Gen. Robert Shoemaker had just left Vietnam in the summer of 1970 when he heard the shocking news.
“I heard the news flash ... American general killed in Vietnam,” said Shoemaker, who was a brigadier general at the time, and had just completed his third and final tour in Vietnam.
The general who was killed was the 1st Cavalry Division commander Maj. Gen. George William Casey Sr.
Casey, along with six members of his staff, died when the Army Huey helicopter he was in crashed while en route to visit wounded troops on July 7, 1970. Casey was 48.
Shoemaker had just said goodbye to Casey a few days earlier, right after Casey took over the division.
In the year before the crash, Shoemaker and Casey served together as the 1st Cavalry’s two assistant division commanders.
“He was a skilled soldier,” said Shoemaker, who handled the logistical side of the division, while Casey handled the maneuver elements.
Shoemaker had known Casey for years, and the two worked closely together in the final year of Casey’s life, often eating together and seeing each other at the end of another Vietnam day.
“He was, in my judgment, going to be chief of staff for the Army,” said Shoemaker, 91, who is now retired and lives in Bell County near Nolanville.
Shoemaker and Casey followed similar career paths, attending West Point at the same time.
“He was a good soldier doing his duty, as he had for decades,” according to the book “The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army,” which recounts Casey’s life.
“After Pearl Harbor, Casey had withdrawn from Harvard University and enrolled at West Point, receiving his commission too late to see action in World War II. In Korea, he commanded an infantry company, earning a battlefield promotion to captain at Heartbreak Ridge, along with a Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest honor. ... He spent most of the remainder of the decade commanding troops in Vietnam and seemed sure to ascend to four stars. Already he was being talked about as a future chief of the Army, as his West Point classmates had foreseen in 1945 when they predicted, ‘He will be the Army’s best’.”
Before taking command of the 1st Cavalry Division, Casey went on leave. He was stateside when the 1st Cavalry Division was ordered to lead a task force into Cambodia to shatter the North Vietnamese supply lines. In Casey’s absence, Shoemaker ended up leading that task force with remarkable success. Casey returned to handle the withdrawal.
“A week after the withdrawal from Cambodia, Casey climbed into the copilot seat of his Huey helicopter at 1st Air Cav headquarters and took off, flying east,” according to “The Fourth Star.”
“He was headed for the U.S. base at Cam Ranh Bay to visit wounded soldiers. It was raining and visibility was so poor that his chief of staff, Col. Edward ‘Shy’ Meyer, had urged him to cancel the trip, but he wanted to see his men before they were transferred to hospitals in Japan. The helicopter’s path took it across Vietnam’s mountainous central highlands. At about 10 a.m. his Huey flew into a dense cloud and disappeared. A second helicopter flying behind crisscrossed over the shrouded peaks, looking for any sign of the general’s craft, but finally had to break off when its fuel began running low. The American military headquarters in Saigon ordered a massive search. Not wanting to alert the Viet Cong that a high-ranking general was unaccounted for, it held off making a public announcement until a few days later.”
The wreckage was found within days, and the word spread fast, both in Vietnam and the United States, where the story made front-page headlines.
It’s a day that Vietnam veteran Pat Christ, now a Harker Heights councilman, won’t forget. He signed in to the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam the same day the wreckage was found.
Christ had been in the country a few days and heard about the crash while he was in 21st Replacement, where all new soldiers to Vietnam get processed.
Soldiers everywhere were talking about the crash, said Christ, who was a second lieutenant at the time.
“It just meant that anyone was vulnerable,” Christ said.
With booby traps, Viet Cong terror tactics and other threats, anyone could die at any moment. It’s a realization that many Vietnam veterans know all too well.
“There wasn’t an area in Vietnam that wasn’t (hostile),” said Christ, recalling the mortar fire that 1st Cavalry Headquarters would often receive during his one-year tour.
Shoemaker still remembers Casey well, and thinks highly of him.
“He was an extraordinarily impressive individual” especially in the way he handled people, Shoemaker said, adding Casey was well-liked by his troops and colleagues alike.
While Casey’s untimely death prevented him from making it to the Army’s top officer position, Casey’s son, George William Casey Jr. was eventually promoted to be a future Army chief of staff.
“He made it with his son,” Shoemaker said.