BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Air Force veteran Jim Wegman earned his share of medals and ribbons flying B-52s and helicopters over Laos and North Vietnam, but he was overwhelmed on September 9 to find his name on a paver in Veterans Memorial Park.
“Jim served for seven years – from 1965 to 1972 – risking his life every day,” said his nephew, Doug Deacon. “We wanted to have a celebration to honor a hero. He’s earned our lasting gratitude.”
With several Wegman family relatives and friends hiding around the corner from the downtown Whitehouse park, Doug and his wife Liz stopped by the site with Jim and his wife, Wanda. Whitehouse Mayor Don Atkinson, Fire Chief Josh Hartbarger, police officer Christine Fouty and Bowling Green State University military program coordinator Jason Graven greeted the Wegmans and provided a tour of the park. Earlier in the day, Graven gave Jim a tour of BGSU, where he was also honored on the football field during the September 10 homecoming game.
A Pemberville native, Jim headed to BGSU and earned a degree in industrial engineering in 1965. He was able to defer the draft by taking a job at Bendix Corp., working on the Pershing missile – but he was bored.
Having passed the exam to do pilot training for the Air Force and Navy, Jim contacted the Air Force.
“I didn’t want to avoid the draft. I figured if I was going to be in the military, I might as well do something I liked,” Jim said. “I was fascinated by airplanes my whole life. We used to go to the Toledo airport and watch the planes land.”
He trained in San Antonio for three months, then headed to Selma, Ala., for pilot training before being sent to California to learn how to fly the B-52, a 488,000-pound airplane with eight engines. With additional training in nuclear weapons, he was one of several crew members ready to deploy in case the Soviets attacked.
In 1967, he was sent over to Thailand as the Vietnam War was heating up.
“I expected to go into B-52s. Instead, I got orders to fly helicopters,” he said.
For a year, he trained in how to fly H-3 and H-53 helicopters as well as receiving survival training. His job, upon return to Southeast Asia, was to fly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and go in to rescue troops. He received five air medals for the combat missions he flew, including one in which he and another pilot landed in a bomb blast zone to recover six pilots and 60 indigenous troops. In another mission, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, as his helicopter sustained 30 bullet holes, including one through the rotor blade.
Later, in 1971, he was reassigned to the B-52 as one of the first wave to go into North Vietnam to bomb a big oil complex and railroad yard. For 20 seconds while awaiting the drop, he was unable to maneuver the plane, he told an interviewer on the Veterans History Project.
“Being up there, you feel totally vulnerable. You can see the missiles come up and detonate over your head,” he recalled. “It’s a heart-stopper to sit there for 20 seconds.”
His seven years in the Air Force were like a rite of passage, Jim said.
“You grow up watching John Wayne and Gary Cooper movies. You get to fly a magnificent machine and do extraordinary things,” he said. “But then people get killed.”
He would do it all over again if he was younger, Jim admitted.
“It broadens you so much,” he added.
After he left the Air Force as a captain, Jim began a 21-year career with Eastern Airlines, flying commercially. When the airline went bankrupt, he retired but went back to school and earned degrees in history and international affairs. He decided to stay in Alabama in order to be close to the Gulf Coast to sail.
Last week, he traveled back to Ohio after learning that Doug had coordinated his being honored on the field at BGSU. Relatives from Maumee and Whitehouse joined those who traveled from New York, Maryland and Michigan.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Jim said. “I’m so glad to see everyone back together again.”
Veterans Memorial Park features displays about United States conflicts, branches of the military and area veterans who lost their lives in the line of duty. Another section recognizes first responders, including police and fire personnel. Pavers are available by calling Louann Artiaga at (567) 246-5124.
Jim’s entire 2011 interview for the Veterans History Project is stored in the Library of Congress.