Don Lammers gave his life almost 50 years ago. On Memorial Day, his best friend returned to Iowa

Ralph and Judy Nelson travel 700 miles to honor Vietnam veteran

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This past Memorial Day, Ralph and Judy Nelson were in southcentral Iowa for the first time in almost 50 years to honor Ralph’s best friend and fallen comrade in Vietnam, Don Lammers. / Photo by Jason W. Selby

Don Lammers’ helicopter crashed in Vietnam on Aug. 24, 1968, placing his name on the Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., one of 58,282.

On Memorial Day of 2018, 50 years after Don’s death, his best friend from the service, Ralph Nelson, after the long drive from Texas with his wife Judy, honored his old buddy during the 21-gun salute and Taps at the Corydon Cemetery.

The last time Ralph was in Wayne County, he had paid a visit to Don’s parents after Don’s death in Vietnam.

“A few years ago, I started thinking I needed to do something to remember my friend,” Ralph said.

Ralph and Don were in the same class of Navy Flight School, and graduated on the same day. They both got married halfway through their training. They flew on the same aircraft from San Francisco to Vietnam.

“Of course, we came home on a different flight,” Ralph said.

Open door

Mansfield, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, is around 700 miles from southcentral Iowa. Ralph’s service in the Marine Corps has taken his family to 12 different states to live.

Ralph was born and raised in Minneapolis, where he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He met Don after beginning flight school in November of 1967.

Ralph and Don were then transferred to California to work on Stage 46 helicopters.

“Our wives got to know each other, because we had a certain amount of free time,” Ralph said.

“We were stationed down in Santa Ana,” Judy said of the U.S. Naval base in California. “We thought we should do something for New Year’s Eve, but it was pouring down rain. It was the four of us, and I think we went to a movie.

“On the way back, it was raining so hard you couldn’t see through the windshield. And so whoever was driving said, ‘The only way I can see where we are on the road is to open the door.’”

“It was Don driving,” Ralph said. “But I was encouraging him. This was young men with more valor than common sense. We shouldn’t have been driving, but we literally followed the yellow line down the road. It was Don and his wife Pat in the front, and Judy and me in the back. We became close by being able to spend all that time together.

“Don was an extremely popular fellow. I found out afterward he was always that way. He made friends everywhere he went. Everyone liked Don Lammers.”

Sampan

When the time came for their service in Vietnam, Pat went back to Florida, and Judy returned to Minnesota. Ralph and Don were two of seven servicemen who flew across the Pacific Ocean at the same time, and all ended up working in close proximity during the War.

“You don’t necessarily go looking for a lot of friends during the service, because you’re going to get a lot of disappointment,” Ralph said. “When we got to Vietnam, we were in the same hooch. Landed in Da Nang.”

Da Nang is the fourth largest city in the country, on the coast of the South China Sea. This was shortly after the end of the Tet Offensive.

“My first experience—I had no idea what to expect—I saw this beautiful beach. Sailboats, surfboards, people swimming. The nicest Marine Corps Officer’s Club I ever saw in my life was sitting there on the beach.

“I’m thinking, ‘This is a war zone?’

“We were all certified copilots at first. They don’t let you fly during the first three days—they let you get used to the heat and the humidity.

“So, Don and I and one other fellow went to the beach. They told us, ‘Don’t get sunburned, because you’ll still fly.’

“We checked out a sailboat. We were all landlubbers—none of us knew anything about sailing, but we had the basics. We got a half of a mile offshore and screwed up the rigging.

“So now, here we are in Vietnam, and there are these Sampans everywhere.” A Sampan is a flat-bottomed fishing boat of Chinese origin. “We had briefings that told us we should expect there would be enemy around—they couldn’t check all those fishermen out.

“We’re nervous. We’re thinking, ‘Boy, the first day of Vietnam, we get captured, that could be bad for us.’

“We took inventory. We had one knife.

“We hailed a Sampan over. Fortunately, he was friendly, he told us.”

After three days, the missions began. They lived in a hut smaller than the front office of The Wayne County Independent.

“Right by the runway,” Ralph said. “And these jet aircraft would take off 24 hours a day—you couldn’t get any sleep.”

Don and Ralph flew CH-46 tandem rotor helicopters, similar to the CH-47 Chinook.

“What I liked about flying helicopters is you flew with the crew chief that had worked on your helicopter,” Ralph said. “I always thought that gave them more motivation to do a better job than an Air Force guy who salutes the pilot as he takes off only to find out he left a wrench in the engine.”

After six months in Da Nang, they spent 10 weeks on an aircraft carrier.

“That was nice,” Ralph said. “Because it was absolutely safe at night when they’d go 20 miles offshore. There’s no sand and there’s good chow, and a good movie to watch.

“And then we went to Phu Bai. We ultimately flew together a couple of times. Don’s in my log book.”

1,500 feet

There were generally three different kinds of missions Don and Ralph flew. The easiest were called milk runs, and they included delivering ice cream to soldiers.

“We would land on Navy ships and pick up their movies and move them to the next ship,” Ralph said. “We delivered mail to troops. All of these things would not be done if there was any particular danger other than the risks of flying.

“Frankly, the Marines loved helicopters, but they didn’t like them. Helicopters drew the enemy to them, and that’s death.

“And then there was what I called a general working day. This could sometimes be 14 hours in a cockpit moving troops, sometimes a few, sometimes in large numbers—I flew some missions with 12 or 14 helicopters from my squadron and 12 or 14 helicopters from two other squadrons—great big troop insertions. It could be dangerous, but they weren’t always dangerous. That’s an awful lot of helicopters to be landing in the same place.

“And the third and the worst was medivac. Every fourth or fifth day, you’d be assigned medivac—that means you could be sitting around all day doing nothing, but more likely you’d go out one or two times.

“The thing about the Vietnam War—better than the Korean War or World War II—troops that were hurt, and particularly badly hurt, could be getting first-rate medical attention within 20 minutes. Faster than you can on a highway here, if you get hurt somewhere in rural Iowa.

“Medivac could be counted upon to be dangerous, because the reason that guy got hurt was there was some guy around to hurt him, who might be waiting for us to come.

“If it was going to be really dangerous, then we’d have close air support.”

A friend of Don and Ralph’s, Bruce R. Lake, wrote a book about the experience called 1,500 feet over Vietnam.

“At 1,500 feet, you are relatively safe from small arms fire,” Ralph said. “It would take quite a shooter with a regular rifle to bring down a helicopter.

“The North Vietnamese were terrible duck hunters—they didn’t know how to lead. If you kept your air speed up, the bullet holes were in the back, and there’s not a lot back there. Even if they hit a hydraulic line, we had duplicate hydraulics.

“The danger for helicopters is when you’re low and slow near the ground. The last 200 feet, you’re going 20 knots down to zero. Sometimes we’d land in a rice paddy, because it had dikes around—you’d be sitting a little bit lower.

“Of course, there would be Marines around suppressing any difficulty. And then we would have close air support, from Huey helicopters to Phantom jets. There’s something very comfortable about coming in to land with a Phantom jet with its business end pointed at the ground—you’d have to be pretty stupid to stand up and shoot when he’s pointing at you.”

Combat pay

On occasion, a mail run would turn into something much deadlier.

“Sometimes, I would get a call because I was the closest helicopter if something happened. They’d put me in a medivac mission in the middle of the day—not at all unusual.

“There were these Navy puke officers stationed in Okinawa. They weren’t anywhere near the war, really. They’re helping to process people through. But you got paid around 250 bucks to be in a war zone for a month. And you’d get another 250 for flight pay.

“So, theses Navy flying officers wanted to make another $500 a month. They would come in two days before the end of the month, and they’d want to fly in Vietnam. They would get combat pay and flight pay and then they’d go back to their desk in Okinawa—which is why we called them Navy pukes.

“I’m out delivering mail, and this is a great thing for this Navy guy. He’s my copilot, he’s earning his money, and there’s very little risk.

“Then, I got a call on the radio to go do a medivac mission. This guy, who doesn’t really know what’s going on—he’s not involved in combat, generally—I’d key the mic to the crew chief and say, ‘Get Commander So-and-So a bulletproof vest.’

“This is something he hadn’t planned on. We took some pleasure in that. The good news is, he had a story to tell—he earned his combat pay for the month.”

The list

“We got married in Minnesota, and of course the Marine Corps gave him only three days off,” Judy said.

“I drove from Pensacola to Minnesota and back,” Ralph said.

“My mom opened up all of our gifts and rented a U-Haul,” Judy said. “We did stop one night. When we got to our place, it was dark, and there was a note on the door.

