Jim Casher - Memorial

Death Uncovers Unknown, Heroic Past of Reclusive Winlock Vietnam Veteran

Uncommon Valor and Silent Humility

Jim Casher, left, lived alone; neighbors who occasionally helped him had no idea that he was a hero still remembered by his fellow soldiers for his remarkable cool under fire.

Posted: Saturday, June 25, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 10:16 pm, Fri Jun 24, 2011.

By Lee Hughes / lhughes@chronline.com

Loren Krenelka of Winlock hadn’t seen his friendly but reclusive neighbor of 20 years for several weeks, so he decided to contact the sheriff to file a missing persons report. The neighbor’s car was gone, he informed the sheriff. It was out of character for the man to be away that long.

The sheriff’s office informed him that his neighbor, James Vernon Casher Jr., had several weeks earlier driven himself in his Cadillac to Providence Centralia Hospital where, three days later, on Monday, April 18, he had died. Casher was 63 years old.

The sheriff told Krenelka they had been receiving reports of an open door at Casher’s shed-like house. Could Krenelka close it? Krenelka went to Casher’s humble dwelling but found the door too damaged to close. Looking inside at the condition of the cabin that Casher’s niece would later call “disturbing,” he spotted an old Army dress uniform jacket, moth eaten and dirty, its brass buttons green from age. A vet himself, Krenelka took a closer look at the three rows of military ribbons over the jacket’s left breast pocket, situated just under the silver wings of an Army Aviator’s badge. Then he did a double take.

“I looked at that and I went, oh my gosh,” Krenelka said.

According to what was left of the faded and neglected ribbons, Casher was a war hero.

That discovery was the beginning of the final chapter in the story of Jim Casher’s unique but reclusive life. Known as a quiet person, his composed demeanor in the midst of the chaos of combat would earn him the respect of his comrades and some of the highest honors awarded to soldiers. But the effects of that combat — post traumatic stress, or shell shock, including paranoia — would cause him to hide those exploits and stifle the potential of what otherwise would have been, by all accounts, a notable post-military life.

LAOTION INCURSION
More than 40 years have passed since Feb. 12, 1971, the day an Army AH-1G Cobra gunship was shot out from underneath gunner and co-pilot Jim Casher and pilot Jim Kane over Laos, just west of the South Vietnamese boarder. The eyewitness accounts of their crash and rescue have blurred over the intervening years, and today vary somewhat depending on who’s telling the story. Yet in each version one unifying theme remains constant: extraordinary grit and heroism. And in the case of former Winlock resident Jim Casher, calm under fire.

When Casher and Kane were shot down, the U.S. was supporting Operation Lam Son 719, an incursion by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) into Laos, intended to interdict and disrupt the supply lines of the Ho Chi Minh trail at a Laoation town called Tchapone, almost parallel with and west of what was then the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.

“It was generally bad guy country,” Kane recalled during a telephone interview from his office in Virginia.

Although U.S. forces were providing support to ARVN forces, American troops were by law prohibited from entering Laoatian territory.

“We would fly from (Khe Sanh) to do reconnaissance for the (ARVN), who where doing the boots on the ground stuff,” Kane said. “The problem was if we got shot down we were pretty much left to our own devices.”

And they did get shot down. Frequently.

THE MAKING OF A HERO
Casher’s remarkable existence began from birth in 1948 in Osaka, Japan, when he was born to an African-American father and a Japanese mother, the same year President Harry Truman officially ended segregation in the U.S. military. Casher spent his first four years in Japan, where his father, James Vernon Casher Sr., was stationed during the post-World War II occupation and reconstruction of Japan. Casher’s sister, Doris Mitchell, recalled her older brother being fluent in Japanese.

Casher graduated from high school in New York in 1966, then returned to the Pacific Northwest where he had spent most of his childhood. In 1970, after attending Washington State University for two years, he enlisted in the U.S. Army where he would learn to fly AH-1G Cobra gunships during a period of intense racial tensions both domestically and in the armed forces. In September 197O, Warrant Officer James Casher, ranked 11 of 71 flight students, was placed on the Commandant’s List at the Army’s Aviation School in Fort Rucker, Ala.

