Memorial Day is very personal to Rich Krejsa.
It’s about the uncle he never met but made life decisions based on his story and the gentle bear of a man from Virginia he served with in Vietnam who was killed in a plane crash in a month after Krejsa left Vietnam.
“Memorial Day is a way to honor guys like my uncle and like Mike,” Krejsa said.
His mother’s brother, Uncle Rich, yes, his namesake, was a tail gunner in the Army Air Corps’ fleet of B-17s during World War II.
Tucked into a compartment so tight he was kept in a kneeling position, the tail gunner used two .50 caliber machine guns to protect the rear quarter of the aircraft while keeping the rest of the flight crew informed about what he saw, relay bombing results to the bombardier and navigator and aid the radio operator and navigator of parachute count going down from other B-17s and the condition of the aircraft.
He was said to be the most important gunner on the plane. While B-17 crew members were signed up to fly 25 missions, the average crew only survived through 15 missions.
“Uncle Rich was killed by shrapnel in a mission over Europe,” Krejsa said. “He’s part of the reason I decided to enlist in the Air Force and volunteered to go to Vietnam. It was a chance to honor him.”
After training to be a non-Morse intercept operator, Krejsa first assignment was at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. That’s where he met Sgt. Michael Stiglich from Roanoke, Virginia.
“He was big, tall and solid but one of the gentlest guys you ever want to meet,” Krejsa said. “We became friends.”
After 18 months, Krejsa was scheduled to be sent back to the states, but with an itch for adventure and a curiosity ignited by the media’s portrayal of the war, he volunteered to be sent to Vietnam as a “ditty bopper” or airborne direct finder. Krejsa landed in Vietnam in August 1968 attached to the 6994th Security Squadron at Nha Trang Air Base. Stiglich showed up at the same base in February.
“We had the same barracks and would see each other every day,” Krejsa said.
Krejsa left Vietnam in August 1969. He offered to extend his time in the Air Force another year if the Air Force would guarantee he would be sent to Europe. The Air Force couldn’t promise anything. A month later, the detachment in Vietnam — including Stiglich — was moved to Phu Cat. On Oct. 8, 1969, during a mission in bad weather, the EC-47 aircraft on which Stiglich was working as a Morse systems operator, caught fire and crashed.
“Radio contact was lost when it went down, and because of the weather, they didn’t find the wreckage for four days,” Krejsa said. “Mike didn’t make it back. If I had extended, that could have been me.”