When recalling memories of serving as a fixed wing mechanic in Vietnam, a Ventura man prefers to speak about friends he made, lost and has since reconnected with.
“In the 10-month period of time I was there, it was just amazing the bond you get,” said Kenny Coe. “Every day they’re in your mind for some reason or another, but I’ll never, ever, ever forget them.”
Coe served in the Army’s First Cavalry Division in An Khe, an area in the central highlands region of South Vietnam. He says being chosen as a plane mechanic — something he had little experience in — was just “good luck.”
His job mainly consisted of keeping OV-1 Mohawk aircraft in tip-top shape. Regular repairs invovled replacing tires that blew during take-off or landing, patching bullet holes and repairing or replacing hydraulic pumps.
While in the service, Coe befriended James Makin, an English-born sports car mechanic who worked in aviation maintenance in Vietnam.
Makin died on March 16, 1968, his 28th birthday. Coe said his friend had gotten off guard duty at midnight and stopped by the sergeant's office, where shrapnel was used for paperweight. Similar shrapnel killed him during a rocket and mortar attack after he had crawled into his bunk for the night.
“He was a hell of a kid, a good kid,” Coe said.
He recalled a mission his captain, Cliff McKeithan, narrowly escaped.
McKeithan and another pilot were on a visual mission, flying much lower than they should have been. After spotting the enemy they turned the plane around to take a closer look when the upper windshield took a hit.
“They couldn’t see anything out the front, so they had to look out the sides,” Coe recalled. “They threw the autopilot on, knowing they would have to eject when they got over the base.”
Another pilot quickly launched and flew beside the plane, talking them through a blind landing.
After landing, a .50-caliber bullet was discovered, lodged in the console between their heads.
“That was really scary,” Coe said.
He and McKeithan were able to reunite this summer at Operation LZ in Forest City.
Jellybeans at the ready — McKeithan’s favorite candy — the two reunited much like they had parted ways 48 years prior.
While in Vietnam, Coe and his wife, Sharon, then his girlfriend, kept in touch through 213 letters, which Sharon says she’s saved all these years.
Faced with the possibility that he might not come home from Vietnam alive and leave her a widow, Coe was hesitant to marry Sharon before leaving.
“At least I would have had your last name,” Sharon said softly, as she placed her hand on her husband’s shoulder.