At 10 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1970, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hefel of Guttenberg were visited by police chief Clark Moser who delivered a telegram verifying the loss of a helicopter containing their son Dan, a soldier in Vietnam. It would be four long months before they received confirmation that he was alive and another three years before they would reunite with their son.
Hefel’s capture is the subject of a new book by author William Winders, owner of the Dubuque Leader. The book, Finally Home, shares the story of Hefel’s military service in Vietnam, where he was taken as a prisoner and held for three years in Hanoi. Winders saw Hefel speak on stage at a Veterans Day observance several years ago and was at once captivated by his story.
Over the last three years, Hefel and Winders worked together to commit Hefel’s experience to paper. A book signing was held at Breitbach’s Restaurant in Balltown to celebrate the publication. On Sunday, Oct. 29, an overwhelming crowd showed up for the event. “The author only brought a box of 50 books, not knowing that Dan is kind of a popular guy around here, and they were gone really quick, within an hour or an hour and a half,” said Hefel’s wife, Sue. Hefel stated that there were many people in attendance he didn’t know personally.
Finally Home tells of the young Guttenberg man, who entered the Army in December of 1968 and was sent to Vietnam in 1969 as a part of the 101st Airborne Division. He served as a foot soldier for several months, contracting malaria twice, before volunteering for a door gunner position aboard a helicopter. After just over a month with the new outfit, a helicopter carrying Hefel and three others was fired upon, causing them to crash into a mountain. He suffered a broken back, broken teeth, a broken arm and severe burn. For the first part of his capture, he was almost completely paralyzed from the waist down.
“At least once a day I would close my eyes and think of home. I would say my prayers, think of God, and review my religious teachings. Thoughts of my family back home and how I missed them were always on my mind,” Winders quotes Hefel in the book. “My parents were very strong, very proper people. Thoughts about them were always clear and crisp, gave me confidence, helped with my general strength and boosted my personal morale a great deal.” Hefel was reunited with his family on March 30, 1973.
The following May, Army officers landed a Huey helicopter on Esmann Island to present Hefel with a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, Vietnam Campaign Medal and National Defense Medal. Before they departed, the officers gave Hefel and his parents a helicopter ride over their family farm.
The Bronze Star Medal citation read, "Sergeant Daniel H. Hefel distinguished himself by meritorious service while held prisoner of war in Southeast Asia during the period 5 February 1970 to 27 February 1973. His ceaseless efforts to conduct himself strictly in accord with the Code of Conduct and policies of the prisoner organization in the difficult conditions of a communist prison clearly demonstrated his loyalty, love of country and professionalism. By his unselfish dedication to duty, he reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Army.”
Hefel has been interviewed numerous times in the decades since he was safely returned to his family. A reporter from Newsweek wrote about Hefel’s capture and recovery, and he was also mentioned in the book Transition to Duty, written by Decatur, Mich., veteran Leo Flory – but Finally Home is the first time a book has been written solely about his experience. The book is available for purchase through the Dubuque Leader.
Photo courtesy of manhhai, Flickr Creative Commons.