A Marine that did his duty

This is a story written in 2018 celebrating the service of US Marine Corps crew chief Jerry Warner and his wife Cheri. Warner passed away this weekend after a long struggle with poor health.

He will be remembered as a “gentle giant” of a man. At 6-6, Jerry was an imposing figure, but a man who would help his neighbors and one who had a unique outlook on life. His love was his family, but he was also a fan of motorcycles, perhaps a connection with his service late in the Vietnam war with CH53 helicopters operating off aircraft carriers in the ocean east of Vietnam. Jerry’s story is the story of many veterans of that largely forgotten war, a war that divided America politically, but a war that the men who bravely followed their country’s call to duty answered with bravery, honor and dedicated service.

Jerry was one of those young men who answered the call, then returned home to raise a family and become an integral part of the community. Jerry and Cheri were married 55 years.

A CH53 Sea Stallion in action in Vietnam {h/t US Marine Corps}

Officially the Marines left Vietnam two years before but many “official” notices from that Southeast Asian war were simply words. In 1972 Jerry Warner, a crew chief on a Sikorsky Ch53 helicopter, flew a variety of combat, transport, and rescue missions off the deck of the USS Okinawa into Vietnam.

Warner and his wife Cheri of rural Fremont County grew up together in tiny Claremont, Minnesota, a town of just 400 people.

“I’ve known him since I was five years old,” Cheri said.

The couple was married 51 years.

“I was drafted but flunked two physicals and was rated 4F,” Warner said. “I wanted to do my part. Maybe the military would get us out of a small town.”

The couple married when Cheri was a senior in high school in 1967 and their son Richard arrived a couple of years later.

“Everybody said it wouldn’t work but here we are 51 years later,” Warner said.

Warner enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 1969.

“I had to get my 4F back to 1A,” Warner said. “I was sworn in at the induction center in Minneapolis and Cheri had to sign up as a dependent.”

The Marines don’t like their young enlisted men to be married with children.

“I stood in front of a full bird colonel and he offered me an honorable discharge immediately,” Warner said.

The officer couldn’t dissuade him from going to basic training and a few months later he was assigned to Marine Air with MOS 6113, Marine Corps Helicopter Mechanic, CH-53.

Marines with 6113 designations were destined for combat in Vietnam.

“Cheri was called in front of an officer again,” Warner said.

Cheri was given a very tough decision to make, agree to send Jerry into combat or say no and deny her young husband’s dream of being a crew chief on a Marine helicopter.

“The officer left it up to me to decide if he went into helicopters or not,” Cheri said. “I signed and he was in.”

Warner finished in the top three in his class and was able to choose east or west coast assignment, he chose west and was sent to the Marine Air Station at Santa Anna, California.

Warner was an E-3, lance corporal, when he finished training and assigned as a crew chief to HMH-363, (Marine Heavy Helicopters) but there was another problem, his rank was too low for a crew chief.

“I went in front of a meritorious board. They were all ground Marines and asked me questions about combat techniques, I couldn’t answer any of them,” Warner said. “Finally one of the NCOs asked me, ‘What do you know?’ I said, ‘I know the CH53 helicopter.”

They brought in a CH53 manual and started to randomly open a page and ask me a question. I answered them all correctly.

The venerable CH53 had a long service with the US Marine Corps {h/t USMC}

“You do know helicopters,” the same NCO said and Warner was promoted. Warner made E-5 just two years into his enlistment, an extreme rarity.

Warner was the only crew chief on the west coast to qualify to go to HMX, the Marines who fly the president. It required a high-security clearance but he wanted to stay with his combat unit, a decision that rapidly changed married life for the young couple.

“I’ve got something to tell you,” Jerry said.

“I’ve got something to tell you too,” Cheri replied.”I’m pregnant.”

“I’ve got orders for Vietnam.”

Turning down HMX put Warner on the fast track to Vietnam.

“Two weeks later I landed in Okinawa at 2 am,” Warner said.

An exhausted Marine lieutenant waited for him there.

“Who did you piss off?” the lieutenant said. “It must have been somebody big.”

Warner reported to the HMM164, a CH46 squadron with four CH53 helicopters attached.

He boarded the USS Okinawa and three days later in the Pacific off Vietnam, the ship’s captain said. “Gentlemen, welcome to the Republic of Vietnam.”

