By Coronado Scribe, Toni McGowan, with Richard and Susan Engel – May 2015
Dashing young pilot, Richard (Dick) Engel saw his future wife, stunning Susan Cheston at a party in San Francisco while he was stationed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda. The Vietnam Conflict was heating up and President John F. Kennedy was still in office. She was pursuing a dental hygiene career. He was bound for battle.
Soon after their marriage the two were pulled apart by war. The young bride was forced to fend for herself along with a slew of other young wives, left behind. Dick and Sue hated being separated. More adventurous than many women of that era, Sue would hop a plane so they could be together, even for a moment or two. She joined him early in his service at Naval Air Station, CUBI Point for four of his six-months deployed there. Cubi Point was a United States Navy aerial facility located at the edge of Naval Base Subic Bay and abutting the Bataan Peninsula in the Republic of the Philippines.
On occasion, Sue would meet Dick for precious moments when his ships were in port at various locations around the globe. They met while USS Roosevelt was in Majorca and spent stolen hours in Naples while Dick was deployed to the Mediterranean. They rendezvoused while USS Saratoga was in Hong Kong. The two even managed a two-week vacation touring Europe in 1970, when Dick transferred off of USS Roosevelt from VA176 to VA42 in Virginia Beach, where he served as squadron Safety Officer. While separated, they wrote each other letters every single day.
With her husband away at war, Sue experienced the typical problems of wives with husbands deployed at sea. Her washing machine had an electrical fire, the dishwasher leaked, and the garbage disposal stopped chewing. Thankfully, the women all supported one another at home. One, in particular, was a genius with tools and got the old disposal working with a broom handle she used to pry it back into operation. The wives of deployed squadron men shared coffee, rearing children, and many tears. Not one of them ever stopped worrying about their husbands, even with all the business of raising children, continuing their educations, and even holding down full or part time jobs themselves.
Dick was inspired from a young age to pursue a military career. His pivotal moment occurred when he was just twelve-years-old. It was at the graduation ceremony of his older brother Gordon from the Naval Academy in 1948. Right then-and-there young Dick determined to follow in his brothers’ and his father’s footsteps into military service.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Richard Engel moved in his youth to sunny California (CA), where he graduated in 1954 from Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach. He excelled academically and because of this he received the appointment he desired to the US Naval Academy; Class of 1959. This was the doorway to the fulfillment of his deepest desire: to become a naval aviator like his brother Gordon.
His father died when Dick was just 14-years-old. After, his mother moved to Tolita Avenue in Coronado, California (CA). She then moved to 616 Ninth Street, which he remembers as “handy” during his duty in Coronado. “Great times were had at the Officers Club and the Mexican Village Happy Hour.” The Mexican Village on the 100 block of Orange Avenue was a well-known officer’s only hub for military personnel. His mother lived in Coronado until her passing at age 92.
Dick’s oldest brother, Captain Wilson F. Engel, EDO (Engineering Duty Officer) USN (deceased), graduated from the Naval Academy several years before Dick in 1946. He retired with 30-years of service.
Unfortunately, his brother, his inspiration, LCDR Gordon Engel was killed at the pinnacle of his career when an aircraft he was launching off of aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt near the coast of Florida, crashed when the catapult malfunctioned.
Dick’s three sisters; Barbara, (Camarillo, CA), Janet (deceased), and Margaret (graduated from Coronado High School). Margaret married Ted LaRoe, a classmate, whose parents, Mary and Captain Edward T. LaRoe USN, a decorated World War II (WWII) Naval Aviator, were long-time Coronado residents (Country Club and H Avenue).
LCDR Dick Engel’s father was a World War I (WWI) veteran of the Army’s Calvary Rainbow Division, coined by General Douglas MacArthur when the United States declared war on the German Empire. Troops from the best regiments of 26-states were combined into that single division. MacArthur said the division would “stretch over the entire country like a rainbow.” The men wore a rainbow patch in the shape of an arc. That patch was later modified to a quarter arc to memorialize the half of the Calvary Rainbow Division that were wounded or killed.
While at the Naval Academy, Dick earned a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering and a BS in Naval Science.
The Naval Flight Training Command in Pensacola, Florida, was Dick’s first assignment. Then he was off to Corpus Christi for Advanced Training Command.
Dick received his Naval Aviator Wings in October of 1960 with orders to Coronado, Naval Air Station North Island (NASNI). He was assigned to Fixed Wing Early Warning Training Squadron (VAW-11); the “Early Elevens.” These “war-birds” served as early warning forces to protect the fleet (ships) and shore warning networks under all weather conditions.
