Orkish Recalls Risky Flying Missions

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK
St. Clairsville American Legion Commander Joe Barker, left, recognizes helicopter pilot John Orkish as Veteran of the Month.

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK St. Clairsville American Legion Commander Joe Barker, left, recognizes helicopter pilot John Orkish as Veteran of the Month.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — John Orkish had several brushes with death while flying helicopters in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Orkish served from 1955-75 and retired as a gunnery sergeant, having flown missions in Vietnam; prior to that, he participated in atomic testing. He was named Veteran of the Month by the St. Clairsville American Legion.

“I enlisted when I was 17 from Bridgeport High School,” he said, adding that he underwent aviation training. “I thought I’d end up into transports and fighters, and I ended up in helicopters and I stayed in helicopters for the rest of my career. I served three tours in Vietnam in helicopters.”

He served as crew chief on helicopters, where he flew combat missions, medevacs, resupplies and troop insertions, earning 19 air medals from his time of service.

Orkish recalled the rescue flights that stand out in his mind.

“The medevacs I flew, one of my jobs was to get them out to the hope and repose. I never knew whether the guys lived or died. Our job was to get them out there, and hopefully they lived,” he said, crediting the treatment available. “We had some good Navy corpsmen that helped to keep those guys alive ’til we got them out of there.

“I got shot down a couple times. I was lucky I was never wounded in Vietnam,” he said.

“I was on a resupply mission and they shot out my servos. It was a sniper. My gunner, J.J. Willis, noticed where the fire was coming from and he thought I was hit because the hydraulic fluid was leaking all over me.”

He said the damage was enough to ground the flight.

“J.J. saw where he was shooting from and opened fire and got the guy, but we landed. We could fly back on one hydraulic system,” he said. “We were lucky we could get back to base.

“The other time I was shot down it was just a total wreck. It was just a crash landing. The helicopter was just completely destroyed, but the plane behind me landed and picked us up,” he said, adding that he walked away from that incident without a wound.

Orkish had another close call when he had been scheduled to take another pilot’s flight due to that pilot having a physical.

“The weather that morning was bad. It was foggy,” he said, adding that the flight was postponed and the original pilot was able to take the plane. Orkish later learned that the plane crashed and all three aboard were killed. “When I got to Operations I was going to put his name on the yellow sheet, and when I walked into Operations they looked at me like they seen a ghost.”

He also participated in the evacuation of a Special Forces camp at Ashau.

Orkish added that he was privileged to serve under exceptional commanders such as Lt. Col. Charles A. House and Col. John LaVoy.

“I had the opportunity of working under some of the best commanding officers when I was in Vietnam,” he said.

In the course of his duties, he also made the acquaintance of John Wayne as he transported the star to artillery bases in Vietnam.

“I got to haul John Wayne around in Vietnam. He’s quite a guy,” Orkish said, adding that Wayne invited Orkish and Willis to his boat, the Wild Goose, in Newport Beach.

Prior to Vietnam, Orkish also participated in the birth of the atomic age.

“In 1962 I was in the Johnson Island atomic tests,” he said. “The bomb was on a rocket. We had to recover the rockets and the pods that came down through the fallout. We had to recover it out of the Pacific Ocean. We picked this stuff up out of the Pacific, and we had all kind of radiation off it. We hovered above and picked it out of the Pacific. We were wearing dosimeters. We picked up all kinds of radiation after we picked this stuff up.”

Orkish said the government agreed to treat those involved for any ailments related to the radiation.

“I’m considered an atomic veteran, and I’m getting 80 percent disability for being on an atomic test,” he said. “I’ve got Type 2 diabetes. I’ve had open heart surgery. I’ve had skin cancer, three grand mal seizures.”

He added that these ailments are common for the majority of those involved.

He also spoke about his first sighting of an atomic explosion.

“That was something else, when that bomb went off,” he said. “We were all wearing dark glasses on the flight deck of that aircraft carrier.”

His third tour completed, Orkish would return to civilian life.

“I would’ve went back for a fourth tour, but I had my 20 in and my son had a football scholarship and I decided it was time to get out because I wanted to watch him play college football.”

After completing his service, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service overhauling postal machines in 13 western states. He eventually returned to the Belmont County area, where he has many family ties. However, the bonds forged during his years of service remain strong, including those who gave all, those who remain to remember and those who have passed on.

“I have a lot of friends on that wall in D.C. that didn’t make it,” he said.

His squadron included 130 people.

“There’s about 30 of us left alive today. We have a reunion every two years. I’m going to a reunion in Kansas City in September,” he noted.