Two months later he was flying combat missions over Vietnam.

Jim’s initial war experience didn’t seem too troubling to him, according to his brother George.

“When he came home the first time he wasn’t all shook up. He didn’t seem all rattled up until the end,” George recalled. “That’s when he seemed real reserved.”

HUGE BATTLE
Although preparation for Lam Son 719 was secret, the enemy caught wind of its planning and were able to fortify the area with antiaircraft weapons ahead of the assault, according to Richard Frazee, a crew chief who served with Casher in C Troop, 2nd Squadron, 17th Calvary (2/17th), 101st Airborne — also known as The Condors — in the waning days of the Vietnam War.

“It was a huge battle, a gigantic battle,” recalled Frazee.

The way Kane recalled the events of that day, while providing gun cover for the possible extraction of another Cobra shot down earlier that day, the Cobra he and Casher were flying was damaged after taking heavy-caliber enemy fire. They flew the crippled aircraft back to Khe Sanh and picked up another, which they immediately flew back to the fight, ready to defend their comrades with their helicopters mini-guns, air-to-ground rockets, and 20 mm cannon.

“Jim was 100 percent into it,” Kane recalled. “He was very cool and collected, and when we were racing to get into the other aircraft there was no question we weren’t going back into the fight.”

But almost immediately after arriving back the pair began taking incoming fire from all directions. Casher took it all in stride.

“Jim was a fairly quiet guy; very unexcitable,” Kane recalled. “There was an awful lot of stuff coming in on the radio.”

This was a consistent observation of Casher’s demeanor by his comrades: calm under fire. He would take it all in and never lose his focus or composure.

“There were guys over there you could trust,” Scout Platoon Commander and former Cobra pilot Gary Swift said. “I could always trust Jim Casher. He knew what was going on every minute.”

LOOKING FORWARD TO LIFE AFTER WAR
Jim was in Vietnam for one year. Kane recalled conversations with Casher during their long hours of flight in the narrow confines of their two-seater Cobra gunship. Casher, he said, talked of finishing college and becoming a doctor when he returned to the U.S. But the one trait Kane — and many of Casher’s fellow pilots — recall about Casher was his sense of calm under pressure.

“He was cerebral,” Kane said. “He was a guy who was really at peace.”

FATAL HIT
A .51-caliber incendiary round hit Casher and Kane’s Cobra from somewhere directly below, or directly in front of them. Accounts differ about how their helicopter was hit and how they crashed. Pilot Chuck Vehlow, Casher and Kane’s platoon commander, recalled seeing their helicopter getting hit and gliding “more like a fixed wing” aircraft rather than a rotary-wing aircraft to land on the ground in elephant grass, where it rolled over. Not so, said Kane, who, for obvious reasons, maintains a vivid memory of the incident.

“When they hit us, it was definitely incendiary because Jim and I were on fire in the cockpit,” he said. “The flames were up to my knees.”

Both Swift and Frazee also recall seeing flames.

When they were hit, “The Jims,” as Swift referred to the pair, were in an attack dive on an enemy .51-caliber position. The incendiary round that hit them crippled the helicopter’s hydraulics. Kane recalls doing his best to slowly pull out of the dive and to try and land, but the stricken helicopter crashed into a shallow ravine.

“It was not a soft landing,” Kane said.

Both pilots were knocked unconscious by the impact. Kane, who shattered part of his spine, said he woke up first and extracted Casher from the burning attack helicopter that, because it had only just arrived to begin fighting, still held a “good compliment of armament.” Kane pulled Casher away from the crash site in case the ammo should begin to “cook off” from the heat of the flaming wreckage. Other accounts have Casher pulling Kane from the wreckage.

Casher quickly regained consciousness and the pair scrambled out of the ravine to await rescue, according to Kane, who described the event as “a very active and dangerous experience.”

