Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Hero's Scrambled Eggs

My older sisters and I grew up eating a hero’s breakfast, only none of us knew it at the time – not even the cook himself.

On special occasions, my dad would cook us breakfast. His normal household duties did not include meal preparation, and for that, we were all grateful. (Just kidding, Dad.) His go-to morning meal was something he called “Van Inwegen’s Special.” With a last name like Schmatjen, it’s almost impossible that we would be eating something called “Smith’s Homefry Special,” or “Johnson’s Grits.” We go in for the weird names.

Van Inwegen’s is a skillet-type affair consisting of scrambled eggs mixed with ham, potatoes, cheese, and assorted vegetables. It’s heavenly.

My dad learned how to prepare this enticing dish while in the Air Force. He was stationed with Earl Van Inwegen, and in their spare time, these steely-eyed missile men did what all tough-as-nails, ice-in-their-veins fighter pilots do when they’re not going Mach-2 with their hair on fire – they traded recipes. I’m not sure what Captain Schmatjen had to offer as a trade, but Van Inwegen’s sure was good!

Years later, my dad was reading Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf’s autobiography, and came across the story of a hero. Early in the Vietnam War, Schwarzkopf was the commander at a forward fire-base called Duc Co, with American and South Vietnamese troops. They had taken heavy casualties, they were surrounded, and no one they could raise on the radio was willing to come help them. They could not care for their wounded, and the situation was looking grim.

The following is the passage from the book:

We were surrounded. In the space of two days, more than forty paratroopers had died and at least twice that number were seriously wounded. We radioed Pleiku and asked for medevac. “We’re sorry,” the response came back, “we can’t fly out there. Too risky.” Duc Co was in a basin, and airplanes trying to land had to come in over a high ridge where the enemy was dug in. But an Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Earl S. Van Eiweegen, heard about us that night in a Saigon bar and volunteered for the job. The next morning we carried our wounded on stretchers to the airstrip and waited.

The instant his two-engine C-123 turboprop appeared, the enemy opened fire. I didn’t think Van Eiweegen and his three-man crew would make it. By the time the airplane touched down, it had been shot full of holes and was leaking hydraulic fluid from three or four places. The crew tried to lower the tail ramp, but it wouldn’t go down. So we loaded the men on stretchers through the doors on both sides of the airplane as Van Eiweegen kept the props turning. Meanwhile the airstrip came under mortar attack. More people were hurt, and we threw them on the airplane, too. Van Eiweegen sat in the cockpit with his copilot, waiting patiently until I gave the signal. Then he turned the airplane around and took off over the same ridge, getting shot up some more. Even though the plane was seriously damaged, he bypassed Pleiku and took the wounded straight to Saigon, where he knew they’d receive more sophisticated care. His flight was the most heroic act I’d ever seen.

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
The Autobiography
It Doesn’t Take a Hero

You may have noted the slightly creative spelling of Earl’s name in the General’s book. All I can say about that is, in an article by Schmatjen, citing a book by Schwarzkopf, in the passage about Van Inwegen, someone’s name is getting misspelled! I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat. My dad joked that when he flew with Earl, they were the only self-encrypted air crew. No Russian radio officer would ever believe Schmatjen and Van Inwegen were their real names.

All spelling aside, when Norman Schwarzkopf says your flight was the most heroic act he’d ever seen, that’s really saying something!

My dad was surprised to read about his old friend in Schwarzkopf’s book. Not surprised because of the heroism, but because it was the first time he had heard the story. He was stationed with Earl Van Inwegen AFTER this had happened, and in all their time together, he had never mentioned it, even in passing.

The internal fortitude, courage, and selfless sense of duty that makes a man like Earl volunteer for a mission like that - and complete that mission in such a manner - is the stuff that made this country great. You will find that stuff, more often than not, in our nation’s veterans.

They call it by different names – duty, honor, service, commitment. I call it heroism. And I’m more grateful for it than I will ever be able to show them.

So on this eleventh day of the eleventh month, when we take time to honor our nation’s veterans, remember the story of Earl’s flight to Duc Co. And remember that he volunteered to go get those men. I know General Schwarzkopf won’t ever forget that, and neither will I.

That kind of quiet, humble heroism is indicative of our nation’s finest men and women, who volunteer to serve, and who deserve our utmost gratitude and respect.

Thank you all for your service, and God bless every one of you.

And thanks for the recipe, too, Earl. Those eggs are delicious!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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  1. Wow Marc...Thank you for the post. "Van" really is a hero, a cook, an inspiration...and my dad. I will never tire of that story. I was even able to get "Stormin Norman" to send a signed message that my dad has with his copy of the book. A great way to start the day.
    -Curt Van Inwegen

  2. Happy Veterans Day! Tell your dad, Thanks again for his service (long, distinguished service, I might add!) to our country. All my best! - Marc

  3. Marc, I have had friends call me and tell me what a beautiful and inspiring post this is. You hit so many emotional levels, not only for our family, but for all that have read it. Yes, Van is a hero, but so is each and every soldier serving our country. It is with sincere and heartfelt gratitude that we thank you, your dad, our dad(s) and every man and women keeping us free and safe! ~ Martha Van Inwegen

  4. Wow, what a great story! If you don't mind me shareing, this makes me remember my father - not a hero in the big sense of the word but certainly a hero of mine for the person he was, formed by his experiences during the depression and the Korean War. After being shot and badly injured in the leg, he was sent to San Diego where he continued to serve anywhere he could, primarily as the projection operator at MCRD and then becoming a lifelong electrician there. My memories of visiting him on the base are as vibrant today as they were back then. Geno (Eugene) was also known to be a mean cook and given the fare of the day, some of the surprisingly great receipies he passed onto me as a kid were, "shit on a shingle", "Vienna sausages & eggs", "pogey bait", and "leftover Fridays", etc. Not the scrambled feast of Van but memorable just the same. He also taught me the deep love of country, respect for those who have served, love of God as the ultimate Commander and Cheif and the love of people great and small. Thank you for your post and for spiking a memory in me that has made this Monday a little better! Guy Lia

  5. Thanks Martha and Guy! I'm glad this story is sparking a lot of good memories for folks. We had (and thankfully, still have) a lot of good men out there doing the heavy lifting so the rest of us can sleep peacefully at night!

    Check out my post from last Veteran's Day. Great story about my mom's Uncle Brad. What a generation the boys from WWII were!!!

    All my best,

  6. I worked for General Van Inwegin when he joined the System Engineering Department at TRW. He was in new business development and made a great Santa at our annual Christmas party. I too was surprised to read of his exploits since he never ever mentioned them while he worked for TRW.

    Jim Lundy
    Former TRW Systems Engineer (Retired) 3105956948

  7. Obviously a humble guy. Thanks for sharing that, Jim. All my best,