In 1969 at age 18, Charlie Meeker graduated from Bentonville High School (Arkansas) and received an invitation he preferred not to get. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and knew he’d be going to Vietnam. Meeker says, “We didn’t belong there. I didn’t have an urge to go around killin’ people, lookin’ at ‘em as not people.”
As he went for the obligatory testing, he says, “I figured I’d be a grunt. Must have done well on the tests ‘cause I was off to Fort Leonard Wood(Missouri) for basic and then to Fort Eustis in Virginia to train to be a helicopter mechanic. Before I knew it, I was a crew chief in Army Aviation.”
He was teased for being a hillbilly with remarks such as, “What does it feel like to be wearing boots?” He took it all in stride because “I was kinda proud of my heritage. There were good people all around me, and I enjoyed each and every one of them before they passed on. Some did play musical instruments, but they went to work every day, and we fished and hunted.”
He married nine days before he left for the Army and soon the “Dear John” letters started coming. A divorce followed, and he’s been married to his current wife , Pamela, for 40 years.
He served in several outposts in South Vietnam, but felt all the time that “Home was pulling on me, don’t you know?” After completing his military obligation and landing in San Francisco in March of 1972, he reports, “I came home as fast as I could go- on a Greyhound bus that stopped at every little cranny in the U.S.”
Meeker has stories. Huey helicopters in Vietnam traveled in groups of three, and Meeker has a story about a snake, a big snake. “We was up on top of a mountain where we had bivouacked overnight. Day was just breakin’, and I looked over and seen there was something strange lookin’ about one of the helicopters.
“I kept tryin’ to figure out what it was when I decided it was alive! I hollered at the mechanic who was in the copter: He was eyeball-to eyeball with a python. He pulled his weapon, a 45 pistol, and shot the thing in the head. It fell to the ground. We didn’t have no measuring tape, but we stepped it off, and that thing was over 20 feet long.”
Meeker calls the next one a “stupid story.” The soldiers were, again, on the top of some mountain and were bored, really bored. They decided a little fireworks display would be nice. As soon as Meeker said this, my alarm went off: fireworks on the top of a jungle mountain with Viet Cong around.
They began to break open their M-60 rounds with tracers, pour out the gun powder, put the projectile back down in the casing, pour the powder back in, and light it. He says, “They looked like little fireworks.”
A radio call came in, and they took off. The Viet Cong had been watching the copter crews and had zeroed in on them with a mortar round. “As we took off, they just about blew the top of that mountain off.”
Memories of the war have faded for Meeker, and he reports, “I can’t remember one soul, one name, from Vietnam although I was close to the men I served with. Our job was to deliver troops to battle and fly them out. We depended on each other for backup if we needed it, and we lived together like family. We were together on holidays ‘cause none of us was going anywhere. And I enjoyed immensely the flyin’ around, lookin’ at the country. I had a job to do, to keep the helicopter in the air, and that’s what I done.”
He also connected with the South Vietnamese. “We discussed foods as much as our language differences would allow. They showed me plants I could eat. I was curious about a tubular plant that grew underground, peeled like a potato, and before cookin’, it tasted like a sweet potato. After they throwed it on the fire to cook, it tasted like an Irish potato. The darnest thing I ever seen in my life. And we’d pay the young’uns that come around to climb them bananas trees. Tasted lots better than any bananas out of a store.”
Fragging was an issue in Vietnam, but Wheeler liked his commanding officers: “They talked to us like we were people instead of snappin’ an order.” He gives examples of this respect. Suitcases were rare in Vietnam, and someone stole his and was down at the flight-line preparing to board. Wheeler jumped in a jeep and headed down to stop him. His commanding officer, whose jeep Wheeler had snatched, was soon on his tail, got to the location, and told Wheeler to go sit in the jeep while he took care of it. And he did.
Another time, a safety officer who Wheeler says “knew not the first thing about safety” said a helicopter was good to fly when Wheeler knew something was wrong with the transmission. Wheeler says, “My word was golden on whether we flew or not.”
The safety officer threatened Wheeler with a court martial, went off, and returned with a colonel. Wheeler said, ”Sir, I don’t recommend it, but if you haven’t got any better sense than to go, I’ll go with you.”
Wheeler noted that he and the colonel got “out in the middle of nowhere and were five feet off the ground when the main rotor locked up and spun the copter four times around before the copter hit the ground. We were both white as a sheet.”
The colonel called back to the safety officer and told him to send a Chinook to pick up the helicopter. Wheeler indicated, “The safety officer was ‘mad as a hornet’ and just came to our location in a helicopter- no Chinook. The colonel and I took that helicopter back to base and just left that safety officer there.”
Thank you, Charlie Wheeler from Arkansas, for your service and may the wind always be beneath your wings.