Monday, May 27, 2002
Courtesy of the Washington Post
They had served their country in far more dangerous places than the Pentagon, but on Sept. 11, that's where they died.
An Air Force B-52 pilot who was given last rites after his bomber was hit by enemy missiles over Hanoi and crashed. A three-star general who made it his mission to be sure the Army never forgot to take care of the grunts. A Ranger whose best friend was killed alongside him during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. The last U.S. combat soldier to leave Vietnam.
Nearly 30 years had passed since Beatriz “Pat” Hymel received the telegram saying that her husband's B-52 had gone down and that he was not expected to make it. “You just don't think it's going to happen again,” said Hymel, now the principal of Hoffman-Boston Elementary School in Arlington. “He's not somewhere where he's in a dangerous situation. You look forward to your golden years together.”
The 125 Pentagon workers who were killed when a hijacked plane crashed into the building in a terrorist attack will be remembered today at various ceremonies marking Memorial Day. Many of them — among them Hymel, Tim Maude, Steve Long and Max Beilke — leave records of service that extend far beyond the jobs that had them sitting behind desks or attending meetings at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
“I know if they came to him today and said, ‘You've got to back; we're deploying,' he would have gone,” Pat Hymel said, recounting the words she used in her eulogy for her husband. “I would have said, ‘Why are you going? You're too old.' And he would have said, ‘It's my duty.' “
Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hymel, 55
It was Christmas Day 1972 and the bombers were idle, but Air Force Lieutenant Bob Hymel was feeling uneasy.
The B-52 crews based at U Tapao in Thailand were in the midst of an intense bombing campaign of North Vietnam known as Linebacker II, ordered by President Richard Nixon to force the communist government to resume negotiations. With anti-war feeling high back home, Nixon had ordered a Christmas Day bombing pause.
“It was extremely tense for everyone,” Hymel recalled in a 1976 interview for a book on the bombing campaign. “We were concerned about the Christmas bombing halt; afraid that the North Vietnamese had used the halt to restock and repair their SAM [surface-to-air missile] facilities.”
They were right.
When the bombing resumed the next day and his crew flew toward its target, a warehouse complex northwest of Hanoi, Hymel, the co-pilot, could hear on the radio that planes ahead were getting “hosed down” with Soviet-supplied missiles. One B-52 struck by a missile exploded in midair.
As Hymel's plane dropped its bombs and rolled off the target, the gunner called out a warning about approaching missiles.
Turning his head, Hymel saw two SAMs coming up side by side, turn directly toward the B-52 and explode along the plane's right side. “It felt as though we had been kicked in the pants,” he said.
Two engines had been knocked out, fuel was leaking and the gunner was wounded.
The crew could have ditched the plane over water, but the pilots were unable to communicate with the gunner and were unsure whether he would be able to bail out. They decided to fly the big crippled plane to U Tapao.
On the approach to the airfield, the plane suddenly veered to the left, and the pilot was unable to regain control.
Captain Brent Diefenbach, a B-52 pilot on the ground, watched as the plane pitched up and then fell to the ground, exploding in flames. “Nobody survived that one — that's what I thought,” said Diefenbach, who lives in Fairfax Station.
Diefenbach raced to the scene, running through tall elephant grass to the inferno, arriving before rescue crews. To his shock, he heard a faint call for help. It was Bob Hymel.
“He was so stuck in there, it was just a mess,” Diefenbach said. “Things were blowing up, and it was time to go.” Diefenbach managed to cut Hymel loose and drag him to safety. Four crew members died.
Hymel, who suffered multiple broken bones and crushed vertebrae, was in the hospital for 1 1/2 years and never went back to flying, but he stayed in the Air Force for 20 more years.
“It used to bug him that he survived and the others died,” Pat Hymel said. “He was driven. I saw a change in his personality: ‘Okay, I've been given a second chance, so I'm going to make the most of it.' “
After retiring from the Air Force seven years ago, Hymel went to work as a civilian for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon.
During Hymel's funeral in October, a B-52 flew over Arlington National Cemetery and dipped its wings, a rare honor.
Army Lieutenant General Timothy Maude, 53
There were no fancy plaques or framed pictures when Army Lieutenant General Tim Maude presided over Pentagon ceremonies for officers moving on to new positions.
