HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – In 1968, Lt. Col. Andy Andrews was sent to Vietnam.
An Air Force fighter pilot since receiving his silver wings in 1945 at age 19, Andrews had just finished training on the F-4 Phantom II fighter jet – the backbone of the U.S. Air Force.
“The Phantom was the love of his life,” recalled Andrews’ son Brian. “He loved that plane.”
The Vietnam War was at its peak, and Andrews was stationed in Thailand with the 8thTactical Fighter Wing. During his tour of duty, he flew 102 missions, providing close air support to ground troops.
The F-4 Phantom is a two-seater jet, with the pilot in front (that was Andrews) and a radar intercept officer behind. Andrews jokingly called whoever was in the plane with him “Gib,” short for “guy in back.”
For the majority of the missions Andrews flew in Vietnam, “Gib” was his buddy Matt Henrikson. The two had a close bond, said Brian Andrews, the unshakeable kind of friendship forged in the thick of combat.
Henrikson, who lives now in Virginia, will make the trip next week to say his last goodbyes to his friend.
On Friday, Andrews will be buried with full military honors at the Black Hills National Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota.
A decorated veteran of both the Vietnam and Korean Wars, Andrews died unexpectedly last summer in Huntsville at the age of 87. His body was cremated, according to his wishes, and his family held services both in Huntsville – where his son and daughter-in-law live – and in Colorado Springs, where he spent the bulk of his retirement after his 31-year career in the Air Force.
Brian and his wife Lisa speak fondly and reverently about Brian’s father, and the life he led. Even though his death was sudden, they worked to find a way to pass on his legacy through the donation of his possessions to local veterans in need through the Huntsville-based Still Serving Veterans organization.
WWII and Korea
Andy Andrews was 17 in 1943 when one of his neighborhood buddies – a few years older – came home on leave during World War II, telling stories about flying fighter planes. Andy knew immediately he wanted to fly them, too.
He went to the local recruiting office to sign up, but the recruiters sent him home because he wasn’t 18. When he did turn 18 in November 1944, they called him back and sent him to basic training.
At 19 he graduated from the Army Air Force pilot training program and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in October 1945, just a few months after the war ended.
Every member of Andrews’ graduating class was dismissed from service and sent home…except Andrews. He stayed in the service and was assigned to accompany coffins bearing the remains of servicemen as they were sent home to their families.
In 1949, Andrews was one of the youngest to be sent to jet pilot school. Shortly afterward he was shipped overseas to the Korean War, where he flew an F-86 Sabre jet in 61 missions before contracting malaria and being evacuated from Korea.
At some point soon after he began losing his hair – possibly due to his illness. Being a no-nonsense kind of person, he decided to just shave it all off. He got married, and had a son – Brian Andrews – in the 1950s.
A decorated career
Andrews was sent for a year-long tour to Vietnam from 1968-1969. After he returned, he was assigned to positions with the Air Defense Command and NORAD. He had reached the highest rank he could achieve in the Air Force without a college degree, and retired from the Air Force after serving 31 years.
Among his 30 awards and decorations are three Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight Air Medals, the Bronze Star, a Joint Services Commendation Medal, two Meritorious Service Medals and four Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards.
It’s unusual for an Air Force pilot to fly nearly 30 years, said Brian. But Andy Andrews loved flying – so much so that he was flying combat missions in Vietnam at the age of 43.
A lasting legacy
Brian and his wife Lisa moved to Huntsville eight years ago, and spent a considerable amount of time trying to convince Andy to move here so they could better care for him. After decades spent flying, Andrews had lung problems and needed to use an oxygen tank in the thin Colorado air. Eventually, he agreed to come to Huntsville. The couple meticulously planned an apartment for him.
“My dad’s the kind of guy who wanted to have all the information that was available because he planned everything to the last detail,” said Brian. “He used to call the apartment manager frequently, and they got to be really good friends. He was friends with the maintenance supervisor before he moved here.”
Late last summer, Andy moved into his new apartment. The Andrews looked forward to introducing him to the strong military retiree community in Huntsville.
But one day later, tragedy struck. The Andrews came to Andy’s new apartment, bringing his favorite chicken pot pie for dinner. Andy had trouble unlocking the door for them, and fell back, breaking his hip.
He was rushed to the hospital, and underwent hip replacement surgery. A few days after surgery his health began declining as he had difficulty breathing. He died Aug. 3.
Many friends, family and neighbors came out for his memorial services in Huntsville at the Church of the Nativity, Episcopal and in Colorado Springs.
Afterward, Brian and Lisa Andrews had a brand-new apartment, completely furnished, but empty.
“We could have just had an estate sale, but Lisa had the idea that it would be great if maybe there was a veteran who could use some of my dad’s things,” said Brian. “We wanted them to go to a good home, to someone who would appreciate them.”
The couple talked with a neighbor who worked for Still Serving Veterans, a Huntsville-based nonprofit organization that helps veterans and their families transition to post-military life through services like job coaching, VA claims assistance and connections to community resources.
SSV arranged to help the Andrews donate most of Andy Andrews’ belongings to local veterans in need. Some of his memorabilia was donated to SSV for display in the office.
“I think he would be very pleased,” said Brian of his dad. “He was a strong supporter of the military. Even as an officer, he really identified with the younger airmen who might need help getting their feet off the ground.”
The Andrews waited purposefully for spring to bury Andy. He qualified for burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, but the Andrews chose the Black Hills National Cemetery because Lisa’s father is also buried there, and they have family in the area.
“Dad was a very generous guy,” said Brian Andrews. “I think he would be very pleased with the way this has been wrapped up, and all the people who have benefited from his legacy.”