Photos by Charity Maness/Fall River County Herald Star
LEFT: Mike Mather, Vietnam Veteran 1967-1968, holds the newspaper American Division from May 1968 and an informational pamphlet given to soldiers to explain the Tet Holiday, never imagining it would become a major and bloody escalation in the war.
RIGHT: The Army attempted to bring some Americana into the lives of soldiers with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners while in Vietnam. Pictured are the menus from those celebrations in 1967.
By Charity Maness
HOT SPRINGS – United States Army Specialist 4 Mike Mather was born in Rochester, Minn., in 1946, the older of two children born to a working class family.
“My dad ran a trucking company fixing trucks,” said Mather, “and my mom was mostly a housewife but would give permanents every once in awhile.”
Growing up Mather enjoyed sports and with his dad coaching his little league team Mather was hooked.
“I liked to play, baseball,” he said. “Even in high school I played. I didn’t make the A team, but I still played.”
In high school Mather enjoyed the subject of math.
“I liked math, I was really good at it, he said, “I didn’t like Physics or Chemistry, but I liked math.”
When Mather was a sophomore he began working for his father, in exchange for work, his father bought him his first car.
“My dad bought me a 1955 Chevy, he fixed it up and painted it for me. It was Hamms Beer Blue; that’s what we called the color. My next car I bought, it was also a 1955 Chevy, but it was Sierra Gold. I liked cars, I really liked muscle cars; I still do.”
“Working for my dad was good, but my dad wanted me to learn a trade and wanted me to go to college. So I attended junior college taking architectural drafting courses. I really liked that. But after two years I couldn’t find a job in Minnesota. One day I saw a job listing in Seattle for Boeing, working the flight line and working on the landing gear of a Boeing 727. I applied and got the job.”
In October of 1966 he and a friend from work headed to Canada for a mini vacation just to see the sights.
“When I got home, there in the mailbox was my draft notice,” he laughed. “I knew a lot of folks were going to Canada to avoid the draft, and here I come home from Canada and get drafted.”
By mid October Mather was in boot camp in Fort Bliss Texas where he ran into 4 other guys from his high school. “I guess they drafted a lot of guys from Rochester at the same time,” he said.
After boot camp Mather headed to AIT (advanced infantry training) and helicopter repair school at Fort Knox.
“I guess since I had worked for Boeing they thought maybe helicopters would be the best place for me,” he explained.
By October 1967 Mather was headed to Vietnam with the 14th Battalion 335 transportation company.
Unbeknownst to Mather 1967 would see the second highest US troop casualties in Vietnam at 11,363 killed, with the deadliest year just ahead of him, 1968, with 16,899 US troops killed in action.
Mather found himself stationed in I CORPS at Chu Lai maintaining Hueys; Bell UH-1 helicopters.
“They had a lot of F4 Phantoms there, jets flying attacks at N. Vietnam but we worked on helicopters; gunships and medivacs. Some of them were shot up so bad we just fixed ‘em enough to get them back to the states to get overhauled.”
“As Crew Chief I would inspect the helicopter and order repairs. We had a sheet metal shop that could make us what we needed pretty fast. That was a big help.”
Yet at that time, reinforcement of the underside of the Huey was not being done.
“Lots of guys put their flack jackets under them or helmets to protect them from fire from the ground.”
His work was not limited to Chu Lai as he would often find himself in Da Nang at the Red Beach base making much needed repairs to damaged Hueys.
Thanksgiving and Christmas were still kind of big deals as the Army attempted to make family type celebrations for the servicemen.
“They printed up programs with the menu inside,” said Mather, “I was pretty sure it was water buffalo, not steak,” he laughed, “at least that’s what we thought we got.”
Regardless of the taste, the men enjoyed the lightness of the festivities in a war torn area of the world; with war never a far off thought.
Though mortars and incoming was not unheard of, nothing prepared Mather for the onslaught of the Tet Offensive of 1968.
“It hit every place up and down all the way up to Hue down to Siagon,” recalled Mather. “We got hit every night there for awhile with mortars and rockets. We would sleep with our flack jackets on and with our helmets and rifles. When raids came in we headed out to the perimeter to protect it.”
“A couple of them were pretty close,” said Mather about the mortars from the raids, “I’m pretty lucky I got out of one of them; we were in a trench duckin’ down and a mortar hit right next to us.”
While the helicopters received little to no damage Mather believes that was because the main target at his location were the jets.
He still recalls clearly the Tet Offensive as his worst experience in country.
Following on the heels of those coordinated and deadly attacks Mather received R&R in Japan in July 1968.
“I stayed in Yokohama, saw the ships in the harbor, went to the top of Mt Fugi and saw the snow capped tops and ran around town. At night they would shoot off fireworks and I would duck every time one went off. When I first got out of the service that sound would bother me, but not anymore.”
Back in Vietnam, a few weeks after R&R in Japan, Mather was told that a new Commander would be coming in and that his area needed to be spit shined and clean, this information was given to Mather after he and his crew had put in multiple 12 hour days. Needless to say the order did not go over very well.
“So one of our guys went to some Marines and got some beer and another guy went to a local and got something to smoke. So instead of spit shining we drank and smoked until they caught us,” he smiled at the memory, “but we didn’t get in trouble.”
In October 1968 Mather was stateside at Fort Lewis, Washington where, “they tried to get us all to re-up, but I headed back to Minnesota to be a civilian.”
After his service Mather finally realized his and his father’s dream of becoming a draftsman.
“I became a structural steel draftsman,” said Mather with pride, “a career I had for more than 20 years.” At one point he even helped design ski resorts in Colorado.
Yet his time in the service created unbreakable bonds.
“In our hooch in Nam I had about two or three real close friends; I was even a best man in one of their weddings in Kansas when we got home. Our other friend flew in from Texas for the wedding.”
Now as a resident at the State Veterans Home in Hot Springs for the past 6 years Mather, a father of two and grandfather of two, enjoys reading books by authors the likes of Patterson and watching NCIS.
“I also enjoy the scenic drives we take and the shopping in Chadron,” he said.
While the years have flown by, his time in Vietnam is still very fresh in his mind and very vivid in his mind’s eye; with certain sounds bringing him back to Chu Lai in 1967-68.
“It’s what I miss, the sound of a Huey,” he said, “they sound so neat when they go buy, I just stand and stare at them, I wish I was back working on them I guess.”