Vietnam veterans reunite with ailing brother-in-arms

By ALEX MODESITT | The Tribune-Star | Published: August 19, 2018

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (Tribune News Service) — Ken Dierdorf wanted so badly to sit alongside his Army brothers and feel the rush of air blow through an open-sided UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” one last time at Saturday’s Terre Haute Air Show.

But fate, weather and his advanced Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — ALS — wouldn’t allow it.

Meant as one last hurrah for a group of Vietnam veterans who call themselves the “Dirty Half Dozen,” the Visiting Nursing Association and Hospice of the Wabash Valley arranged for Dierdorf and his U.S. Army brethren from around the country to take one last ride in a Huey.

But the flight, scheduled to take off around 9 a.m., was grounded due to fog blanketing the airfield. True to form, as the soldiers’ wives tell it, the group didn’t pay the weather much attention as they waited, instead they took the opportunity to catch up on each others’ goings on and tell stories.

And boy were the stories from veterans that served together in second platoon of the 1st Cavalry Division’s, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, Company B worth hearing.

Dierdorf, barely able to talk louder than a whisper, told one of his favorites about the Tokay Gecko.

He said a joke they liked to play on the new guys arriving from the States was to tell them that the gecko, with it’s unique call that often sounds like an obscenity, was actually a Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army soldier calling out for a response.

“We’d tell them that someone was going to try to call out in the middle of the night and that they weren’t to respond,” Dierdorf said. “There’s this lizard over there that gets in the hollow of tree and calls out, ‘fu- fu- f*** you.’”

“I told that story to a World War II vet and he said that not a lot must have changed among GIs as he told me about paper boats they used to make and set on fire before drifting them down the troughs everyone [used the restroom] in. I’ve always said the most dangerous thing in the world is a bored GI.”

Dierdorf also shared a more succinct story of how he decided to continue his service career after returning from Vietnam.

“When I got back from Vietnam I was tired of sleeping on the ground. So I joined the Air Force,” Dierdorf joked.

Dierdorf served out the rest of his 27-year armed services career with the U.S. Air Force.

After swapping stories and catching up on each others’ lives, the group was taken from the staging area to a landing zone where the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation had a pair of UH-1s.

But the weather was still an issue. While the fog had lifted and the sun began to peak from behind clouds, the Federal Aviation Administration mandates at least 15,000 feet of cloud clearance before the Huey could take off.

When ground controllers learned the cloud cover had reached 14,000 feet, Dierdorf and his Bravo Company brothers were taken to the helicopter and strapped in.

They waited for more than 30 minutes for the cloud cover to clear the final 1,000 feet. By that time, however, Dierdorf’s ALS had exhausted him as he was barely able to stay sitting upright.

He asked to be taken out of the Huey.

From the front seat of his van, next to his wife, Kim, Dierdorf watched as his closest friends lifted off as they had done dozens of times almost 50 years ago.

When they landed, the group was smiling, slapping backs and carrying on about how grateful they were that Dierdorf was able to make a Huey flight possible for them again.

“It was fabulous and safe,” said Joe Lewis, of Byhalia, Mississippi.

“Yeah, we weren’t getting shot at,” said Gil Edgington, both joking and serious at the same time.

UH-1s were a big part of the Dirty Half Dozen’s Vietnam experience, with members of the group saying they would sometimes fly three or four times a day depending on the mission.

Tom Owen, of Yellville, Arkansas, said the group flew more than 70 missions in their 12 months together and that Saturday’s “bird” sounds just as it did in 1970 and ‘71.

“Sounded just the same,” Owen said.

“Really? I though it sounded a little louder,” Edgington, of Florence, Kentucky, responded.

“Louder? It’s probably because you have hearing aid is in,” Owen said with a laugh.

“Huh?” Edgington responded in jest, demonstrating the back-and-forth banter the group no doubt honed in the jungles of south Vietnam.

And while they lamented Dierdorf’s inability to ride along with them, they expressed a great deal of gratitude for his giving them, Edgington, Owen, Lewis and Larry Summers, of Bethalto, Illinois, the chance to take one last ride.

“We were all looking forward to coming to see Ken anyway, but when this all started to come together that just made it more special,” Edgington said.

“If it weren’t for him we wouldn’t have gotten this flight at all,” Owen said.

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