David Lauderdale

This Vietnam war bird wasn’t glamorous, until Bob Hope and Miss World climbed aboard

A Hero’s Welcome Home for Vietnam Veteran Col. Edgar Felton

Felton who went missing after being shot down nearly 50 years ago in the Vietnam War, is returned to to his native North Carolina on Thursday, April 5, 2018, after his remains were recovered in Laos earlier this year.
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Felton who went missing after being shot down nearly 50 years ago in the Vietnam War, is returned to to his native North Carolina on Thursday, April 5, 2018, after his remains were recovered in Laos earlier this year.

Retired Pan-Am pilot Larry A. Shewmaker of Hilton Head Island dropped by the office with this wife to tell something he’s never talked about until this Memorial Day.

He talked about the C-123 aircraft he flew from 1964 to 1966 when a guerrilla war was taking place down below in place nobody had ever heard of: Vietnam.

“We lost the first airmen of the war,” he said. “We lost the same number of airmen as the F-105’s over the North.”

Shewmaker was in the third class to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy, in 1961. He returned to Colorado Springs this month for the dedication of a plaque to the C-123 at the Southeast Asia Memorial Pavilion, established by the class of 1970.

“While there, I visited the grave sites of classmates who were killed in action in Vietnam,” he said.

A wall honors 151 academy graduates who were killed in action in Vietnam.

“One of my classmates and friends was the second POW taken after Navy Lt. Everett Alvarez,” Shewmaker said. “Hayden Lockhart and I boxed in intramural classes at the Academy. It’s tough to forget.”

But he wants us to remember the crews of the C-123 military transport aircraft, which Shewmaker said “looks like a two-engine C-130.”

It could land in places a larger plane could not, and it could airdrop troops, ammunition, even cows and pigs into remote areas.

“It was not a sophisticated airplane, but it was well-designed for its purpose,” Shewmaker said. “It’s not glamorous, so it didn’t get much recognition.”

The planes dropped flares to light up the night to protect special forces under attack.

Later, they dropped the Agent Orange herbicide, which troops later learned could harm personnel working on the plane even when the herbicide was no longer on board.

Shewmaker was once ordered to haul 182 bodies out of a plantation north of Saigon by sundown. They had been in body bags for three or four days. Crew members were sickened, he said, but in three trips, the grim job was done.

Shewmaker left the service after six years. He was upset that he and everyone else was lied to about an alleged attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which President Lyndon Johnson used to escalate a war that divided the nation and cost 58,000 American lives.

And he remains upset about the use of Agent Orange.

But Shewmaker did his duty, logging 963 flight hours in 816 sorties. Recognition included a Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster, and an Air Medal with 18 Oak Leaf Clusters.

Tennis — and the desire to get out of overcrowded northern Virginia — got him to Hilton Head 25 years ago.

A lighter story he can tell now that he’s talking about his service is the time he flew Bob Hope to his 1964 USO Christmas shows. Shewmaker said it lifted spirits dramatically, with men in uniform singing “Silent Night” in 92 degrees 8,000 miles from home.

With Hope were Jerry Colonna, Jill St. John, Janis Paige, Anita Bryant, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Julia Bubbles, Miss World Ann Sidney, Peter Leeds and Les Brown and his band.

Stars and Stripes reported that Hope quipped: “It’s a thrill to be here in Sniper Valley ... What a welcome I got — they thought I was a replacement. We got a 40 gun salute. Three of them were ours.’‘

Shewmaker said Hope never talked to him about himself, but rather asked Shewmaker about his own family.

Shewmaker said the mere presence of the golf-club twirling comedian made hardened veterans living in the jungle weep.

And he said maybe that’s what the unheralded C-123 crews did. They were a lifeline for troops living in conditions few Americans can imagine on this Memorial Day.

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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