Jon DuBay: Keeping U.S. Army helicopters running during the Korean War
As a helicopter electrician in South Korea, it was Army E4-P Specialist Jonathan DuBay’s responsibility to ride with the pilot on the first flight after he repaired a grounded aircraft.
“If I worked on a helicopter to fix it, I had to ride with the captain when he flew it for the first time after being repaired,” said DuBay, 51. “If someone dies after you fixed it, you die with them. That was the rule,” he said, with a hearty laugh.
DuBay was in South Korea from the fall of 1983 until November 1984 during peace time at Camp Humphries, his first duty station after graduating from helicopter training school in September 1983. His helicopter unit in South Korea was the 271st Aviation Company, Assault Support, lending necessary repairs and assistance to the assault ground troops in North Korea. The 271st Co. had been a combat unit in Vietnam, he said.
“Ground troops got all their equipment and supplies or support from helicopters,” DuBay said.
DuBay was trained to repair U.S. Army CH-47D Chinook helicopters, UH-1H Huey (Iroquois) helicopters, and AH-1 Cobra helicopters. Chinook helicopters are the largest ones in the Army’s fleet, used for transporting everything from troops to equipment and even Jeeps. The Huey and the Cobra are smaller and used primarily for ground support (combat assault).
DuBay’s impressions of South Korea were “an eye-opening experience” for him, he said. While they lived on the Army base, DuBay and other servicemen visited the nearest town, An Jeong-Ri, where he saw people living in the harshest conditions of poverty.
“There were very poor people,” he said, shaking his head. “They still used oxen. Only the richest people had cars.”
He remembers seeing people walking around chewing on boiled chicken feet. “They ate every part of an animal,” he said, with disgust.
He recalls the sewer being open and running down the street with wooden boards on top it. One false step and you could be stepping in raw sewage, he said.
“It stunk to high Heaven,” he said. “They’d fertilize with it, putting it on the rice fields, which made the whole area stink.”
Korea experiences four seasons, much like Michigan, he said. The weather was cold in the wintertime and hot and humid in the summer. Not a big fan of Korean food, DuBay said that one time they were told they were eating beef, but he was sure it was dog meat.
“They do make a good Ramen noodle,” he said. “You could get a big bowl of Ramen noodles for about 50 cents.”
He said they partied a lot on the base. They had a huge Fourth of July celebration with enormous steaks and great quantities of food. Many of the other guys in his unit would go into town and “get in trouble.”
“Many thousands of military servicemen deserve recognition more than myself,” said DuBay.
“In all fairness to guys who got a leg shot off or something like that, my military service was a cake-walk compared to these young guys who are serving these days. I respect everybody who holds up their hand (and volunteers to serve in the military).”
Service in the family
You could say that serving their country runs in the DuBay family. After graduating from high school in Pinconning, Michigan, in 1982, DuBay enlisted in the Army. He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather on his mother’s side, who was in the Army as well. Three of his father’s cousins were drafted during Vietnam. DuBay’s stepfather is a Vietnam vet. His cousin Rick, just a few years old than DuBay, joined the Army a few years before he did.
DuBay is the oldest of three boys. His younger brother, Mike and his youngest brother, David, and his stepbrother Cliff, all joined the Army. David made the military a career and served in Desert Storm and during two tours of Iraq after. David’s son, Andrew, Jon’s nephew, died while serving his country at 24 years old. He was buried in his dress blues, the uniform of the 1st Cavalry he served in.
“That’s a huge unit in Fort Hood, North Carolina,” DuBay said. “They’re one of the first to deploy. They wear the blue cowboy hats.”
His nephew died at Fort Bragg, Texas. DuBay attended the funeral and saw first-hand how cavalry servicemen are honored with their boots placed in the stirrups backward. He said it was a deeply moving ceremony.
Currently, two of DuBay’s cousins, Christopher and Tony, are serving in the Marines, following in their father, Scott’s footsteps. Scott served in both the Army and the Marines. In all, he counts 14 family members who are military veterans.
‘Working on helicopters sounded cool to me’
DuBay grew up in the Midland/Saginaw area. He graduated from Pinconning High School in 1982. His parent’s had divorced and DuBay was living with his father at the time. After graduation, DuBay couldn’t find work in the recession-hit auto industry area.
“There weren’t any jobs at all,” DuBay said.
So he signed up for the Army at 17 years old. “The recruiter came to my house, I didn’t have to go to the recruiting station,” DuBay said.
The recruiter gave DuBay an aptitude test to determine what job he could be qualified for, he said. DuBay finished the test in under 45 minutes, a new record according to the recruiter. He also didn’t miss a single question.
“They told me I could have gone into anything in the Army,” DuBay said. “Working on helicopters sounded cool to me.”
His basic training took place at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in March 1983. He was 18 years old. He made squad leader, and qualified as an “Expert” in M-16 firearms and hand grenades.
