USMC, VIETNAM, 1968
Charles “Chuck” Songer was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania in 1946. He graduated in 1965 from W.T. Woodson High School in northern Virginia. As a young man he had been inspired by President Kennedy’s speech to “ask what you can do for your country” and this led him to join the Marine Corps, hitting Parris Island in July 1965.
While in Boot Camp, Chuck took the flight aptitude tests and applied for the Marine Aviation Cadet program. This was a dual-purpose course to qualify as an officer and an aviator. After Boot Camp, he was sent to Camp Gieger for infantry training and then to Camp Lejeune to train as a spotter in the 2nd Air & Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. In November, he was notified of his acceptance for flight training and he transferred to Naval Air Station Pensacola in December 1965.
After completing the basic fixed-wing training in T-34s and T-28s, Chuck was assigned to the helicopter pipeline, where he would train on TH-13’s and the larger H-34s. In June of 1967 Chuck earned his wings and commission as a 2/Lt at the age of 20.
Chuck was sent to the New River Air Station and attached to HMM-161 where he began a nine-month intense training period in the CH-46. This aircraft was to be crewed in combat by two pilots (or pilot and co-pilot), a crew chief, two 50 caliber gunners and if necessary, a corpsman. He describes it as a “sweet to fly, twin-engine, tandem rotor” aircraft suitable for troop/medevac transport, internal/external cargo loads and very maneuverable. It was set up for night and instrument flying as well. The squadron commander, Lt. Col. Paul Niesen, was an inspirational leader, especially to the newly commissioned aviators.
In late Fall 1967, Chuck got engaged to a nursing student he had been good friends with in high school. His squadron was scheduled for deployment to Vietnam but training was delayed for a period due to structural issues with the CH-46. When it became evident the delay would preclude his being available on the planned wedding date, Chuck called his fiancé and they decided to marry that weekend and so, in January 1968, they were wed.
In April his squadron finally was cleared and loaded up to deploy. Now a 1/Lt., Chuck and the squadron flew their aircraft cross country to San Diego where they met up with the aircraft carrier, the USS Princeton. Next stop was Quang Tri air base, near the DMZ, in May 1968, shortly after the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe San. They were immediately put to work supporting and transporting ground troops, doing medevac and resupply missions. They were often sent into hot LZ’s to extract troops or the wounded and were often hit with enemy fire.
Lt. Songer was in country for only 94 days, flying on 75 of those days. On what would be his last mission, his aircraft was part of a large flight to move troops in an assault just south of the DMZ. Right after the troops deployed and while lifting of, the cockpit was sprayed with AK-47 fire. He received serious wounds to his right leg. The other pilot flew him to the aid station at Quang Tri to be stabilized. From there he was airlifted first to Danang and then to the 249th General Army Hospital in Japan.
Eventually he arrived at Bethesda Naval hospital for skin grafts and physical therapy. This hospital was also close to the civilian hospital where his wife (his favorite nurse) worked and could also assist in his recovery. While he was relieved that his injury would keep him from returning to Vietnam, he regretted that he was deserting his close friends from the squadron and remained in touch with them. In addition to the support of family and friends, the thing that has helped Chuck and other members of his squadron to resolve many of their Vietnam memories has been through attending regular reunions. It has allowed the veterans to slowly over time help each other to heal.
Ultimately, Chuck was given a disability retirement in 1972 as his injury permanently disqualified him from flying. He left the Marine Corps having earned the Air Medal with a Bronze Star and sixteen Strike/Flight awards and the Purple Heart.
Chuck then attend Dickinson College (Carlisle PA), graduating with a degree in Political Science. He and his wife had two daughters and he worked for the next 42 in the PA Child Protection Services system.
He retired in 2013, moving with his wife to Massachusetts to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
(Chuck is in the tan jump suit.)
(Chuck and wife surrounded by family)