WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — His father and brother were Marines, so for one Clearwater man, there was no debate which branch he would join.
Rick Dinwiddie scored great marks on an important exam, so he was sent to the air wing.
He said those scores guaranteed him schooling of some type and a six-year commitment to the Marines.
“Day out of high school graduation, I was in boot camp the next morning,” Dinwiddie said.
He spent time in aviation electrician school, before landing the CH-53.
He said he wasn’t thrilled, but it was the luck of the draw.
“I thought what an ugly thing,” said Dinwiddie. “But I loved it, after flying and everything.”
He flew a lot as a crew chief.
“There’s only maybe about 3% of avionics people end up being a crew chief,” Dinwiddie said. “I had to learn to complete the hydraulic system, the complete power plant system, and I had to learn everything these guys had been trained for, and I hadn’t.”
He said it was scary earning his first set of wings.
When flying, the crew chief typically hangs near the chopper door. One of their jobs is to make sure they are always looking out for small and large aircraft.
“He [pilot] did a real tight climbing turn, and next thing I knew, I was looking straight down at the ground,” said Dinwiddie.
He says the pilot was known to do that on all certification flights.
“If you could find that helicopter, I bet you could still see the fingernail marks still going down the metal on the side of the door.”
He said his original overseas orders were for Da Nang.
“That’s my combat wings, I got overseas,” said Dinwiddie.
He said his orders changed in one days time.
“My squadron was slowing pulling out of Vietnam, and going to Okinawa,” said Dinwiddie. That’s where he often heard this…
“Houston, we got a problem, this isn’t supposed to do this,” Dinwiddie said.
Once the choppers were prepared, Dinwiddie and the pilot were the only two allowed on board to ensure the choppers were safe for others to fly.
“When they found out I was qualified crew, then they had me flying all the time,” he said.
He eventually landed on the Tripoli.
“That’s one I flew in overseas, all the time on board ship,” said Dinwiddie.
He was teamed up with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“If anything happens anywhere around the world, we are deployed first until they can get reinforcements there,” said Dinwiddie.
He said he remembers the ship having company from time to time.
“No matter where we went, you had Russia trollers following you,” Dinwiddie said. “WWII gunboats, you know PT boats, and circle the ship and challenge us, and I am just kind of you have got to be kidding me.”
They lost their first chopper in the Arabian Sea.
“No mayday, no nothing! It just went off the radar,” said Dinwiddie. Two days later, they lost another. “Within the course of the week, we lost three choppers and 11 pilots and crewmembers.”
The crew chief at one time guarded what little they recovered from the three choppers.
“All the wreckage we had was on a four by four pallet and about three foot tall,” Dinwiddie said. “You see the white helmet, man, there are a lot of thoughts going through your head, it just doesn’t really make sense.”
He said they called the choppers the widow makers.
“Now and then when I think about them, even though I know how they died, and to say how horrible, or gruesome they died, I fast forward it past that, and think about the good times we had,” said Dinwiddie.
The Marines were together a lot on board. The Tripoli once spent nearly 70 days without going to port.
“The Indian Ocean at times is just like glass, but on a small ship, you are rocking constantly,” said Dinwiddie.
He took photos as the ship was refueled and resupplied, all while on the move.
“You can tell by the water how fast we are going,” said Dinwiddie.
He also has photos of amazing moments, like when they flew over the Golden Gate Bridge, which was not allowed.
In all, Dinwiddie logged more than 1200 hours, while in service as a crew chief.
“We just did a job, you don’t really think about what you are doing,” he said.
For going above and beyond his enlisted duties, Dinwiddie earned a Meritorious Mast from his warrant officer and commanding officer for his work on replacing the blade folding systems on the choppers in his squadron.
He said the Tripoli rocked so much that they would send the Marines to the USS Enterprise, a Navy aircraft carrier for rest and relaxation.
Dinwiddie said the ride there was so smooth, they thought they were on land.
He said at his last duty station, he had to rely heavily on his avionics knowledge because there were no helicopters. He said his small stature came in handy, especially when he ended up working on the A-4.
“You had two guys shoving you up the tailpipe of this A-4, and you’d tighten it and you’d always think, ‘God, I sure hope there isn’t anyone in that cockpit playing with the controls or anything,'” Dinwiddie said.
For his many achievements throughout his military career, Dinwiddie received letters from the governors of Alaska and Kansas and President Richard Nixon.
Dinwiddie talked about coming home from the service during the Vietnam era. He said the troops were treated so poorly, they often tried to catch a flight overnight to avoid the crowds.
He said throughout the years, he spent quite a bit of time in flight with the same pilot.
“We went the same places, we went overseas together, we ended up on Okinawa together, we ended up on ship together,” Dinwiddie said.
While Dinwiddie was on the Tripoli, his security clearance was raised substantially, so once a day he and three other Marines would go into a secluded area, open up the vault, and they would run all the coders and decoders, for the radios on all the aircraft.
“That changed every day, sometimes we changed it twice a day,” Dinwiddie said.
He relied on his training when he went to work for Southwestern Bell in 1978. He said the job allowed him to use his military training from day one, and he retired from the company after 31 years.