He wasn’t supposed to go out in the “bird” that day. Two weeks more and Kennith Wayne Wheeler would have been returning stateside from Vietnam.
Nelle Coursey thinks her brother must have dropped the letter saying he had to “do this last mission” in the mail just before taking off. Wheeler did come home two weeks later, but it was in a flag-draped coffin with a Marine escort.
Coursey, with another brother, Ray Wheeler, tear up telling of that Mother’s Day Sunday in May of 1969 when the family was brought to a relative’s house in Brownwood so uniformed officers could inform them U.S. Marine Cpl. Kennith Wayne Wheeler had been killed in a helicopter fire at Quang Tri, Vietnam.
Wheeler’s letter arrived at his parents’ May farm the next week. “I was 19,” Coursey said. “I pulled the letter from the mail box and went running in to tell Mama that Wayne was alive.”
He died a hero, they were told. The helicopter he was serving as a crew chief was shot down while attempting to land, and it immediately burst into flames.
The uninjured chief remained in the aircraft to assist 12 Marines and two gunners still aboard.
“After saving the lives of some of the Marines in the wreckage, and while still helping those left, there was a secondary explosion from unknown causes,” Wheeler’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. J.A. Wells Jr. wrote.
The second explosion was fatal to the 23-year-old crew chief. He’d saved the lives of at least seven other Marines.
“We would have expected that,” Coursey said. “Wayne always helped others. He was a jokester, but he cared about people. And people loved him.”
Ray Wheeler said that in 1966, his brother’s draft number was high.
“He joined the Marines because he didn’t want to get drafted in the Army,” Ray Wheeler said. He joined the Navy for the same reason.
One of the last pictures taken of the two brothers together, shot from the waist up, was taken on a Marine base in California. Ray’s in his sailor’s uniform. Wayne’s wearing his green alphas. Or it looks like that in the picture.
“He didn’t have on the right pants,” Ray said. “We got someone to take the picture, and he just grabbed the blouse and coat and put them on. Marines aren’t supposed to do that, and I told him, but I was a Navy man on a Marine base.”
Losing a brother is something you never get over, the siblings said.
“I think of him every day,” Ray Wheeler said. “I wonder what it would have been like to see him get old, have children, grandchildren.”
“Our parents never got over it, either,” Coursey said. “It aged them overnight. In a way, I think it killed them.”
A corporal when he was killed, Kennith was posthumously promoted to sergeant. He also received the Purple Heart, the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Bronze Star and second through 17th air strike flights award.
“One thing about us,” Coursey said, “we’ll never forget the sacrifice, we’ll always remember those who gave their lives. But other people, who haven’t lost someone in a war, maybe they will stop and think. I hope they will thank every veteran they meet. They deserve our thanks.”