Venice man feared for his life only one day in Vietnam

Tom Upright, who lives with his wife Sue, in Grand Palm, Venice, FL, is a U.S. Marine—first, last, and always.

“The Marine Corps is a special service. I decided when I was still in Miami University of Ohio I wanted to be a Marine,” he said. “If I was going to be a Marine I wanted to be a Marine pilot. After college I joined the OCS (Officers Candidate School) in 1964 for 10 weeks at Quantico, Va. I went to flight training at Pensacola in January of the following year.”

He served 4 1/2 years in the Corps flying Sikorsky UH-34 helicopters in and out of battle during his 10-months service in Vietnam. Most of that time he flew with squadron HMM-263. They flew almost every day taking troops into battle, retrieving the wounded and bringing C-rations and ammunition to troops on many occasions.

“We liked delivering C-rations to South Korean troops in the field,”he said. “They had a contest to see how many C-ration boxes one trooper could carry. These guys were lifting 500 to 600 pounds of 25 pound C-ration boxes”

Only one time did he fear for his life in Vietnam.

“I’m not a superstitious guy, but the day we got shot up it was the birthdays of the pilot and me,” Upright recalled. “Can you believe it?

“We were flying off the carrier Okinawa bringing cake and ice cream to the troops. We flew to the landing zone and off loaded. We could see all this activity just over the mountain. When we flew back to the carrier we got word we were going to do a helicopter insert. Each UH-34 could bring in six fully equipped combat troops.

“On the way into the landing zone we had one of our helicopters shot down,” Upright said. “Our helicopter got shot up. Myself and one other crewman were hit by enemy fire.

Upright is shown with a Sikorsky HU-34 Medivac helicopter like the one he flew in Vietnam during the war.  Photo Provided

Upright is shown with a Sikorsky UH-34 helicopter like the one he flew in Vietnam during the war. Photo Provided

“My communications aboard the helicopter was shot out,” he said. “I was the co-pilot, but I couldn’t communicate with the pilot except by writing him notes.

“My boot was hit by an AK-47 round that went through my heel.

“We later found out the enemy round went through our helicopter and hit our communications and knocked it out. Then it careened off the console between the pilot and me and hit my boot, went through my heel and lodged in my sock.”

He kept the enemy round, as a keepsake of his time in Vietnam. They got out of the area as quickly as possible.

Two other incidents come to mind that Upright was involved in during his time in the Marines. While co-piloting a UH-34 in October 1966 he was flying out of Phu Bai, Vietnam.

“We were inserting troops into a hot zone. We landed and let out the troops. As we were taking off we got an ‘Engine Warning’ light which told us the engine was about to fail. We were about 1000 feet up when the engine quit. We did an auto rotation. When you get to 50-feet from the ground you flare the ‘copter’ out and it settles to the ground. We had a perfect landing.

This banner was hanging from the front of the Upright’s home when Tom returned from Vietnam in April ’69. His father, Richard, is at the left, Tom center, and Helen, his mother at the right. Photo provided

This banner was hanging from the front of the Upright’s home when Tom returned from Vietnam in April ’68. His father, Richard, is at the left, Tom center, and Muriel, his mother at the right. Photo provided

“Since we were close to the base they came out with another helicopter and took us off,” he said.

His second engine failure happened in Aug. 1968 when Upright was teaching aviation at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

“I was flying T-34 trainers fixed wing aircraft. I was a flight instructor at Pensacola. Every summer the Naval Academy would send midshipman down to get acclimated in aviation. I was taking a midshipman up for a ride flying at 3,500 feet.

“I was going to show him some acrobatics and my engine died. They call that a high altitude emergency. I declared over the air I had such an emergency and picked the field I was going to land on,” he explained.

“The active runway we would use we would have to fly over the Gulf. I didn’t want to try that runway. So I landed down wind. On the final approach I did S-turns to lose altitude. We landed just fine. We opened the cowling to see what was wrong. We discovered what had happened –the engine oil line had come off.”

Upright received a letter of commendation for his efforts. The letter notes: “

The manner in which you demonstrated your professional competence as a naval aviator again demonstrates the value of proper indoctrination, training and practice. Only by devotion to duty, advance preparation and interest on your part, plus the ability to react under emergency situations, can a potentially hazardous situation, such as you were confronted with, be kept under control. Your attention to duty and performance are commendable. WELL DONE.

Signed,

J.D. Libey

Commander’’

After Vietnam, Upright became an instructor pilot at Saufley Field Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fl.

“I started flying T-34 fixed-wing aircraft teaching young aviators how to fly,” he said. “It was a nice five-day-a-week job. I did that for ten months until I got out of the Marines in April ’69 as a captain. I went to work as a salesman for Standard Oil of Ohio. The company was originally owned by John D. Rockefeller. I spent 30 years in sales for Standard Oil/BP Oil..”

This is Tom today at 77 at his home in Venice. On the table beside him is a model of the HU-34 Sikorsky helicopter he flew in 'Nam and the T-34 trainer they used to teach young Marines to fly at Pensacola Naval Air Station at the completion of his 41/2 years of his service. Sun photo by Mary Auenson

This is Tom today at 77 at his home in Venice. On the table beside him is a model of the UH-34 Sikorsky helicopter he flew in ‘Nam and the T-34 trainer they used to teach young Marines to fly at Pensacola Naval Air Station at the completion of his 4 1/2 years of his service. Sun photo by Mary Auenson

He and Sue moved to Venice five years ago. They have four children: A.J., Alison, Lindsay, and Scott.

Asked about his love of the Marine Corps, Upright said, “They take an 18-year-old kid and square him away. The strength of the Marine Corps is not the officers. It’s the strength of its NCOs.”

Name: Richard T Upright
D.O.B: 10 May 1942
Hometown:  Midland, MI
Currently: Venice, FL
Entered Service: 11 Dec 1964
Discharged: 15 April 1969
Rank: Captain
Commendations: Purple Heart, National Defense Service medal, Air Medal w/2 oak leaf clusters, Vietnam Campaign Medal,  Air Medal, Rifle Marksmanship badge, Pistol Sharpshooter badge

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Sept 16, 2019, and is republished with permission.

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