A decorated Vietnam jet fighter pilot and a refurbished Huey helicopter took center stage Saturday at the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum as sacrifices of those who served in that era were recalled.
The presentations coincided with the Memorial Day holiday, a time set aside to honor and reflect on fallen service members.
“This seemed like the perfect weekend to do this,” museum Board President Carolyn Verver said. “We greatly appreciate everyone who helped make this a special occasion. We had 69 people show up. … We’re very, very pleased.”
Special guest speaker Robert C. Miller, a retired United States Air Force major, shared colorful stories that unfolded during his almost 200 combat missions and 9,346 flight hours.
By early 1972, he was in Danang, serving as a flight commander with the 390th Squadron, then Tahkli as part of the 4th Squadron, performing escort and strike missions.
On June 25, 1972, his plane was shot down by a MiG, a Russian aircraft.
“I felt a big thump on the back of the airplane,” he said. “The airplane was in a flat spin. … I’d lost a wing.”
Miller said he decided to bail but had flight panic upon realizing his parachute was damaged and his survival kit, which held a large inflatable raft, had been compromised.
“The life raft was coming out,” he said. “I took a big bayonet and stabbed it, and then the whole kit went away.”
Miller displayed maps and photographs to illustrate the complexities of war.
For emphasis, he played cockpit tapes that preceded the rescue of a young airman who was hiding about 10 miles away from an enemy air field. Pilots heard his radio calls for assistance and went to investigate.
Recorded tapes captured the airman helping direct Miller and other pilots to his location.
“As it turns out, he’d been on the ground up there for a month, sitting there waiting on us to come back,” Miller said. “The guy was an outdoorsman and well-prepared. He came back, and we met at the first Red River Rats reunion … quite a guy.”
Miller was awarded numerous medals, including three Distinguished Flying Crosses, 12 Air Medals and a Purple Heart, records show.
Museum docent John Mustard said the new craft participated in many battles, including A Shau Valley, before the war ended and the machine returned to the United States where it was used for training purposes.
The museum acquired the piece from the Texas Firebirds in Wills Point.
“We’ve been working on it about six months,” Mustard said. “I flew them in Vietnam, 1964-65, and that’s really why I wanted to refurbish it.”
Mustard participated in medical evacuations during his service and said he appreciated the craft because of its ability to transport multiple people.
The restoration also included efforts from docents Bob Strong, Jim Alexander, Mike Smuts, Dick Gilmore and Tim Spence.
The refurbished craft features a blue circle on the tail to represent C Company.
“We had to clean the Texas mud off — it was coated with it,” he said. “We also had to find parts because it had been stripped. It had several bullet holes in it. … We repaired those as well.”
Reassembly was possible through donated parts and imagination, officials said.
It’s not capable of flying, but for museum supporters, it already has a special place in their hearts.
“They did a great job,” docent Bob Wood, 89, said. “It’s a beauty, and we’re real proud of it.”
Wood served in the Navy between 1942 and 1948.
“This is a special place for me,” Wood said. “We don’t know how long the good Lord will let us be here, but we try to fill it with service.”
Kent Harraid, one of the museum’s youngest members, celebrated his 26th birthday Saturday, listening to Miller’s war stories, examining the new Huey and enjoying a fish fry organized in his honor.
“I’m having a great day,” he said. “This really gives me an appreciation for history.”