Love of cars reunites local Vietnam veterans

Vancouver men trained together, parted ways in 1966

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoJim Chmielewski’s album has photos taken in 1966 during Army training, including the picture at left, a shot of Chmielewski, left, standing with Mike Woods.

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A 1967 Ford Fairlane that didn't go anywhere one hot afternoon brought together two Vancouver men who hadn't seen each other in 46 years.

Mike Woods and Jim Chmielewski met in 1965 after they were drafted, and then they went through Army aviation training together in Alabama.

"That's where we went our separate ways," Woods said.

Those routes took them to different areas of Vietnam. Woods flew on a rocket-firing Huey helicopter; Chmielewski was assigned to an air-transport unit.

"We didn't know what happened to each other after advanced training," Woods said. "You never know if guys make it back. You see guys for a couple of months, and then never know if they were killed."

They got an update three months ago. Accompanied by a neighbor, Woods drove his 1951 Chevrolet Club Coupe to a Vancouver hot-rod cruise-in.

"It was hot out, so we found a shady spot next to a lady," Woods said. "A gentleman on the other side of her sat there, quiet."

Eventually, Woods and the woman, Dorothy Cooper, started talking. She didn't know him, but "he was very friendly, and it was fun talking with him."

"When he asked which car my friend had," Cooper said, "I told him it was the white '67 Fairlane."

Woods eventually walked over to take a closer look at the Fairlane 500. He read the information card on the windshield, which included the name of the owner.

"I saw the name 'Jim Chmielewski' and I about fell over," Woods said. "I hadn't heard that name since 1966."

Woods walked over to the Fairlane's owner and then said, "Jim Chmielewski?"

Chmielewski acknowledged that he was the owner of the car and Woods said: "Vietnam, 1965?"

"We stared at each other," Chmielewski said, and he finally said: "Mike?"

Since that Aug. 19 reunion, the two 68-year-old men have had more than four decades of catching up to do.

It turned out that the August event wasn't the first time they'd taken their cars to the same cruise-in. Woods and Chmielewski (pronounced "Shimalewski") live in the same general part of town, and enjoy eating at a couple of the same restaurants.

Met in July '65

They've also had a chance to do some reminiscing. They met in July 1965 at Fort Ord, Calif., then both went to the aviation training center at Fort Rucker, Ala.

Chmielewski, a 1962 Hudson's Bay High School graduate, served with an air unit that supported Special Forces operations. He was a ground crew member and a crew chief on a twin-engine Caribou transport.

Woods, a 1962 Estacada, Ore., High School graduate, was a helicopter crew chief with an aerial rocket artillery battalion assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division.

"We had 24 rockets on each side," Woods said. "When troops were pinned down, they'd call for support and mark their position with yellow smoke.

"We lived on a landing zone most of the time, in hooches we made out of ammo boxes," Woods said.

At his air transport base, Chmielewski recalled, "We lived in chicken coops."

After his tour of Vietnam, Chmielewski finished his service at Fort Lewis, where his Army career took a couple of unexpected turns. He drove a bookmobile, which turned out to be more complicated than it sounded.

When Chmielewski returned to a spot on his route after two weeks, a soldier who'd checked out some books didn't have them.

"The kid said his sergeant threw them all away," Chmielewski said. "I reported it."

Eventually, his route took Chmielewski back there.

"The sergeant was waiting for me, along with all the other sergeants in the company. I got out as quick as I could. And I reported them again."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.