by Cliff Buchan
Forest Lake Times
There is never a Memorial Day when Jeff Savelkoul doesn’t pause to remember the men and women of the armed forces who died in service of their country. As a Marine who fought and was seriously wounded in the Vietnam War, Savelkoul knows the heartache of what the ultimate sacrifice means.
On the calendar, Monday, May 27, will mark another Memorial Day as veterans and their communities pause to honor the fallen. But this Memorial Day will mean much more for Savelkoul, 65, a resident of East Bethel.
This year will mark the closure of an important chapter in Savelkoul’s life, a chapter that was opened on June 30, 1967, when his Marine Third Reconnaissance Battalion striker team helicopter was shot down in Vietnam. The fiery crash claimed the lives of five of the eight-member team and the chopper pilot. Only three striker Marines and three members of the chopper crew made it out that day; a striker team member died three days later in Japan.
The bodies of four team members and the pilot of the CH-46 gunship were not recovered. The Marines were officially listed as missing in action.
Now 46 years removed from that horrible day in the jungles near Khe Sanh, Savelkoul’s decade-old quest to bring his fallen buddies home is about to be completed. Thanks to determined efforts by searchers from JPAC – the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command – the remains of the five lost Marines have been recovered and are in the process of being returned to the United States for burial.
Bringing home his fallen buddies has long been Savelkoul’s passion.
“It was a recurring dream for me for 46 years,” he said.
His role is not yet over. On June 23 he will leave for Honolulu, Hawaii, as the family representative of Lance Cpl. Merlin Allen of Bayfield, Wis. Savelkoul and an active duty Marine will escort Allen’s casket back to Minneapolis and assist in the journey north. Members of the Patriot Guard from Minnesota and Wisconsin will lead the procession.
The remains will be cremated at a funeral home in Washburn, Wis., where a public visitation is planned for Friday evening, June 28, followed by a memorial service on Saturday, June 29, at Bayfield High School. Interment will follow at the Allen family memorial on York Island of the Apostle Island chain of Lake Superior.
The fact that Savelkoul survived the war helped fuel his desire to bring closure to the worst day of his life.
It wasn’t an easy recovery as Savelkoul suffered from multiple broken bones and third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body. There was a time in the first few days after the crash that he was not expected to live, he said.
Thanks to a mercy flight for seriously wounded soldiers, Savelkoul and Marine Dennis Perry of Perry, Ga., were sent from their base camp at Phu Bai to a hospital at Da Nang and on to Japan. As Savelkoul turned to speak to Perry on July 3, he watched helplessly as his team member’s life ended. By the next day, Savelkoul was airlifted to Brooks Army Burn Center at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas.
His physical appearance was scarred for life. He would undergo 32 surgeries during a 13-month recovery in Texas and at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis. Skin graft after skin graft was necessary, but a last ditch attempt was successful in staving off the amputation of his right arm.
He tried to take it all in stride as he moved to civilian life.
“I had to be strong,” he said. “I had to learn to deal with it.”
He had survived the crash. He knew he could survive the stares and those who refused to make eye contact with a badly wounded soldier.
“Everybody looks,” he said. “It’s just human nature.”
Savelkoul knew he had turned a corner in his life in 1968. He became engaged to his Fridley High School sweetheart, Karen Bjorngjeld, at Christmas in 1967 and they married on June 28, 1968. He received certification as an electrician from Dunwoody Industrial Institute and went on to carve out a career as an electrician.
The first 10 years of married life and work flew by.
“I hit the ground running,” he said.
But the fate of the five missing Marines in the jungles of Vietnam never left him, and at times he was haunted with guilt.
And there was more bitterness to the story.
Team leader Eugene Castenada of Honolulu had survived the crash along with point man Mariano Guy Jr. of El Paso, Texas. Both Marines had injuries of their own, but played key roles in the rescue of the wounded Marines more than two hours after being shot down.
On Aug. 12, 1967, Castenada was killed in action while taking part in a reconnaissance mission. Savelkoul never knew the fate of Guy and assumed for years he had died in the war only to learn decades later that he had been reassigned away from the combat zone.
Slowly, Savelkoul made progress as his physical and mental pains eased. But finding Allen was always on his mind. Allen had befriended Savelkoul from his first day in Vietnam and helped teach him the ropes. When the CH-46 received that fatal hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, Savelkoul believes he was shielded in part by Allen, who likely died instantly.
For years, Savelkoul struggled with the desire to make contact with his best friend’s parents but could never bring himself to do it. There were several long drives from his home in Linwood to Bayfield.
“I could never face them,” he said.
He would sit at the end of the Allen driveway but never knocked on the door – not until 1983.
He quickly found that Allen’s parents, Eleanor and Skip (Alden) Allen, welcomed him like and a son and appreciated his effort. It opened a lasting friendship between the Savelkouls and the Allens. That included the four surviving siblings of Merl Allen. One of Allen’s brothers, Sean, lives in Cambridge.
It was the encouragement of the Allens that helped push Savelkoul to continue his efforts to help find the remains of the five Marines.
“I always kept looking, digging up leads,” he said of his search to help find his buddies. He worked with many military reunion groups and became active in recon associations. He crosschecked facts with details from other groups such as helicopter pilot associations.
In 1999, officials from JPAC began to explore the hillsides where Team Striker went down. A wristwatch, a Saint Christopher medal and rosary beads belonging to Savelkoul were found during a site visit in 2000. The recovery mission met heartbreak two years later when a helicopter carrying a JPAC team to the site crashed, killing all aboard.
