By Rusty Rae • Of the News-Register • 

Rusty Rae: What Memorial Day is really all about

Photo courtesy of Steele Clayton##Steele Clayton poses in front of his Chinook helicopter during a lull in the action during his tour of duty in Vietnam.
Photo courtesy of Steele Clayton##Steele Clayton poses in front of his Chinook helicopter during a lull in the action during his tour of duty in Vietnam.
##An Army Chinook helicopter, similar to one Dan York was piloting, hovers over a battlefield area in Vietnam.
##An Army Chinook helicopter, similar to one Dan York was piloting, hovers over a battlefield area in Vietnam.

On Monday, we celebrate Memorial Day.

Many have the day off and take this time to spend with family and friends. There’ll be barbecuing, fun in the sun and a plethora of activities over the holiday weekend.

Too often, however, it seems those activities overlook the gravitas of the day.

It is supposed to be a remembrance of those who gave their last full measure of devotion to the country, as Abraham Lincoln said at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1863.

So while you are celebrating this Memorial Day, consider the following story.

Good friend and Linfield classmate Steele Clayton graduated in May of 1968. Six months later, on Dec. 13, he entered the US Army.

This is his story:

Clayton flew through basic training and chopper pilot training. He graduated at the top of his class, giving him his option of aircraft.

He chose the workhorse Chinook, a twin-rotor aircraft that was able to carry personnel. It had an external hook that allowed it to carry an additional 20,000 pounds of payload.

The do-everything Chinook gave Clayton the opportunity to do something he thought was useful in the Vietnam conflict. In addition to delivering troops and supplies, he picked up wounded American soldiers and returned them to a safe haven.

Piloting the Chinook wasn’t just a job for Clayton. He lived to fly. The fact that it was in a war zone was just an extra challenge for the 25-year-old Army airman.

He knew it was a dangerous job, but the fact that he was making a difference in the lives of ground-pounders who were in the middle of the fight meant something to him. Though this was a high-risk occupation, the fact that he was making a difference was all the reward he needed.

Clayton served two back-to-back tours in Nam. During his second tour, in 1970, another young soldier joined the 178th Assault Support Helicopter Company — Dan York.

York had already served a tour flying the smaller UH-1 Huey chopper. He returned to the states for a year, earned his Chinook rating and received orders to return to Vietnam.

A career Army officer, York arrived back in Nam as a Chief Warrant Officer 3, abbreviated CW3.

Clayton noted, “You become friends quickly when you’re together in a combat zone. Dan was funny. He had a wonderful sense of humor. And we became quite close pretty quickly.”

The routine for Clayton, York and their Band of Brothers was to fly their missions, get home safely, clean up, and head to the officers’ club to wind down from their day, talk about where the bullet holes were in their aircraft, then go home, go to bed and get up in the morning to do it all over again.

About 15 miles from the Laotian border stands the firebase Kham Duc. Originally established as a playground for Vietnam’s President Diem, it’s been heavily written about because it was overrun in 1968 during the May Tet Offensive.

In July of 1970, U.S. troops reoccupied Kham Duc.

In August of that year, it was déjà vu all over again. The base came under heavy attack and the U.S. command decided to evacuate rather than risk the lives of the troops.

This was facilitated by the Chinook helicopters flown by Clayton, York and others. Rather than move troops all the way to Chu Lai, a second firebase was set up, LZ Judy, about 15 miles away.

Seven Chinooks were tasked with the evacuation. Clayton was No. 2 in the rotation and York No. 7.

An LZ, short for landing zone, basically amounts to the top of a mountain or hill that has been sliced off, facilitating a clear, 360-degree approach and the ability for ground personnel to readily defend.

For whatever reason, though, LZ Judy featured a peninsula of jungle where the enemy could easily hide.

As Clayton made his final approach, he spotted the patch of jungle and thought, “Holy shit, whose idea was that?” But he landed and dispatched troops and equipment without incident.

York’s craft was the last in line. He carried troops and their equipment, including white phosphorus mortar rounds.

On final approach, his ship took ground fire from an AK-47 — half a magazine according to a report from someone on the ground at the time.

The craft lost power. It fell out of the sky.

It imploded in a giant fireball, searing parts of the turbine engine to nearly 1,500 degrees and hurtling them into the fuel tanks. The firestorm ignited the mortar rounds and other ammunition on board.

The impact and flames consumed 31 American fighting men, including York. It was the deadliest crash from hostile fire of the war.

Only the co-pilot survived. It was a dark day in the souls of many.

In 1979, Clayton left active service and entered the reserves.

He continued flying, this time in the role of chief pilot for a company in Colorado. His wife was expecting their first child, and he thought maybe a change in scenery would be good.

He and he family later moved to Oklahoma City, where he went to work with his cousin, Jim, building houses. “Jim was more like a brother than a cousin, so it was a comfortable move — a nice change of pace,” he said.

With thousands of hours of helicopter seat time and several advanced ratings, including instructor pilot, Clayton wanted to keep his hand in. So he talked with the local operator of a helicopter operation there.

The company deployed turbine-powered Jet Ranger helicopters, and Clayton became the instructor for students interested in training in jet-propelled craft.

One day, Clayton got a call that a helicopter company in Tulsa that relied mainly on the old piston-powered MASH type needed an instructor able to provide training on a newer turbine-powered model.

Clayton flew to Tulsa, met the student at the airport and reviewed the lesson plan for the following day. When the student left, Clayton called for transportation to his hotel.

While he was waiting for his ride, an older man in blue coveralls came wandering by. He was short, heavyset, and wore glasses.

Introducing himself as the mechanic for the local helicopter company, he asked, “Where did you learn to fly?”

“In the Army,” Clayton responded.

“Oh, were you ever in Vietnam?” the man asked.

“Yes, I did two years there,” Clayton said.

“What kind of helo did you fly?” the man asked.

“Chinooks,” Clayton told him.

The man’s eyes began to mist up as he said, “My son was killed flying Chinooks in Vietnam.”

Clayton looked down at the name tag on the man’s worn blue coveralls. “York,” it read.

“Your son was Dan,” Clayton said.

The elder York broke into tears and Clayton draped an arm around him. Clayton then spent 20 minutes answering questions the man had about his son’s death — questions he had never been able to get answered by the Army.

The chance meeting came in 1983, some 13 years after the tragedy at LZ Judy. After that, Clayton made it a point to call Dan’s dad every Memorial Day until his passing.

That’s what Memorial Day is really all about.

This Memorial Day, find the time to spend a few minutes thinking about those who gave their last full measure of devotion to our country.

Perhaps you don’t personally know someone who gave his or her life in service of the country. If not, then take the time to say thanks, or offer up a prayer, to Clayton’s friend Dan York and his late father.

Guest writer Rusty Rae is an award-winning editor, photojournalist and photo educator. Holder of a bachelor’s degree from Linfield University and MBA from the University of Washington, he first worked for the News-Register out of college. He returned seven years ago, serving as sports editor, staff photojournalist associate editor of the ancillary publication Old Stuff. He’s traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad. He and his wife, Sheila, reside in McMinnville with their Welsh terrier, Jack. 


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