Fishing with Uncle Sam

On the days around the Fourth of July, celebrating the birth of a nation, Uncle Sam (Tony Adams), Dave Ondrey, and his granddaughter Grace marked the holiday by catching numbers of catfish while jugging.

As we think of the Fourth of July, we remember the men and women who have sacrificed and given their lives for the United States and her freedoms through the country’s many wars, beginning with the American Revolution. Other groups of warriors still fight today in lands across the seas to protect those liberties. We want to honor those soldiers too.

Often in life we walk with giants and don’t recognize them. But while fishing for crappie and catfish with Dave Ondrey of Eufaula, his granddaughter, Grace, and Uncle Sam on Lake Eufaula, I noticed a decal on the front of Ondrey’s boat. The decal featured two fish hooks on either end of barbed wire that contained two dog tags reading, “I fish for those who can’t.” Above the dog tags was an insignia that said, “CoA 227th AHB.” I asked Ondrey the significance of that decal.

Ondrey explained, “I was part of the unit of Alpha Company 227th Assault Helicopters with the 1st Air Calvary Division during the Vietnam War, after joining when I was 19. Our company  supported ground troops in battle, inserted ground troops in combat assaults, took food and ammo to troops out in the jungles, carried out wounded soldiers and delivered them to Medevac  hospitals, picked up rotor blades and other helicopter equipment that needed to be replaced and brought out the bodies of dead soldiers.

“That decal is a memorial to the soldiers I fought with who were wounded and killed in the Vietnam War. I fish for those who no longer can fish themselves because they’ve given their lives for this country in a faraway land and bloody war.”

Ondrey’s last days in Vietnam happened when he was 21 years old and only had 18 days left in-country before leaving for Australia for rest and relaxation (R&R). Although he didn’t have to fly as part of the helicopter team (soldiers with less than 20 days left before their R&R weren’t required to fly), one of the crew chiefs on a helicopter got sick on Sept. 11, 1969.

“So, I volunteered to take his place to deliver a soldier back to his company on the Cambodian border,” Ondrey explains. “We flew to the destination we’d been given for where the troops were and asked the ground troops to pop smoke to let us see the landing zone. Someone replied in fluent English, ‘Goofy grape,’ to let us know that the color of the smoke they would pop. Once our helicopter was over the top of the smoke, I told the pilot I couldn’t see a landing zone (LZ) that had been cleared out. Before when U.S. troops knew a copter was coming to land, they would use machetes to clear an LZ. I said, ‘Let’s turn, and get out of here, since there’s no LZ.’ As soon as the words, ‘LZ,’ left my mouth, the North Vietnamese fired on us with a .51 caliber anti-aircraft gun. Apparently they had set-up an ambush for us.

“I was a left door gunner – the crew chief who took care of the helicopter as well as manned a M60 machine gun when a crew flew in to support ground troops under fire. I could hear, ‘Thump, thump, thump,’ as tracers from the .51 caliber gun hit our helicopter. Once the pilot turned the copter to the left, I was facing head-on to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The first person to get hit on our copter was the young soldier we were returning to his company. He later lost a leg and arm to his wounds. The next thing I remember was being shot in the arm, and our helicopter going down. I yelled to the captain, ‘Well, guess I’ve missed my R&R.’ I felt like someone had hit me with a sledgehammer and blown off my arm.”

The helicopter fell into the thick bamboo on the ground, and one of the copter’s fuel cells was punctured. The radio was blown out, and the right seat pilot was in a state of shock on this his first day in-country flying a mission. He looked straight ahead and couldn’t talk. We got tourniquets on the shot soldier, and someone put a tourniquet on Ondrey’s arm.  

“I started praying that the Vietcong wouldn’t reach us and take us as prisoners,” Ondrey said. “The pilot had crashed into the bamboo because he thought the copter might be on fire. We all knew choppers would burn up in a heartbeat. But when he started up the copter again, the rotor blades were hitting the tops of the bamboo. I shut my eyes and prayed some more. Finally the rotor blades went around and around, and our helicopter came up out of the bamboo into the air. I thanked the Good Lord for getting us out of that cane before the NVA could reach us.”

Ondrey’s copter flew into a base with a Red Cross first aid canvas tent. The medics tended to the young soldier with the severely damaged leg and arm. The medics didn’t know he was hurt because he stood up and walked toward the Red Cross tent. Then he began weaving back and forth and was grabbed by the medics and put into the tent also to receive emergency first aid.

Later a Medevac helicopter landed at the tent and flew Ondrey to another Medevac hospital. Eventually he was moved once more and then flown to Japan where he stayed for a month. Each of these field hospitals had a higher level of medical care than the previous one.

Ondrey’s final destination was Fitzsimons Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, close to Denver where he spent a year. He learned there that his radial nerve in his right arm that controlled the muscle that raised and lowered his hand was severed.

But as Ondrey explains, “If the radial nerve had been completely destroyed, I wouldn’t have been able to raise or lower my hand at all, ever.”

One day two MPs came into his hospital room, told him to put on his uniform and took him to a room where a general presented him with the Distinguished Flying Cross for aiding the young soldier and saving his life.  

Later that year, Ondrey was allowed to go to his grandmother’s funeral before returning to the hospital. He wore braces with rubber bands that held his hand. While at the funeral, he took the brace off his arm and noticed his hand twitched, something the doctors had told him never would happen due to the nerve being severed. 

Back at the hospital, Ondrey told the doctors what had happened, and his surgery was cancelled. “As part of my physical therapy, I used a loom to weave rugs for months,” he said. “Although the radial nerve began to function again, that arm and hand is still weak today. But I can fish, which is what I love to do.”

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