Thursday, July 25, 2024

Veteran recalls life in the unfriendly skies of Vietnam

| November 10, 2023 12:30 PM

“I didn’t do anything special,” Paul Derrow said when asked about his service in Vietnam. After some contemplation, he conceded, “I guess flying was special.”

Derrow was part of a military family. His father, Jack West, served in the Korean War ground troops. Growing up, the family moved from West Virginia to Arizona, where Derrow finished up high school and began laying carpet. He joined the military in 1968 at 22 years old. 

Derrow’s brothers, Dan Derrow and Jack West, also enlisted, following in the footsteps of their father. “It was a family thing,” he said. “Each one of us got in there and did what we thought we was supposed to do, some of us got out of it.” 

The Derrow brothers would both come out of Vietnam with purple hearts, the same as their father. 

Paul started out in the First Army Infantry Division in Vietnam, then moved up to I Corps. 

“They asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I would like to be the crew chief on a Huey,’” Derrow recalled. “The next day I was on a Huey, that was it.”

Derrow became a part of the 101st Airborne Division. As crew chief, he went wherever his helicopter went, fixing it up and keeping it running. 

“They sent that thing into hell, I’d go with it,” he said. 

They called Derrow “Black Hawk.” He spent a lot of time cruising over the jungle at night, “finding trouble and getting into it.” He was involved in scouting missions, dropped off mercenaries and special forces, and picked them back up. He described the Huey as a big tadpole, just waiting to get shot at. 

“I was shot down a couple times, crashed a couple times, got shot once. Just a typical day that was out there, nothing serious,” he laughed. Once, his Huey returned with 19 holes shot in it. 

He and his platoon sergeant, Jerry Fremmel, were sharing a round of scotch discussing the effectiveness of miniguns one day. 

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those?” Fremmel asked. 

“Yeah, we’d have to do a little trading to do it,” Derrow replied. 

“It’s worth it.”

The pair traded their scotch for the gun, electronics and ammo with other parts of the Army and the Air Force, and ended up with a hand-mounted minigun that sat just behind the pilot in the doorway of their helicopter. It jumped their attacks from 750 rounds a minute to 6,000. 

“Nobody wanted to mess with that thing, shooting that much damn ammo,” Derrow said. 

The day he earned his purple heart, April 12,  Derrow’s crew was lowering troops to an area right up against the mountainside. 

“All of a sudden, all hell broke loose,” Derrow said. “The pilot got shot in the face, I got shot in the leg; out of four of us, that wasn’t bad.” 

Derrow remembered writing his brother Dan, who was also on a Huey.  

“I told him, I said, ‘Dan, I’m getting scared. What the hell did you do when you started getting scared?’ He said, ‘Well, I look down there on the floor, and see my ammo can, and I jump in my ammo can, and that’s where I’d stay.’

“I Paul Derrow in Vietnam. (Photo provided)thought that was funny, because I knew exactly what he was saying. If you didn’t get scared when you was over there, you wasn’t over there,” Derrow said.

The best part of his service was flying, Derrow said, and he had a lot of stories to back that up. He recalled “fishing” with an M60 machine gun over the ocean in Vietnam, using sharks as target practice. When he returned to the U.S. in 1970, he continued to serve as a crew chief. Working out of Fort Huachuca in Arizona, he went on a week-long secret mission flying a helicopter with an “electric dog” sniffing out the door for “dope.” Some days, his crew would cruise up to Salt Lake for breakfast, and sometimes stay through lunch. 

During a stint in Alaska, Derrow met a man named Craig Joy hailing from Montana. Joy insisted that Derrow explore his home state, and in 1975, he did.

 “I came up here and seen how pretty it was and said, ‘This is where I want to grow up, grow old and die.’ Still trying,” Derrow chuckled.

Derrow and his second wife, Kathy, bought a bar, Stanton Creek Lodge in Essex, and ran it for about five years. 

“She was the thing that made my life come together, she kept me going. She’s the love of my life,” Derrow said. 

After selling the bar, he and Kathy cruised the state for three years in a motorhome, looking for a home. They settled in Fortine in 1996. 

“I’ve been building on that thing since the day I got it,” Derrow said of his home, which has a new enclosed porch, heat, stereo system, garage, green house and calf shed since they moved in. “That’s always been a labor of love.”

Derrow continued working on machines after his service, and spent years racing a 1923 Ford Model T that he rebuilt into a dirt drag racing machine called “Short Stroke.” He had it running 200 feet in 2.3 seconds in its prime. 

The Derrows also built a family, adopting daughter Kavina and son Dale to add to Paul’s children from his first marriage, Michelle (deceased), Denise and Paul Jr. 

Now, Derrow is a resident at Montana Veterans Home in Columbia Falls. 

“The thing I think about veterans is, they went into harm’s way so that the people who didn’t go could have a decent life. I was doing what I had to do to protect what I had,” he said.