WEATHERFORD — If you ask his family or friends, recognition for longtime Weatherford resident Roger Nelson has been a long time coming — 49 years and change, to be exact.
The former Blue Star Huey helicopter pilot was surprised by an intimate group of family, friends and Masonic brethren at Phoenix Lodge #275 Thursday afternoon, with a special commissioned painting to recognize his heroism during the Vietnam War.
"It's a memory that has stayed in my mind, but the good Lord was looking out for me," Nelson said following the surprise ceremony. "He's given me so much — my brothers here, my wife my friends ... it's just amazing and I can't say thank you enough."
A narrative of Nelson and his crew's mission in I Corps, South Vietnam in July, 1972, was read aloud for all to hear.
Following a helicopter assault launched by South Vietnamese Marines and the Airborne Division, Nelson, a first lieutenant piloting Blue Star 15, led five other Blue Star Hueys on a resupply mission in support of the South Vietnamese Offensive.
They were ordered to land on [Landing Zone] Sally, a former U.S. fire base southwest of the action near Quang Tri, and told to stand by for further tasks. Hours later, they were called out to an urgent medevac mission to pick up severely wounded South Vietnamese Rangers.
Several previous attempts had reportedly been made by the Vietnam Air Force Hueys, which were beaten back with heavy losses, and they had no more aircraft available to attempt another rescue.
The U.S. Army 48th Assault Helicopter Company Blue Stars were tasked to conduct the rescue mission, and Nelson, his co-pilot, crew chief and door gunner led the flight toward the Rangers. Prior to departure, Nelson was warned about the intense enemy fire, and notified that he could abort the mission.
He and his crew headed toward the landing zone, where Nelson observed the shot down aircrafts, and he made the decision to continue alone, ordering the rest of his flight to orbit well away from that area.
His Huey was surrounded by four attack Cobra helicopters, which providing firing support for the medevac mission, and the five American helicopters headed for the zone, flying low and fast in an attempt to avoid heat-seeking missiles.
As they flew, Nelson looked for green smoke — an indication of the landing zone — and upon spotting it, flew toward it, only to realize he had been briefed that the landing zone would be marked with purple smoke, not green, and that is was an attempt by the North Vietnamese to lead him into a more intense ambush.
Nelson banked toward the purple smoke and the correct landing zone and into a heavy attack of exploding shells, flying shrapnel, crisscross tracers, smoke and fire. His crew chief and door gunner returned fire at the soldiers, while the other four Cobras were fully engaged in making multiple flying passes to cover Nelson's approach into the hot landing zone.
The Huey landed, and Rangers rapidly loaded 15 of their wounded men aboard the aircraft — overloading it to the point that Nelson had to apply maximum power just to initially get it off the ground and fly low to depart — and the Huey was able to cross back through enemy fire and transport the wounded to safety.
"You're my hero," one of Nelson's fellow lodge members said with a hug, following Thursday's ceremony.
The painting will hang in the lodge where Nelson serves as secretary. A smaller version will be given to Nelson to take home and another version will be donated to the National Vietnam War Museum off Highway 180 in far western Parker County.