Scraps from crashed planes converted from weapons of war to table utensils

Scraps from crashed planes converted from weapons of war to table utensils
  By JOHN BRANNON

Messenger Staff Reporter

In the form of a humble tablespoon comes a piece of American military history from the Vietnam war.

Three of them were received at The Messenger recently from Tom Kerner, a special education teacher at Forest Park Middle School in Springfield, Mass.

Kerner and Messenger reporter John Brannon were crew members on P2E flights over Laos, Cambodia, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam war. Kerner earned and was awarded 70 Air Medals, Brannon 28.

A career teacher, Kerner has spent four summer breaks on trips to Southeast Asia. On Aug. 24, he returned from an eight-week trip to Vietnam, where he visited Dien Bien Phu and Hanoi.

Kerner reported that in outback Laos, villagers pillage crash sites of U.S. helicopters and fixed wing aircraft shot down during the Vietnam war to salvage aluminum.

“There was a lot of military aircraft buried, not only on the surface, but some of it slammed into the earth,” said Kerner, 59. “The ‘skin’ of these aircraft was aluminum. Aluminum melts at a low enough temperature, you can do it at home. So a cottage industry has sprung up in a lot of villages based on the salvaged aluminum.”

Kerner, a Vietnamese linguist, said his 70 Air Medals may have set a record. (To qualify for one Air Medal, one must have flown 25 hours of combat assault or combat assault support on target.)

“I was in the air a lot. It seems like every day. You’ve got to remember, we didn’t have many linquists by that time. We were down to eight, total,” Kerner said.

Flights into enemy territory lasted 12 to 14 hours, start to finish.

An accomplished linguist in the written and spoken word, Kerner is a graduate of the Defense Language Institute West Coast, where he learned Vietnamese prior to going to Vietnam in the 1960s.

In 2005, on his second trip, he and a fellow linguist, Tom Heller, went to an historical area of Laos known as the Plain of Jars. They hired the same tour guide they’d had the year before.

“John had made friends with the guy,” Kerner said. “To go any place in the Plain of Jars, the government requires you to have a licensed guide because there is still a lot of unexploded ordnance in the ground. When you’re going through the Jar site, if you walk off the path, you’re putting your legs and life in jeopardy.

“One evening, when we got back, the tour guide invited us to his house for dinner. He was a nice guy, very friendly. Well, we were sitting there eating, and we’re using these spoons. He saw me kind of studying my spoon and said casually, ‘That came from a U.S. airplane.’”

“I said, ‘What??!!’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah.’

“I said, ‘Where can I buy some of these spoons?’ He said, ‘Just go into the market place.’

“Well, the next day, he was taking  us to a North Vietnamese cave hospital that was located just west of the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was a field hospital, located in a complex of caves. We stopped at a market place. I started looking around for those spoons. Some guy had 10 of them, tied together with a rubber band. I said, ‘How much are the spoons?’ He told the price and I started haggling with him. Heller got really annoyed. He said, ‘Do you know how cheap those are?’ It was something like a buck for all 10. I paid the buck and took all 10.

“So the three spoons I sent you came from a crashed US helicopter or fixed wing aircraft. If those spoons could talk, what stories they would tell.”

John Brannon may be reached at jbrannon@ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger 10.01.08

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