When Fred Schuster tosses a ceremonial wreath into Buck Creek during the Vietnam Veterans Day of Remembrance next week, the nine silver coffins he faced in the hold of his C-141 more than 40 years ago won’t be far from his mind.
The first local event of its kind, conceived by a nurse specialist at the Veterans Affairs clinic on Burnett Road, will give area Vietnam veterans the welcome-home they never got.
A parade at 10 a.m. March 30 will proceed south on North Fountain Avenue from the former Mercy Medical Center toward Veterans Park, where a ceremony will be held.
Schuster, a retired Air Force colonel who’s taught at Tecumseh High School for 11 years as part of the school’s JROTC program, co-piloted at least 40 cargo missions into Vietnam during the war.
At first, getting to fly from California to Hawaii to Wake Island to Okinawa and then into Vietnam was like an adventure for the guy who had spent four straight years in Texas in the 1960s training other pilots.
“Quite honestly, it was fun,” recalled Schuster, now a youthful 75. “It was really, really fun.”
But, on the fifth or sixth trip out of Vietnam, Schuster had to go into the hold — and saw nine metal coffins making the return trip.
“Everybody has a life-changer,” he said.
“I stopped and looked at those things,” he added, welling up with tears. “I thought, ‘Damn.’ They had their names on the end of them. It was one of those a-ha moments that maybe I ought to take this more seriously.”
From then on, the missions took on a special reverence.
“We brought them home,” Schuster said.
Connie Kaiser-Kendall, who works at the local VA outpatient clinic, got the idea to do something for Vietnam veterans last fall after learning late of President Obama’s proclamation of March 29, 2012, as Vietnam Veterans Day.
“Every veteran I told didn’t know anything about it,” she said.
The proclamation was meant to honor the 50th anniversary of the war’s first combat operation in 1962.
With the blessing of the veterans she contacted, Kendall decided to plan her own tribute, with hopes that it will become an annual event. This year’s inaugural commemoration happens to take place almost exactly 40 years after the last American troops left Vietnam.
In all, 62 Clark County veterans were killed in Vietnam, including Kendall’s cousin, Catholic Central High School graduate Bobby Rice.
“Only one veteran I spoke with said, ‘It’s too late. They should have done something long ago,’” she said. “Every other veteran was very interested.”
Among the interested veterans was Dave Bauer, commander of the Clark County Military Order of the Purple Heart and a decorated Vietnam veteran.
“It means the world to me,” Bauer said. “No. 1, we never had a welcome home. This is the first time the community’s come together for Vietnam veterans.”
Bauer in turn reached out to Schuster at Tecumseh.
Schuster frequently flew the exact C-141 Starlifter that’s arguably the single-most famous cargo plane, and which is now on display at the nearby National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
On Feb. 12, 1973, it became forever known as the Hanoi Taxi when it made the trip out of North Vietnam carrying the first group of freed American prisoners of war.
“I’ve flown ‘60177’ God knows how many times,” he said.
While Schuster was outranked to fly the missions into Hanoi that eventually brought home 591 POWs in all, he flew several of the POWs from the Philippines to Hawaii.
“I said four words to them,” Schuster recalled, welling up again. “I said, ‘Welcome home.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’ I think I needed that after that pallet full of silver containers.”