‘It ain’t like that in real life’
Love of John Wayne movies led to military enlistment
BOARDMAN — Ivan Vincenzini joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as a high school junior in Monaca, Pa., and ended up enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps three years after graduating in 1963.
After graduation, he enrolled in the engineering program at Youngstown State University and, after three years there, he enlisted in the Marines in 1966.
Vincenzini, 78, completed his basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, and was stationed at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point, North Carolina, before being sent to Vietnam in June 1968. During his tour of duty, he was an avionics technician and helicopter gunner.
“I was scared to death the first time I flew on a chopper in Vietnam,” he said, noting the missions he flew were mostly in support of the medevac helicopters, which he did for seven months.
He told a story about pulling into a landing zone to pick up a wounded soldier, and the soldier died in front of him.
“I had to look at him until we landed,” Vincenzini said, saying the memory still haunts him. “I was shot at a lot because the helicopters were easy targets. God was with me, so I was never wounded.”
He said he enlisted because he grew up watching military movies starring John Wayne.
“It ain’t like that in real life,” Vincenzini said. “I was exposed to Agent Orange during my tour, and I still have health problems from it.”
He said once while getting ready to go on a weekend of R&R, there was a loud explosion and he thought his leave would be canceled. Someone had lit a mountain on fire, and he said it burned like a volcano for four days.
To the highway for his leave, he had to walk 4 miles through a rice paddy with no gun while wearing black pants and a bright yellow shirt.
“I felt like a moving target,” Vincenzini said.
Vincenzini returned to the states in September 1969. He was stationed at New River Air Station in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where he worked on Huey helicopters. He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in October 1970 and settled in Struthers.
“I fell in love with this area while attending YSU,” he said. “I also met (my wife) Sofia here.”
“The government wanted me to go to officer candidate school, and I would have done it, but she said no. If it weren’t for her, I would have spent 30 years in the military.”
From 1970 to 1982, Vincenzini attended night classes while working during the day repairing TVs and major appliances. After working for several local appliance stores, he opened his own shop in East Liverpool, covering the tristate area of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia while still pursuing his degree at YSU and raising a family.
Using money from the G.I. Bill, Vincenzini graduated from YSU in 1982 with a degree in electrical engineering technology. Shortly after, he was recruited by Hughes Aircraft Co., and he and his family moved to Los Angeles. He worked as a field engineer in support systems in Long Beach, California, before moving into space and communications in El Segundo, where he built and tested satellites.
“I worked on the first cellphone satellite in 1983,” he said.
He spent two years in Sydney, Australia, working on the military’s F-18 program because Australia bought 75 of the aircraft from the U.S., and he helped test them and train the Australian pilots.
After returning to the U.S., Hughes Aircraft was sold to Raytheon and Boeing, and Vincenzini continued working for both as a systems engineer. He said he worked on classified programs during the Cold War era at Boeing.
“Getting my degree and being recruited by Hughes were childhood dreams,” he said. “I always wanted to be an engineer because of my interest in electronics.”
He retired in 2006 and moved back to the Youngstown area, where he is a member of the DAV Chapter 2.
He was a substitute teacher in math and science for various school districts from 2006 to 2011. Vincenzini enjoys woodworking, model trains, classic car shows and traveling. He is an active member of St. Columba Cathedral in Youngstown.
SERVICE BRANCH: Marine Corps
MILITARY HONORS: Air Crew wings for flying on a helicopter, Combat Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal
OCCUPATION: Former TV and appliance repairman, then worked in aerospace industry for Hughes Aircraft Co. (retired in 2006)
FAMILY: Wife of 53 years, Sofia; three daughters, Sharon, Angela and Holly; and two granddaughters