WINFIELD PARK, NJ — On Aug. 12, 1970, Stephen Thorpe was aboard a transport helicopter known throughout the Army as a “Huey.” He had been in Vietnam for about 10 months and found himself approaching a landing zone near the South Vietnamese village of Khe Sanh to extract a reconnaissance patrol involved in a firefight. The soldiers on the ground were outnumbered, in danger of being overrun.
As crew chief, Thorpe guided his pilot into the area as the chopper endured heavy anti-aircraft and small arms fire. With the helicopter’s doors open, subjecting himself to the enemy attack, Thorpe returned fire to cover the landing.
When the helicopter landed, with fire still coming in, Thorpe guided the beleaguered soldiers aboard. And as the aircraft took off, he continued to return fire to defend the Huey and those aboard.
Word spread of his actions and senior officers worked to commend them. That was nearly a half century ago.
“When I got a certificate in the mail stating that I received medals, I just stuffed it in a drawer and honestly forgot about it,” Thorpe said. “I was already home, on reserve, and I was ready to forget about the war for the time being.”
It wasn’t until he took a trip to Wisconsin to visit an old captain of his in past July that sparked his desire to finally acquire his medals.
“He mentioned to me that I was missing some medals and it just got me thinking about them,” Thorpe said.
His former captain, along with his brother, encouraged him to finally obtain the medals he deserved.
On Thursday, Oct. 4, the veteran was presented with an Air Medal with V Device, for valor, along with numerous other commendations in U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance’s Westfield office.
In addition to his medal, Thorpe received the Army Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Bronze Star, National Defense Service Medal and the Expert Badge and Automatic Rifle Bar.
Of all the honors, he is most proud of his Air Medal.
“It is special because you only get that one for combat hours flown and for special circumstances, such as extractions,” Thorpe told LocalSource recently.
Including his reserve time, Thorpe served in the Army from Feb. 13, 1969 to Feb. 12, 1975. He started out as a helicopter mechanic and eventually went on to be a pilot.
“I made the decision to fly because it wasn’t fulfilling enough to do maintenance,” Thorpe told Lance. “I came there to do a job and my goal was to help as much as I could.”
A letter from the U.S. Department of the Army from January 1971, signed by Col. Donald Seibert and provided by Thorpe’s brother, praised Thorpe for “heroism while participating in aerial flight.”
“I still work part time and sometimes there are rough days, but it can never be a day like being in the war,” Thorpe added. “I get to go home to my wife, a warm bed and a nice shower every day.”
Thorpe reminisced about a time where he wasn’t so fortunate to have that shower.
“One night, when I was covered in grime. I got all lathered up and the 55-gallon drum that we used as a shower was empty. I had to run across the compound to find water,” he said. “It’s funny to look back on times like that.”
It’s one of the few war stories Thorpe tells.
“Like many of his era, Steve has not spoken much about his service in Vietnam. Even as his brother, I did not learn of his bravery and heroism until many years later when I was able to coax it from him for our genealogy records,” brother Tom Thorpe wrote an email. “I could not be happier for, or prouder of, my brother and all the men and women who have served and are serving our country so selflessly.”
Lance said he was honored to present the Vietnam veteran with his well-deserved medals.
“It’s critically important that we honor those who serve and this is particularly true regarding Vietnam because those in the military who came back from that war were not all welcomed home,” Lance told LocalSource. “Stephen is a person who demonstrated bravery by volunteering for a difficult and dangerous assignment.”
Stephen Thorpe and his wife, Denise, have been married for 46 years and reside in Winfield Park. The two first met three days before he deployed to Vietnam, when he was 20 years old and she was only 19.
They spent the next year, seven months and 22 days away from each other.
“I knew instantly that she was the one,” said Stephen Thorpe in an interview with LocalSource. “It was incredibly hard to leave her.”
“If it’s true that ‘those also serve, who stand and wait,’ his loving wife, who waited and worried for him while he was in the Army, also deserves recognition,” Tom Thorpe said.