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November 10, 2012

Michael McWherter said ‘We sprung the envelope’

Courage Under Fire

STILLWATER, Okla. — The night’s darkness hung heavy over precarious roads in the dense jungles of Vietnam. In a tank, the platoon rolled along with armored protection in hostile territory — but a mine devastated mobility on that memorable day. Feb. 21, 1967 — a date with destiny for retired Lt. Col. Michael McWherter.

“We sprung the envelope,” McWherter said. “Enemy that was poised to attack a truck convoy the next day attacked us.”

Eventually Viet Cong were crawling all over the tank. The armor’s vision block was smattered by fire so the soldiers could not see out of the tank.  Hand-to-hand combat ensued. With radio communication, Platoon Sgt. Jack Baggerly broke loose to a hilltop and came to the rescue.

“I ducked down inside and he sprayed my tank with machine gun fire — and shot the enemy off, saving my life and my crew,” McWherter said. “Army helicopters augmented the fire coming from our tank and shot rockets down on the enemy to drive them away from us and pursued them through the jungle and mountains for five or six hours during darkness until the enemy faded away.”

A harrowing experience — “one of those dates like 9/11 that is always memorable in your mind” — but all in a day’s work as McWherter served two tours in Vietnam in tank and helicopter divisions. He earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, along with many other valor and achievement awards. McWherter is still in contact with Baggerly today, along with many others from his platoons.

McWherter said his platoon would always be on call as a ready reaction force not only to support the infantry by fire and serve as a bunker during combat maneuvers. Many battles had several hundreds of Americans who died so tanks played key roles in minimizing casualties and evacuating the wounded. The terrain of Vietnam with lots of rice paddies was a challenge for 52-ton tanks. Jungle warfare school in Panama had prepared McWherter for the climate of Vietnam but good ol’ Okie ingenuity helped him move tanks through the countryside.

“One day, I was watching some farmers with their water buffalo and I noticed that the water buffalo would come up to a rice paddy dike and seemingly sniff the next rice paddy field,” McWherter said.

Sometimes the water buffalo would walk around the rice paddy after sniffing it so McWherter wondered if the water buffalo were checking for the same things his soldiers were with hydrology maps that showed water tables in enormous 1,000-acre fields of rice paddies. McWherter said they needed to know where to drive the tanks so they wouldn’t get stuck and the water buffalo seemed to have a special sense of when to meander into a rice paddy and when to walk around. He borrowed several water buffalo from local farmers to keep with platoons to improve tank accessibility, which was a source of teasing from the infantry — but using the water buffalo’s sensing worked with fewer tanks getting stuck in the rice paddies.

Vietnam was not well suited to tanks and when he returned stateside, McWherter was asked to train as a helicopter pilot as “Congress believes that the tanks may be outmoded for future combat in guerrilla warfare and helicopters were expected to replace tanks as an instrument of firepower and mobility,” he was told by the general who recruited him to aviation.

The largest helicopter assembly he commanded was more than 40 flying to assist in the evacuation of former Vice President Spiro Agnew when the Phnom Penh airport came under siege in Cambodia during an administrative visit. Helicopters were instrumental in getting over the mountains and into and out of the jungle quickly. McWherter’s experience with the tanks gave him empathy for the ground soldier and he trained his pilots to accept assignments that might exceed their capabilities in support of the infantry. With leeches crawling around the foot soldiers and giant ants dropping in their pants, along with living on rations without much water, McWherter felt his pilots needed to understand that the boots on the ground were dependent on aviation to resupply and evacuate wounded and dead in the midst of exteme conditions. Caring for the soldiers under his command was like watching over a family and that’s where McWherter’s military ambitions began.

“My dad encouraged me in a military career,” McWherter said.  “He managed a gas station in Stillwater and was too young for World War I and too old for World War II. I thought it would be a great adventure.”  

McWherter graduated from New Mexico Military Institute before entering the ROTC program at Oklahoma State University. Through the years, he supplemented his OSU undergraduate degree with a master’s degree in business administration from Central Michigan University and master’s of business administration in international business from the national University of Singapore. He taught many young people as the military science professor during his 20-year Army career and later instructed international business at Oklahoma State University. McWherter also worked as an executive for Bell Helicopter, living and working overseas for another 15 years. While he has lived in and visited more than 100 countries, McWherter chooses to live in Stillwater, his boyhood home where he first dreamed of military adventures.

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