Vietnam veteran Steve Brown, 71, slowly made his way up a sloped green at Rosecrans National Cemetery using a wheeled walker, refusing assistance from his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Denny Schoville, 75. The two had first reunited in 2019, almost 50 years after both survived shots to the head while flying helicopters in the Mekong Delta.
There were three soldiers shot during that mission on Nov. 11, 1969 — Brown, who was an observer and door gunner; Schoville, who was a pilot, and Bobby Baker, who was Brown’s pilot that day.
Schoville took fire, was hit in the leg and head and his helicopter went down.
Brown and Baker were in another helicopter and provided cover fire for Schoville, who had crashed into a rice paddy.
Brown and Baker also came under fire, and one round went through Brown’s helmet and into Baker’s.
All three men survived the shots to their heads.
Schoville was evacuated out of Vietnam and medically retired from the Army. Brown left the Army the next year, Nov. 16, 1970.
Both lost track of each other until last year in San Diego.
They were still looking for Baker. It would be another six months before they found him.
Brown and Schoville reunited last year after Brown saw Schoville quoted in a San Diego Union-Tribune story on Veterans Day 2018. Schoville, who chairs the Miramar National Cemetery Support Foundation, told the newspaper about being shot on Veterans Day. Brown, who lives in Chula Vista, recognized the name and the date.
“(The Union-Tribune) wrote a story about Denny at Miramar and I’ve never forgotten the last name,” Brown said. “It took a couple weeks to mentally get ready … but I wrote him an email and he wrote back.”
The two were the subject of another Union-Tribune story that detailed the events in Vietnam 50 years before. One part of the story was missing, however — the story of Bobby Baker.
Baker, it turned out, wasn’t very far away. As Schoville and Brown learned, Baker had survived being shot in 1969 but was killed in action in Vietnam more than two years later on January 2, 1972.
“As a result of that article, I got a couple of calls and I got a lead,” Schoville said. One of those leads was a former roommate of Baker’s who filled him in on what happened.
“Sad thing is both Steve and I had been searching for Bobby for some period of time after we got together,” Schoville said. Both hoped Baker was still alive.
As Schoville learned, Baker, who had been a warrant officer, earned an Army commission and went back to Vietnam for a second tour flying low-level reconnaissance missions.
On Jan. 2, 1972, in Vietnam’s Thua Thien province, Baker was struck by AK-47 fire while flying. His observer landed the helicopter, according to documents from the Vietnam Helicopter Pilot’s Association. Baker died in the base hospital at Phu Bai.
It took a few minutes Wednesday for Schoville and Brown to find Baker’s headstone, gleaming white marble among the lush green grasses of the cemetery. Each man placed a small American flag near the grave and talked about Baker and the war.
“Bobby was a real warrior. He saved my life, along with Steve,” Schoville said.
Brown has a photograph of him and Baker from Veterans Day, 1969, both young men smiling and holding the helmets that saved their lives.
“I’ve been carrying around that picture for 49 years thinking that Bobby is in L.A. somewhere,” Brown said. “Then when Denny told me, I had to go through a little thing all over again.”
Brown was a surfer in Imperial Beach when he was drafted in February 1969. He flew with Baker several times in Vietnam.
Observers were enlisted men who would rotate through the squadron and would be assigned to a different pilot randomly each day. Because the helicopters they flew — the OH-6A Cayuse — had flight controls at the door gunner position, many pilots would teach the observers how to fly, or at least how to land.
Such was the case with Baker, Brown said.
“He was unpretentious,” he said. “He was an officer and I was a private, but we didn’t talk to each other like that — we just talked to each other like buddies.”
Schoville, looking at Baker’s headstone, said Baker, who was a captain when he died, probably volunteered for that second tour in Vietnam. He was from Garden Grove, in Orange County.
“This young man had everything — talent, a great personality and a wonderful attitude,” he said.
This Spring, during the early days of the pandemic, the pair learned about Baker’s fate. Brown came to the gravesite then.
Schoville, however, held off. He said he wanted to wait and come with Brown on Veterans Day.
“We’re here because we want him to be remembered,” Schoville said. “Since his family’s not in this area, we’re going to keep coming back, to make sure he’s not forgotten.”
(c) 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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