“I had thought it was all over,” Savelkoul said of the search efforts. “There comes a point when you’ve done all you can do. I didn’t know they were going back last year.”
It was a year ago when JPAC notified Savelkoul that the remains of all five Marines had been recovered. Based on dental records, the remains of Allen and Michael Judd of Cleveland, Ohio, were positively identified. Judd’s family has elected to inter his remains at Arlington National Cemetery in July.
The identification process for the others continues.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, college life and military service were two common paths for young men in America.
After high school graduation in 1965, he enrolled at St. Cloud State College in the fall and returned home in the winter to attend Anoka-Ramsey Community College. By April 1967, he followed the path of high school pal Bruce Peterson by enlisting in the Marines. Savelkoul was 18 when he enlisted and 19 when he arrived in Vietnam.
He finished basic training in California and spent extra duty training as a radioman at communication school before shipping out for Vietnam.
“I was supposed to be in a nice office twisting radio knobs,” Savelkoul said.
He arrived near the front and Khe Sanh at a time when recon units were taking heavy losses and badly in need of replacements.
“They were filling holes wherever they could,” he said.
He volunteered for recon duty as the second radio behind Allen. Marines on recon duty would spend three days in the jungle assessing enemy troop movements and bomb damage. On many occasions, their days were spent on the run from the enemy. Three-day missions would often extend to five days.
Team Striker was one of just two recon teams at full strength when it was sent out June 29 only to meet heavy ground fire. The team returned to base, but was dispatched again the next day for a late afternoon insertion. American planes dropped bombs and fired rockets at the landing zone. It did little but pinpoint for the enemy where the landing would take place, Savelkoul said.
Little did Team Striker know it was landing in a staging area for two North Vietnamese battalions that were preparing for the Tet offensive against Hue City that would happen in early 1968. Some 800 enemy troops were waiting.
The chopper had opened its tailgate and was closing in on the landing zone when it came under heavy ground fire. The eight-member striker team and the side gunners returned fire, but the RPG that ripped open the chopper was a fatal hit. The inside of the helicopter became an inferno as fuel entered the cabin and caught fire.
Pilot House tried valiantly to fly the badly damaged 27-ton chopper from the hot zone but could not clear a hill, Savelkoul said. The chopper crashed in the trees and pitched out some of its occupants. By the time Savelkoul hit the ground, the attack claimed the lives of Allen, corpsman Judd and riflemen John Killen from Des Moines, Iowa, and Glyn Runnels from Montavalo, Ala. House could not be pulled from the burning helicopter and was lost.
Savelkoul’s clothes had been burned from his body and only one boot remained. It was Castenada and Guy who led Savelkoul and Perry to safety. Savelkoul held Perry in his arms with a lone remaining hand grenade at the ready, should enemy troops approach. The unit’s weapons were all lost in the fiery crash.
It was more than two hours later when the pilot of a rescue helicopter by luck saw the burst of a pencil flare fired by Castenada. The men had six pencil flares and it was the sixth that caught the eye of the pilot.
The rescue scene was too dense for a sling to be lowered. Guy climbed the tree and cut away branches to allow a rope to be lowered. He was under small arms fire as he worked.
“It was easily Silver Star stuff,” Savelkoul said of Guy’s life-saving efforts. “If it wasn’t for Junior (Guy’s nickname), I wouldn’t be here today.”
There was a moment when Savelkoul thought he was dying. After sitting for more than two hours and fighting to not pass out, he suddenly became cold and everything was turning dark. As he opened his eyes he realized the darkness was caused by the rescue helicopter as it blocked the setting sun and the cool came from the wind whipped up by its blades.
For 23 years Savelkoul never learned what happened to Guy. Thanks to the digging of another Marine, George Neville of Pennsylvania, it was learned that Guy had been sent out because his brother, Willie Acosta, was serving in another recon unit. It was only later learned that because of the tradition and custom of their homeland, the Philippines, someone in the family was required to keep the mother’s last name of Acosta. The last name confusion was never detected at the time, Savelkoul said, even though the brothers shared the same tent.
It was in 1990 at a reunion in Las Vegas when Guy and Savelkoul were reunited. Each had lived for 23 years thinking he was the sole survivor of Team Striker.
“We broke down, hugged, cried, the whole gamut,” Savelkoul said.
Guy will make the trip from Texas in June to help escort Allen’s casket from the Wisconsin border near Grantsburg. His brother also survived the war.
Following the service on June 29, a private interment is planned on York Island. A World War II-era LCT landing craft that saw service at Normandy Beach has been made available to take the delegation to York Island.
The island was at one time owned by the Allens but became federal property years ago. The family, however, prior to the transfer, deeded a small parcel to Russell Township on the mainland and was granted a perpetual access to a five-acre lakefront parcel.
It is here where Marine Allen’s ashes will be interred alongside those of his parents at the base of the monument that honors the Marine’s sacrifice.
It will be a bittersweet ending for Savelkoul, who has spent countless hours to see this day. Of the 16 members of the Marine Third Reconnaissance Battalion who were not accounted for after the war, only one remains MIA.
It is only in recent years that Savelkoul has shared this story. The publicity should not be about him but about those lost and now found, he said.
“The attention always went to me,” he said of his disdain for publicity. “It was all about the other guys and getting them home. I was blessed with the gift of life.”