Chuck with photo album

Chuck Zimmerly with one of several photo albums.

When the nation needs us to put on a uniform and serve in faraway lands, or here at home, who answers the clarion call?

Our friends, our neighbors, our family members. People like you and me.

People like the dozens pictured on the pages of this issue of the Defensor Chieftain; each one has a unique story. The stories are as old as Socorro County, dating back to when the U.S. Army established Fort Craig. When the fort was decommissioned, the soldiers were either reassigned or discharged.

Samuel J. Zimmerly was one such soldier, who was discharged at the fort and decided to make a life for himself in Socorro. Samuel was a Germanic-Swiss emigrate who came to New Mexico in 1862 with the California Column. By the time his enlistment ended, he was 1st Sergeant in Company B of the 1st Cavalry Infantry.

In 1864 he settled down in Socorro and married Pablita Torres.

“We were the first ‘Stallion Siters,'" Samuel's great-grandson Chuck Zimmerly said, referring to the term given to soldiers from White Sands who married into local families. He added that Richard Stackpole, his great-grandfather on his mother’s side also served at Fort Craig.

"At one time, he was out chasing Victorio all over,” he said.

In the ensuing years, members of the Zimmerly clan have participated in America’s conflicts, ranging from the Spanish American War, both World Wars, the Korean War, and Vietnam, up to the Middle East engagements.

Chuck, a retired school teacher and former City Councilor, talked about the military tradition, which began with his great-grandfather Samuel at the memorabilia filled Zimmerly house last week.

“My dad, Richard Zimmerly, was a 1st Lieutenant in the Marines. He was a combat engineer the Pacific Theater,” Chuck said. “Dad was on Tinian, Okinawa, Saipan, Tarawa, the Solomons, Iwo Jima. I remember Iwo Jima in particular because he told me he was there when Ernie Pyle was killed.

Zimmerly wall

On the other side of the world in the European Theater, Chuck’s uncle, Eighth Army Air Force Lt. Edward Zimmerly, was the navigator on the B-17 dubbed The Hit Parade.

“Uncle Eddie’s B-17 was one of the more famous B-17s in World War II because it pulled a full loop, something that it wasn’t designed to do,” he said. “Aeronautical engineers said it couldn’t be done, but they did it.”

According to a newspaper article, after a midair collision between a German fighter and another bomber in the formation, Zimmerly’s plane was struck by the other B-17 and lost most of its tail section. That caused the bomber to go nose-up, and in order to save the plane the 22-year-old pilot "helped the plane continue its loop.”

Badly damaged, the B-17 limped back to England and landed at a Royal Air Force base with a flat tire and only five minutes of gas in its tanks.

Chuck’s “Uncle Eddie,” as navigator, helped guide the bomber to a safe landing by lying prone in the Plexiglas nose of the aircraft, giving verbal directions to the pilot over the intercom.

Only of the 10 crew members was injured; a waist gunner, who broke his heel during the loop.

"Flying Fortress does inside loop: Navigator sticks to ceiling, drops on his head as plane swings back to normal," read a headline from the Omaha Daily Journal.

The Daily Express of London reported: "Battered Fort does full loop, but gets home."

B-17 Crew

Crew of The Hit Parade

Sadly, Edward Zimmerly was killed-in-action while completely his 25th mission when the B-17 he was navigating was hit by flak. The rest of the crew were able to parachute safely, but before they jumped, they helped parachute Zimmerly’s body out as well, so it could be recovered later. An article in The Chieftain has the headline “Lt. Zimmerly Is Missing.”

“My mom wrote in her diary that the family lit a candle in San Miguel when he had been reported missing in action,” Chuck said. “And the entry for that day in May when he was declared killed in action they put the candle out.”

“We didn’t get his body shipped back until 1949,” he said.

Elsewhere, his cousin Donald Chavez had three ships sunk from under him in the war and ended up working for the city in the water department. His uncle Albert served on the U.S.S. Birmingham, which was hit by a kamikaze at Okinawa. His nephew Donnie Smith is on active duty South Korea in the U.S. Army after serving five tours in the Middle East.

The Second World War’s impact on Socorro was no different from small towns all over America.

"Every able-bodied man was joining the service," he said. "There were so many guys going into the service, the enrollment at the School of Mines got down to 16 students, and the legislature was thinking of closing the school.”

Fortunately, the Army stepped in.

"Three hundred guys came in to train in Socorro and used the School of Mines, and it kept it afloat until the war was over and all the students came back," he said. "Socorro seems to attract the military."

Tech Plaque

Indeed, in front of Brown Hall at New Mexico Tech are rose bushes and a plaque honoring the “the men of the New Mexico School of Mines who gave their lives in World War II.”

“Uncle Eddie’s one of them,” he said. “Each family got to plant a rose bush. I found the bill upstairs from when my granddad bought the rose bushes.”

Chuck himself enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1966, became a Quartermaster, and was ordered to Vietnam in 1969.

"When I was overseas, my dad kept every letter, every postcard, every picture I sent home," he said. “Kept them a shoebox upstairs. He died in 1975.”

Chuck was stationed north of Danang at Cua Viet, right near the DMZ and the border with North Vietnam.

“I worked with the 3rd Marine Division,” he said. “My main mission in the Navy was taking the 3rd Marines up and down the Dong Ha River.”

The boat he was on was called a Mike boat, the nickname for a Landing Craft Mechanized, World War II landing craft converted to riverboats. 

“They put .50 caliber machine guns on them and armored them up a little more,” he said. “Pulling the 3rd Marines out from Khe Sanh and The Rockpile was the last big operation.”

Although not wounded in action, he was severely injured when a truck backed up to the boat he was on and crushed the lower part of his left leg.

“They packed my leg down in ice to get me to the hospital in Danang because there wasn't a hospital in Cua Viet,” he said. “There were a dozen breaks in my leg, but they did a good job of saving the leg.”

He spent his recovery back in his hootch, and almost hurt his leg again.

"One night, we had an incursion at the wire; the barbed wire,” he said. “We were getting sappers.” His trained reflexes set in, “so I jumped out of bed when the alarm went off … and landed on that foot. It split all the stitches out of my foot.”

His best friend George “Butch” Lemke, the engineer on his boat, picked him up and carried him over his shoulder to a bunker.

"He got me out to the bunker, but then had to leave and go scramble the boats. He told me he'd come back for me when they gave the all-clear."

"Alone in the dark bunker, I had a .45 with me and was sitting there thinking 'when I fire this thing inside the bunker, I'm going to blow my eardrums out. So I'm going to have to yell every time I fire,'" Chuck said. "I was all prepared. Then I heard the sand crunching outside on the wooden planks we used for sidewalks. I got all ready, waiting to see the silhouette of a North Vietnamese soldier come through the door. And then I see Butch, and he goes, ‘Zee, you OK? Were you scared?’”

“It goes without saying…” Chuck said.

He separated from the Navy in June 1970 and, “I went back to Tech and finished my degree. My brother Rick was in the Marine Reserves, but he didn’t have to go to Vietnam.”

When he reflects on his tour in Vietnam - to which he returned for a visit earlier this year - Chuck equates his experience with all veterans

"It's like I feel obligated for the guys that are coming back now to make sure they get treated right," he said. "When I came back in '70, they wouldn't even let us wear our uniforms off the base, because they said ... you know … 'you're going to get [stuff] thrown at you, whatever.’”

Times have changed, and respect for Vietnam veterans and all others who put on a uniform is exemplified in the Veterans Day observances all across the country.