Voices of Veterans - Durwood Lewis

By: Tom Turbiville, Jordan Meserole Email
By: Tom Turbiville, Jordan Meserole Email

As Durwood Lewis scans his bookshelf filled with pictures, it’s almost a glimpse back into military history.

“My great-grandfather was in the civil war,” Lewis said, as he glazed at each picture carefully positioned on the bookshelf in his living room.

There are pictures of his son in a Navy uniform, and his grandson in a West Point uniform, among many others. And then there’s a snapshot from which most of the color has begun to fade from, of a pilot standing next to a fighter jet. At first glimpse it’s hard to tell who the mustached man is that’s wearing aviator sunglasses, but after a closer look it becomes clear it’s a young Lewis.

“That was my front-seater on a lot missions,” Lewis said, pointing to a younger pilot in the background of the same picture.

The Somerville High and Texas A&M graduate first finished navigator’s school in 1962, and immediately upon graduation from bombardier school, the Texas boy was sent to Travis Air Force Base in California to fly C-135 cargo planes.

“The whole Vietnam war was going through Travis at that time,” Lewis said. “So almost all of my missions were out in the Pacific Ocean, carrying mainly passengers to Vietnam.”

But in 1965, Lewis was assigned to a new critical role for the Air Force: conducting tropical storm reconnaissance as part of the “Hurricane Hunters” squadron. It was his job to be part of the team that flew directly into hurricanes --including in the Atlantic Ocean as well as into typhoons in the western parts of the Pacific Ocean -- to provide critical information about the storm back to the Department of Defense.

“I enjoyed it when we were doing it during the daytime – but when you fly into one of those things at night and there’s lightning all around you and you can’t see anything, it’s pretty scary,” Lewis said. “Once, we were in a wall cloud just north of Puerto Rico, and our number three engine just quit. And you’re supposed to feather the prop so the prop is just sitting there [to reduce drag]. So the pilot said ‘Feather three’, and the co-pilot said ‘Why are you feathering four?’ So we’re sitting there with two engines out in the wall-cloud of a hurricane in 150 mile per hour winds. But luckily they got the engine started back real quick and we turned around and went back home.”

In 1970, Lewis was transferred back to flying C-141’s as part of staging missions for the Vietnam War. But now he was also carrying back injured soldiers as part of air-vac missions, which impacted him greatly.

“Being a professional Air Force guy and seeing these young guys hurt badly, I really had a guilt trip and wanted to get in it,” Lewis said. “So one day I walked up to my squadron leader and there were two F-4’s sitting on the ramp. And I asked somebody ‘How do you get in those things’? And they said ‘You have to be crazy’. And I said ‘Well, I may qualify.”

Shortly after, Lewis transferred back to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to begin training to fly an F-4 fighter jet. Lewis also took it a step further and volunteered to officially go into Vietnam to be part of the war, in which the United States had been actively involved with major forces for close to 10 years at that point and had recently implemented the draft lottery to increase troop forces.

After his training completed, Lewis, who was now the rank of a Major, was sent to his first assignment in the war, in Qu-Rhat, as a back-seat navigator, or as many call it in the Air Force the “senior GIBS” [ guy in the back seat].

“Shortly after I got there – I think in April of ’72 – the North Vietnamese launched a huge offensive down through the DMZ [demilitarized zone] and down west of Ho Chi Minh City, or back then what they called Saigon,” Lewis said. “And we were very busy trying to stop the invasion up north by the DMZ and at the same time Saigon was being threatened from the west. So we’ fly out of Qu-Rhat, bomb down south, land at Bien-Hoa near Saigon, rearm and refuel, and fly another sortie [flight mission] and either come back to Bien-Hoa or Qu-Rhat.”

During the many missions Lewis flew, there were a few that stood out. One such instance came during a mission when he was escorting a chaff-bomber, which was dropping tin foil to disrupt the North Vietnamese’s radars. His front-seat pilot called out that he saw an enemy MiG-21 fighter jet coming from above their position in the air, a moment that Lewis never will forget.

“I just looked up and there he was. And I read in books about your blood going cold, and well, it really happens. I felt a chill,” Lewis said. “There’s a blind spot in my seat, and I can’t see over, just to the sides. But I knew he was behind us. And I think to myself, ‘This is it. I’m going to take a walk today.’ And sure enough, a few seconds later I look back and I see him at our 5-o’clock. And he just came right by us. I remember looking at him, and I could see the pilot. He had his funny looking goggles on. And for some reason he didn’t see us. He just went right by us.”

Shortly after passing them, the MiG-21 fighter launched a missile at the chaff-bomber and shot it down. The lead fighter jet in Lewis’ crew also fired a missile, hitting the enemy plane.

“And [the plane] blew up. The airplane was on fire all the way to the back. It was like slow-motion. I saw [the enemy pilot] eject up, and of course by that point we’re gone. So I don’t know if he survived or not, but I’m pretty sure he did,” Lewis said.

Another story that Lewis vividly recalls, is one that almost didn’t allow him to return home. On a mission to bomb a surface-to-air missile site [SAM site], one of Lewis’ cockpit SAM warning lights went off indicating a missile had been launched.

“I looked from side to side, and sure enough I saw it – it was there at about our 12-30. And it was guide-launched. I could see it – every time our airplane moved a little, it moved like it was nailed to us,” Lewis said. “I couldn’t look at it coming, so I ducked. And when I ducked my pilot pulled back on the stick and pulled about 8-G’s and put my head on my control stick. And the missile detonated and I could hear it hitting us.”

After the explosion, Lewis and his pilot began checking for warning lights indicating items such as engine failure, fuel loss, hydraulic failure, or other critical items that may have caused them to crash -- but found none. In addition to his pilot’s quick reflexes, Lewis attributes the 12 bombs attached below their plane for absorbing most of the shrapnel from when the missile exploded, preventing their in-air demise and saving their lives.

And as Lewis recounts his many in-air stories while glancing at his bookshelf of pictures, there’s one picture of a person not in uniform that he feels deserve more attention than he does.

“The people that ought to get credit are wives. Bernice took care of everything while I was gone. I never had to worry about bills getting paid, or the lawn getting mowed…she just took care of everything,” Lewis said. “And that’s the way it was with almost everybody back then. So I don’t think they get near the credit they deserve – they served a lot more than we did.”

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