Long before he joined the 82nd Airborne Division as a peacetime warrior in the mid-1950s, Lou Drendel of Venice was fascinated with things military. It began when he was a kid and his father built balsa wood airplane models for him.
“These models got me interested in aviation and launched my avocation in aviation art,” the 73-year-old former airborne soldier said. “The book that inspired me to join the airborne was one by Ross Carter, “Those Devils in Baggy Pants.’ It was the story of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment that preceded the 82nd Airborne in World War II.
“I graduated from a Catholic military school in 1955 and joined the 82nd at 18. I went to jump school at Fort Bragg and spent my entire enlistment in Fort Bragg,” Drendel said. “We went to Panama in 1957 and I became an expert in jungle warfare.
“It was the peacetime army. President Eisenhower was determined to keep us out of foreign conflicts. In those days the service didn’t have enough troops to perform any kind of mission,” he said. ” Because I knew how to type I became the operations sergeant for our company. One of my duties was filling out the manifests for parachute jumps. In order to get your $55 monthly jump pay you had to jump every 90 days.
“What would happen, the regimental jump people would call down and say we needed eight jumpers to fill a plane. Because we had so few people there were never eight people, so I always put myself down as one of them. I ended with about twice as many jumps as my contemporaries. I got enough jumps to qualify for Jump Master School,” Drendel said.
“I thought it was a lot of fun being in the Airborne at first. After 18 months in the service I became disillusioned. We weren’t doing much,” he said. “Before I went in the Airborne I applied for West Point. After I had been in the service more than a year I received an appointment and was ordered to take the entrance exam. By that time I decided the military wasn’t such a great career for me so I passed up the West Point appointment.
“It was always an adventure jumping out of airplanes. Things happened,” Drendel said. ” There was a fellow in my unit named Sam Sessions. He later became an Indianapolis driver. I always thought the guy was nuts. He had a new Ford he drove real fast and we hung out together.
“One time when he was jumping out of a C-119 he knocked himself out. We could empty a C-119 of 40 jumpers in 8.5 seconds. When your parachute opened the static line pulled the deployment bag off your back.
“Sam jumped so close to the guy in front of him the deployment bag from the jumper in front of him hit him in the head and knocked him out. He didn’t come to until he was on the ground,” Drendel said.
By the time he completed his first hitch he had made 41 jumps, was a Jump Master and a Fire Direction Specialist with a 4.2 mortar battery in a support company of the 325th Regiment of the 82nd Airborne. It was 1958 and Drendel had decided one hitch in the military was enough.
He contemplated being an artist and spent a year or two attending night school at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. While there he got a job to finance his education working for a lumber company outside the “Windy City.”
“I got promoted to truck driver at the lumber company. Eventually I worked my way into the office. I retired as general manager of the lumber company after 37 years in 2,000,” he explained.
Along the way Drendel pursued his passion for drawing military airplane pictures. Over the years he has illustrated the pages of 70 books. He’s written about American military airplanes, mostly.
“i drew some pictures of military planes that were published in the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine about Vietnam airplanes,” he said. ” A military publisher saw them and suggested I do a book on the Vietnam Air War and illustrate it with my pictures. ‘The Vietnam Air War’ is what I called it and I wrote it and drew the pictures for a publisher called Arco in 1967.
In his spare time, when not painting U.S. military aircraft or running his big lumber company located 30 miles northwest of Chicago, Drendel devoted a good many hours helping to establish the ‘Lima Lima Flight Team’ a civilian ‘Blue Angles.’ They’re a squadron of aviators who do precision aerobatics in World War II T-34 trainers painted bright yellow emblazoned with the Air Force’s white star on a circular field of blue on the wings and fuselage,.
“We did everything ‘The Blue Angels’ did except we did it slower,” he said. “I flew with them for over 30 years and ended up with 4,000 hours of flight time in a T-34.”
He and his wife, Carol, moved to Venice in 2003. They have two sons, Reed, Brad, and a daughter, Desiree.
This story first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, April 25, 2011 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Drendel’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
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