By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — Bullets, not weather.
That’s what brought down Dick Wise’s helicopter in Vietnam.
He was in the copter to brief a general about weather conditions. Wise rose to the rank of captain prognosticating the weather, or instructing students in the art, in his 30 years in the Marines.
Wise, 78, grew up in Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Marines right out of high school in 1956.
“I was down in the pool hall, and in walked these Marines in these nice dress blues. That decided it,” he said.
He spent two tours in Vietnam, and also served in Japan before eventually becoming the officer in charge of the Marine Detachment at Chanute Air Force Base, where he met future wife Marlena in 1979.
Wise retired just a few years before the Rantoul base closed in 1993.
Though he entered as a private, he became a Mustang, one of the select few enlisted men who became officers. He rose as high as captain before the deceleration of the war in Vietnam caused a lowering of the ranks for many in the shrinking military then.
He often worked in vans doing weather in those days before computers, using radios and radar, a few simple tools and a lot of math.
“We did have radar, but it usually didn’t work,” he said.
On Nov. 24, 1970, a general had put him on a helicopter to headquarters for the daily briefing on weather conditions, when the helicopter became the victim of an unusual case of friendly fire from a base below.
Wise believes a Vietnamese soldier was testing his carbine by just shooting it up in the air, thinking that was harmless.
As many as three bullets may have hit the helicopter, and it started falling like a rock toward the sea, barely under control by the pilot, and its blades a killer weapon.
“And that’s not a good thing,” he said.
Over the screaming noise, the crew stayed calm and in communication.
“The pilot said to stay in the copter until the main blade stopped spinning,” he said. “Do not attempt to exit until the main blade stops.”
The crash couldn’t have been much gentler.
“It wasn’t that big of a bump,” Wise said. “It seemed like the water was sort of in tune with the landing.”
The water cushioned the impact, and waves washed it a short distance on to a beach, where the sand jammed the blade to a complete stop.
Walking out of the helicopter, everyone was fine. A photo from that day shows Wise with a huge grin, only a few yards from the downed chopper.
Wise said his whole life did flash by, but too quickly to enjoy.
“I asked for an instant replay,” he said.
He went right from the crash to recreation and relaxation in Australia, where nobody celebrated Thanksgiving, but he had a good time anyway.
After retirement, Wise worked for the Lincoln Trail Library System.
Just a few days after Memorial Day, he was thinking the country doesn’t do enough on the day to remember those who sacrificed all.
A member of the Marine Corps League, he said “everybody could do a little more” to make the day.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.