June 2, 2005

Vietnam Vet Fred Clapp Delivers Memorial Day Message in Memphis

On Memorial Day, the nation joins together to remember soldiers that gave their lives in service to the United States. Patriotism has experienced a re-birth following 9/11 and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. But prior to that veterans of the nations last great war, the Vietnam Conflict, may not have received the heros welcome they deserved.

That was part of the message delivered by Fred Clapp as he addressed the gathering at the 59th Annual Wallace W. Gillespie Post #4958 of the VFW Memorial Day Services held on the Scotland County Courthouse lawn on Monday, May 30th.

Clapp, a helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, told the crowd that he adjusted to civilian life by putting his military experience behind him upon his return to the states.

But some 20 years after the war, Clapp had a life altering experience during a visit to Washington D.C. where he viewed the Vietnam Memorial Wall and saw the tens of thousands of names of servicemen and women who died in the war.

I had an experience that reminded me that my military service was something that should not, and in fact, could not be ignored, Clapp proclaimed. I went to the wall and found the name of Charles Smith from St. Charles, Missouri. I then took a piece of paper and a pencil and traced his name. I still have that piece of paper.

Smith was Clapps roommate in primary flight school, where the two pilots learned how to fly helicopters. Smith died in a helicopter crash while on a night rescue mission. Clapps friend had not even been in Vietnam long enough to begin receiving mail from home, when his life was taken.

The visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall was a much more emotional experience than I had expected, Clapp stated. I learned that I could no longer just try to forget that part of my life instead, I needed to remember that experience.

It is easy to understand why the pilot might have wished to forget about service. As a college student he had anticipated the war would be over before he was done with school. But when he graduated from the University of Missouri in 1968, his draft classification changed and just six months later he received his notice from the draft board requiring him to complete a physical and be prepared to enter the service.

I am a veteran however, I am not a veteran by choice, Clapp said. Rather I am a veteran because I had no choice.

In June of 1969 Clapp was inducted into the Army and was off to Fort Polk, LA. He went on to Fort Wolters in Texas for primary flight training before moving to Fort Rucker, AL, to be trained in flying Huey helicopters.

In September of 1970 he landed at Ton San Huit airfield in Saigon on a charted flight filled with fellow soldiers.

What had seemed so unlikely just a few years earlier, was no too true for the kid from Lewis County who now found himself flying combat assault missions, picking up troops and hauling them to battle sites and running supplies to the encampments.

Our company would put 12 to 15 Hueys in the air each day and four to six Cobra gunships, Clapp said. We would fly in a fairly tight formation that was supposed to provide some protection against small arms fire. I will never forget the first time I saw the aircraft in front of mine go down.

But Clapp also got to experience his own helicopter going down, not once, but twice during his year in Viet Nam.

The first occurred when a flare went off in the helicopter, forcing Clapp to land the disabled aircraft before the fire burned through the floor into the fuel tank.

I still remember how hot and bright it got just before we got down, Clapp stated.

The second crash happened on a mountainside insertion when the helicopters tail rotor became entangled in the adjoining vegetation, causing the pilot to lose control.

It was a violent crash, Clapp recalled. It is amazing that the most serious injury in that crash was a broken leg suffered by one of the recon team members. We were lucky to survive.

Add together his draft status, his two helicopter crashes and the loss of so many friends, it is easy to see why Clapp might want to push aside his memories as a veteran.

Yet Clapp closed his speech by stating, I believe that God will bless all of those who are here today to honor our veterans. I believe that God blesses our community. I believe that God blesses our country. I believe that God reserves a special blessing for our veterans. I am a veteran, and I am proud of it.

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