To be in the Army, you had to know how to shoot, DuBay said. There were three levels on the firing range: Marksmen, Sharpshooter, and Expert. Having been hunting wild game most of his life, firing a rifle came naturally to DuBay.
“I was taught by a Vietnam veteran who had been shot up in Vietnam and walked all crooked,” DuBay said. “I don’t know how he was able to get around.”
After basic training he was sent to Fort Eustis, Virginia, a beautiful area near Virginia Beach on the East Coast. There he was in the U.S. Transportation School Brigade, learning to be an aircraft electrician. “68 Foxtrot was our M.O.S.,” he said, (Military Occupational Specialist). He graduated with the second highest honors in his class in September 1983.
From Fort Eustis, he was on assignment in South Korea.
While in Korea, he rode in helicopters very often, he said, compared to not riding in them at all while in training in the U.S.
One of his proudest achievements while in the service took place on the base in Korea. The Army conducted a base-wide competition to determine who was the “Battalion Soldier of the Month.”
“This was a big deal,” DuBay said.
His platoon sergeant volunteered DuBay to enter the contest, against DuBay’s wishes because he knew how involved the competition would be and how much studying was necessary to win. Soldiers were tested on everything from basic military knowledge and skills, chain of command, how they would react when under fire, and much more. When the testing date arrived, DuBay had to report to a panel of judges dressed in his uniform and answer countless military questions.
In August 1984, DuBay was named the “Best Soldier of the Month” in his entire battalion of 1,000 men.
Back to the States
After serving in South Korea for 13 months, in November 1984 he was sent back to the states. Just before leaving Korea, the Army introduced the Black Hawk (UH-60L) and the Apache (AH-64D) Longbow helicopters. DuBay was able to work on the two newer helicopters before returning to the U.S.
Once stateside, DuBay was sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he was assigned to Alpha Company, 5th Transportation Battalion, the 101st Airborne, known as the Screaming Eagles, where he worked as an aircraft electrician. He served out the rest of his commission until his time was up in early 1986. He served a total of three years.
He was qualified as an E4-P Specialist, which was an equivalent to a Corporal. DuBay was a Specialist in charge of a job, but not people, he explained. As an E4-P, he was promotable to Sergeant, but at that time at Fort Campbell there were too many other men at the same classification. DuBay wouldn’t be promoted due to politics, so he got out of the military, he said.
At the end of his service, he returned to his home state of Michigan to be closer to his son, who had been born while DuBay was in Virginia. He turned down a lucrative offer to work for Boeing Aircraft at a lab in Corpus Kristi, Texas. While serving in Korea, a representative from Boeing arrived on their base to show the mechanics how to retrofit helicopters with the newest invention – night vision.
“He offered me a job when I got out of the service,” DuBay said. “But I didn’t want to live in Texas. I wanted to move back to Michigan and be near my son.”
Besides the location in Texas, working for Boeing would have meant wearing a white shirt in a sterile lab in a completely climate-controlled environment. “It didn’t look fun to me,” DuBay said, laughing.
Instead, he took a job with Dow Chemical in Midland, as a pipe insulator at a chemical plant. “That was the only job I ever quit without notice,” DuBay said, laughing.
While on the job, he smelled strong chemicals. He immediately called his boss and said, “Get me out of here,” he said.
Arriving Up North
Having vacationed in the Petoskey area once as a kid, DuBay knew a friend of a friend who lived in Emmet County. DuBay decided to move up in the fall of 1986. He found a job with Petoskey Plastics. Eventually he began working for a company out of Indian River remodeling houses. That company sent him to Georgia Tech for training in lead-based paint abatement. He became certified in lead abatement 25 years ago. He liked the construction and remodeling business, once the lead-based paint factor was not a part of it. DuBay has been in the construction industry ever since, and has been self-employed for 20 years.
Currently, he is a licensed contractor who specializes in kitchen and baths, and he builds cabinets and installs them. “I’m a cabinet guy,” he said humbly.
DuBay and his wife, Cheri, live near Pickerel Lake with their two dogs and cat. He enjoys hunting and fishing practically just a few steps from their home.
He explains his long hair as not a protest against the military, but as a hold-over of his childhood.
“In 1969, when Woodstock took place, my mother was a single-mom with three boys,” DuBay said. “All the cool dudes at the time had long hair, all the Peter Fonda-types. I looked up to them. I’m not a hippy, I just like having long hair.”
While in high school in Pinconning, DuBay and other boys had long hair. One day the librarian measured everyone’s hair, and DuBay had the longest of any of the other students. When he joined the service and it came time to get his head shaved, DuBay’s long locks made the biggest mess.
“They handed me a broom and said, ‘clean it up,’” DuBay said, laughing.
DuBay earned an Overseas ribbon and the Army Achievement Medal. In the early 1990s, all of his belongings were stored at his brother’s house when a fire destroyed all of it, except the Army Achievement Medal and a few photo albums.
By Tamara Stevens
Special to Emmet County