SALUTE TO VETERANS: Forest Grove veteran served country and city
Dale Thaler learned to fly and then taught others. Back at sea level, he walked the sidewalks of Forest Grove, making sure letters landed on time.
Thaler, a self-described farm boy from Southwest Michigan, found out his senior year of college his draft number was 26 — all but guaranteeing he would be selected to join the armed forces in Vietnam. Instead of waiting for an assignment, he proactively joined the U.S. Air Force, enrolling in officer training in the summer of 1971.
"I hadn't gone to the Air Force thinking I would fly as a pilot, but I thought they would have some pretty cool jobs compared to infantry, and I'm not a water person, so the Navy was pretty much out," Thaler said.
By Thanksgiving 1972, he was in a cold shack, completing prisoner of war training, somewhere in Washington. In 1973, he left for Thailand.
"Pilot training was pretty tough," Thaler said. "We started with 53 and graduated 32. I felt kind of bad, some of the guys in the class, all they ever wanted to do was fly, and they were some of the first ones to wash out. You have to think pretty far ahead in an airplane."
Flying over Southeast Asia as a co-pilot on KC-135 air-to-air fuel tankers, Thaler said he stayed above 23,000 feet to avoid surface-to-air missiles that could reach 20,000 feet. His plane typically held 155,000 pounds of fuel. The "bingo fuel" mark, or time to turn home, was 29,000 pounds.
"When the fighter sees you, they come up behind you and stop 50 feet back and talk to you on the radio. There are lights underneath the airplane that tell them where to be, like up, down, left, right," Thaler said.
From there, a boom operator directs a pipe to the smaller plane's fuel tank.
"The co-pilot's job is handling the fuel panel because there are 10 tanks and you can offload two of them. You're draining fuel from one to another," Thaler said of his role. "(The KC-135) was a game changer. And I'm surprised tankers weren't as big of a target."
That's not to say it was always a boring job. Thaler recalls one close call in particular.
After hitting the bingo fuel mark and turning back to base, a fighter jet pulled up alongside his plane, and the pilot gave a hand motion as if he were drinking out of a bottle to indicate he was thirsty for more fuel.
"He wanted, like, 5,000 pounds. We decided to give him 3,000 pounds. We disconnected, and off he went," Thaler said.
Upon returning to base, a fighter jet blew a tire, causing the runway to close, so Thaler's plane headed toward an alternate base with a much smaller runway, but there too, a fighter jet botched a landing to close the runway.
"Then we declared an emergency and finally landed with 6,500 pounds of fuel, which is pretty much fumes in a tanker," Thaler said.
After the Vietnam War, Thaler stayed in the service stateside, becoming a flight instructor at various bases for both American and foreign aspiring pilots. In 1980 at a base in Texas, he taught a class with some Iranian pilots that stopped abruptly following the hostage crisis. Later flying out of Guam, his future wife Karla was part of his crew.
He left the Air Force in 1983, working as a truck driver for North American Van Lines and then as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, first in Michigan and then in Forest Grove for 20 years.
After relying on crew members on Air Force planes, he said he enjoyed the solitary side of delivering mail.
Now, Thaler — whose daughter Whitney became a crew member on a newer model of refueling aircraft in the Air Force, just like he used to fly except with GPS instead of a human navigator — is vice commander of the Forest Grove American Legion Post 2. The post has around 130 members, who congregate in the old brick building from the 1920s at the corner of Main Street and 21st Avenue.
Thaler said he hopes to draw more younger veterans to the post.
"I was blue-collar all the way. Air Force blue, North American Van Lines had a blue uniform. Of course, Postal Service blue," Thaler joked while wearing the American Legion uniform — a white shirt and blue tie under a red jacket. "This is the first time I've had a white-collar job, and it's here with the American Legion."
Editor's note: This story appears in 2022 Salute to Veterans, a special publication in print and online by Pamplin Media Group to celebrate the stories of veterans.
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