Every year I write a Memorial Day story about my conversations with veterans of past wars I have known. One soldier I have always included in those stories is Thomas Stryker.
I worked for Tom for three years and we became close friends. He was my “go to guy” whenever I needed advice about work or life over the past 40 years. He always made things crystal clear to me in this crazy world.
Tom’s favorite TV show, The Greatest American Hero, was about a school teacher who finds a UFO in the desert and receives a suit with super powers from the aliens. The joke is that he loses the instruction book for the suit and does not know how to use it, especially when it comes to flying and landing.
One of the things Tom knew was how to fly. He was a Chief Warrant Officer 2 and a US Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, where he did three tours (years) of duty. He was shot down six times and had four Purple Hearts. The last one, as he said, was in the seat of his pants. Here are some of his stories:
“We used to play a game called ‘Got Ya!’ when we were not flying missions. It was like two cowboys drawing their guns on a street in the old West. One day a new pilot called out and drew his revolver on me, except he pulled the trigger and fired off a shot in my direction. I was not mad at him, because you could explain a guy getting shot in the jungle for that, but all the other pilots were mad since his missed shot went through the door of our only refrigerator, and cold beer was hard to find!”
“We were at an airbase when a bladder filled with 40,000 gallons of gasoline exploded. Every place was on fire and men were running to put these fires out. My colonel was putting one out when he slipped into a ditch and his uniform caught on fire. Several of us ran with CO2 fire extinguishers and sprayed him down. He was taken to the base hospital – not with burns from the fire, but third-degree frostbite on his leg from us.”
“We were going on a mission when the pilot in the helicopter behind me started to shout over the radio, ‘I’m hit, I’m hit, I’m going down, I’m going down!’ He landed the copter safely, but as we ran up to it, we noticed a large hole in the plexiglass in the front. We opened the cockpit door and the pilot was hit – but by a goose! It was lodged under his armpit into the seat. That night the cook served it to him for dinner. A few weeks later he was shot down and killed.”
“We were given orders to shoot at anything that could transport North Vietnamese soldiers, ammo, food, or any other supplies. We shot at anything that moved – water buffalo, elephants, or whatever had wheels!”
“My helicopter was hit by ground fire and I was going down. The only place to try for a safe landing was a river that was close by. That is when I got scared; I couldn’t swim!”
“If we needed cold beer, we would load up a helicopter with several cases and fly it to 15,000 feet for a few minutes.”
“I was hit and had no power. The copter fell like a rock and landed between four trees that took off six feet of blade on all four. I don’t know how they got it out of there, but they did!”
In 2016, Tom was asked to dedicate one of the Hueys he flew in Nam at the Cole Transportation Museum in Bangor, Maine. It is on permanent display on a pedestal hanging in the air as part of the museum’s outdoor Vietnam War Memorial. Last February, Tom lost his only battle from complications of a brain tumor and cancer. I miss him dearly.
To all veterans, past and present, we salute and thank you for your service. Have a peaceful life.