Fred Stuenkel graduated from Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda, Fla. in 1965. He continued his education at Manatee Junior College in Bradenton, a few miles north up Florida’s west coast, until his funds ran out. It was 1969, the year he received notice from the draft board, he had been selected to join the Army.
After basic at Fort Jackson, S.C. he continued his military career at Fort Eustis, Va., headquarters for Army Transportation, where he was trained as a Chinook CH-47 helicopter mechanic. The Chinooks are the big, twin-rotor choppers that look like kind of flying hotdog. They are capable of transporting a couple of dozen fully-equipped soldiers into battle, flying a 105 or 155 Howitzer to the front or simply carrying all the ammo and food a company of soldiers would need to continue their fight for quite some time.
“I arrived in Vietnam in early 1970. I ended up working on Chinooks at a base in a town along the South China Sea coast at Vang Tau. It was a beautiful French-Colonial town that had a gorgeous beach and was much like back home,” the 68-year-old former soldier recalled 45 years later.
“I was a member of the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Unit, part of the 1st Aviation Group. I’m proud of the fact my helicopter never missed a mission because of a maintenance-related problem,” Stuenkel said.
What he didn’t like about being an aviation mechanic was he was always stuck on base under the thumb of some sergeant or lieutenant watching his every move. To make things worse, he had to be dressed properly to repair the big helicopters, which meant he had to have his shirt tucked in his pants and his brown boots shined to perfection.
Finally, he had enough and he put in for a new job. Immediately Stuenkel was made a crew chief on a Chinook. What this meant was he was responsible for keeping all aspects of the craft ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
“About the same time they told us, ‘Pack up. We’re leaving Vang Tau.’ Our whole base of operations was relocated to a new area down in the Delta,” he said. “It was in the jungle at a town called Bein Xe Moi. All of a sudden our mission had become far more serious.”
Much of their time was spent flying troops and equipment in and out of hot landing zones. A Chinook made a big, slow moving target for the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong. Often times their chopper would return to base shot full of bullet holes.
One mission sticks in Stuenkel’s mind during his year tour in ‘Nam.
“We spent the day moving troops from a secure zone to a hot L.Z. (landing zone) in the jungle surrounded by NVA and VC. All day long we had several Cobra and Huey gunships providing cover for us as we brought the troops into the L.Z.
“We were on our very last sortie that day when we took 10 or 12 rounds of enemy small arms fire to the right side of our ship. Most of the time that’s not a big deal. But this time one of the rounds hit the fuel control on the right side engine. Another round hit the line that controls the auxiliary hydraulic system affecting our brakes, operating our tailgate and steering and stopping our aircraft on landing.
“We made it safely to the ground, but my aircraft commander freaked out because he thought his co-pilot had been hit by enemy fire. In the middle of the confusion he reached for the control that would have shut down our one remaining workable engine. I slapped his hand away from the control and warned him not to touch it because if he shut it down we wouldn’t be able to restart the engine and get airborne,” Stuenkel explained.
“Another Chinook from our unit had just finished dropping off a bunch of troops at the L.Z. It turned around, came back and set down beside us. The other crew chief and I assessed the damage to our ship. We decided it was possible to fly it back to base on one engine if we lightened the load,” he said.
They dumped half the gasoline on board and got rid of a bunch of heavy equipment they were carrying. The thing that hurt most, he said, they left his tool box in the jungle that contained some special tools his aviation mechanic father had sent him from home.
A decision was made to swap pilots and take half their crew and put them on the other chopper on the flight back to base. All that was left on his Chinook was a pilot, a gunner and Stuenkel.
“As we sat on the ground assessing the damage we sent all the door gunners from both ships out into the jungle to set up a perimeter to protect us from the enemy,” he said. “We were lucky.
“As we started to build altitude, I looked down and saw my box of tools on the ground. I took an M-79 grenade launcher I was carrying and chunked two grenades into the tools. I said to myself, ‘If I can’t have those tools nobody can.’
“I blew them up!
They flew back to base without incident, but landing the battered Chinook was another matter. They came in with no brakes and no steering. Their hydraulics had been shot out.
“The runway was cleared of everything except ambulances and fire trucks. We set the back wheels down first and then the front wheels hit the runway. We landed without a hitch,” Stuenkel recalled.
Shortly after returning from this mission, he got word he was going home.
“It was Dec. 21, 1970 when I flew to Cam Ranh Bay. When I arrived there was wall-to-wall soldiers trying to figure out how to get home for Christmas. I took a United Airline flight to San Francisco.
“When we flew into California anti-war protesters were waiting for us at the airport. We were called ‘BABY KILLERS’ and spit on.
“The worst part was when I was sitting at the airport bar with another soldier waiting for our flight to leave for Tampa. There were three girls and two guys at a nearby table who had been drinking.
“This one chick walked up to us and said, ‘How could you shoot women and children?’ The guy I was with said, without missing a beat, ‘M’am, if you have more than one you have to lead them a little bit with your weapon.’
“The group at the table heard what he said to her. They just got up and walked out of the bar without saying another word,” Stuenkel said.
“I flew into Tampa and on to Fort Myers on National Air Lines. When I arrived back on the west coast I heard none of that ‘BABY KILLER’ stuff from anyone,” he said.
“It was Christmas morning when I got to Tampa and called my folks who didn’t know I was back in country. My dad was at the Fort Myers airport to meet me when my plane touched down,” he recalled with pleasure more than four decades later.
“My sisters and the whole family were there for Christmas at my parents new home in Punta Gorda. That Christmas in 1970 it was the best Christmas I ever remember having. I had survived a tour of duty in Vietnam,” he said.
Stuenkel took the G.I. Bill and completed his education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He decided to become a auto mechanics teacher. When Charlotte County Technical Center opened in Port Charlotte in 1980, he was one of its first instructors.
“I was the very last of the original teachers at the school to retire in 2012 after 32 years of auto instruction at the school,” he said proudly. He and his wife, Kathy, live in North Port, a few miles away. They have two grown daughters: Shelly and Sandra.
Name: Fred Stuenkel
D.O.B: 27 Oct. 1947
Hometown: Omaha, Neb.
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 1969
Unit: 147th Assault Support Helicopter Unit
Commendations: National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with 2 Bronze Stars, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Aircraft Crewman Badge.
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, April 2, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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