Instead, Maude, chief of Army personnel, would present old metal canteen cups to the honorees.
Soldiers living in the mud can seem quite remote in Pentagon corridors, and the cup, a staple of Army life in the field, was meant to send a message: “When all the smoke clears, don't forget, this canteen cup is what we're all about,” said Colonel Philip McNair, Maude's last executive officer.
“That was almost his mantra: Is this going to help soldiers and families?” said his wife, Teri Maude. “That's the question he asked constantly.”
Tim Maude was a kid from small-town Indiana who joined the Army figuring he was going to be drafted anyway. The screeners decided he qualified for officer training, and he was sent as a second lieutenant to Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze Star.
Assignments followed in California, Germany and Korea, and Maude, a personnel officer, rose high in the ranks. In 1995, he oversaw family support for soldiers sent to Bosnia.
“He would say, ‘If a soldier is there in a foxhole worried about his wife and kids, then he's not there focused on taking care of his buddy,' ” his wife said. “He came to believe that soldiering and family issues were one and the same.”
Traveling to Army installations around the world, Maude would seek out soldiers to talk with, keeping his rank quiet when out of uniform. “He never saw himself as a general; he really didn't,” Teri Maude recalled. “So he never took on any of those airs.”
At the Pentagon, employees would be stunned to find the three-star general wandering through the cubicles asking, “So, what are people doing in here today?”
Maude, the highest-ranking officer killed in the attack, is buried at Arlington. Said Teri Maude, “What we put on his headstone is, ‘He took care of soldiers' — because that's what he did.”
Army Major Stephen Long, 39
Floating down to the Caribbean island of Grenada, Specialist Steve Long pleaded with the enemy soldiers far below who were firing alarming numbers of bullets toward him and the other Army Rangers parachuting in during the 1983 U.S.-led invasion.
“I'm really a nice guy,” Long kept muttering, according to his wife, Tina. “You wouldn't be shooting at me if you knew what a nice guy I am.”
Long landed unharmed, but in a follow-up raid on a Cuban military camp, several Black Hawk helicopters carrying Long and other Rangers came under fire and crashed. “His roommate and best friend was killed,” said Tina Long. “It hurt him greatly.”
Long was injured in the crash but continued fighting and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Valor and the Purple Heart.
With the encouragement of his wife and commanders, he went to college and received a commission as an officer, and he later served with the 82nd Airborne Division during the Persian Gulf War. As a personnel officer, a job he took after injuries no longer allowed him to serve in combat, Long agonized over where to assign soldiers, knowing his decisions could harm careers or break up families. “Many a night he was losing sleep on where he was sending people,” Tina Long said.
But he never regretted his service. “It was just his love of his country,” she said. “I know it sounds simple, but that's the way he was.”
Retired Army Master Sergeant Max Beilke, 69
Grim and hushed, the last U.S. troops filed onto a C-130 at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport.
It was March 29, 1973. Under the terms of the negotiated peace agreement with North Vietnam, all U.S. combat troops were leaving Vietnam, though small numbers of support troops would remain.
Colonel Bui Tin, head of the North Vietnamese observer team, attempted to shake hands with the departing soldiers. Most ignored his outstretched hand, and one American spat out an obscenity.
Army Master Sergeant Max Beilke was the last in line.
As Beilke stepped up on the ramp to the plane and news crews recorded the moment, Tin held out a rattan mat adorned with a painting of a pagoda and offered it to the American.
“I hope you return as a tourist. You are certainly welcome,” Tin told Beilke, the Vietnamese officer recalled in a recent interview.
Beilke looked at Tin, accepted the present with a quiet word of thanks and climbed into the aircraft, Tin said.
Beilke, a Minnesota farm boy who was drafted in 1952 and sent to fight in the Korean War, retired from the Army in 1974. He eventually settled in Laurel with his wife, Lisa, and went to work for the Army as a civilian.
His colleagues knew him as a font of knowledge about veterans' issues, but few knew about his moment of fame. “Oh yeah, just one of those things,” Beilke said when his colleague Martha Carden asked him about it.
Tin, reached by telephone in Paris, where he is now a leading critic of the Hanoi government, expressed sorrow at Beilke's death. “I am very, very sad,” Tin said.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard