Their stories and experiences are as varied as the lifelines on their hands, or the creases and furrows that time has carved into their faces.
For decades, most have said little about what they did, what they saw, ‘Over There.’ To a one, they underestimate the value of their own place in history.
“I didn’t do anything special… I wasn’t in battle… You don’t want to talk to me,” they say.
But every veteran, we believe, has a story to tell. Every veteran, we believe, played a role that only he or she could provide.
These are the stories of just a few Clear Lake area veterans who answered the call to serve for the cause of freedom on behalf of their nation.
With 27 years in the U.S. Air Force, Art Mahon knows the meaning of service. His career spanned a critical period of the 20th century as America and the world changed enormously from the time he enlisted in 1950 until his retirement from active service in 1977. The nation fought two wars and kept the peace during the Cold War.
A Boston native, he met his wife, Kay, while going to school in Flint, Mich. They married in 1951, and Mahon made a pivotal decision to make the Air Force a career.
“I decided that if I’m going to stay in the Air Force, I’ll try for flight school, or at least officer training,” he recalls.
A determined Mahon applied to OCS (Officer Candidates School) three times before finally being accepted. His next step was flight school, where he learned on piper cubs before graduating to more sophisticated aircraft and jets.
By the time the couple had the first two or three of their seven children, he was transferred to Europe, serving briefly in France and for a longer time in what was then West Germany. It was here where he witnessed the stark difference between East and West, between communism and democracy.
“West Germany was pretty well rebuilt, but we had a chance to travel to East Berlin,” he recalls. “It was just amazing. You travel through East Germany, and it was just desolate.”
The couple viewed the chain link fence that then divided Berlin and saw the mine fields, barbed wire and guard posts that prevented East Germans from seeking freedom in the West.
Returning to the States after a few years, Mahon was off to California where he flew cargo planes. They were less glamorous than jets and required frequent trips away from home as they resupplied units elsewhere.
“We flew from Maine to California, to Texas, to Canada, all over the place — and we were usually gone a week or two weeks,” he recalls.
But his next tour of duty would take him even farther away from his growing family. Mahon had just put on his Major’s leaves when he shipped out to Vietnam in 1968. His job there was to fly OV10s. These observation aircraft were usually first in and then directed the fighter jets where to go. Under the rules of engagement, the OV10s had little with which to defend themselves.
“The OV10s had machine guns, which we never had ammunition for; it could drop bombs, which we never carried bombs. It had a big cargo space in back, and the only thing we carried in there was Coca-Cola from the main base up to the fire base,” he explains.
As the war tore on, the OV10s were eventually allowed to carry high explosive rockets, but for the most part they dropped only white phosphorus to mark areas for the fighters.
Mahon was hit only once, a bullet through the tail of his plane that he never even knew about until he had safely landed.
Returning home just in time for Christmas 1969, Mahon started flying B52s. Known among pilots as being “big and ugly,” the B52 is perhaps the most reliable aircraft ever built. The youngest one is now more than 50 years old, and today’s Air Force is still flying ’em — a testament to American ingenuity and to the engineers, pilots and mechanics who kept them flying all those years.
As dependable as the B52 is, it’s not a favorite of any pilot.
“It’s like driving a truck after you’ve had a sports car,” Mahon explains.
His final tour of duty was as part of a special detachment to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for which he was stationed at the Strategic Air Command in Omaha. He was now a “full bird colonel,” and his wife never wanted him to become a general, the only next step up.
Mahon gives much of the credit for his career to his wife and family, who gave up a lot of time with him so he could serve the nation. The family seldom stayed anywhere for more than three years, and his children graduated from high school in cities all over the country. But they wouldn’t change a thing.
“Our children are very proud of him, and so am I,” says Kay.
He might have breathed a sigh of relief on V-J Day, 1945. ‘The Big One” ended that day, not 30 years after ‘The War to End all Wars.’
World War II was over, World War I had become just a memory, and Jim Bonner was just getting ready to enter high school. Surely, his parents must have thought, their oldest son would avoid wartime service.
Bonner remembers the World War II years very well. They were lean years, when Americans on the home front willingly made unprecedented sacrifice.
“Everything was rationed,” he recalls. “But nobody had any money anyway.”
Still, Bonner says his own family fared better than many.
“We lived on a farm, so we always had meat, and my grandpa had a cow so we made our own butter,” he explains.
The post-war boom was on when Bonner graduated from high school in 1949. He married his first wife, Beverly, a few years later and the couple was just settling down when Bonner was drafted in the heat of the Korean War.
Bonner entered the Army on July 1, 1952, and headed to Fort Riley, Kan., for basic training. He completed Radio School at Fort Riley as well, and soon prepared to ship out — having no idea where the Army planned to send him.
“On the way over, I still didn’t know where we were going. I was told Okinawa, but everybody said that’s just where they retrain you for Korea,” he recalled.
Okinawa, which had been a hard-fought battle in World War II, was now home to a rapidly growing U.S. Air Force base, for which the Army provided security.
“When I got there, Okinawa was in really bad shape, but within two years everything had been rebuilt with new blacktop roads,” he notes. “We spent a lot of money over there.”
Bonner would spend about a year-and-a-half on Okinawa, working his way up to Communications Chief, and never getting those orders to ship out to Korea. While he was away, his family grew for the first time. Wife Beverly visited her husband at Fort Riley before he shipped out and gave birth to the couple’s first daughter, Jane, while he was in Okinawa.
Beverly, who passed away in 1987, kept a scrapbook for her husband while he was away, which he and wife Louella now treasure as a keepsake of his service.
No one there really planned to be there, and that was certainly the case for Gary Eckholt and the 13 months he spent in Vietnam. Eckholt was just out of high school in Sioux Falls, S.D., when he joined the Marines, largely because a good friend had already joined the Army.
“I went over because I wanted to serve my country,” he says, adding that his opinion on Vietnam changed in the first few months he was there and solidified over time back home.
Eckholt’s 13 months in Vietnam fell in 1968 and ’69, some of the worst years of the war. But as a natural working with his hands, he found his niche when the Marine Corps recognized his mechanical skills in a way that the public schools back home never had.
“The way our education system works, everyone gets put into the same box. I didn’t fit in the box. When I got in to the Marine Corps, I graduated No. 1 in my class,” he recalls.
Working to graduate with top honors came with the incentive of being able to pick your duty station, as well as a promotion.
A mechanic, Eckholt chose to work with fixed wing aircraft on advice from his friend, who had seen mechanics on helicopters take a beating.
“If you go on board helicopters, you’re basically the door gunner,” he explains. “The life expectancy of a door gunner — they always said — after the first round was fired was something like 60 seconds. It was a very dangerous position to be in.”
As Eckholt explains, his friend left Vietnam with emotional scars that took years to heal. In too many cases, coming back home wasn’t easy either.
“We had done our 13 months over there — and we had gone over as a squadron, and we were going to move back to the United States as a squadron. They had us fly out of Vietnam and go to Japan, and while we were in Japan they had to hold us back from flying back to the United States because they were rioting over the war,” he recalls.
Regardless of how people felt about the war at the time, Eckholt wants to be certain that the lessons learned there are not forgotten.
“We lost 58,000 young lives for something that a lot of people really never knew what it was all about,” Eckholt says.
And yet he also believes that those 58,000 lives did make a difference; they changed America’s outlook on war, perhaps forever.
“I think it helped America be where it is today. I think we have whole different outlook on jumping into a war,” he says quietly.