The burdens young Americans brought home from the Vietnam War may never be fully lifted, but a trip to Brown County eased one of them for a veteran who served with Marine Cpl. Wayne Wheeler of May.
Wheeler was killed in action in Vietnam on May 10, 1969, while rescuing fellow Marines from a helicopter downed by enemy fire. He was 23.
Mike Calvert, now living in Knoxville, Tennessee, fulfilled a long-standing promise in February to visit Wheeler’s grave.
Wheeler’s siblings — Nelle Wheeler Coursey of Brownwood and Raymond Wheeler of May — hosted Calvert and his wife, Beverly, in Brownwood before they drove to Pleasant Valley Cemetery south of May. The visit was planned as part of an extended road trip the Calverts were taking.
Calvert said he made it a point to reserve time to visit Brown County, even though they had to cut their trip short due to the death of a family friend back home.
“There’s not a day I haven’t thought about him,” Nelle Coursey said Calvert told her about her brother Wayne, “because it should have been me on that helicopter.”
Words were much more difficult to find as Calvert and his wife stood before Wheeler’s grave. Calvert bowed his head in silence as his wife stood with him. It was the moment he had been talking about with Wheeler’s family for years.
Later, a short distance away where vehicles were parked, Calvert talked more about that day in May 1969, even though Calvert had told Wheeler’s family those details before.
“Mike had been scheduled to be on that mission,” Coursey explained later. “Wayne saw that Mike was tired after completing other duties, and he took his place even though he had a little over two weeks before coming home.”
Calvert reflected that in the 49 years since Wheeler replaced him as crew chief for that helicopter, he went on to complete his service in Vietnam, enjoy a good life, and have a career, family, and grandchildren.
One final mission
On Monday, May 11, 1969 — one day after Wheeler was killed in action — the family received a letter from him, saying that he was going to fly one more mission before the Marines put him on mess hall duty.
“The military didn’t want to send people into harm’s way when they had two weeks before going home,” Coursey said. “Wayne wrote he wasn’t looking forward to working the chow line.”
Before the visit in the cemetery was over, a few tears were brushed away and several hugs were exchanged. Perhaps years of guilt were starting to lift, too.
“We told Mike that the family didn’t blame him at all,” Coursey said. “He had been carrying that guilt. We told him it was God’s will. Wayne could have been here at home, and it could have happened.”
They also reminded him that Wayne was among several — including the pilot and co-pilot — who escaped the downed helicopter, but Wheeler chose to go back to rescue others when he was fatally injured by ensuing explosions.
The lines of communication between the families have only gotten stronger since the visit.
“We’ve talked since then, and Bev said the visit helped her husband,” Coursey said. “I think it really did help. They said they want to visit here again next year.”
Another who visited
It’s not the first time someone who served with Wheeler in Vietnam has visited his grave. Dale Riley of Pennsylvania has also made his way to the Wheeler family plot in Pleasant Valley Cemetery.
“Dale said he had spoken with the woman who wrote press releases for the Marines at Quantico,” Coursey said. “When she mentioned Wayne’s name as being the most highly decorated Marine in that squadron, his eyes filled with tears. ‘He was my best friend,’ Dale told her.
“It seems everybody wanted to fly with Wayne,” Coursey added. “He was everybody’s friend. They knew he would have their back. He was the same way in school (at May). Everybody liked him. He was there for them.”
Wheeler was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroic actions, and promoted to the rank of sergeant. He had already received another Bronze Star resulting from a previous incident.
The family called him by his middle name, “Wayne,” but since the military uses first names, men like Calvert who served with Wheeler knew him as “Ken.” Many online military records show his first name as “Kenneth,” but the family spells it Kennith. Accordingly, that’s how he is honored on Panel 25W, Line 45 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The details of heroism
This statement was issued when Wheeler was awarded the Silver Star for his actions on May 10, 1969, and it provides the details of his heroism:
“The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (Posthumously) to Corporal Kenneth W. Wheeler, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as Crew Chief with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262, First Marine Aircraft Wing, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam on 10 May 1969.
“Corporal Wheeler launched aboard the second aircraft in the fourth section of a flight of eight CH-46 transport helicopters assigned to support the First Battalion, Ninth Marines during an assault landing into Landing Zone ERSKINE in Quang Tri Province. After disembarking the initial load of Marines and returning to the area with a second element of the assault force, Corporal Wheeler’s aircraft came under intense hostile fire and crashed a few feet from the landing zone.
“When the helicopter slid off the crest of the hill and rolled over, a fire ignited in the rear of the aircraft near the fuel tanks. With complete disregard for his own safety, Corporal Wheeler, after helping a crew member through a window, immediately proceeded to the rear of the helicopter and, with the aid of one of his aerial gunners, commenced assisting the 12 Marines out of the aircraft through the rear hatch.
“After six men were outside the helicopter, a series of secondary explosions completely destroyed the aircraft, mortally injuring Corporal Wheeler and the other Marines inside. His heroic and timely actions inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in saving the lives of six Marines who were trapped inside the helicopter.
“By his courage, sincere concern for his fellowmen and selfless devotion to duty, Corporal Wheeler upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”