowing if he volunteered rather than getting drafted he would have more options within the military, LeRoy made his way to the recruiter's office and joined the Army's warrant officer program. Under this program, he was trained and became qualified to fly every type of helicopter in the U.S. Army.
He had hoped to become a helicopter pilot performing police work on Interstate 80. He contacted emergency personnel in the area, who responded with, "look us up when you get back," according to Kathryn.
LeRoy drove himself to the base on the day he was deployed. He tapped into his brave, adventurous side when flying and would perform advanced maneuvers, like tilting his helicopter to blow tree leaves, exposing enemies hiding below. His talent at flying won him 13 oak leaf clusters.
He had only been deployed a few months when he was shot down.
When officers came to visit Kathryn to report LeRoy's death, they had a difficult time locating her address because of their rural residence. She said the officers accidentally went to a neighbor's house. The neighbor advised the officers to return the next morning because LeRoy's father was away on business that night.
The next day they came, hats in hands, to deliver the news.
"He had been shot down," they told his mother.
Kathryn was soon contacted by another soldier who had seen LeRoy's helicopter get hit. The soldier, who was from Lancaster, saw the "Sunbury" label on LeRoy's helicopter. He told her LeRoy had been in his helicopter when he noticed enemy troops, and even though he had a limited arsenal onboard, LeRoy turned to fight anyway.
"It's what I would have expected him to do," said Kathryn.
Enemy fire caught his engine, stalled him in the air. The soldier from Lancaster told Kathryn LeRoy tried to and almost succeeded at lowering the helicopter slowly.
When the helicopter struck the ground, it burst into flames giving LeRoy third degree burns over 90 percent of his body. He was evacuated to a hospital but died later from the injuries.
Kathryn and Sandy were crushed by LeRoy's death. They still have difficulty speaking about that day.
But Kathryn found something inspirational in LeRoy's funeral. People came, many people. His school friends came. His racing friends came. And Boy Scouts, dozens of them of all ages, came to the funeral carrying a black banner to show their sadness at losing a great Scout and friend.
"They all have nothing but good things to say to you," said Sandy. "All of his friends remember him. I appreciate that."
Kathryn and Sandy have both been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., but they still plan to see the Moving Wall in Tharptown this weekend.
"I think the wall's a really good thing for people that can't get to the real one," said Sandy.
In the 43 years that have passed since his death, Kathryn and Sandy have both wondered what would have become of LeRoy had he lived. What would he look like? Would he have become a commercial helicopter pilot? Would he still race motorcycles?
Sandy doesn't know the answer to these questions. But she does know he's the reason she rides.