“It’s a super-helpless feeling,” Vehlow said of watching one of his command helicopters and its pilots taking fire and crashing in enemy territory. “I started that day with nine Cobras and I ended with two. Two KIA (killed-in-action) and four wounded in just that one day. We were up against some pretty heavy stuff.”

Frazee also watched as Casher and Kane’s Cobra crashed. He and door gunner Gary Schuler were dispatched to the ground to aid the two downed aviators, while Huey pilot and Troop Commander Jim Newman, who later became famous for his rescues of downed pilots during the Vietnam War, went to their rescue from the air.

DISCHARGE
By the time Casher was honorably discharged in 1975 he had been promoted to Chief Warrant Officer 2. He moved to the Tacoma area and later joined the Army Reserves where he continued to serve as late as 1983. In 1990 he bought a 10-acre parcel near Winlock on a real estate contract.

“Jim loved Washington state,” Mitchell, who wasn’t surprised when she learned her brother had settled here, said. “He loved the woods, he loved the fishing, he loved the state,” she said.

DARING RESCUE
While Frazee and Schuler worked their way toward the downed pilots, and Vehlow and others provided cover from the air, Newman maneuvered his vulnerable Huey helicopter over the crash site. But there was a problem: scrub trees — there wasn’t enough room to get the Huey down to land and load the stranded pilots. According to eyewitnesses, to overcome the obstacles, Newman used the rotors of his own helicopter like a giant weed-eater and literally cut the tops of the trees off, just enough to get his helicopter down to a point where the two pilots could reach up and be pulled to safety by crew members on Newman’s helicopter. As told by Frazee, Newman’s crew chief held the belt of another man, a Lt. Kersey, who reached down and pulled the men up. The weed-eating effort allegedly shaved three feet from the ends of the rotor blades on Newman’s Huey, separating the tail section of the helicopter from the main section by one-half inch. The effort earned Newman a Silver Star.

Frazee and Schuler were later plucked from the jungle by another helicopter while under enemy fire, with Frazee hanging from a skid literally by an arm and a leg as the helicopter gained altitude before he too was finally hauled inside, according to Frazee.

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS
Casher, who may have suffered from mild paranoia — he told his family he thought he was being followed — undoubtedly suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, which likely formed the basis for his semi-reclusive life. But whether by intention or luck, he chose his home well. Although his property was completely undeveloped — no water source, electricity or sanitary facilities, and he at first lived in the cab of his truck — he was blessed with big-hearted neighbors who took notice of his minimal living conditions. Krenelka recalls that his parents probably saved Casher’s life one cold winter night when Casher came knocking at their door “literally freezing to death.” Casher asked if he could come in.

“They set him by the fire,” Krenelka said of his parents. “He sat practically on the stove for about two hours,” while he was fed hot soup and coffee. It was the beginning of a 20-year friendship.

Therese Gist, Wanda Brazda, and other Casher neighbors, who came to know him as a shell-shocked veteran, bought him an old pickup camper to replace the cab of his truck. Casher loved animals and nearly always had dogs. It wasn’t long before he and his dogs wore the camper out.

“It really fell apart on him,” said neighbor Kenneth Etheredge. “It got so bad, the dogs would poke their heads out of the cracks in the camper.”

That original camper was later replaced by another. Then Gist’s son Justin suggested his Winlock High School shop class could build Casher something more permanent — and sturdy. Gist collected donations of money and material piece-by-piece from different businesses: siding came from a former mobile home manufacturer, and Mike Guild did all the ground work; the local quarry donated gravel.

“It was quite a process to get him set up,” Gist said. “Mind you its small; it’s just a square.”

Small indeed. Casher’s new house was about 160 square feet, and complete with a wood stove; more than enough for him and his dogs.

RECOVERY AND RECOGNITION
Casher ended up in a field hospital where he recovered from his injuries and later returned to combat, eventually as a Cobra pilot/commander. Kane’s injured back was too severe to return to combat. He was flown out of county and did not return to combat duty.

