When Willis Teel got orders he was being deployed to Vietnam, his response was, “Where is that?”
Teel, who was a helicopter power train repairman in the aviation division of the U.S. Army, landed in Vietnam in 1963, when few Americans realized that half a world away an Asian country was being torn apart from within by war. His unit was only the second U.S. Huey helicopter company sent to the region.
Teel said although his unit’s mission was to transport South Vietnamese soldiers to the front lines, he was part of the maintenance detachment, which was responsible for keeping the helicopters in the air.
“My job was to work on the rotor heads and tail blades,” said Teel, a retired hydro journeyman from Alabama Power’s Mitchell Dam. “But occasionally, a chopper would come in with a bullet hole in the skin, and we would have to repair it.”
While most of his work took place at the base in Vinh Long, there were times when Teel was dispatched into the field to repair a helicopter that was too damaged to make the return flight.
A different world
The action really heated up for Teel on the weekends when he volunteered as a door gunner. With machine gun in hand, it was Teel’s job to fire at the enemy from his vantage point in the doorway of the helicopter. The door gunner position was created during the Vietnam War when more helicopters were used during combat.
“You’re a target anytime you go up,” he said. “I didn’t think about the danger. I just wanted the higher combat pay.”
Although the fighting was never far away, Teel said his most dangerous experience occurred when he developed appendicitis and was rushed to the Air Force hospital in downtown Saigon for emergency surgery.
During his hospital stay, Teel had a front-row seat as the enemy overthrew the regime of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. “We sat there and watched them dive-bomb the palace until we were told to get away from the windows,” he said.
Teel said his yearlong tour in Vietnam was unlike anything he had experienced back home in Clanton. He was stationed in the flat rice-paddy region where many of the people were poor and lived in straw huts with dirt floors.
Few Vietnamese owned cars, Teel said. Although Saigon was a busy city with more modern-day homes and businesses, people mostly rode bicycles or motor scooters. They also traveled in pedal carts pulled by bicycles.
The conditions on the base were fairly primitive for Teel and his comrades. They slept on cots in tents for about six months until permanent quarters were built. They then moved into masonry huts with tin roofs that Teel said looked a lot like “chicken coops.”
Teel said there were two distinct seasons. The dry season was so hot the ground would literally crack open. But when the rains came, the soldiers had to slog through mud every day.
“It was a learning experience,” said Teel, adding the hardest part of his year away from home was missing the birth of his son, Ashley. “The living conditions were crude, and the people really had no regard for human life. It was a very different lifestyle.”
Another brush with history
Teel was also deployed during another historic conflict: the Cuban Missile Crisis. This confrontation was in response to the positioning of Soviet missiles in Cuba that could potentially strike the continental United States.
After Teel joined the Army in 1961 and completed training, his unit was sent by convoy to an airport near Miami, where it waited three months for orders. The soldiers were finally on their way when their convoy was stopped in Key Largo, Florida. Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev had agreed to remove the missiles, effectively ending the crisis.
After his Army service ended, Teel began working at Alabama Power in 1965. Although his training in helicopter repair never came into play during his 31-year career with the company, flying planes has been an integral part of Teel’s life.
Teel, who had always dreamed of becoming a pilot, began taking lessons in 1969 and then qualified as a flight instructor. He still teaches flying, taking students into the clouds in his Cessna 172.
“I love the thrill of being above everybody,” Teel said. “I tell my students, ‘You’ll either love flying or you’ll hate it.’ Flying is a joy for me.”
Teel said when he was stationed in Vietnam, the war was still young and didn’t begin “heating up” until after he returned home. His experience was drastically different from that of U.S. soldiers deployed during the latter part of the war in which more than 58,000 Americans died.
“I gained some knowledge, met a lot of different people and made good friends, a few of whom I’ve kept in touch with through the years,” Teel said of his years in the military.