BY ED GEBERT
Times Bulletin Editor
VAN WERT - The love of flight drove a local boy to military service. That service in the U.S. Army took Tom Dunno halfway around the world, but it enabled him to pursue his love for the rest of his life.Dunno had started flying at age 15 and was ready to get his license the day he turned 16.
"I fell in love with it. I knew I wanted to fly, and I knew I couldn't afford it. So I called all the military branches, and they all wanted college until I got to the Army, and they said, 'Sure, kid, we've got something for you.' I got into the helicopter program. That was my goal. That's what I wanted to do. You weren't guaranteed anything until that last day of flight training you got your wings. You could drop out or bail out at any time or get busted out, and you'd be back doing whatever they assigned you, but it was my goal to get something out of them - the flying. Whatever it took to get it done, I was their man," he remembered. "I'm happy getting the training I did. I'm happy with the job I did. It was really something that was needed. The Army was mobile by that time, and helicopters are what did it. I think I did my job well."
Dunno was a Lincolnview High School graduate in the class of 1968. By that next January, he was in the Army ready to learn and experience flying Huey helicopters. He began with a two-month basic training course, immediately followed by nine months of flight training. At that point, Dunno was sworn in for three more years. After 30 days leave, he shipped out for Vietnam.
I spent one full year in Vietnam, which was a standard tour back then," he explained.
Beginning in February of 1970, Dunno flew Huey cargo or passenger helicopters. Two months later he was assigned the Huey gunship model. Much of flying time was at night, covering other troops with gunfire and grenades.
"I was given credit for flying 880 hours in a years time," reported Dunno. "They awarded us combat medals for every 25 hours of actual combat flight, and I think I got like 32 medals for combat hours. I was in shock half the year I was over there. You had a whole tour and didn't know how you were going to get through it. You took a lot of adjusting."
He described it as a time to grow up. Dunno learned to question the higher-ups and to see life from a different perspective. Although he had signed up for three additional years before deploying to southeast Asia, Dunno did not spend all that time in the service.
He explained, "Before I was finished [with my tour], they had made the decision in Washington that they needed us helicopter pilots over in Vietnam, but they didn't need us back in the states. So they said, 'When you're done with your tour, if you want to get out of the service you just send us a postcard.' I sent them a postcard, and stepped off the airplane after that year, and I was out. I was done."
The change from military helicopter pilot in active combat flight to civilian came quick for Dunno, and the adjustment was difficult.
"It was a kind of different feeling that whole time in Vietnam, then stepping off that plane to head home, still nothing seemed right for a couple more months," he remembered. "You didn't believe it was over. It took a little adjustment period."
After two months, Dunno went to work at Kennedy Manufacturing for around nine months. Then a buddy from his Vietnam service suggested college, and the pair were off to Melbourne, Florida for schooling at Florida Tech.
"I say I was still in an adjustment period because I flunked out after two terms," admitted Dunno.
"However, I ended up going back to the very same school, picked up the very same poor grades, and finished the same courses for three more years, and graduated with honors."
After graduation, Dunno put his flying skills to good use as a pilot for commuter airlines and flying freight before landing at United Air Lines. He retired from United at age 54, then returned to Van Wert County for a couple of years before taking over as the manager at the Van Wert County Regional Airport. Next month, he will have been in that position for six years.
Dunno said he still keeps in touch with his friends from his days in the Army. Reunions with the rest of his company help him keep touch, but a handful are very close to this day. Annual celebrations like Veterans Day take Dunno back to the people with whom he served overseas.
"It makes me remember all the other guys I served with and the camaraderie we had at the time. We were all helping each other. If I didn't do my job, someone else suffered. If they didn't do their job, I suffered. It was a team effort. We all worked together and had a common goal. It just brings back memories of the other guys," he declared. "I honor all vets. I cherish what all of them did in all the wars. People just don't understand unless they've been there. There is a camaraderie there that only the guys know because they were there. Everybody. They didn't have to serve overseas. Everybody else was support for all of us in one big unit. The guys made it work. Sometimes we'd question the higher-ups, but everybody worked together and made it happen."