It was late 1961 when Dick was transferred to NAS Alameda, where he met Sue. Then in 1964 in Monterey, CA, he attended Naval Post Graduate School earning a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. In 1966, it was on to Beeville, Texas, Chase Field, where he served in the Advanced Naval Air Training Command. This is where he transitioned as a pilot from propeller aircraft to jets. He was assigned as an instructor. In 1968, he was ordered to Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia.
From 1969 to 1970 Dick made two Mediterranean Sea deployments attached to Squadron VA-176 “Thunderbolts,” during the “Cold-War” era between the US and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). He served with the air-wing aboard USS Roosevelt. The same ship his brother Gordon was earlier killed on.
During his combat service in Vietnam, Dick was an attack pilot aboard USS Saratoga, attached to Squadron VA-75 the “Sunday Punchers.” For a good view of (VA-75) Vietnam combat tour, Dick suggests a Carol Reardon book, “Launch the Intruders.”
LCDR Engel never focused away from the “mission” and reported “that flying-low-level attack missions over North Vietnam at the end of that war (1972) at 600-feet in the dark of night – was scary.” On one particular mission against a power plant north of Hanoi, just five miles from the target at an altitude of 600′ – his plane took a bullet in the nose landing-gear, severing a hydraulic system line. “The cockpit warning lights lit up’ very suddenly giving an adrenalin pumping scare.”
His bombardier/navigator, LCDR Hal King USN (now deceased) said he “felt the hit between his legs” and shouted on the intercom “What was THAT?!” Dick commanded, “We took a hit, but we are still flying, so get back on that radar scope and get rid of these bombs!” Seconds later, LCDR Dick Engel and his crew declared a combat emergency and returned to the ship. Two other crews from that Squadron perished.
In his nine-month combat tour in Vietnam, LCDR Dick Engel was awarded (4) Distinguished Flying Cross Medals, (14) Air Medals, the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, the Navy Unit Commendation, Navy Commendation Medal with two Bronze Stars, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, and he held the National Defense Service Medal.
He “flew about any plane you could name of that period.” From the (AD5), one of the last propeller-driven aircraft (they could travel 311 mph, had a range of 1200 miles and could carry their weight in bombs) to the (AD5Q) “Skyraider” [Q-electronic warfare], and (AD5W) [W-anti-submarine and ship identification. In 1962, when across the board redesignation of several aircraft occurred, Dick flew with the “Bobcats,” VT3 advanced training squadron in Beeville, where he piloted the TF9J and AF9J “Cougar,” of 1950s Korean War vintage. He also flew the A6A “Intruder” low-level, all-weather Attack Aircraft, with Squadron VA-42 “Green Pawns,” the A6A “Intruder” attack aircraft, and KA6D “Intruder Tanker” aircraft while assigned to VA176 and VA 75 squadrons.
The solid pilot rounded out his years of active duty on Air Force exchange as a navy instructor at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) at Wright-Patterson Air Force base, Dayton, Ohio.
Lieutenant Commander Engel retired to San Diego after 20-years of exemplary naval service. He went on to have a successful career in management with General Dynamics Electronics Division here in San Diego, retiring in 1992. In 1996, he and Sue sold their home in Carlsbad, CA, and traveled the USA via motor home for seven years, settling back to San Diego in a property they owned in Mira Mesa, a suburb north of San Diego.
Currently, Dick continues his service to community and country as a volunteer aboard USS Midway Museum, where he uses his skills as a Safety Team Member and shares military memories as a Docent. He is a volunteer police officer with San Diego Police Department’s, Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol (RSVP) Traffic Division, where he was selected Volunteer of the Year for 2014.
Dick and Sue have two children, Nancy, and Gordon (his brother’s namesake). Both graduated from University of California at San Diego (UCSD). Nancy lives in Colorado and Gordon in CA. They have four grandchildren: Jonathan an engineer with Boeing Company; Karin a PharmD student; Joshua, studying Computer Science and Finance; and Christopher, a Junior high school student.
Not only did LCDR Richard Engel find success in both naval and civilian careers, he was one of the lucky ones to find success in marriage as well.
Today, Dick and Sue enjoy active lives in San Diego, in retirement.
“WWI.” Rainbow Division Veterans Memorial Foundation Inc. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2015.
Interviews with Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Richard Engel USN
*Engel’s banner can be seen at Third and J.
Next week’s Avenue of Heroes biography will be Admiral Raymond Spruance, by Bruce Linder, May 2015 (Banner at Third and Alameda)