SHERIDAN — Robert Lewis spent more time training for his position as a helicopter electrician and rescue air crewman than he did in active warfare in the U.S. Navy. But as he was preparing to be someone who replenished necessary supplies by airlifting pallets of goods to soldiers while pulling people from the waters below, the job called for the time investment.
Thanks to an electrical class the Sheridan native took at Sheridan High School, Lewis scored well on the electrician aptitude tests in basic training. From there, he was given a choice between being an electrician on a ship, on a vehicle or on an aircraft.
“Along with the aircraft there came the potential of flying, and with flying came extra money, which we needed because we had a young family at the time,” Lewis said. “It was a lot of extra training and a lot of extra work but it was worth it.”
Lewis’ training started with 1,000 hours of electrician school in Florida, then he was off to California to learn about his aircraft. But his job carried a lot more responsibility than just maintaining a helicopter, and therefore a lot more training.
“The part for the air crewman was a lot of training in the water, training in the aircraft pulling people out of the water,” he said. “You had to go through hand-to-hand combat training due to the possibility of being shot down over enemy territory and being captured. There was survival training where they left us in the dessert for seven full days with one canteen full of water in a small group of about 10, then you use your own wits to get food and water.”
The only food his group actually caught that week was one rabbit, so they dined on rabbit stew under the stars for an evening.
“I got a cup of rabbit stew with an eyeball in the middle, I remember that,” Lewis said. “But it was still delicious. It reminded me of the biggest juiciest burger I ever had at that point.”
After about a year of learning, Lewis knew everything there was to know about maintaining his UH46 helicopter.
And after spending time with his squadron in Imperial, California, at a base called Ream Field — which no longer exists — repairing and rapid troubleshooting helicopters that came back from war broken, it was off to Vietnam.
“We took two helicopters over and boarded the U.S.S. Niagara Falls for nine months,” Lewis said. “It was probably different for us to be on a ship because we were the air dales, so our daily work was completely different from the sailors on the ships. We had little interaction with the crew.
“As far as the shipboard life itself, it wasn’t all that bad,” he continued. “We were just a small cog in a big wheel, doing our own little part.”
Lewis’ “little part” included 14 to 16 hour days, daily, in which he only had time to “work, sleep and take a shower” as the helicopter was always in demand.
“We were busy when we got overseas; anytime they needed a helicopter, they would use us,” he said. “We did what they call vert repping, vertical replenishment, from ship to ship while they were still cruising. We took pallets of goods, live animals and whatever they needed. …There were other times we would do medical runs and take sick and injured personnel to hospital ships.”
While overseas, Lewis did one rescue air crewman mission in which he retrieved a soldier from the water; however, he doesn’t like to talk about that mission, as the man wasn’t alive when the helicopter got to him.
Being aboard the ship that carried all the necessary supplies for all the other ships, and airlifting supplies into war zones made Lewis’ chopper and crew a pretty important enemy target.
“It was not the place to be at the time,” he said with a laugh. “But thank goodness we made it back.”
Lewis recalls one mission in which they were sent ashore carrying replacement blades for a Marine helicopter that had been damaged in Da Nang when they were fired upon.
“We had bullet holes in the blades of our helicopter and as soon as the blades were hit they whistled really loud which gave us away easier than we wanted,” he said. “So we popped her way up to 8,000 feet until we got to Da Nang and went straight down and then got back to the ship that same way. We still got them their parts.”
When all the hard work and excitement was over, Lewis was ready to go home.
Lewis’ commitment to doing his part meant leaving behind a 1-year-old daughter and wife, and he really missed them.
“It’s one bad thing about being away: Shannon (his eldest daughter) had really changed when I got back,” Lewis said. “I missed out on a lot of things, but that’s the way it is. I needed a steady job and steady income and there wasn’t much around here at the time. My wife had mixed feelings on it, but she was supportive.”
So the small family returned to Sheridan, with another short stint away for work in Casper, and began to grow.
Today, Lewis and his wife have three children — all girls — and four grandchildren. Last week they celebrated 50 years of marriage.
Since it was work that brought Lewis away from his family, and away from his beloved hometown of Sheridan, today he stresses the importance of giving veterans a chance at a job.
“I see ads on TV these days asking people to hire veterans, and I wish it was like that back then because nobody wanted to hire you when you got out of the service,” he said. “Now they are explaining that you are a better person for serving and they are making it a priority to hire vets.”