Coronado’s “Avenue Of The Heroes” ... Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Richard Engel, USN - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado City News

Coronado’s “Avenue Of The Heroes” ... Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Richard Engel, USN

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Posted: Wednesday, July 8, 2015 4:29 pm

Dashing young pilot, Richard (Dick) Engel saw his future wife, stunning Susan Cheston at a party in San Francisco while he was stationed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda. The Vietnam Conflict was heating up and President John F. Kennedy was still in office. She was pursuing a dental hygiene career. He was bound for battle. 

Engel was inspired from a young age to pursue a military career. His father was a World War I veteran of the Army’s Calvary Rainbow Division, coined by General Douglas MacArthur when the United States declared war on the German Empire. Troops from the best regiments of 26-states were combined into that single division. MacArthur said the division would “stretch over the entire country like a rainbow.”

Dick’s oldest brother, Captain Wilson F. Engel, EDO (Engineering Duty Officer) USN (deceased), graduated from the Naval Academy several years before Dick in 1946. He retired with 30-years of service.

But his pivotal moment to pursue a military career occurred when he was just twelve-years-old. It was at the graduation ceremony of his older brother Gordon from the Naval Academy in 1948. Right then-and-there young Engel determined to follow in his brothers’ and his father’s footsteps into military service.

Born in Minneapolis Engel moved in his youth to sunny California, where he graduated in 1954 from Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach. A few years after his father died, (Dick was then 14), his mother moved to Tolita Avenue in Coronado. His three younger sisters Barbara, Janet and Margaret all graduated from Coronado High School.

Engel excelled academically and received the appointment he desired to the US Naval Academy; Class of 1959. This was the doorway to the fulfillment of his deepest desire: to become a naval aviator like his brother Gordon.

Unfortunately, his brother and inspiration, LCDR Gordon Engel was killed at the pinnacle of his career when an aircraft he was launching off of aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt near the coast of Florida, crashed when the catapult malfunctioned. 

While at the Naval Academy, Dick earned a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering and a BS in Naval Science. The Naval Flight Training Command in Pensacola, Florida, was Dick’s first assignment. Then he was off to Corpus Christi for Advanced Training Command. 

Dick received his Naval Aviator Wings in October of 1960 with orders to Coronado, Naval Air Station North Island (NASNI). He was assigned to Fixed Wing Early Warning Training Squadron (VAW-11); the “Early Elevens.” These “war-birds” served as early warning forces to protect the fleet (ships) and shore warning networks under all weather conditions.

His mother had by then moved to 616 Ninth Street, which he remembers as “handy” during his duty in Coronado. “Great times were had at the Officers Club and the Mexican Village Happy Hour.” The Mexican Village on the 100 block of Orange Avenue was a well-known officer’s only hub for military personnel. His mother lived in Coronado until her passing at age 92.

It was late 1961 when Dick was transferred to NAS Alameda, where he met Sue. Soon after their marriage the two were pulled apart by war. More adventurous than many women of that era, Sue would hop a plane so they could be together, even for a moment or two. While separated, they wrote each other letters every single day.

In 1964 in Monterey, Ca, he attended Naval Post Graduate School earning a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. In 1966, it was on to Beeville, Texas, Chase Field, where he served in the Advanced Naval Air Training Command. This is where he transitioned as a pilot from propeller aircraft to jets. He was assigned as an instructor. In 1968, he was ordered to Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia. 

From 1969 to 1970 Dick made two Mediterranean Sea deployments attached to Squadron VA-176 “Thunderbolts,” during the “Cold-War” era between the US and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). He served with the air-wing aboard USS Roosevelt, the same ship where his brother Gordon had been killed.

During his combat service in Vietnam, Engel was an attack pilot aboard USS Saratoga, attached to Squadron VA-75 the “Sunday Punchers.” For a good view of (VA-75) Vietnam combat tour, Dick suggests a Carol Reardon book, “Launch the Intruders.”

Engel never focused away from the “mission” and reported “that flying-low-level attack missions over North Vietnam at the end of that war (1972) at 600-feet in the dark of night was scary.” On one particular mission against a power plant north of Hanoi, just five miles from the target at an altitude of 600’ - his plane took a bullet in the nose landing-gear, severing a hydraulic system line. “The cockpit warning lights ‘lit up’ very suddenly giving an adrenalin-pumping scare.”

His bombardier/navigator, LCDR Hal King USN (now deceased) said he “felt the hit between his legs” and shouted on the intercom “What was that?!” Dick commanded, “We took a hit, but we are still flying, so get back on that radar scope and get rid of these bombs!” Seconds later, Engel and his crew declared a combat emergency and returned to the ship. Two other crews from that Squadron perished.

In his nine-month combat tour in Vietnam, Engel was awarded four Distinguished Flying Cross Medals, 14 Air Medals, the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, the Navy Unit Commendation, Navy Commendation Medal with two Bronze Stars, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, and he held the National Defense Service Medal.

He “flew about any plane you could name of that period.” From the AD5, one of the last propeller-driven aircraft (they could travel 311 mph, had a range of 1200 miles and could carry their weight in bombs) to the AD5Q “Skyraider” (Q-electronic warfare), and AD5W (W-anti-submarine and ship identification). In 1962, when across the board redesignation of several aircraft occurred, Dick flew with the “Bobcats,” VT3 advanced training squadron in Beeville, where he piloted the TF9J and AF9J “Cougar,” of 1950s Korean War vintage. He also flew the A6A “Intruder” low-level, all-weather Attack Aircraft, with Squadron VA-42 “Green Pawns,” the A6A “Intruder” attack aircraft, and KA6D “Intruder Tanker” aircraft while assigned to VA176 and VA 75 squadrons.

The solid pilot rounded out his years of active duty on Air Force exchange as a navy instructor at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) at Wright-Patterson Air Force base, Dayton, Ohio.

Engel retired to San Diego after 20-years of exemplary naval service. He went on to have a successful career in management with General Dynamics Electronics Division here in San Diego, retiring in 1992. In 1996, he and Sue sold their home in Carlsbad and traveled the USA via motor home for seven years, settling back to San Diego in a property they owned in Mira Mesa, a suburb north of San Diego.

Currently, Dick continues his service to community and country as a volunteer aboard USS Midway Museum, where he uses his skills as a Safety Team Member and shares military memories as a Docent. He is a volunteer police officer with San Diego Police Department’s, Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol (RSVP) Traffic Division, where he was selected Volunteer of the Year for 2014.

Dick and Sue have two children, Nancy, and Gordon (his brother’s namesake). Both graduated from University of California at San Diego (UCSD). Nancy lives in Colorado and Gordon in California. They have four grandchildren: Jonathan, Karin, Joshua, and Christopher.

Not only did Engel find success in both naval and civilian careers, he was one of the lucky ones to find success in marriage as well. 

Today, Dick and Sue enjoy active lives in San Diego, in retirement.

*Engel’s banner can be seen at Third and J.

Next week’s Avenue of Heroes biography will be Admiral Raymond Spruance, by Bruce Linder, May 2015 (Banner at Third and Alameda).

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