Many return, having dutifully serviced, shrouded in the silence of Old Glory. Others come back determined to internalize or erase the memories. Then there are the rare soldiers like Eugene who are willing and able to spin endless stories having served during not one, but two wars, and in not one, but two branches of our U.S. military.
The year was 1966 and this Leipsic native had just finished securing an auto and diesel mechanics and welding degree from a school in Nashville, Tennessee. With diploma ink barely dry, he was drafted and on a bus loaded with Putnam County young men headed for Columbus.
A restaurant pit stop saw a few guys load their pockets with sugar packets. Before peeing in a cup for their physical at Fort Hayes, Columbus, they poured sugar in with the futile hope of failing the test and heading for home. Fact was, if you had a heartbeat and were breathing, you were going. These were the days of our country’s military buildup for the Vietnam War.
Wearing a green flight jacket adorned with patches evidencing military squadrons, divisions and units, one knew Eugene had been around. Having completed an intensive Air Force course in both one and two engine fighters, he would “land” on bases all across the country including San Antonio and Wichita Falls, Texas, Wilmington and Columbus, Ohio, Siskiyou County, in the utter boondocks of California, and Klamath Falls, Oregon. His maintenance expertise put him “under the hood” of variously known military airplanes as the F101B Voodoo and F106 Delta Dart.
During the Vietnam Era, though never formally engaged in combat, Eugene saw to it that every plane assigned to him as crew chief was ready when needed for takeoff and with a full arsenal of weaponry.
Four years of faithful service would satisfy most, but after 10 years of working on truck and marine engines for Detroit Diesel, he came across a newspaper ad. There was a shortfall of Navy military aircraft maintenance personnel. With Desert Storm approaching, the Navy was reaching back to previously trained Vietnam Era veterans. So, with Air Force records in hand and a quick swearing-in ceremony, Eugene joined the Navy.
This tour of duty took him from the relative safety of U.S. Air Force bases to the unsettled tension of life aboard one of the six embattled aircraft carriers, the USS John F. Kennedy, engaged in the Desert Storm offensive in the Red Sea.
His formal deployment came rather circuitously. With his carrier already in the Middle Eastern waters, Eugene sat anxiously in a Norfolk Naval Base terminal. Oddly, a Hawaiian Airline commercial jet rested on the tarmac. As luck would have it, this plane had been chartered by the Navy equipped with a flight crew that included flight attendants. He’d join 10 rows of GI’s seated in back staring at the unknown contents of military cargo under cover on the floor of the forward compartment.
A brief stop at a Naval Air Station in Sicily was followed by an arrival at a house trailer and single runway known as the King Faisal Naval Air Station in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The next leg of the journey for Eugene would be more than adventuresome as he climbed aboard a C-2 Greyhound, whose typical payload was cargo and mail delivered to carriers in the Red Sea. This once in a lifetime carrier landing experience on the JFK was as if “the plane would break apart as we came to a stop right now!”
His primary duties were repairing jet engines alongside the secondary task of assisting in loading massive amounts of bombs and weapons on the planes flying the countless sorties over embattled Kuwait and Iraq.
Certainly not the only place in his career, Eugene was acutely aware of the life-threatening realities around him. First orientation included walking through the hanger bay where literally hundreds of metal boxes lined the bulkhead. The caskets were a stark reality check. Then, in case of exposure to any nerve agent, he was handed two auto-injectors both filled with Atropine and 2-PAM Chloride and ready for use.
Fighter planes went and came back without interruption. Every airplane took off loaded out with bombs and munitions. After dispersing their weapons with relentless precision, the aircraft would return for immediate refueling and reloading. Inside the JFK, bombs were stored almost everywhere and even at times in the galley.
After 26 years of service and discharged as a retired veteran, Eugene Mansfield returned home to family and friends in Leipsic having accumulated the memories to tell and honorable awards deserved. Ask him what he is most proud of and he speaks not of himself, but his late father, a survivor of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Catch him traveling the world still, and you might find him at his favorite stop, a military base. Look close and you could see him proudly stand at attention at first light’s playing of the National Anthem or solemnly pause at the end of the day’s bugling of Taps.
Eugene is unlike any, but one of many. Remember to thank a veteran today! And if able, every day!
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org