MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – A retired flight engineer gave 34 years of his life to the Navy and the Air Force, flying in missions over Vietnam and the South Pole.
"I did a modification to the airplane that has prevented us from losing a lot of missions," said veteran Al Stahl, while showing his very own designs in an airplane manual.
The retired chief master sergeant has almost as many medals as he does memories. They include the Navy’s Good Conduct and Achievement medals, as well as one for Distinguished Service upon his retirement.
Stahl’s aviation expertise also took him to the South Pole, where he flew delivery missions for the Air National Guard. He said the science is inspiring.
"We picked up meteorites on glaciers not only from here, but on the moon and from Mars. I've touched Mars, so that makes it worthwhile to do some of that stuff," Stahl said.
His 34 years of service started in Vietnam, where he flew P3 patrol aircraft from 1965 to 1969.
"We flew what was known as the market time patrol, which is basically along the coast of Vietnam all the way along 300 feet off the water, looking for junks bringing arms into South Vietnam. (It was) not unusual to be fired at most of the time," he said. "It was an eerie feeling, especially at night, watching the tracers coming up at you. You never thought they were going to hit you but that did happen a couple of times."
Stahl lost two planes and 24 of his men.
"The one took the shell in the center bay tank as they call it – No. 5 - and blew up instantly, and the other one took it in the right wing and as they were trying to divert to an emergency field as the fuel was coming out, they rolled over and the back went,” he said. “The bodies, as far as I know, all were recovered."
Decades later, the losses are still indelible and even more devastating knowing that Stahl was scheduled to be on one of the planes that went down. Just before flight, he was needed on the ground instead.
"It's tough. It's, I would call it almost surreal, the feeling,” he said. “I was 22 when I was there, 22-23, so it's different."
"I can see him salute at military functions and he has such a sharp, sharp wonderful salute and I can pick him out in a crowd," said Stahl's wife, Vicki. "He is such a proud veteran and I am so proud of him for the way he serves and his respect for others, not just veterans but everyone."
The two continue to show their respect and honor through VFW volunteer efforts. As for Vicki, she says she wouldn't have survived heart surgeries in the past year without his relentless support.
“He goes the extra mile to extend his hand to veterans and welcome the Vietnam veterans back, and he's especially proud to speak and talk to the older veterans, World War II vets and such, career vets,” she said. “(He’s) very proud of what he does for the VFW and I'm proud of him in everyday life. He's my hero. He's been by my side for the last year when I struggled with medical issues, and not only is he my hero he's my nurse."
Stahl is simply honored to serve, no matter the mission.
"Well it's very humbling, you know, when you get ‘Thank you for your service’ and all that,” he said. “That's just my honor and pleasure to do that for this country, which I love so strongly. Being a first generation American, I think most people don't realize what this country means to a lot of us."
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