Livin’ Life

Steve Freeman’s love for flying began in 1948 at the age of four, when his dad took him up in a KR-21 Pre-World War II bi-wing airplane from the old Mustang Field, which was located on Northwest Highway and Abrams Road in Dallas, TX. He fondly remembers strapping the goggles on and sitting in his dad’s lap as they flew. As a young boy he thought it was so cool to look down on a flying duck at White Rock Lake. Steve is shown with the propeller from that plane, which he has kept for many years.

Steve’s father had served in World War II as a member of the Offices of Strategic Services (OSS). This agency would later become the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). When war broke out he worked for North American Aircraft and had various skills and expertise. He trained with the OSS and was on call for them at times.

He would tell Steve’s mom, “I may be late coming home from work someday. Don’t worry about it.” One day he took his sack lunch, kissed his wife goodbye, and was off to work. He didn’t return for eleven months.

Those were the days when ice and milk were delivered each week to the home. There would be a new man temporarily on one of the routes who would pass a message to Steve’s mom that read, “Hix is OK, don’t worry.”

Steve grew up in the Lake Highlands area of Dallas and enjoyed the carefree days of his youth hunting, swimming at the bathhouse at White Rock Lake and learning to be a bee keeper for a time along with his younger brother. He says, “In the summer we would get up at the crack of dawn each day, get our BB guns, sling shots and pea shooters and take on the world.”

Six Flags Over Texas opened in August of 1961. Steve worked there the seasons of 1962 and 1963, manning a canoe ride the first year and the Happy Motoring ride the second year. At that time, Six Flags gave helicopter rides and they were free to the employees. Of course he took advantage of this opportunity.

After one particular flight, Steve asked the pilot if he knew a place where he could learn to fly. The pilot flew him over to the Pylon Airfield, on the east side of Lake Arlington in Arlington, TX, where he recommended Steve to inquire about lessons. This was a remote airfield in part of what is now the DFW Metroplex with an 1800 ft dirt strip.

When he arrived, Steve noticed there was a guy sitting on a rain barrel with a rifle by a T-hangar. He thought that was strange, but he went into the office and asked if there was an instructor on site. The man pointed outside and said, “Yes, go out there and talk to Sid.” Steve replied, “You mean the guy with the rifle?” The man said, “Yes, he’s shootin’ gophers. They’re tearin’ up his runway.” 

So, that’s where Steve would get his initial flying instruction. He learned in a Luscombe 8A high wing taildragger with no starter. His first lesson was how to hand-prop the plane to get it started. His career would eventually take him into remote areas of North, Central, South America and the Caribbean as a contract pilot for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

During the 1960’s, Steve stayed busy by working at Six Flags, going to college and playing in a successful rock and roll band. The band had some success as they opened for Jerry Lee Lewis’ show at Panther Hall in Fort Worth, TX.

Steve’s college days lasted for two and a half years. He was unsure what he wanted to do in life and then he received his draft notice, so he went to the Marine recruiter and signed up. He went to Marine boot camp at MCRD San Diego, CA, where he was an expert marksman on the rifle range, and after boot camp he was sent to Camp Pendleton for Infantry and went Communications training. Then it was off to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for guerrilla warfare and survival training.

He received his orders to deploy to Viet Nam and arrived at Chu Lai on November 15, 1966. He remembers his first duty was to test Claymore mines. There was a pile of them, conveniently behind a large berm, just in case something went wrong. After all, he was just a private!

The Claymore wasn’t the most stable of devices. Static electricity could set it off. But these newbies were given a small striker that tested the continuity for the circuitry. Connect it correctly and the circuit proved good. Connect it incorrectly and it will explode. No problem, you’re behind the berm!

There were some “Mash” type moments in Viet Nam. Steve says they would receive one movie per week for entertainment. They would either be Combat, Gunsmoke or Batman. They would view the movies in an amphitheater, of sorts, on a tattered screen while drinking Korean beer. A night on the town, indeed!

Each movie would be viewed by the troops multiple times during the week. There were bunkers entrenched close by where on-duty guards were there to protect the group. On this movie night, muzzle flashes began to be seen from enemy sniper fire. The guys in the bunkers began returning fire, as they were supposed to do. But the noise was overcoming the movie, which they had seen numerous times, so all the movie goers began throwing their empty Korean beer cans at the guards and yelling for them to quiet down. You must have your priorities, you understand!

