Retired teacher Nancy Byler wasn’t sure, at first, if she could speak at the unveiling of a plaque Saturday in honor of her friend and former classmate, the late Kennith Wayne Wheeler.
Byler thought it would be too hard.
But she couldn’t say “no” to Wheeler’s family members who asked her to speak.
“I will do it for Wayne,” Byler said.
Wheeler, who lived in the Owens community and graduated from May High School in 1964, joined the Marines and was killed in Vietnam on May 10, 1969 at age 23. Wheeler, a lance corporal who served as a crew chief on a transport helicopter, was awarded a Silver Star for saving the lives of six fellow Marines after their helicopter was shot down.
Wheeler was trying to help six additional Marines who remained in the burning helicopter when the aircraft exploded, killing Wheeler and the Marines still inside.
A plaque in Wheeler’s honor will be unveiled in a ceremony beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Central Texas Veterans Memorial.
The ceremony will include prayers by retired Navy chaplain Jim Looby, posting of the colors by Boy Scout troops 1, 14 and 22, the National Anthem by Norma Bessent and the playing of Taps by Anrew Wiley of Boy Scout Troop 1.
Wheeler family members will attend, and Byler will speak on “Remembering Wayne.”
Byler, who went to school with Wheeler from the second grade through graduation, recalled her friend as a happy, friendly person who got along with everyone.
“Everybody liked him,” Byler said. “He was just what you would call a good friend.
“It’s going to be a hard day. Some of the class of ’64 will be here. He deserves it all — all the recognition he could get.”
In Vietnam, Wheeler was just two weeks away from going home and he wasn’t supposed to fly on the mission on which he was killed. But Wheeler volunteered to take the place of another Marine — Mike Calvert, who now lives in Knoxville, Tenn. — who had been out on missions and was exhausted.
The CH-46 helicopter in which Wheeler flew was one of several transporting Marines to an assault landing. Wheeler’s helicopter was hit by ground fire and crashed a few feet from the landing zone. The helicopter slid off the crest of a hill, rolled over and caught fire.
The citation for Wheeler’s Silver Star explains what followed: “With complete disregard for his own safety, Cpl. Wheeler, after helping a crew member through a widow, 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 Cpl. 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.”
Wheeler’s sister, Nelle Coursey of Brownwood, said she received an email from Calvert — the Marine whose place Wheeler took on the helicopter — several years ago. Coursey said Calvert told her he thinks about Wheeler every day because “it was supposed to be him” on the mission.
“My response back to him was ‘don’t ever think like that,’” Coursey said. “Wayne told us if it was God’s will, he would come back, and Mike should not carry that burden any longer.”
Calvert came to Brown County last year, where he met with Wheeler’s family members and visited Wheeler’s grave in Pleasant Valley Cemetery.
Coursey said she’ll never forget her brother, who, she said, thought of others before himself.
Coursey acknowledged that Saturday will be an emotional day, but said, “We’re going to be celebrating his life, not his death,” she said.