June 25, 2018
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Memorial Day stories of veterans: Jim Steiner and Richard Vogel

  • Richard Vogel was a former Brigadere General USAFR and also flew missions in Vietnam and Desert Storm. Bill Hanson

By: Bill Hanson
May 25, 2018

Memorial Day is the official day to commemorate those who have served in the armed forces to protect and defend our country and our allies. Far too many brave defenders have paid the ultimate sacrifice by losing their lives in that noble effort. Many came home horribly wounded physically and emotionally, some to the extent that they are unable to lead a ‘normal’ life. No soldier came back home unchanged by the experience. Meet two men for whom military service changed their lives forever.

Jim Steiner

Today, Jim Steiner works on projects in his home. His redwood furniture pieces are works of art. Through his creative use of the natural beauty of the grain, swirls and highlights his designs move and flow with the wood. Today Jim is disabled and lives in Petaluma with Lani, his wife of 45 years.

Jim was born as a third generation San Franciscan only four blocks from the place where his father was born near Bernal Heights. Jim remembers his dad’s story of his granddad sitting with his father as a young boy in the spring of 1906 as they watched the city burn after the historic April 18 earthquake. 

Jim became a truck driver early in his adult years in the 1960s. He had to report to the induction center twice a year and intentionally failed his exams to remain out of service. Jim grew up speaking a dialect unique to his part of the city, called Southie for ‘South of the Slot,’ the term for those who lived south of Market Street. Nearly extinct now the unique dialogue has long vowels and inflections of native New Yorkers. 

“In basic training I was in a company of guys from New York. They asked me what part of Brooklyn I was from because to their ear, I had an odd accent,” Steiner said.

As Vietnam heated up he knew he was going to be drafted and he then passed his exams with flying colors. He was able to choose his assignment in the service and chose to drive men and supplies. After basic training he was sent to Vietnam and headed up convoys trucking men and material into the jungles. 

“One time we were stopped by heavy fire from the bush. I called in a strike on an assigned frequency. In the middle of the operation an officer far away from the battle came on his channel. He ordered me to clear the line. I told him this line was secure and dedicated for my use to direct incoming air support for the convoy. After a heated exchange I told him to make his call elsewhere, that his interference was costing the lives of personnel on the battlefield. He left and the mission went ahead. There is nothing so beautiful as a wing of F-4 Phantoms lighting up the night sky as they punish the enemy who had been raining fire on us. After they finished we were able to drive, without opposition, to the foreword positions with the much needed men and supplies,” Steiner recalled. 

It was later in his deployment that he sustained a major injury.

“One night in my 10th month, I was delivering ammo and flares to an area that was taking enemy fire. I had just left off the critical supplies and was walking back to the jeep when, what I thought was a truck, hit me in the face. I was stunned, I put my hand up to see if I was OK and the right side of my face was missing. I sank to the ground and called for help. The two officers I had just left came running, when they shone the light on me they both gasped and started dragging me to the infirmary. There they stopped the bleeding and packed the wound. Next day I was flown out to a real hospital and eventually to San Francisco. I was assigned to the, then new, Letterman hospital at the Presidio where they had just opened the ninth floor. I was the first patient in bed 901. I have had many surgeries, in one of the early ones they took my seventh rib and grafted it to rebuild my jaw. The doctors said that if that sniper bullet had been just a few degrees to the left it would have taken off my head,” Steiner said.

Richard Vogel Brigadier General USAFR

Clear eyed and boyish in his 80s, Richard Vogel, Brigadier General U.S.A.F., spoke of his earliest memories of wanting to be a jet fighter pilot. He was born on a farm near Akron, Ohio and grew up with military planes passing by from the nearby Air Force base. 

“I was mesmerized by the graceful Corsair fighters who would train, doing war games and dog fights. I was driving the tractor one day and the dog fights were right there over my head. The next day my father really gave it to me. ‘Son what is wrong with you!? You can’t drive a simple tractor down a straight line! You’ve run over acres of corn!’ I dreamed of being a jet fighter pilot one day,” Vogel said. 

“As soon as I was old enough I took the exams for the ROTC program in our college. I was accepted and worked hard at my studies for four years, during that time I was also doing military training. After graduation I went into flight school as a second lieutenant. After flight school I was assigned to fly big B-47s, no fighter jet but a graceful jet with swept wings, I flew whatever assignment they sent me for three years. I still wanted to be a fighter pilot and was assigned to fly the B-52 for four years. It was during this time that I was in fear for my life and the future of the world. President Kennedy stood up to the Russians in October of 1962. The event was the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’. I was assigned to be on high alert, ready to be in the air in minutes to execute a nuclear strike. I slept in the plane filled with nuclear weapons for over two weeks while the crisis played out. Our two countries were on the very edge of war in those days, we were at DEFCON 1 (The defense readiness condition. Broken into five levels with level one as the highest state of readiness. It means an attack/counter attack is eminent.) and I was prepared to follow orders. 

Later I was assigned to the D.E.W. Patrol around the north pole. The Distant Early Warning line kept planes in the air 24/7 fully loaded with nukes, our job was to launch an attack early in a conflict. This was JFKs idea. Years later it was determined that the risk of a nuclear accident was too high and the program was canceled. The next assignment was for us to live in SAC (Strategic Air Command) bases. They used only skilled crews with experience in bombers. We lived with our families fifty feet underground, the facilities were designed to withstand a near direct nuclear hit. We had to be ready to be airborne in fifteen-minutes day or night. We kept a change of clothes on board, sometimes we had to scramble in the middle of the night with no time to dress. There were eight bombers on the start line gassed, loaded with nukes and ready to go at all times. 

I flew fifty missions in Vietnam. One regular recurring mission was for the distribution of news. Back then the only video was film. Each day film would be flown directly to the media agencies back in the states to be shown on the evening news reports. I also flew in Desert Storm. The skies were black with smoke from oil-well fires. The fires were set off by Iraq president Saddam Hussein to punish the allies by blowing up the wells, a lame attempt to interrupt the flow of oil. 

I left active duty in 1966 and joined the reserves. I served 25 years taking full retirement in 1993. I flew commercially for Pan American. When they folded up I then flew for Federal Express for a brief time. My wife and I did not want to move to the Fed Ex hub in Memphis, so I quit.

I married a farm girl from the same high school, that I went to. Although we did not know each other in school, we later met, dated and soon afterward we married. Martha managed the family in every way while I was serving the country. She did it all. 

Our family would have been very different had she not had the courage to soldier on at home. We have five beautiful children, excellent people with all the pluck of their mother. We built out dream home on a few picturesque acres north of Santa Rosa. Martha died of complications of Alzheimers three years ago. My youngest son David also lived on the property when one night last October it all went up in flames. Today I live with a friend, I’m not going to rebuild, but David hopes to. I’m sure it will be a beautiful spot again someday,” Vogel said. 

Asked what advice he has for the future, “We must be diligent in maintaining peace in the world. We must be firm with other countries and work closely with our allies. I think president Trump is the right man for the job, he has shown himself to be a strong and fair leader. It is such a shame both sides of the government don’t talk to each other. How can anything get done without some dialogue?” 

Today, Vogel works out at the Airport Health Club and visits with friends, lots of pilots and retired pilots share time with him. He is still thinking about his future.