By Jeff Mullin
The Vietnam War dominated life at Vance Air Force Base in 1968, just as it did in the rest of the nation.
In 1968 many of Vance’s instructor pilots were combat veterans. In fact, Vance’s 1968 instructor pilots had flown a total of 12,270 combat missions in Vietnam.
One of those combat veteran instructors, however, stood out above the rest.
In February 1968, Vance instructor pilot Maj. Merlyn Dethlefsen, was awarded the nation’s highest military honor by President Lyndon Johnson.
Dethlefsen, a native of Derby, Kan., received the Medal of Honor for his part in helping destroy a surface-to-air missile site in North Vietnam in March of 1967.
He thus became the only assigned member at Vance to ever receive the Medal of Honor, the same award earned posthumously by the base’s namesake, Lt. Col. Leon R. Vance Jr., for his heroism during World War II.
Dethlefsen, a 33-year-old father of two, was the 26th person to receive the Medal of Honor for service in the Vietnam War.
“My first reaction (to winning the Medal of Honor) was one of amazement,” he told the Enid Morning News. “I am certain there are other individuals who have performed heroic deeds who deserve the medal more than I, but due to the nature of our work I had the advantage of being noticed.”
Dethlefsen was one of four Air Force pilots assigned to destroy a key surface-to-air missile site protecting the Thai Nguyen steel works about 50 miles north of Hanoi. Dethlefsen was flying one of four F-105s involved in the operation.
The two leading aircraft sustained flak damage on the initial attack. The flight leader was shot down, while his wingman was so severely crippled it was forced to withdraw. Dethlefsen assumed command of the flight and, with his wingman, attacked the site while under fire.
Dethlefsen, despite being attacked by two MiG fighters and sustaining damage from anti-aircraft fire, flew repeated close-range strikes and silenced North Vietnamese defenses with bombs and cannon fire. Because of Dethlefsen’s actions the flight completed its mission, destroying the SAM site.
When asked whether it was instinct that made him complete the mission despite the heavy odds against him, Dethlefsen said “No, it was really a definite decision. The weather was unusually good for a change and, besides, I knew I’d have to come back the next day for if I’d gone back to base then.”
Dethlefsen went on to complete 100 combat missions in Vietnam, before opting to return to Vance, where he received his basic pilot training, as an instructor.
During their time at Vance, Dethlefsen and his family lived on a farm near Lahoma and he was an active member of Lahoma Road Church of Christ.
After leaving Vance, Dethlefsen went to the Air War College at Maxwell AFB, Ala. From there he became an instructor at Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa. In 1974 he was assigned to Beale AFB, Calif., where he was assistant director of operations for the SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane wing. In 1975 he was assigned to Dyess AFB, Texas, as director of operations for the B-52 wing. He retired from there in 1977 as a colonel.
He then settled with his family in Fort Worth, Texas, where he ran a small business, Home Medical Equipment Co. He died of natural causes in 1987 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Dethlefsen wasn’t the only celebrity on the grounds of Vance in 1968. That year saw the base play host to a pair of future astronauts. Two scientists, Karl Henize and Joseph Allen, were part of the latest class of astronauts chosen in 1967 by NASA. Both men were assigned to Vance for undergraduate pilot training.
Allen, a native of Crawfordsville, Ind., received the outstanding flying award for his class at Vance, 69-06. He would go on to fly two space shuttle missions, a five-day flight aboard Columbia, in November 1982. Two years later he flew aboard Discovery on an eight-day mission. In all, he logged 314 hours in space.
After leaving NASA, Allen served as chairman of the board of Veridian Corp. He is a member of both the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater and the Astronauts Hall of Fame.
Henize, who was born in Cincinnati, flew on only one space shuttle mission, aboard Challenger for the Spacelab-2 mission in 1985. He logged a total of 188 hours in space. In 1986 he took a position as senior scientist in NASA’s Space Sciences branch.
He died in October 1993 of respiratory and heart failure during a failed attempt to climb Mount Everest.
In 1968 Vance was the only base in Air Training Command to have civilian contractors performing support functions. Serv-Air Inc., was the contractor at the time.
Vance hosted two premier flying demonstration teams in 1968. Aug. 6 the Air Force Thunderbirds performed at the base in their F-100 SuperSabres, drawing more than 5,000 spectators. Then, Oct. 25, the Navy’s Blue Angels performed at Vance before a crowd of some 6,000 people.
In 1968 there were separate commanders for the base and for the 3575th Pilot Training Wing. Col. Charles H. Christmas was base commander, while Col. William D. Conklin was wing commander. In April of 1968, Conklin was replaced by Col. Max J. King.
Also in 1968 three of the first six Marines to go through undergraduate pilot training graduated from Vance. The others graduated from Laredo AFB, Texas.
Vance helped Enid and northwest Oklahoma celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Cherokee Strip Land Run in 1968, while the base itself celebrated its own 27th birthday.