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2012-02-09

Connors recalls military service, local vet records other vets' stories

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Vietnam veteran Richard Connors, of Pipe Creek, served 16 years in the military. As do most veterans, he looks back on those years with a combination of emotions. After being seriously wounded in 1968, he spent a long time recovering in San Antonio and ended up moving his family to the Texas Hill Country.

Connors has long been interested in history and has served as a volunteer docent with the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio for years. He worked primarily on an oral history project there.

"I'd listen to taped interviews and make corrections on the transcripts."
Then he got in with a bunch of Vietnam vets and started doing the interviews.

"I think I do one heck of an interview," he said.

Connors has found that a lot of veterans are reluctant to tell their stories. Despite that fact, he has successfully collected quite a number of them.

Bandera County veterans he has interviewed include fellow Vietnam veteran Ralph Dresser of Lakehills, and Iraq War veteran Bo Mansfield of Pipe Creek.

Some vets, with all humility, don't believe anyone wants to hear their story. Others find the memories too painful to talk about. However, Connors thinks it's important to make these records. "I tell them that their kids and grandkids will want to know about this stuff someday."
Therapists have found that talking about a painful memory can be the first step to healing and overcoming.

Connors encourages more local veterans to get in touch with him to set up a time to do an interview. "I really would like to drum up some more business right here in Bandera County," he said.

Contact him via email at rconnors1936@sbcglobal.net. He will be happy to hear from veterans of all services and in all fields, but "I'd really like to hear from veterans who were in military aviation, which is my specialty."

Connors grew up in a small town in Indiana where things were very different from life in America today.

Kids ran all over town, played softball wherever they could pick up a game, and "Your parents didn't worry about you."

He remembered all the excitement when World War II ended. School let out.

Everybody waved flags. He decided that joining the military, where maybe he could get into a tech school, would be the thing to do.

Going to USAF boot camp quickly made him realize that he wasn't in Indiana anymore. "When the drill sergeant yelled at us, I knew I'd taken a different way," he said with a chuckle. The wood framed barracks with no insulation in the dead of winter, next to a lake covered in thick ice, just hammered home the message.

After being sent to tech school at Keesler AFB, Mississippi, Connors met Ruth Ann Tennison, the woman who would become his wife. When he got orders to go to the Philippines, the couple decided to get married. "I needed to get my parents' permission, but she was older. She didn't need anybody's permission."

Connors' plane broke down in Hawaii and he was confined to base, which was no fun. His wife, on the other hand, got to go to San Francisco, traveled over on a nice ship where she enjoyed the Neptune ceremony while crossing the equator, and then enjoyed all kinds of tours on Hawaii. "She had a good time," said Connors.

After his tour in the Philippines, Connors returned to the states to attend Purdue University where he studied biological sciences in the chemistry program. After graduation, the only job offer he could find was in quality control with Eli Lily. "I had taken Air Force ROTC, so I decided to go on active duty," he said.

In 1964, Connors found himself "paper pushing. I was upgrading records on all the chemicals used in Vietnam and elsewhere."

Connors really wanted to fly helicopters, so he applied to flight school. After being told he was too old and would have to go through the whole flight school to qualify, he contacted an Army colonel in the medical field. "He said, 'I gotta warn you, things are really heating up in Vietnam.'" Connors went out and "got myself a green uniform."

Connors flew the H-13 Bell Helicopter, like the one in the intro of the MASH TV show and the H-19 Chickasaw.

"A lot of trainers didn't teach you how to hover," he said. "My guy made me hover! I had a hard time with it!"
With the H-19 Chickasaw, "You had to be very, very, very light on the controls. Anytime you made the slightest change in the controls you would lose lift if you weren't careful. At first, God Almighty, it seems like you're never going to learn that, but then you get to the point that you don't have to even think about it."

In Vietnam, Connors flew with young guys who hadn't ever flown anything but Hueys. "I kept telling them to take it easy on the controls. You can get out of just about anything if you'll just not get sloppy with the controls."

In 1966, Connors reported in to a medical company in Vietnam. "Our job was to support any unit that came through."

The colonel who gave him his assignment advised him, "Clean your own weapon." Later, Connors had a chance to ask him why he had said that. "He explained that the platoon had just been assigned a new leader and it was his way to let me know I needed to take care of myself."

The assignment sometimes meant long periods of idleness, "then suddenly, bam, and you stayed busy for quite a long time."

Weather added challenges to flying in Vietnam. "The fog was sometimes so thick you couldn't see even on the runway-they'd send out a Follow Me truck and you'd go, 'Where'd he go?'" said Connors. "Sometimes we just found a clear patch and parked it."

In 1968, Connors returned to Pleiku, but wasn't there very long.

One day, he went out on a mission to rescue an outfit that had gotten into trouble. The endangered soldiers tossed a smoke bomb to mark the site.

Unknown to Connors, "When the guy threw it, it rolled down hill into a grove of trees, and I was going down into the arms of Charlie."

The helicopter took "26 rounds right through the belly of that thing. I was the only one hit."

When the chopper crashed, it rolled on its side, "busted the bubble and I crawled out that way."

Connors and his crew crawled up the bank to join the original guys. They were not rescued until well after dark. "These guys were running around checking if we had all our equipment.

Are you wearing you chest protector?

Yes, but I'm not feeling so good right now." The rescuers cut off his expensive new boots and took his Webley pistol. "I never got that back."

He woke up in hospital in Pleiku and was quickly transferred to the states where he stayed in the hospital for almost two years.

Rehab wasn't all unpleasant discomfort, however. "I was named Military Father of the Year in 1970," said Connors with his signature self-deprecating humor. "They needed a guy with a family who was in the hospital. I got shot and had three kids so that qualified me."

What Connors did not say is that his selfless service also qualified him for the gratitude and respect of every American.

Pictured: Top- Richard Connors at operations center, 1966, in Vietnam

Bottom- Richard Connors of Pipe Creek enjoys interviewing veterans for the Institute of Texan Cultures.