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Former Youngstown police chief earned Purple Hearts in Vietnam

Former Youngstown police chief earned Purple Hearts in Vietnam Staff photo / Ed Runyan

YOUNGSTOWN — Robert E. Bush Jr., former Youngstown police chief and former city law director, says the first time he experienced overt racism was when he and several car loads of fellow Marines and sailors drove from their Navy base for recreation in early 1967.

Bush was was stationed at the Millington Air Station near Memphis, where he received advanced aeronautical training before going to Vietnam to serve as a gunner and crew chief on a military helicopter.

Bush was the only black soldier in the group, which drove into Mississippi because the state had a lower drinking age than Tennessee.

As they searched for a bar, the group was turned away a few times because there was a black man in their group, though the white soliders didn’t tell Bush that until afterwards.

After getting drunk, they left the bar and found themselves being questioned by local Mississippi law enforcement for what the officers said were traffic violations. Several of the drivers — all white — received traffic tickets.

“So they got everybody out of the cars,” Bush recalled. “They put us in a circle. A couple of police officers and deputies were there, and a pickup truck came up with three more white guys in it, using all kinds of N words.”

An officer pointed at each soldier in the circle and asked where everyone was from. When he came to a Southerner, the man said, “‘You know better.’ That’s all he said.”

“When he came to me, he just skipped me. Tears just started rolling. ‘I’m dying. This is it.’ All this stuff I’ve heard (about racism) is coming to me,” Bush said.

No one was harmed. But they were taken to town, where they went before the justice of the peace. The group scraped together enough money to pay the fines for all but one of the drivers and were allowed to go back to the base.

The justice of the peace uttered a racial slur toward Bush before Bush left town and asked where Bush was from, which Bush told him.

Bush said it was clear that the message the officers were sending was that the white soldiers should not be traveling with a black person.

“That was my first taste of overt racism that I could remember,” Bush said. “I was kind of oblivious to it because I never experienced any of that,” Bush said.

Bush grew up in Campbell, graduating from high school in 1965. He said in Campbell “everybody was associated with the steel mill,” whether black or white. “If your dad worked in the blast furnace, and my dad worked in the blast furnace, economically everthing was equal,” Bush said.

He feels the economics of Campbell limited the amount of racial tension that existed elsewhere, Bush said.

After completing his aeronautical training in Tennessee, Bush went to Vietnam in April 1967 and remained there about 14 months. During that time, he was wounded in combat twice and earned two Purple Hearts, along with a number of other military honors.

Starting in April 1967, Bush was in Tam Ky, Vietnam, assigned to the flight staff as a gunner on a helicopter that supported troops in the field. His unit delivered food, ammunition and soldiers in the field and picked up wounded soldiers.

As a gunner, it was Bush’s job to “lay down fire” when their aircraft approached the location where they would extract injured soldiers.

In September 1967, when Bush was injured the first time, the the crew had picked up three wounded soldiers and the helicopter was elevating to leave when he was shot in the right, upper thigh. The bullet exited through the back of his leg.

He spent 33 days in a ship hospital — long enough that Bush did not need to return to combat, but he chose to do so anyway.

He was wounded a second time in May 1968 during the Battle of Khe Sanh, which began Jan. 21, 1968, according to History.com. The battle took place when forces from the People’s Army of North Vietnam carried out a massive artillary bombardment on the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sahn.

For 77 days, U.S. Marines and their South Vietnamese allies fought off an intense siege of the garrison, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, according to History.com.

The day he was wounded, Bush’s helicopter crew left their ship and flew to a location to pick up wounded soldiers. The North Vietnamese were “so close, they threw a hand grenade,” and it blew three soldiers from the helicopter who were recovering soldiers back into the aircraft.

“My gunner started shooting, and I looked up and you could see the muzzle flashes. That’s how close they were,” Bush said.

A helicopter called a “chase plane” that accomplied Bush’s helicopter radioed “get out of there.” Bush’s fellow soldiers got five wounded soldiers into the helicopter, but Bush’s pilot, Ben Cascio, had been shot in the eye and could not see.

“Everybody in the plane, including the five wounded men, got wounded again,” Bush said, a total of 10 soldiers.

Bush stood up in the helicopter and a machine gun opened fire. “It riddled my seat. All the shrapnel from my seat hit the same leg and shredded my leg,” Bush said.

“My pilot lost an eye. He broke out all of the guages on the dash. He could feel the needles. He was flying based on feeling the needles,” Bush said.

“He said ‘Bush you got to help me,'” Bush recalled. “We’re bouncing. We can’t get our power. For that helicopter, we had, 10 people, that is a full load,” and the aircraft was having trouble getting lift.

Bush and his gunner were firing their weapons as the pilot tried to get the aircraft up.

“I’m saying ‘Left, sir. Right, sir. Left, Sir.’ We finally got enough air speed to get off the ground.”

The helicopter was too shot up to return to their ship, so they landed on the beach and were taken from there back to their ship on other aircraft.

Bush was in the Marines from 1966 to 1970, then worked a year as an undercover narcotics offer for the Youngstown Police Department, followed by about six years as a YPD detective.

After earning his bachelor’s and law degrees, Bush worked as adjunct professor at Youngstown State University two years, was executive director of the Youngstown Citizens Police Review Board two years and was a general-practice attorney two years.

He was assistant Youngstown prosecutor three years, Youngstown law director 4 1/2 years, Youngstown police chief 3 1/2 years, chief of the criminal section of the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s office 5 years and is set to retire this month after nearly 11 years as Mahoning County Job and Family Services director.

erunyan@tribtoday.com

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