Special celebration honors Vietnam veterans
By LANCE WINTER | Fort Worth Star-Telegram | Published: April 18, 2017
Weatherford American Legion Post 163 – along with its neighbor in Mineral Wells, Post 75 – and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4746, have teamed up to extend a special invitation.
To mark the continued commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War, both organization have joined forces with the National Vietnam War Museum, by inviting Vietnam Veterans and their families to a special welcome home ceremony on Sat., April 29 beginning at 10 am. We will also be pinning each service member with a commemorative pin designed just for our Vietnam Veterans.
“This commemoration has a very special purpose,” said Ron Chandler, Public Relations for the American Legion. “It’s to thank and honor veterans from the Vietnam War era (1955-1975) which includes personnel who were held prisoner of war or listed as missing in action, for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States. It’s also to thank and honor the families of these veterans.”
A pair of such veterans are Angelo Spelios and Jim Messinger, both who served at distinctly different times during the Vietnam War.
It was a choice not a chance
Ask Angelo Spelios about his time spent serving in Vietnam and he’d tell you it was a “Choice – not Chance.”
The Weatherford transplant, originally from the South Bronx, said 4 years after graduating from high school he heard of a special recruitment program being offered by the Army, Choice not Chance.
“Basically it was a recruitment program and if you pass a series of exams [the Army] guaranteed you entrance into a school,” Spelios said.
He requested flight school but the Army said they couldn’t guarantee he’d make it once he enter the school.
“But the Army really came through for me,” he said.
At 22-year-old Spelios found himself at basic training at Fort Dix before heading south towards Texas – more specifically – Mineral Wells.
“I came down in Sept., 1963 and went through flight school and warrant officer training,” Spelios said. “After that I went to Alabama where I graduated in June of ‘64.”
After graduation Spelios found himself attached to the 11th Air Assault Division which later became the famed 1st Air Calvary Division which movies like “We Were Soldiers” depict.
“I went to Vietnam from Sept. 1964 to Sept. 1965; those were the early years of the war,” Spelios said. “This was the advisory war to us. The troops we flew in our helicopters were Vietnamese with American advisers.”
Spelios said most of the time he’d have a captain and a couple of non-commissioned officers on board with Vietnamese passengers in back.
“It wasn’t until 1965 that I started seeing American combat infantrymen in the back,” Spelios added. “Shortly before I came home the buildup of American troops had really escalated.”
When Spelios came home he became an instructor at Fort Wolters in Mineral Wells where he remained on active duty until 1967.
“I remember it was on a Friday that I changed my uniform to Southern Airways of Texas,” Spelios recalled. “We became civilian contractors - same uniform - just no Army wings. I was flying the same type of aircraft I had been flying in the military.”
It wasn’t until May of 1971 that Spelios made his next move which saw him return to Southeast Asia as a pilot for Air America.
“I went to Udorn, Thailand, just south of Laos and flew helicopter support for the Laostions,” Spelios said. “When I came home in 1973 I was accepted as a Civil Service Instructor in the Army reserves. I was lucky because I really wasn’t in the war that came later.”
That’s not to say that Spelios didn’t have his fair share of excitement.
“You know you can hear the bullets fly by as they pass and at night you can see them,” he said. “There were only 18,000 of us in Vietnam when I was there, but during the heat of the buildup there were more than 500,000 American soldiers.”
One of Spelios’ most memorable moments can when the helicopter behind him sheared off the tail of the helicopter he was flying upon take off.
“We were parked nose to tail and both the pilot and co-pilot were distracted by something on the ground,” Spelios said. “Their main rotor took off the back end of our helicopter causing both of us to crash. The helicopter that did the damage landed upside down fully loaded with personnel. We managed to crash upright, thankfully, no one on board either aircraft was hurt. If we were any higher in altitude it could have been disastrous.”
Spelios said everyday was memorable to him.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I enjoyed the camaraderie. I think it was a just war. A lot of people were asking what we were there for? It seems as though we forgot that there was an organization, the South East Asia Treaty Organization, from 1955-1983. They didn’t want to be under communism in Vietnam.”
Like most Vietnam Veterans Spelios said he didn’t like the way the war was handled.
“It was handled administratively,” he said. “We’ve seen this in past administrations, where you have to have permission to do everything, to limit collateral damage.”
Jim Messinger was in this third year of college in 1966 - the draft - at full steam.
Before he knew it the 20 year-old, who volunteered for service, found himself traveling to Fort Polk before going to nearby Fort Wolters for flight training.
“Angelo was a flight instructor at Fort Wolters when I started flight training,” Messinger said. “I went to Laos in the spring of 1971 with the US Army.”
Messinger said they were ordered to paint over the markings on his helicopter to conceal their identity.
“I was flying sky cranes at the time. The only sky cranes in the world that existed at the time were owned by the U.S., but we still painted over our insignia,” he said laughing.
Messinger said at the time you could receive a court martial if you weren’t wearing “dog tags” but yet they were ordered not to wear them - further concealing their identity.
“We flew from Udorn, Thailand into Laos and once we crossed the river we lost all radar contact until we came back,” Messinger said. “We had to fly low level so we wouldn’t be seen.”
The Central Intelligence Agency ran Laos, Messinger said and artillery was positioned on mountain tops all around the country.
“We were sent there mainly to haul ammunition to the folks firing the artillery,” he said. “The only way you could get there was by helicopter.”
Messinger said he remembered meeting the King of Laos and that if the King wanted something he would have to ask the CIA, first.
One of the most chilling moment Messinger recalled was the moment the President of the United States told reporters that America did not have any troops in Laos.
“It was spooky,” Messinger said. “We were spies. We had Air America pilots following us all over Laos their only mission was to get us out if anything happened to our helicopter.”
Messinger said that helicopter pilots had a unique perspective because they all did the same thing.
“Most of us went to Fort Wolters to learn how to fly and most went to Vietnam,” he said.
On one mission Messinger recalled a crash landing due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances.
“We were a little overloaded and the wind had changed directions and we were flying up hill, it wasn’t good,” he said.
He looked for a clearing and found it. The only problem was that after committing to land he realized it was the perfect size for the helicopter, but only if the rotor blades had been tied down.
“The blades went flying off and we were in an unsecured area so we got out of there as fast as we could,” he said.
On another mission Messinger remembered taking on a Russian trawler in the middle of the night. During the engagement the on-board machine guns jammed.
“I was attempting the fire the weapon and my pilot was heading straight for the trawler, I was worried that he had target fixation and wouldn’t pull up in time,” Messinger said. “When we did the tracers lit up the sky around us.”
Messinger too said he had a good time and remembers writing to his wife telling her this was the perfect career for him.
“I volunteered to do it. I loved my country and the flag, but this was like a rite of passage to manhood for me, I needed it,” he said. “I got shot at and mortared and I shot people. Maybe I sound a little crazy - maybe I was."
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