Summerfield served as an F-4 fighter crew chief in Vietnam
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series for 2020, which features veterans in our area sharing first-hand accounts of their military service. The series will be published through Veterans Day.
ELKINS — An Elkins native and Vietnam veteran was awarded a Commendation Medal for his sustained acts of heroism during his service with the United States Air Force.
Roger Summerfield enlisted with the Air Force in 1967 “because I didn’t want to get drafted,” he said. At the time, Summerfield was living in Elkins.
“I thought (basic training) was easy but some guys had trouble with it,” he said. “I was in good physical shape so I didn’t have any problems with boot camp.”
Summerfield attended technical school in Wichita Falls, Texas, and trained to operate and fly F-4 Phantom fighter jets. Following the training, he was deployed to Vietnam in 1968.
“I was stationed at Udorn Air Base and I was a crew chief on an F-4 fighter,” he said. “I just did one tour but it was during the Tet Offensive. I was in charge of the plane while it’s on the ground and they assigned one air craft to every crew chief.”
Summerfield remembers working for 12 hours each day, seven days a week, often during monsoons.
“It would rain so hard that it came right up to your waist. Snakes and fish would actually be swimming around your aircraft. There was no running away,” he said. “Most of the snakes were poisonous but I never got bit.”
During his time in Vietnam, Summerfield experienced many instances in which enemies attempted to overrun the air base with explosives.
“We have tower guards around the aircraft and they shot (the enemies) before they could blow up our aircraft,” he said. “They tried that kind of stuff during the Tet Offensive because the F-4 was killing too many of them.”
Summerfield regularly wrote home to his family during his time overseas and noted that he often received multiple letters at a time because the mail had been backed up.
“When you tried to write a letter you were in trouble. You were so hot and sweaty that you had to put a piece of cloth on your hand so you wouldn’t smear the ink,” he said.
The Udorn Air Base had a regular chow hall and Summerfield remembers the powdered eggs and milk with disdain. For entertainment, soldiers on the base would gather to watch movies together.
“We had an outdoor theater where you sat on benches and they showed movies from the ’50s. Little lizards would be all over the screen and it was hard to watch the movie,” he said. “They would also be in the showers with you. You always had to shower with the lizards. They were harmless but it took a little getting used to.”
Also present on the base were critters commonly referred to as “rice bugs.”
“They look like a praying mantis and they’re about four inches long. That’s a delicacy to (the Vietnamese). They’d bite the heads off and suck the insides out,” said Summerfield. “I never could get to that point. They’d fly into our work lights at night and knock themselves out so we’d catch them and keep them for people that worked on the base.”
Before enlisting, Summerfield was a member of a construction union and began working in the construction field after leaving the Air Force. During that time, he helped build I-79.
He also joined the Vietnam Veterans of America.
“I’m just proud to have served. I went to D.C. for the 25th anniversary celebration and it was unbelieveable,” he said. “I had Marines come up to me and hug me, saying, ‘Thanks to your fighters, I’m still alive.’ When they got trapped, they’d call in for an airstrike and they were very humble about it.”
Summerfield was able to reconnect with his original crewmates for Veteran’s Day 2019 in Arizona, after being apart for the last 50 years. Now they plan on getting together every Veteran’s Day, he said.