Two-time purple heart recipient soared Vietnam skies
By Jenna-Ley Harrison
Jim Retz always had a plan to sign up for military service like his father, a World War II veteran, as a way to show pride in his country and seek revenge for friends lost.
“Many of them didn’t come home,” Retz said. “I thought, ‘Well, I want to go and not only do my part but maybe avenge their death.”
As a young boy, he also heard many combat stories from his father—commander of the local American Legion—and his war buddies. Retz also filled the role of rifle carrier when the Legion participated in town parades.
So it only made sense that when some were fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft, Retz was happily volunteering at age 18. The year was 1967, and the Muncie, Indiana, native was ready and willing to get shipped to Vietnam, with no plans to return after hearing all the horror stories of men killed.
“It was kind of morbid thinking, ‘Well, I’m just going to be here until somebody dies or goes home,’” Retz said of his time overseas.
It was even the reason for his having his son early in life.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to come back,” Retz said, “and I wanted to leave something of me here; and my son—my baby—was that something.”
When Retz first joined Army Aviation, he was eager to serve alongside friends and other men from his town; but he didn’t get that chance because of a random mistake. After his initial physical showed a spot on his lungs—later deemed an X-ray imperfection, not a health scare—he was delayed from starting basic training with those he knew.
Retz was first shipped to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, then transferred to Fort Rucker, Alabama—the site of helicopter school. It was where service members trained in piloting and mechanic work, a skill Retz qualified for on his military aptitude test.
But most days Retz worked inside a hangar, repairing aircraft, and feeling unfulfilled. He didn’t sign up for war to be a repairman. He also hoped to stay away from drinking, a hobby too many of his friends turned to.
“I wasn’t happy,” Retz said. “My personal agenda was to get even, so every Friday I turned in a transfer request.”
Finally his commander sent word to Retz he could have his own helicopter, which he used to pick up plane parts to fix broken aircraft. He eventually made crew chief of his maintenance outfit in Kentucky, but had to first agree to stop turning in transfer requests. From there, he was shipped to Vietnam and conducted a variety of unique missions.
“I was loaned out to this variety of companies doing different missions while their helicopters were in repair. I was kind of unique in a way,” Retz said.
He even flew renowned leaders like U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland and Hollywood entertainers Bop Hope and Ann-Margret.
Retz said his time overseas greatly opened his eyes to the political nature of war and lack of support from the American government. During his two years of service, his unit and others like it often encountered non-working or outdated aircraft.
“If you’re going to send these guys over there then you need to back them up,” Retz said. “I get very upset thinking about politicians who are not in any danger willing to put other people’s sons and daughters in harm’s way.”
His welcome home from war was also far from warm.
“There was no ‘Congratulations, you did a good job,’” Retz said. “A little bit of appreciation back then might have kept me from being as resentful as I might have been.”
He also learned he couldn’t easily talk to others, especially non-combat veterans, about his experiences so he eventually stopped.
“They just didn’t seem to understand,” Retz said. “People learn what they see in the movies, and at that time the quality of the movies about Vietnam...were probably less than desirable. They didn’t depict what was going on over there.”
But what most bothered Retz was the guilt he said he harbored for decades for receiving two Purple Hearts. He knew others had received them posthumously and thought his were undeserved, not providing too much detail on why he received them, other than explaining one was given for an incident on the ground and another that occurred while he was in air.
“Neither (incident) was very bad,” Retz said. “For the longest time I didn’t accept or tell people that I received (them), but now I do.”
The Purple Heart is given to service members who are wounded or killed in action.
Retz said his dad also received a Purple Heart and never understood why his son didn’t feel the same pride about his own. Recently, the Vietnam vet started wearing the awards pinned to his Army hat.
After two years Retz almost signed up for another tour, tempted by the $10,000 sign-on bonus. But he said he turned it down to stay a family man and continue working in the automotive manufacturing business at a Chrysler plant in his hometown.
Looking back he doesn’t regret his military service and said he thinks everyone should serve at some point. His son T.J. and daughter-in-law are currently in the military.
Today Retz and his wife Denise spend time traveling between their homes in Sangaree and Hendersonville, North Carolina. Retz also enjoys restoring old cars and cruising in his Harleys. He’s also highly involved in the community—on the library board for Berkeley County and a local poll worker.