Serving his country in the air and at sea

T-R PHOTO BY MIKE BURVEE Ret. Lt. Chuck Colwell served his country in the air and at sea.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles profiling those who have ever served in the U.S. military, be it overseas or stateside. Every Thursday, a new profile will be published in the T-R.

After graduating from Des Moines Tech, Chuck Colwell took his studies to Iowa State University. There he was given a scholarship through the NROTC (Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps).

“During my junior or senior year in high school I was approached by a recruiter,” Colwell said. “He told me about the requirements, and I decided to pursue.”

His parents were supportive of him joining the Naval forces. They were also proud that he could earn a scholarship.

“Financially, college would have been a burden without it,” Colwell said. “It would have taken more than four years and working through college.”

Colwell’s first relocation took him to Virginia. There he was assigned to an old amphibious ship’s squadron. The year was 1962.

The Cuban Missile Crisis went into effect while he was in the south. Their primary objective was to ship ammunition and marines to Guantanamo Bay for battle, if necessary.

“Thankfully that dispute ended without a shot being fired,” Colwell said.

Shortly after he returned to Iowa where he wed his wife, and the two of them went down to Pensacola, Fla., for flight training.

“I wanted to initially be a fighter with the Navy,” Colwell said. “Turns out they needed a search and rescue pilot instead.”

After briefly being part of a squadron before being decommissioned, the action began when Colwell was sent to Quonset Point in Rhode Island. It doubled as a Sea Base and Naval Air Station.

He and his crew would board the USS WASP when she went out to sea for their missions. One objective stands out among the rest, when they helped recover Gemini 12.

Gemini 12 was the last of the Gemini missions, each working on developing different experiences and gathering intel that would later be used in the Apollo space expedition.

“If we had not done well, it would have made a lot of headlines,” Colwell said. “Failure wasn’t an option.”

Three helicopters converged on the approximate area of the spacecrafts splashdown. The skipper in Colwell’s chopper deployed their litter basket and pulled up the two men inside the capsule. They were astronauts Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin.

“They came down to the ward that night and detailed what they had been through,” Colwell said. “Most of our questions dealt with what training was required for their mission.”

A more common mission for Colwell would include flying out after a plane crash and seeing if there were any survivors. At times that would include flying in pitch darkness with a heavy sea state below, flying as many as 60 miles out and then returning to the ship.

In addition, in order to land the helicopters the pilot had to catch a wire below, as they were a fixed wing aircraft.

“Flying is hours and hours of boredom with few minutes of stark terror,” Colwell said. “Those are the nights you don’t forget.”

His job detail didn’t include taking lives, it included saving them. One particular occasion being when he had to lift a sailor off an old freighter at sea.

The sailor’s appendix had burst and he needed help as soon as possible. Colwell was given the task and successfully delivered him to the nearest hospital.

One other main task of the search and rescue crew was to find and monitor submarines.

“We’d drop a transducer into the water and listen,” Colwell said. “At times we could hear something upwards of 20 miles away.”

Colwell also served during the Vietnam War era. Much of the war was focused on the battalions that were sent there and the crews who surrounded it on their ships. Colwell’s story proves there was more to it than people know, and it doesn’t take a fighter to help defend your country.

“In retrospect I’m not the least bit sorry I wasn’t more involved,” he said. “I did learn to appreciate those who did come back though, and those who serve today.

“I look up to them and in my eyes they’re



Do you know a military veteran who should be profiled? Send your suggestions to Editor Jeff Hutton at: or contact American Legion Post 46 Commander Randy Kessler at: