A friendship found through the military

Working at the Mountain Statesman has brought many new faces and names to my attention I have met so many people who I am thankful to have met. One day I received the mail just like any other day I had opened up a letter and it had been typed by a man named Lonnie D. Nelson. As I read the letter I was inspired by a true Veteran story during Vietnam as I read the first few lines I was hooked. I then read clear to the end it was heartwarming I visualized it in my head. The story was a piece of history and honorable. I will share this letter with you in honor of November 11th “Veterans Day” The letter stated.

Dear, Mountain Statesman

I have written a short account of my friendship with Skip Klug KIA Vietnam war from Grafton if you find it appropriate, I thought it might be useful for publication in your newspaper perhaps the Veterans Day edition.

In early September I was driving through West Virginia and noticed several bridges on the interstate were dedicated to soldiers and police officers. As I noted the exit for Grafton I wondered if any bridge had been dedicated to Paul F. Skip Klug. I searched the Internet and learned there was a Veteran Memorial Cemetery near Grafton. I called and asked about skip and was told there might be a headstone, but they couldn’t tell me for sure. I decided I’d write this in account from a memory to share with those who may not have known him.

In early May 1968 I met Skip at Webb Air Force Base Texas we were both there to begin pilot training and would be roommates for the next year. I had lived my entire life on a farm in Nebraska, which is to say I was native even in college I had returned to the farm whenever my dad needed help. Skip had graduated from college and worked for three years for Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles then decided he wanted to be a US Air Force pilot.

For that entire year I learned as much about life from Skip as I learned about flying from the Air Force. He knew when to enjoy time off and when to concentrate on the business and when we were in place and needed to leave. I on the other hand had a lot to learn, particularly about the social aspects meager as they were. In West Central Texas when I saw him sat down a drink and get his coat, I knew he had an uneasy feeling about something, and I followed suit.

In November we were far ahead of flying curb and we were given permission to take a leave for Thanksgiving. It was a twelve-hour drive to my home in Nebraska and West Virginia was much further. I invited Skip to go home with me and hunt pheasants and he quickly accepted. On our first morning there my dad drove us to town to get our license on the way home I spotted a rooster pheasant in a small weed patch and told my dad to stop. We walked toward the weeds; Skip was sure I was pulling the snake trick on him right until the pheasant flashed, he shot both barrels of his gun almost simultaneously. I killed a bird and, on the way, back to the pick-up, I told him I might pull jokes on him but not about hunting. Hunting was about harvesting birds for food on the table.

We hunted that weekend with my entire family of brothers and uncles. My dad’s aunts and cousins invited us for lunches and my mom prepared a Thanksgiving feast plus two evening meals with fresh present.  Each evening all my nieces and nephews wanted the details of every aspect of pilot training. There were social aspects that I felt should experience at their own pace.

On the way back to Texas in West Kansas we were driving through a two hour stretch of green winter wheat and wheat stubble from that year’s harvest. Skip who was an only child and had been adopted by an elderly couple turned to me and said Lonnie you don’t know how lucky you are to have a family like then he turned away to watch the meager scenery. I considered his family situation and silently agreed with him.

When we finished pilot training in May 1969, we were sent immediately to survival training in Washington then to training in the O-2A in the panhandle of Florida. We had graduated number 18 and number 19 in a class of 54 pilots and we’re both assigned to be forward air controllers in Vietnam. When all the training was completed, we were on the same flight to Vietnam after a week of in-country indoctrination where we learned that a pilot training classmate may have been killed in action. Skip was assigned to fly at Quang Tri, and I was saying to Pleiku.

In the spring of 1971 of the captains who had gone through training with us in Florida came to my room and asked me if Skip’s given name was Paul F Klug. I said it was and he told me that Skip was missing in action apparently near the A Shau Valley in Northwest South Vietnam. I went to my commander and asked permission to go to Danang to help search for him, but he told me there were people already looking who were more familiar with the area.

About four weeks later a Vietnamese child brought two sets of dog tags, Skips and the other pilots to the main gate. There was a ten-thousand-dollar reward for each one. The adults would send a child with the dog tags as the Viet Cong would supposedly target adults who claimed these rewards. The location of the crash was ascertained, and both sets of remains were recovered.

The truth of the actual crash will never be known for certain, but the airplane was nowhere near where they were last known to be flying. The best guess was that they had lost electrical power, that would explain the loss of radios and radar signature flown back to the south China Sea by dead reckoning and attempted to get beneath a cloud cover to land visually at Danang. However, there is an island about ten miles from the coast near Danang, and the airplane had crashed about one-hundred and fifty feet below the island’s peak.

When we learned of Skip’s death those of us who had flown with him in any of our training held a short service for him in our base chapel. We all supported any of our squadron mates when anyone lost a friend in combat. In this case there were about ten of us who had gone through a preparatory training with Skip.

I have many memories of Skip from shooting pool, swimming at the beach in Florida, assortments of Texas adventures, and Thanksgiving weekend of 1968. He is among eight friends and fellow pilots that I lost that year in Vietnam, but his passing was probably the hardest for me to accept. I lost a good friend and Grafton West Virginia lost one of their finest young men, rest in peace Skip.

In Memory of Paul F “Skip” Klug

After reading the story I then began to ponder on Lonnie D Nelson. I decided to take matters into my own hands and write him a letter back thanking him for his service and apologies for his loss. I explained to him that I was born and raised in Grafton West Virginia and that I had never known about Skip. I was so curious as to more of his life history knowing he is a Vietnam survivor. When I wrote Lonnie D. Nelson I did not know if I would receive a reply. It was about a week later I had gotten the mail again and looked down to see there was nothing yet to come in from Lonnie. I was starting to get worried that maybe he wouldn’t write me back.

Then one day I answered the phone at work “This is Cierra at the Mountain Statesman how may I help you? He said yes, Cierra this is Lonnie Nelson I instantly was surprised. I did not know what to say I was so honored that he had returned my call back. I talked with Lonnie and we discussed Skip and his letter.  I told him I would be publishing the letter and that if there was anybody that knew Skip, or any family left, or even for people who didn’t know him, it would be something to share. After our talk was over, I emailed Lonnie and asked him if I could interview him with some questions for a follow up with his story. I sent him over a list, and he answered every question. I will share with you the interview I had with him.

A look inside Vietnam from a US Air Force Veteran

Lonnie Dean Nelson

Seventy-four years old

Veteran/War status:  Vietnam War veteran, USAF retiree with 20 years 9 months service.

Lonnie D. Nelson Background

I was born in Lexington Nebraska in 1945.  My parents are both deceased, and I have two sisters and one brother living, one brother deceased.  In 1976 I met an Air Force nurse, and we married in 1979 after she had resigned her commission.  We have two sons.  One works for Google in San Francisco, the other flies for Delta Airlines and the USAF Reserves.

Q: What age did you go into the Vietnam war, and what were your thoughts at the time?

A: I was 24 years old when I went to Vietnam.  My main thoughts were to be careful!!!  I expected to serve a minimum 5 years as a pilot, then return to college using the GI bill to get a degree in Fish and Wildlife Biology which was what I wanted in my initial college experience.

Q: What was your favorite plane to fly while in active duty?

A: ALL OF THEM!!  Flying was so much fun!  I enjoyed every aircraft that I flew.  In pilot training we flew three, T-41s (Cessna 172), T-37s and T-38s.  We were trained to fly any aircraft in the USAF, which meant we flew in all phases of formation training in the T-38.  It was so responsive; I’d say I have more positive memories in that airplane.  Favorite was being upside down at 53,000 feet, Mach 1.2 (about 825 MPH), pulling 3 Gs, and seeing the curvature of the earth on the horizon.

Q: Were you able to keep in touch with your family or spouse while in active duty?

A: We wrote letters frequently, but they took 10-15 days to arrive.  I wasn’t married but I wrote to all members of the family answering their letters.  I also recorded a sixty-minute cassette tape about every two weeks and sent that to my parents who shared it with my brothers and sisters.  On Christmas Day, I called my parents on a phone call that was relayed across the Pacific on an antiquated radio system.  We were allowed only 3 minutes, and most of that was taken up in the relays.

Q: Being in the air is way different from being on foot. I am sure both places of duty were difficult. Were you ever on foot/ground during Vietnam fighting?

A: I was a pilot and was very careful not to do anything that would have my commander send me into ground combat.  I always said I was allergic to Foxholes!!!

Q: I am sure flying can go wrong at any time was there ever a point you remember just looking back, and it being make or break as in if you were going to make it through or not?   

A: Twice.  Once in Vietnam when an enemy gunner shot at me with three rounds of 37 mm antiaircraft artillery.  The three rounds passed under my airplane less the 10 feet away, one under my front engine, one under my butt, and one under the rear engine.  The second time was in 1979 when I was flying E-3A aircraft.  I had an electrical fire in the cockpit that was about twice the size of a basketball.  With a great deal of luck, neither situation resulted in “the final flight”.  There are two situations concerning final flights.  One is that you go to the airplane knowing that it will be your final flight in that type aircraft.  The other is you go to the airplane not knowing it will be your final flight.

Q: “Skip” was a good friend of yours, do you remember your last conversation with him before his plane went missing? 

A: Only that we wished each other well and each told the other to fly safe.

Q: “Returning home after Vietnam was over” Who did you return home to? What did you do next? 

A: I returned to my family in Nebraska for about 3 weeks.  While I was home, there was an article in the Omaha newspaper written about a young lady whose husband was missing in action.  I had searched for husband during my tour and we had concluded that the crew had died in the crash of his airplane.  However, he was still reported to be missing, and she said in the article that she would wait for his return.  As I was sworn to secrecy when I left, I couldn’t tell her what I knew about the crash.  A few days later, I drove to Ohio to fly KC-135s at Wright Patterson AFB.

Q: Overall what memory sticks out most from Vietnam?

A: First, I feel very fortunate that I can communicate with others about my service in Vietnam.  Many veterans can’t.  While their multiple memories, my favorite is related to an additional duty I had dealing with our maids or “mama sans”.  When I arrived, one of the maids was about 6 months pregnant.  As she neared her due date, I watched her carefully to make sure she wasn’t overstressed.  One day, the other maid came to me and told me, “baby come, baby dead” and walked away.  The next morning the one that had lost the baby was back to work.  She looked like she had not cleaned herself since the still birth. I went to her and told her I was sorry about the baby.  As I took her hand, she lost all control, and I helped her sit down.  She cried and screamed for about 5 minutes and as she was speaking Vietnamese, I couldn’t understand anything.  I simply held her hand and told her repeatedly, “It’s OK, everything will be OK.”  When the crying began to stop, she looked at me and said, “New baby come next year.”  She then got up and went to the bathroom to clean up.  Not knowing what happened to these two ladies who worked as maids when the war ended has always been an empty part of the experience for me.

As you can see, sometimes it’s just a small letter in the mail or even a phone call that’s long distance that holds such historic memories. In result of the situation I wanted to publish this memory of one of Grafton’s finest from 1968 US Air Force Pilot Paul F. Klug and a survivor war Veteran, one of Nebraska’s finest, US Air Force Pilot Lonnie D. Nelson.

The sacrifice Veterans have made all over the world we want you to know we are all truly thankful for you and appreciative of everything you did for us! Thank You!



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