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Soldier for Life

Fort Campbell Vietnam veteran reconnects with past

  • 5 min to read

A Fort Campbell civilian and Army veteran recently embarked on a journey to recover memories and find old friends from his time serving in Vietnam

He finally reconnected with an old mentor and friend almost 50 years after leaving Vietnam.

Retired Warrant Officer 2 Joe Broadaway, installation maintenance representative for the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, grew up in a small rural community in North Carolina. He learned how to work hard from a young age with a natural love for cars and learning how things worked.

Life changing

Straight out of high school, Broadaway enlisted in the Army.

“I finished high school in 1969 and entered the Army in the same year,” Broadaway said. “After basic training and AIT, I went to Vietnam. I was a young kid, only 19 years old. My experience over there was a life changer for me.”

When Broadaway first arrived in Vietnam, he worked as an aircraft repairman from June to November 1970. Broadaway’s unit dissolved and he was transferred to the 116th Assault Helicopter Company in Cu Lai, Vietnam.

New Soldiers of the 116th had to prove themselves to the rest of the group and were typically hazed, Broadaway said. As one of the only black Soldiers in the unit, and the only one working on the helicopters, he had to work hard every single day to prove himself and gain more responsibilities and knowledge.

“The Army was integrated, but it still was … difficult,” Broadaway said. “There weren’t really other black Soldiers I was around much. It was a feeling of being culturally different. In the unit, I never had anyone who did anything cruel to me. The pilots treated me well, I took care of their aircrafts. I became platoon sergeant, and at the time half the unit was from the South, and there were some issues being taken seriously by them.”

Broadaway said he made sure he worked twice as hard so he would be taken seriously and to learn more about his trade as a mechanic.

“Sometimes they would get mad with me, because they wouldn’t let me try anything they taught, they just wanted me to watch,” Broadaway said. “When they would go to lunch, I would take it apart and learn how to do it myself. When they got back, they would be mad and warn me it had to be perfect or I would be in even more trouble. I always made sure it was right. They gave me a lot of the dirty jobs in the beginning, but it made me a better mechanic.”

There was one pilot who took a chance on Broadaway, which altered the course of his career forever. The pilot was Chief Warrant Officer 4 Gary Wilfley, who said he saw something special in Broadaway.

“It took a person with a very strong work ethic to become a flight crew chief, and he had it,” Wilfley said. “I saw potential in him and believed he could do it.”

Wilfley told Broadaway he could become a crew chief on flights, but only if he put together an old skeleton of a helicopter, known as the Hangar Queen. The Hangar Queen had been grounded for months and was slowly being picked apart by other maintenance techs for parts to repair other helicopters.

“I was able to reassemble the helicopter and get it out of the hangar,” Broadaway said. “It looked like it had a disease, I put it back together with pieces from all of these different aircrafts, so I went and got paint and repainted it to one color. I had the best-looking aircraft in the whole unit, and Gary made me his official crew chief for the Gun Platoon like he promised.”

Wilfley and Broadaway flew on several missions together and survived several crashes and uncountable firefights. Broadaway was responsible for inspecting the helicopters and keeping records of the flights, repairing them and providing gun cover during missions.

“In Vietnam I saw a lot of death, a lot of death,” Broadaway said. “It hasn’t bothered me too much. I’ve survived five helicopter crashes. I can still remember how it felt when we would hit the ground. The first flight I was on after the first crash, we got shot down. For the rest of my time in Vietnam, I wore all of my protective gear for every flight, I got scared.”

After flying many missions together, Wilfley and Broadaway bonded over shared experiences, oftentimes, scary ones.

Coming home

When it was time to come home in 1971, they never saw or heard from each other again. Broadaway stayed in the Army and finished out his career working on helicopters, and Wilfley went home to work on the railroad and start his Family.

“I made a career out of it,” Broadaway said. “I went to Fort Knox afterwards, joining the heavy maintenance helicopter company, and then then the unit moved here to Fort Campbell to support the 101st coming back from Vietnam in January 1972, and I stayed here with the unit until 1980.”

Broadaway married his hometown sweetheart, Ruby, after he completed basic training in December 1969. Together they have three children. They have lived in Germany, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and many times at Fort Campbell. They now reside in Clarksville.

“Fort Campbell was my final assignment, I was in 2nd Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, the Apache Battalion, as a maintenance officer,” Broadaway said. “Overall, the Army was good to me. I don’t have any regrets about it, there are some things I would do better, though. I had 25 years, 11 months, and 16 days of service when I retired. I’ve been here at my job ever since.”

Old friendship forged in war

Still, decades later, Broadaway wondered about his old friends in the 116th, and it turns out they were wondering about him, too.

“We were pretty sure he was alive,” Wilfley said. “You lose contact over time. There used to be a system where you could find old orders or a group award, they had their social security numbers on the orders and you could look them up. We never found Joe’s on any of the orders we’ve looked at before this.”

In January, Broadaway was scrolling through Facebook when he saw a posting about the 116th. Broadaway had made a habit of search for his old unit online but had never found much information.

“I never have anyone to discuss Vietnam with,” Broadaway said. “I don’t work around any Vietnam veterans. You just don’t have the tenacity to bring it up if you don’t have someone who understands it.”

After seeing the posting on Facebook, Broadaway reached out to the page and found himself in contact with his old unit and his old friends once again. He began talking on the phone with old friends for hours, and eventually, found himself in contact with Wilfley.

“It’s like you have a memory bank, and when you start talking it just opens it back up,” Broadaway said. “Now it’s flashbacks as if it were just yesterday, things I had forgotten about. Just by having a conversation, little things start popping up. We were just young kids.”

Wilfley drove from his home in Indianapolis, Indiana, March 13, to Clarksville for a visit with Broadaway. They had not seen each other in almost 50 years.

“He’s part of the brotherhood, I’ve been trying to chase him down,” Wilfley said. “I had to see him, I had to get him involved with the unit again. Vietnam set our lives up, they were formative years, and it shapes you.”

During the visit, a lot of old memories, some good and some hard, were brought up. The two old friends went to the Brig. Gen. Don F. Pratt Memorial Museum and stood inside the Vietnam War exhibit looking at relics from the war they fought in.

“It’s great to know you aren’t forgotten,” Broadaway said. “He was the one who helped me progress and I’ve used the skills I learned from him and being in the military ever since. The military played a major role in who I am today. If I hadn’t been in the military, I don’t have a clue on what my life would have turned out to be.”

The visit was therapeutic for both Broadaway and Wilfley, and it has became the relaunch of an old friendship.

“It means a lot for him to have driven all this way to come see me,” Broadaway said. “Going back and reuniting with him, a guy I met when I was 20 years old, and reliving that time, the more of my memories are coming back to the surface.”

The veterans of the 116th try to have a reunion at least every four years, but often they get together in smaller groups as frequently as possible. Broadaway is planning to attend the next reunion, no matter where it is, and stay connected with Wilfley.

“After this meeting with Gary, I’m going to make more of an effort to reconnect with the people I served with over there,” Broadaway said.

“This has opened up another chapter in my life, this is my chapter two of the 116th.”

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