Ken Heitel was a “Cold War Warrior.” He flew an A-4E “Skyhawk,” jet fighter off the USS Independence, a Forrestal Class carrier, as a Marine Corps aviator serving in the Mediterranean during the early 1970s.
“When I was aboard the carrier we did a lot of patrol work. The Soviets were trying to dominate the Mediterranean with their fleet and planes,” the 68-year-old Venice, Fla. jeweler said. “We’d fly up along the Soviet border playing cat and mouse games with the Russians.
He’d go up with a wingman and stay in the air an hour or two. They’d fly a couple of missions and return to the carrier’s deck.
The Soviets were flying big “Bear” bombers. They were a four-engine aircraft used for reconnaissance purposes,” he explained. “Our ‘Skyhawk’ squadron’s primary mission was to deliver nuclear weapons if the time came.
“The joke among the A-4 pilots: ‘One pilot, one bomb, one way.’”
Heitel’s attack squadron was VMA-331. It was the first Marine Corps squadron to go aboard an aircraft carrier in about five years. When we first arrived in the Med the squadron was stationed in Naples, Italy. A short while later home port became Piraeus, Greece near Athens.
“During the time we were over there Syria attacked Lebanon. We went off the coast in the Independence for 55 days straight,” he said. “This was in the early 1970s.
“Probably the most exciting thing that happened to me during my tour in the Med was ejecting from my airplane,” the former aviator said. “I was having trouble with the engine. The plane wanted to go swimming and I didn’t want to.”
Heitel was in the process of setting his A-4 on the deck of the Independence when the incident happened.
“The carrier was moving along about 30 knots. I was using a 00-Ejection Seat and that allowed me to get out of my plane. I pulled the ejection handle and automatically flew out of my A-4. I escaped with only minor back injuries, no big problem,” he said.
“When my A-4 splashed there was a helicopter right next to the ship. They were there in about two minutes. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the water,” he explained.
While on that deployment his squadron lost four airplanes total. Two were lost on takeoff, one was lost while flying and Heitel’s.
When he returned to the States after almost a year’s deployment in the Mediterranean, Heitel was stationed in Buford, S.C. as a member of the Marine squadron there. He served his last year in the Corps as assistant safety officer and nuclear officer of his A-4 Attack Squadron.
Heitel retired after five years as a captain.
He and his wife, Susan, moved to Venice and established Heitel’s Jewelry on West Venice Avenue 38 years ago. They have two children: Jennifer who’s working on her master’s degree in public health and Matthew, an architect in Switzerland.
Name: Leslie Kenneth Heitel
D.O.B: 16 Jan. 1945
Hometown: Lynbrook, NY
Currently: Venice, FL
Entered Service: 9 March 1967
Discharged: 1 Oct. 1972
Unit: USS Independence
Commendations: National Defense Service Medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Nov. 26, 2012 and is republished with permission.
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