Steve had just returned from R&R and he and his buddy, Terry Bratberg, settled in for a game of chess before their upcoming patrol the next day. Both were communications specialists and Terry would go with one team and Steve with another.

Steve’s team was to go to a mountain of approximately 1000 ft high and set up a radio relay station. Terry’s team was to patrol in the valley below. The Viet Cong spotted the patrol in the valley and attempted to overrun them. The fighting became fierce and Steve’s team on the high ground controlled the artillery fire to keep Terry’s team from being overrun.

The weather was so bad they couldn’t get air support. The only artillery battery that could be contacted was an Army battery. This was at night and the shelling went well at first. The flash of the big guns could be seen from behind them and the shells could be heard as they went over Steve’s position.

Then around midnight, coordinates became mixed up and the shells began falling short and landing around the platoon on the mountain. They did not have direct communications with the Army, so it took approximately 30 minutes for the correction to be made and the firing to be re-directed. Steve said, “They called me the gopher after that night because I dug the biggest and the fastest foxhole in the unit!”

Terry was badly injured in this fire fight. A grenade had exploded behind him and it took off his left thumb and part of his skull. He had shrapnel that lodged in his back. The radio he carried on his back was destroyed, and that probably saved his life. The next day he was air lifted to Da Nang and Steve lost touch with him.

Five days later, back at the battalion, Steve used a land line and located the hospital where Terry was and was able to speak with him. Terry said that he had been blinded also. He said, “I can smell the nurses but I can’t see them.” Steve didn’t get to see him because he was medevacked to Great Lakes Hospital and that’s the final contact he had with Terry.

In the late 1990’s, as the Internet began to be effective, Steve decided to search for Terry. He found over 200 Terry Bratbergs online. Determined to find him, Steve decided he would call each one, in hopes of locating his friend.

The very first call he made was amazing. Steve said, “Is this Terry Bratberg?” The voice said, “Yes, are you looking to buy my golf clubs?” Steve responded, “No, I’m looking for my Buddy that I served with in the 1st Marine Recon…badly injured…etc.” The voice on the other end said, “How did you know that I got whacked like that!?” Steve replied, “Don’t you remember, I’m the guy that beat you in that chess game the day before?” They had about a two hour visit over the phone.

Amazingly, the Marine Corpsman on the battlefield that day sewed Terry’s thumb back on and placed enough of the skull bone back in place that it saved his life and healed. 90% use of the thumb returned and his eyesight came back after 30 days. He was married with kids and grandkids and playing golf and owned a 20 acre farm in Wisconsin. It was a tremendous reunion for these two warrior buddies.

Steve was to leave Viet Nam in December of 1967. On his birthday, December 5, there was a reporter from KFJZ radio, Fort Worth, Texas interviewing all Texans that were serving in the military in Viet Nam. There were 5 in Steve’s unit and he recorded an interview with the guy and was anxious to process out from Da Nang and return home. The reporter took Steve’s parent’s contact information and said he would let them know when the interview was to play on the radio in the DFW Metroplex.

That afternoon he received his orders and he left Viet Nam on December 14. They flew to Okinawa, then 10 hours to El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and then bused to Los Angeles airport to catch a flight home. As they got off the bus in Los Angeles, “I thought we had landed on the wrong planet! All the demonstrations…I couldn’t believe it,” Steve said sadly as he remembered the unrest of those days.

When he arrived at Love Field airport in Dallas, he connected with a friend that was a nurse that took care of them at Six Flags when he worked there. They all had a lot of fun with nurse Linda Phillips. She was now a Navy nurse and was shipping out on the same plane that Steve flew in on. Her parents offered to drive Steve home and her dad insisted, when they arrived at his parent’s house, to help him carry one of his sea bags to the door.

Steve’s mom answered the door, looked at Steve first and then at Linda’s dad and asked, “Can I help you?” She didn’t recognize her 20 pound lighter son. Steve said, “Mom, it’s me!” Two hours earlier she and his dad had heard Steve’s voice over the radio from Viet Nam on KFJZ Radio. They thought he was still there. A great reunion indeed!

Steve Freeman’s life has taken some twists and turns that most will never experience. I will follow up with more of his life in a later post. We must investigate the life of a DEA contract pilot for 18 ½ years.

Thank you for sharing your life with us, Steve, and thank you for your service to our country for our freedom.