USS Okinawa {h/t US Navy}

“We didn’t have a base in Vietnam, the Marines weren’t supposed to be there,” Warner said. “So we operated off the Okinawa in international waters 30 miles out off Hi Phong Harbor.”

Warner flew around Hue, Quang Tri Province, and throughout the northern part of Vietnam up to the DMZ.

He flew combat missions during the Spring Offensive of 1972 when the North Vietnamese Army engaged in traditional warfare with tanks and armor support.

“We hauled the ARVN and South Vietnamese Marines,” Warner said. “Vietnamese Marines were straight up and wanted to save their country. The ARVN were infiltrated with Viet Cong we had to watch them, they were known to sabotage aircraft. We had an interpreter on every flight and if one of the ARVN soldiers did something suspicious I pointed him out. We never saw those guys again.”

Most missions involved transporting up to 75 troops into combat. The CH53 had.50 cal Browning machine guns on each side and in the pre-dawn hours of early morning a flight of 18 CH46 and 53 helicopters launched from the flight deck of the Okinawa.

“We’d form up and go and go up the coast. We were on the ground no more than 30 seconds,” Warner said. “We’d come in fast, turn sideways to bleed off the speed and the pilot would set us down.”

As a crew chief, Warner would hang out of the aircraft guiding the pilot down to unload troops.

“I’d watch for red eyes, a shoulder-mounted heat-seeking helicopter killer carried by NVA troops,” Warner said. “They’d go right up the exhaust and that was it.”

The NVA were an industrious, well-informed enemy.

“They’d wait until the 46’s landed and concentrate on the 53’s, we were a bigger target with more troops on board,” Warner said. “When we launched the ship would be surrounded by sampans, they knew what we were doing.”

One night the ship’s speaker system tuned into Hanoi Hannah’s propaganda broadcast.

“21 we almost go you today,” Hannah said. “We get you tomorrow.”

21 was the number on Warner’s CH53.

The political intrusion into the war was in high gear when Warner flew. “We had to request permission from HQ to fire back unless we were in a landing zone,” Warner said.

At 1:32 am Gunny Sgt. Whitcomb woke Warner up. “Get your feet on deck and get your plane ready to go,” Whitcomb said. “Get off your rack, you can pick your gunners.”

Picking your gunners was something a crew chief didn’t usually get to do.

“Can I pick Mac and PJ?” Warner asked. The two were fellow crew chiefs.

The CH53 lifted off with three crew chiefs on board and orders that couldn’t be opened until they were 20 miles off the ship.

“The pilot said, ‘Button up Sgt. Warner, but he had no idea where we were going,” Warner said. “I don’t know where we went, Laos or North Vietnam, we were in the air a long time. We had to be there at an exact time and look for yellow smoke.”

CH53 Marine helicopters operating off US Navy aircraft carriers were a key component of many clandestine operations {h/t US Marine Corps}

The yellow smoke finally appeared and the pilot set down the aircraft.

“I went out the back and a whole mess of NVA were chasing this guy,” Warner said. “The gunners opened up and pinned them down. He ran onboard and we took off. He was an Army sniper. I don’t know who he was but he must have hit someone big. The sniper grinned at me and said ‘I knew you guys would be there.”

They flew him to Da Nang.

“A lot of hot shots were there waiting for him. I asked him what he had done but he said, ‘Sorry sarge, I can’t tell you but tell the pilots and gunners thank you,” Warner said.

Counting bullet holes after a mission, tracing them to make sure they hadn’t damaged some important component of the aircraft, and then putting “peel and stick” aluminum patches over the holes was all part of each day’s mission.

Warner returned to the states for an assignment with a recruiter back in Minnesota. “That lasted just one day,” Warner said. “The recruiter didn’t appreciate my honesty.”

He was transferred back to California with HMH363, his original squadron.

He described his experience as exhilarating.

“I rode motorcycles for 40 years but I was never able to recreate that thrill,” Warner said. ‘I loved the 53.”

He left the Marine Corps in 1973, four years to the day after his enlistment.

“We did it so our sons wouldn’t have to do it,” Warner concluded. “Something our government hasn’t learned yet.”

Warner and Cheri were retired, on a small acreage near Riverton, Wyoming.

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