By Paul Wood
THOMASBORO — At the height of the Vietnam War, Ron Castle and his fellow Marines had bad luck with helicopter crashes, but his worst injury was a minor one to his leg.
Other Marines did not fare as well.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Castle, now 71, enlisted in the Marines and served in Vietnam at age 19, eight months of it as a gunner on a Marine Corps transport landing force helicopter, doing recon, delivering troops and sometimes transporting bodies, in 1967 and 1968.
He jokingly calls the mission “killing commies for Christ.”
After graduating from high school in Wisconsin, he enlisted in the Marines because his family had a military tradition, including three uncles who’d served.
“Every year for my birthday, I’d get something like a plastic machine gun,” says Castle, who considers himself “a gun nut.” He expected to be carrying a gun in the jungle.
After final training at Twentynine Palms near San Bernardino County in California, he was assigned to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
“I said, wait a minute, I’m a gunner,” he recalls.
Castle was sent to Phu Bai, a hot spot south of Hue, in central Vietnam, then to the USS Tripoli. (Marines are part of the Navy).
From there, he went to Marble Mountain Air Facility, south of Danang, and then to Danang itself.
On reconnaissance flights and pickups, his helicopter had a run of bad luck.
“When people think of a flight going down, they’re thinking of a plane dropping 25,000 feet,” he says. “This was more like a matter of a couple hundred feet. For instance, we’d get hit by small fire, and the helicopter would auto-rotate on its way down.”
Once, it was during a monsoon, and the copter was trying to get up 200 feet above the storm, where it would be clearer.
“We always managed to land in a rice paddy, or some other places where other Marines were nearby,” Castle says.
In a another downing, a Viet Cong soldier “hosed us down with an AK-47 machine gun.”
The machine gunner hit a large piece of fiberglass on the copter, and its debris flew into the engine.
The pilot ran into trouble and had to land anywhere possible, which turned out to be safely within Marble Mountain, “just where we’d started,” Castle said.
Another was in the A Shau Valley at its height of battles. It was near the Ho Chi Minh trail, where soldiers from the north moved people and supplies practically under the nose of their enemies.
This time, Castle’s unit was taking supplies to Marines in the field.
A phosphorus shell landed in the helicopter, cutting hydraulic lines that controlled the bird, forcing a landing in a rice paddy. Human “fertilizer filled my helmet,” he recalls.
He lost his best friend, a crew chief, in a fluke shooting in which the round went through the copter’s armor, but instead of passing through, the bullet ricocheted into his friend’s abdomen.
The crew chief was 19. “He was supposed to get married in three weeks,” Castle remembers.
When Castle returned from Vietnam, he was trained in meteorology, then sent instead to Parris Island in South Carolina to become a drill instructor, a man specializing in getting into the faces of recruits. Days were long in those “eight weeks of hell,” he says.
He returned to weather forecasting and was given the choice of Japan or embassy duty. He chose the latter and spent three years in Australia.
Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul brought the Wisconsin boy to Champaign County to train Marines. When the base closing was announced at the end of 1988, he was assigned as the non-commissioned officer in charge of the small Marine detachment there until the last days, which turned out to take several years. He left the service in 1993 to retire with his wife, Nancy.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.