First Lieutenant Gene Helgeson Piloted Plane at Khe Sahn

In 2017, former EHF Curator Emily Irwin wrote in a blog, “If you visited the Anderson Barn Museum this year, or read previous blog posts, you know about a few of Ephraim’s Civil War veterans.  Today, in honor of Veterans Day, I’ll be writing about Vietnam Air Force pilot Ellis Eugene Helgeson.” In recognition of Memorial Day 2021, EHF Educator Kathleen Harris has added additional information and images. Click on words in blue italics to go to various web sources.

It’s hard to miss the tall white obelisk at Ephraim’s Anderson Dock. The memorial obelisk commemorates First Lieutenant Ellis Eugene Helgeson, Jr., who served in the United States Air Force and was killed in action on March 6, 1968, during the Battle of Khe Sanh.  The memorial was erected later that year by Amos M. Rasmussen. Curious visitors often wonder why a memorial honoring a pilot born in Cincinnati, Ohio, is at the dock.

The Helgeson name has a long history in Ephraim beginning with Matilda (Tilla) and Elias Helgeson, Lt. Helgeson’s paternal grandparents and proprietors of the Edgewater Lodge. Although Tilla and Elias weren’t the first owners of the Edgewater, the Helgesons operated the hotel from 1906 to 1961. After their deaths, Elias in 1923 and Tilla in 1954, four daughters (Lillian, Grace, Pearl, Elsie) and two sons (Guy and Ellis Eugene) helped run the business. Young Gene helped, too, and in so doing spent every childhood summer in Ephraim. “Ephraim was important to Gene,” his father Ellis said at the dedication of his son’s memorial in October, 1968. “He was so very happy here.”

Friends Remember Gene

Years later, Gene’s boyhood friend, Karl Kodanko, agreed (May 14, 2021). Karl grew up on land where the High Point Inn now stands. He attended Ephraim’s Pioneer Schoolhouse and later the new school that houses village offices today. The boys first met at the Ephraim public beach. Gene, or “Butch” he was then known, was up for the summer. Karl remembered one time when Gene’s older brother Guy swam across the harbor. Guy asked the younger kids to row alongside him in their hand made, 8-foot dinghy, “just in case.”

The Edgewater Lodge

The year Gene graduated from high school, his father sent him to work in Brownsville, TX. The elder Helgeson was an executive for Proctor and Gamble, which had offices there. Karl lost touch with Gene after that, but returned in 1968 for the dedication of the memorial obelisk. Karl recalled that mourners gathered afterwards in the village hall.

Gene was bright, athletic, well-grounded and very well-mannered …  a worthy friend with a promising future. I mourn the loss of that potential and of my friend. – Bill Handschin.

Bill Handschin also shared memories (see Comments at the end of this blog). They first met when Gene was about twelve-years-old. The boys snorkeled around Anderson Dock, “retrieving lost fishing tackle and pop bottles” to trade in for candy. They camped on Horseshoe Island and fished, one time catching a hefty bass with a spear gun.

Schooling

Gene was born May 14, 1942. He was co-captain of the Mariemont high school football team (1958 League Champions), graduated from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, and later Colgate University. In between his sophomore and junior years, Gene worked for Oceanographic Institute aboard the Atlantis for a year, sailing the Atlantic to South America. Helgeson graduated from Colgate in 1965 and received a commission in the Air Force ROTC. Before winning his wings at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, in March, 1967, he worked as assistant manager at Sugar Bush Inn Ski Resort, Vermont.

Military Service

“In a tape recording made by Helgeson February 26, [1968], he commented how he had only four months left to serve in Vietnam of his one-year tour of duty there. He also had written his parents that he was flying transport planes 12 to 14 hours a day and had made flights to 421 bases in Vietnam in the last eight months … Letters received from the Defense Department by the Helgesons report that helicopters have spotted the wreckage but search teams cannot get into the area until the barrage ends.” The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, Tuesday, March 12, 1968.

C-130 Cargo Transport Plane, lockheedmartin.com.

Lt. Helgeson served with the 311th Air Commando Squadron, 315 Air Commando Wing, and 7 Air Force. He perished while piloting a C-130 transport plane into Khe Sahn, an isolated combat base held by roughly 5,500 Marines who were surrounded by 20,000 North Vietnamese troops. The siege of Khe Sahn lasted 77 days and is considered by many to be the longest, deadliest and most controversial battle of the Vietnam War. Curious to know why? A plethora of articles are easily found on the web. “Khe Sahn” has also been enshrined in pop culture; Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 classic rock ballad, Born in the USA, includes a stanza about Khe Sahn.

Elton Helgeson, uncle to Lt. Gene Helgeson, drowned in 1897 while ice skating on Eagle Harbor. He is buried at the Ephraim Moravian Cemetery. As was customary at the time, a lamb adorns the gravestone. The epitaph reads: My hope is built on nothing less/Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

Helgeson was transporting 44 Marines and five crew members, including himself. All were shot down by enemy fire. He was awarded a number of medals for his service, including the Silver Star Medal for Bravery, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart.  Lt. E. Eugene Helgeson was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Helgeson’s parents, Ellis and Ruth, and several other relatives are buried at the Ephraim Moravian Cemetery.

The next time you visit Anderson Dock, be sure to stop and look for First Lieutenant E. Eugene Helgeson’s name on the memorial obelisk’s bronze plaque. Gene’s name also appears on panel 43E, line 020 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. “At my request,” wrote Bill Handschin, “my wife retrieved a rubbing of his name from the Vietnam Memorial Wall. It helps keep his memory alive, although it is a poor substitute for Gene’s friendly and engaging presence.”