According to his official discharge papers – his DD-214 — Casher’s actions earned him a Purple Heart, ostensibly for wounds received after being shot down over Laos in support of Operation Lam Som 719 in 1971. It was that same mission that likely earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight,” and a Silver Star, for gallantry in action, and the fourth highest military award granted in the U.S. Armed services. His DD-214 also lists a single Air Medal award with a “V” device, indicating the award was for valor and heroism. The Chronicle was unable to confirm that it was that day’s valor in Laos that earned him those commendations, although Vehlow, Kane and Swift all felt Casher’s awards could only have been for his efforts on that February day. Vehlow, whose Vietnam combat tour overlapped Casher’s by only six months, noted that such commendations often take some time to work their way through the U.S. Army bureaucracy.

“His action certainly warranted them,” Vehlow said. “Jim was in the thick of the action.”

“I always remembered how calm and collected ... Jim was,” Kane said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better co-pilot.”

VIGILANT NEIGHBORS
Locals continued to keep an eye on Casher during the winters, making sure there was smoke coming out of his stovepipe. In this way the unconventional Casher, who later sported dreadlocks, was adopted by and became a part of the fabric of the Winlock community. The Gist family even made a tradition of bringing Casher Christmas dinner each year.

“Just a sweet man,” Gist remembered. “Always with a smile on his face.”

Of all his neighbors, however, Casher was probably closest to Krenelka. But even within their mutual experience of combat in, Casher was never completely open with his neighbor, who was one of the few people Casher let into his life.

“I never knew what unit he was with,” Krenelka said. “I did get out of him that he was a pilot early on. I knew that he had at least one crash at some point. It was all real sketchy. But I never really did know what he did.”

For years Casher would lug empty five-gallon buckets to Krenelka’s house, fill them half full of water, then lug them back to his various dwellings. He would occasionally stop by for a jump for his Cadillac or ask for a gallon of gas.

“I don’t know if I was his best friend, but I was his friend,” Krenelka said.

For 20 years Casher kept a friendly distance from his neighbors, never opening up too much to them. His buddies from his old unit — C Troop, 2nd Squadron, 17th Calvary, 101st Airborne — who occasionally dropped in for a visit, received the same treatment. A few tried to get him to check into a Veterans Administration programs, or to apply for benefits, but Casher maintained an innate distrust of the government. Gary Swift, a “Loach” helicopter pilot in Casher’s unit who witnessed Casher’s plane get shot down, last saw Casher in April of 1990.

“He always had a sickly pallor when I saw him,” Swift recalled.

DECLINE
Over time Casher’s property began to fill up with trash. Several old cars — some which served as chicken coops — sat, rusting. Mounds of discarded plastic milk bottles, his last camper and other debris littered the area just off the quiet county road that bordered his property. And in the end even his small house had become uninhabitable.

Krenelka noticed that Casher had begun getting rid of his beloved dogs, his only real companions, in the months before his death. He didn’t think Casher had any left by the time he noticed Casher had gone AWOL from his property and called the sheriff.

In the end, Casher essentially died unnoticed and alone, in much the same way he lived the last 20 years of his life. During that time, he maintained a quiet, peaceful existence almost entirely off the grid amongst the rolling fields and woods in south Lewis County. He needed little and asked for less.
“He was a wonderful man who was very simple in his living accommodations,” Gist told The Chronicle.

Casher’s former platoon commander in Vietnam, Chuck Vehlow, referred to their time in combat as “crazy days — we did what we had to do.” That’s what Casher ultimately did in the end — what he had to do — not wanting to bother anybody with the messy business of his death. Instead he quietly slid into his Cadillac and drove himself to the hospital, where he died as he lived: alone.

It’s not uncommon for combat vets.

“For every guy that is known, there are probably 20 guys who die alone,” Lewis County Veterans Benefits Specialist Dan Henderson said of area veterans.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 James Vernon Casher Jr. was buried on Thursday, June 9, at the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent with full military honors as befitting a hero. But in his quiet passing he left behind a legacy.

“He left behind a really good family, and I’m talking about the folks in Winlock,” Casher’s sister, Linda Casher-Morgan said.
Posted in News on Saturday, June 25, 2011 12:00 am. Updated: 10:16 pm.