Retired Army Lt. Col. Ron Richtsmeier, a native of Hampton, was shot down in July 1966 while flying a helicopter gunship near the tri-border area of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
“You don’t have time to be scared,” Richtsmeier, 74, who now lives in San Antonio, recalled in a phone interview with the Globe Gazette.
The helicopter fell through 200 feet of jungle before hitting the ground so hard that his seat was torn off its mounts.
He had a concussion but was able to get the crew out of the aircraft, except for the co-pilot, whose legs were trapped.
They knew they were 18 miles from a Special Forces camp. Ricthsmieier tried to lead the way there, but he was so disoriented that he went in the wrong direction.
He said if an Air Force helicopter hadn’t rescued them, they would have kept going into Laos and probably never have been heard from again.
After coming out of surgery the next morning at the hospital at Pleiku Air Base, he woke up and saw his future wife — Judie Dexter, now retired Col. Judie Richtsmeier — sitting beside him, asking him how he was doing.
Judie was the Army nurse assigned to care for him. The first thing she did was give him a shot because after the crash he and the other crew members drank from a stream the hospital staff knew was contaminated with Agent Orange.
Ron later learned the rest of the crew also survived the crash despite serious injuries.
Ron and Judie got to know each other well in the six weeks Ron was grounded because of his concussion. They got married in August 1967 and will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year.
Ron enlisted in the Army in 1960 at age 19. He trained as a paratrooper, but then decided he wanted to be a pilot instead.
In September 1965 he learned he was going to Vietnam as an aviator. He was assigned to the 119th Assault Helicopter Company based at Camp Holloway, which was a 20-minute flight from Plei Me.
He arrived in November. Two days later he was flying Huey gunships in support of "mop-op" operations following the LZ X-Ray battle. That battle was depicted in the movie “We Were Soldiers.”
Richtsmeier continued flying gunships almost every day until he was shot down eight months later.
After being stationed in Germany following the crash, he was sent back to Vietnam in October 1969. He was the chief of flight standards for the 101st Airborne Division for six months and then was given command of a Cobra helicopter gunship company based in Hue Phu Bai.
He left Vietnam after flying 868 combat missions. He received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart and many other commendations.
Ricthsmeier retired from the Army in 1981 but kept flying as a Boeing 737 jetliner pilot for Southwest Airlines. He is now retired from that job as well.
He said the second time he was sent to Vietnam he was reluctant to go because he had become disenchanted with how the war was being fought.
“They weren’t letting us do what we needed to do,” he said.
But he is proud to have served.
“I would do it again,” he said.