Special thanks to Karl Kodanko and Bill Handschin who shared personal memories.

For more information about Lt. Helgeson and the memorial at Anderson Dock visit:

Wisconsin Historical Markers: The Memorial Obelisk for E. Eugene Helgeson, Jr.

Virtual Wall – Viet Nam Veterans Memorial

Two Articles from the Door County Advocate, 1968

Door County Advocate 3-14-68 Lt. Helgeson Dead in Viet Nam

EPHRAIM-Word has been received here that Lt. Ellis E. Helgeson, son of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Helgeson. Cincinnati, Ohio has been killed in action in Viet Nam. Lieutenant Helgeson spent all of his summers during childhood with relatives at Edgewater Lodge in Ephraim. Flying a transport plane, Lieutenant Helgeson was bringing Marines into Khe Sanh when hit by enemy fire about five miles from the base.

Before entering the Air Force, he graduated from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Colgate University. Besides his parents, he is survived by a brother. Guy, New York, and other relatives.

E. Eugene Helgeson (photo from Tom Reece)

Door County Advocate 10-29-1968 Dedicate Ephraim memorial to Lt. Helgeson, Viet Nam flyer

EPHRAIM-A gift the donors hope will never be used was presented to the village of Ephraim. Mr. and Mrs. Ellis E. Helgeson, Mariemont, Ohio, dedicated a memorial on Anderson Dock to their son Lt. Ellis E. Helgeson, Jr., who lost his life last March in Viet Nam.

During the dedication ceremonies, attended by a good crowd, Mr. Helgeson expressed the gratitude of his family to the village for permission to erect the memorial here. He added, “If, in this war, or any future wars, a boy from Ephraim should give his life for his country, we would be honored to have his plaque added to this memorial.”

The slender 30-foot white memorial beacon now bears a plaque honoring Lt. Helgeson. The plaque has a bronze relief-head of the lieutenant and below are embossed replicas of his military honors-the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with two Oak Leaf clusters, and Purple Heart.

Village President Lloyd Olson accepted the memorial on behalf of Ephraim, stating, “It would be our hope that young and old viewing this memorial will be Inspired to a greater sense of patriotism.”

“Gene,” as Lieutenant Helgeson was known to friends, spent a good many summers in this village. His grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis E. Helgeson, operated Edgewater Lodge for a number of years. “Ephraim was important to Gene,” his father said. “He was so very happy here.

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Markers.

The color guard from Billy Weiss Post No. 527, American Legion, Sister Bay, took part in the ceremonies, advancing and retiring the colors, under the command of Henry Eckert. The Rev. Clarence Meile of St. John’s Catholic church, Egg Harbor, offered a prayer, stating, “Gene needs no eulogy from me or any other man. He has written his own by his devotion to duty, honor and country.”

“Let these words be our dedication,” said the priest. Special music was provided by the Sister Bay Baptist Chapel quartet, David and Dale Seaquist, Leonard Peterson and Roland Anderson. They sang, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” and “My Thanks to Him.”

Wayne Paschke, master of ceremonies, outlined the lieutenant’s school background and military career. Lieutenant Helgeson had been transporting troops to over 42 bases in Viet Nam. His plane was shot down on March 6, 1968. while attempting to land at Khe Sanh with 44 marines and a crew of five. All were killed.

It was an impressive tribute to the fallen flier. Flags fluttered at either side of the memorial column shining in the sunlight. There was a traditional strident salute from the firing squad. Young bugler Warren Lundquist sounded “Taps.” Friends exchanged quiet words of greeting with the Helgesons. And In eternal motion, waves slapped and eddied below the dock. In a sense, Gene had, indeed, come home.

 

3 thoughts on “First Lieutenant Gene Helgeson Piloted Plane at Khe Sahn”

  1. Thanks for the article. My name is Steven Colburn, son of Margaret Glenn who is his first cousin. I’ll be sharing this article with my family. Thanks again!

  2. I have just read your historical notes on the memorial to Eugene Helgeson located at Anderson’s Dock in Ephraim. His familial connection to Ephraim is worthy of mention, as well as his meritorious military service.

    My recollections of Gene are of a more personal nature. As a teenager, I spent two or three weeks most summers between 1947 and 1959 in Ephraim with my family. We stayed down the road from the Edgewater Inn at Mary Larson’s cottages, across the street from Sohn’s grocery. I met Gene in 1955 or 1956 in Ephraim, where he was spending part of his summer. He was an exceptional young man, bright, athletic, well-grounded and very well-mannered. I had the good fortune of spending time with him during our stay in Ephraim over the course of the next two or three summers. We enjoyed outdoor activities, boating around Eagle Harbor and camping on Horseshoe Island and at Nicolet Bay in Peninsula State park. We swam and snorkeled around Anderson’s Dock, retrieving lost fishing tackle and pop bottles that yielded a deposit quickly translated into candy. He or another friend had a spear gun, and on one occasion we managed to spear a reasonable sized bass, which turned out to be good eating.

    After the last summer that I saw him and after he had returned to Cincinnati, we started a chess by mail game that soon petered out. A week plus per move made it just too slow a game. I went off to college in 1960, as I suppose Gene did, and I lost track of him until I heard of his untimely death. My memories of him are still quite clear. I remember him as a prince of a young man, a worthy friend, with a promising future. I mourn the loss of that potential and of my friend. At my request, my wife retrieved a rubbing of his name from the Vietnam Memorial Wall. It helps keep his memory alive, although it is a poor substitute for Gene’s friendly and engaging presence.

    Thank you for the article.

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