Carroll County veterans reflect on service
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the veterans of Carroll County.
World War II veteran Rocky Whiteley will never forget that frigid, windy night over Alaska. He and Captain Charles Mundy needed to land their plane, but it wasn’t looking good. The whole landing strip was covered in ice, Whiteley said.
“The winds were whipping us around. Our plane was vibrating,” Whiteley said. “We were shaking like a leaf blown at 100 miles per hour.”
That was when Mundy had an idea. He ordered ground control to place pink Kool Aid on the runway so he and Whiteley could see where they were going. When the plane hit the ground, Whiteley said, everyone thought it would lose control.
“We landed on all that ice and snow,” Whiteley said. “[Mundy] took his foot off the brakes and let the accumulated snow build up under our tires, and that stopped us. That wasn’t us. It was all God. He took care of it.”
Whiteley remembered serving in the Air Force, saying he cherished his time in the sky. He spent years dodging missiles, and he got pretty good at it.
“I could see those missiles coming toward me,” Whiteley said. “They would get so close and it was like someone had a hammer and was knocking them out of the sky. They just disappeared completely, and I started thanking Jesus.”
Vietnam veteran Roy Tronnes spent his service on the ground, serving as a combat photographer for the Army from mid-1968 to December 1970. Tronnes remembered being flown to the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia after Russia invaded Czechoslovakia.
“We wanted to show the Russians just how fast we could get an infantry division over there, so they sent us,” Tronnes said. “They just pulled us from everywhere. We had 13 photographers in our unit and no camera.”
From his time in the service, Tronnes said, he learned what it’s like to work on a team.
“I learned some leadership skills, even though I didn’t want to be a leader,” Tronnes said. “I grew up. In the short time I was in the service, I grew up a lot.”
Fellow veteran Chuck Welch said he was on active duty during the Vietnam War but didn’t go to Vietnam. He joined the Army Reserves when he got home, Welch said, and retired at the start of the first Iraq War.
“I was basically a Cold War soldier,” Welch said. “I was in Germany four times on the border as reserves.”
Welch remembered flying surveillance over a march in Washington D.C., serving as a chemical warfare officer and working in civil affairs. He rounded out his service as an instructor for command, Welch said.
“It finally came to a point where it was time to retire so I could pursue a civilian career,” Welch said.
Patrick Kirby served in the Army from 1968 to 1989, and, like Welch, he never went to Vietnam. Kirby said he went to Ethiopa instead, where he worked in radio communications.
“Any communications intelligence eavesdropping was done by positioning people in certain specific geographic locations that were favorable for radio communications,” Kirby said.
The last seven years of his service, Kirby said, were spent at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a sergeant for headquarters.
“I learned a lot about people and leadership, and that there are so many different ways in which to accomplish the mission and get things done,” Kirby said. “If you can take the stress and you hang in there long enough, you learn skills that prepare you to deal with any challenge you’re going to experience later in life.”
Kirby continued, “I consider that a remarkable experience. My permanent pay grade for retirement is for sergeant, and that’s the job I probably liked the most.”
Vietnam veteran Mike Warkentin spent his time in the Navy as an interior communication electrician.
“That’s basically shipboard communication systems,” Warkentin said, saying he entered the Navy Nov. 21, 1968, and left April 1, 1976. “Those dates are embedded in my brain.”
World War II veteran Jimmie Weatherford remembered enlisting in the Army in 1952. Weatherford said he was given a short 30-caliber rifle and placed with the engineers. It wasn’t long before he was sent to Germany, Weatherford said, where he helped build tennis courts, roads and even a 300-foot loading ramp for a train.
“When we arrived, they said, ‘You guys are construction engineers now, but if they need you in Korea, we can have you in the air and on your way,’ ” Weatherford said. “I spent all my time there in Germany, and I really enjoyed it. One thing I’m very thankful for is I have never pointed a gun at anybody, and I have never had anybody point a gun at me.”
Cold War veteran Ferguson Stewart recalled serving in the Army as a microwave systems repairman from 1977 to 1983, saying he attended 52 weeks of training to learn about electronics.
“That was the longest military electronics school they had,” Stewart said.
He spent time in Korea and Italy, Stewart said, and snagged a job with a company that was hiring military communication veterans.
“I started my career based on my military experience and built that into a 30-year career,” Stewart said. “My drive was really fueled by my start in the military. If it hadn’t been for the military, I wouldn’t have been as successful. I love all the lessons learned.”