“It said, ‘Your electricity hasn’t been turned on yet. We’re out of town, but you can go to this house, we left a key under the mat.’”

“That’s what you get in the military,” Ralph said. “People take care of each other.”

“One morning, I got a call from the commanding officer,” Judy said. “He said, ‘I hate to inform you, but we believe your husband has crash landed into the ocean.’

“I said, ‘But he wasn’t supposed to be flying today.’

“He said, ‘Who have I reached?’

“I told him, and he said, ‘I had my finger on the list, and that person who actually has a missing husband is beneath you. I called you by mistake. But now that you know this, would you go over to her apartment, and I will wait until you have gotten there. Then, I’ll call and inform her, but she needs to go immediately to the bank and withdraw all of their money, or the money will be tied up for so long she won’t have anything to support herself.’

“I didn’t want to go alone, so I called Pat, and she went with me. How hard is that? I thought about that so often, how she was the one who gave me strength.”

The knock

“I don’t know what Lammers was doing the day he was killed,” Ralph said. “I don’t know what his assignment was. I only know the official story, that they got hit by small arms fire pulling out of a landing zone, and it disabled the helicopter. There was nothing they could’ve done.”

“They asked Ralph to identify Don’s body,” Judy said.

“They knew we were close friends,” Ralph said. “But I refused. I said, ‘I don’t wish to see Don in any condition other than the way I remember him.’ I’ve never regretted that decision.

“For years afterward—Don had a 1966 Chevelle Super Sport, bright red with the biggest engine they make, and I drove it a few times—when I got back to the States I would see that car. Obviously, it wasn’t his car. And I would occasionally on the streets see people that looked like Don. Now, that doesn’t happen anymore, but that probably happened for 10 years after I got back.

“I think I have moved on from the Vietnam War pretty well. But I’m aware I got 50 years of life Don Lammers didn’t get. He was every bit as nice a fellow as me. I’m sure he would’ve been a credit wherever he was—he would’ve had a good family and been a good dad.

“Judy and I were scheduled to go to Hawaii with Don and his wife Pat in two or three weeks time. I got permission from my commanding officer and went to the communications shack and they put me in touch with the U.S. communications system, and I called Judy from Vietnam. Normally, that wouldn’t have been allowed. This was the hardest phone call I ever made.

“I told Judy. She’s a smart enough girl she knew if it happened to Don, it could’ve happened to me. She had to bear that. She had written a letter that very day, which she now didn’t want Pat to get.”

“Pat was living with her mom,” Judy said. “I was trying to encourage her, because she had told me a story about a couple days before, Don had been hit from underneath. I told her the same thing had happened to Ralph, and that’s an everyday thing, and that it wasn’t much to worry about—but Pat never got that letter.”

The letter had already been sent through the mail when Don was killed in action. Therefore, Judy spoke with Pat’s mother, and came up with a story and an excuse for her to never show it to Pat, to throw it in the trash.

Judy was not allowed to tell Pat about her husband’s death, either. She had to follow Marine Corps protocol.

Pat ended up marrying the man who knocked on the door to tell her about Don.

Closed door

When he got back home after the War, Ralph attended Drake University Law School.

“I believe Don had talked about going to law school when he got out of the Marine Corps,” Ralph said. “I’ve always wondered if psychologically that put a bug in my ear.”

The morning before Memorial Day of 2018, Ralph and Judy drove first to Drake, and the house they rented almost 50 years ago in Des Moines, before heading to the Corydon Cemetery. A flag pole at Prairie Trails Family Aquatic Center is dedicated to the Lammers family, as is a bench on the Wayne County Courthouse lawn. Prairie Trails Museum has an exhibit in Don’s honor. One of the objects on display is a native Vietnamese bow and arrow Don sent home.

“It’s a closing of a door,” Ralph said. “For what it’s worth, during the time I was there 13 months to the day, nine pilots and seven crewmen were killed. I’m aware of one instance where one crewman, after they crashed into Da Nang Bay, swam eight hours to save himself—all the others were lost.

“You wonder sometimes what these generals are thinking, because they tell you to do one thing today, and then they tell you to undo it tomorrow. And if someone got hurt doing and undoing it, you say, ‘Why do we do things? If we don’t own that hill, why don’t we just leave it alone?’ But, that’s the way war is—nobody knows what’s really going on.”