Abe Wolson recalls one mission worth 20 years of service

Lt. Col.  Abe Wolson was the pilot of Marine One during Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s administration. Here the chopper is flying the president to Andrews Air Force base outside Washington D.C. Photo provided

Former Lt. Col. Abe Wolson of Port Charlotte, Fla. served 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He piloted Marine Corps 1, the presidential helicopter, during the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He served three tours in Vietnam in 1961, ’67 and ’72, flying helicopters in combat for Special Operations missions, among other things.

But what he is most proud of is a single mission he flew in the presidential helicopter to save the lives of a couple of civilians.

Wolson’s military career began as a fluke. When he was a junior at the University of Delaware, he drove his roommate to Philadelphia to take the admission test for the Navy’s flight program. While waiting for his friend, he decided to take it too. His buddy flunked the test, but Wolson passed.

Wolson entered the Navy. He attended Navy flight school in Pensacola, Fla. in 1957. When he graduated, he was a helicopter pilot.

In 1961, he served his first tour in Vietnam, flying helicopters transporting ARVIN troops — South Vietnam soldiers — in and out of battle when they weren’t involved with the CIA operations over there, the 75-year-old local leatherneck recalled.

Wolson went back to Vietnam in 1967, assigned to Marine Squadron CH-46. He flew H-46 helicopters ferrying more troops and supplies in and out of combat zones as a member of HMM Squadron 265, stationed initially at Marble Mountain, east of Da Nang along the coast. This time, he was working with American forces.

“We were dropping Army Special Forces behind enemy lines. There were two types of Special Forces teams — intelligence gatherers and hatchet teams sent in to kill people,” Wolson explained.

“We had a Marine recon team trying to get extracted while under enemy fire. They came to an open spot in the jungle that wasn’t big enough for us to set down in. They were in serious trouble, so we decided we’d either get them out or give them our two .50-caliber machine guns to help ’em out,” he said. “We chopped some trees down with our blades going in, which wasn’t recommended procedure for landing a helicopter. We got ’em all out, about a dozen of them, and got out of there.”

For this rescue, Wolson received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

When he returned from Vietnam, he was tapped to become a part of HMX-1, the Marine helicopter squadron based at Anacostia, Va., that flies the president around the country in a chopper called VH-3. Although he flew both Johnson and Nixon all over, Wolson had no stories he wanted to tell about them.

“I was just the presidents’ bus driver,” he said with a smile. “No big deal.”

Wolson said his proudest moment in the Corps came one rainy day in June 1970.

“Gen. James Hughes, Nixon’s military aide, called me and asked if I could fly one of the presidential helicopters nonstop from Anacostia to somewhere in West Virginia and back to Georgetown Hospital in D.C.,” he said. “I told him I’d check and call him right back.

“When I called back and told him yes, the general ordered me to fly to Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington, pick up a doctor and a Corpsman, and fly them to a little town in West Virginia,” he said. “I told Gen. Hughes the weather was really lousy and we would have to fly through mountains to get there.”

The general explained to Wolson this was a life-or-death situation and only his helicopter could do the job because of its range and capabilities. What he learned when he touched down in an open field near the hospital in West Virginia was that a family had been involved in a nearly fatal auto accident a couple of hours earlier and needed the immediate services of a neurosurgeon.

David Urey, the husband and father, suffered only minor injuries. However, his wife, Donna, had a broken back and severe scalp injury, and she was almost five months pregnant. Their young son, who had been riding with them, had a concussion.

The surgeon at Grant Memorial Hospital in Petersburg, W. Va., told Urey he could perform basic surgery to keep his wife alive, but she needed to see a neurosurgeon as soon as possible. The closest one was 150 miles away at Georgetown Hospital, and Urey’s wife would probably die on the way there if transported by ambulance, the doctor said.

Urey, who worked as an attorney for the giant conglomerate Litton Industries, got on the phone and called the Marine base at Quantico, Va., looking for a helicopter. He talked to the general in command and was told they didn’t have a chopper large enough to do the job, but suggested the president’s helicopter.

“Urey called the White House. He wanted to talk to ‘whoever was in charge of helicopters.’ Fortunately for him, Gen. Hughes was there and listened to his story. That’s when the general called me to see if it was possible to fly round-trip from Petersburg to Washington in the presidential helicopter. When I told him yes, he dispatched me in the presidential helicopter.

“The outcome was that Brian, their son, fully recovered from his head injury in a few weeks. Mrs. Urey gave birth to a normal baby boy and she eventually recovered,” Wolson said proudly. “And the Marine Corps kept bugging me to get back their stretcher.”

The rescue story appeared in a 1971 edition of Reader’s Digest.

Abe Wolson holds a picture of his helicopter, Marine One, flying over the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. He was at the controls when the picture was taken. Sun photo by Don Moore

When his 20 years were up, Wolson retired from the Corps and started a second career as a mortgage banker. At 62, he retired from his second job. He and his wife bought a 42-foot cabin cruiser and sailed it to Burnt Store Marina, north of Fort Myers, where they lived for a few years.

In 1997, Wolson built his present home in South Gulf Cove. Much of his time these days is taken up serving as president of Temple Shalom, a reform Jewish congregation, in Port Charlotte.

His commendations

Lt. Col. Abe Wolson , USMC, received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with “V” for valor, Air Medal with four Oakleaf clusters (meaning five Air Medals), Joint Service Commendation Medal, Navy Commendation Medal with “V” for valor, Meritorious Unit Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, and the Air Force Expeditionary Medal.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday,October 26, 2009 and is republished with permission.

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