Quang Tri province, separated from North Vietnam by a narrow and inaccurately described “demilitarized” zone, was a battleground from the time the Vietnam War began in 1964 to its end 11 years later.
It was the northernmost state of South Vietnam, whose government was backed by the U.S., and the first line of defense against invading communist forces from the north. Both sides understood Quang Tri’s importance. Neither could back down without jeopardizing the outcome of the war.
Into this tempest flew 1st Lt. Paul G. Magers, a 1963 graduate of Central High. Newly trained to pilot an AH-1 Cobra gunship, he was paired with an old hand, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Donald L. Wann, 34, of Shawnee, Okla.
On June 1, 1971 — his second week in the country — Magers, 25, and Wann were dispatched with other aircraft to a hill near Dong Tri where a team of Army Rangers awaited rescue. Their mission took them into the western part of the province about five miles east of the border with Laos and 20 miles south of the DMZ. Magers and Wann hovered overhead in their heavily armed machine while another helicopter extricated the Rangers.
The Rangers had left behind claymore mines, and Magers and Wann were ordered to destroy them.
From an altitude of 1,500 feet, they dropped to about 40 feet as they approached the target. Fire from an undetected enemy position on the ground ripped into the underside of the helicopter, and leaking fuel ignited.
Other crews watching in horror repeatedly tried to make radio contact, but got no answer. The fiery Cobra nosed up 150 feet before spiraling into a steep slope, its weapons exploding. What was left skidded about 100 feet downhill.
Witnesses declared the crash nonsurvivable. Because the area was thick with enemy, the bodies of Magers and Wann could not be removed. Recently, their remains were recovered from the crash site and positively identified by the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office.
On Wednesday, Magers came home — a journey of thousands of miles and 39 years. His flag-draped casket rolled slowly out of the belly of a United Airbus shortly before 1 p.m. Wednesday into the hands of Montana National Guard pallbearers. A lone bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” as the Guardsmen walked in step toward a hearse parked at Gate 17.
There to receive him were his 92-year-old mother, Cecilia Farris Magers, and generations of his family. Patriot Guard Riders stood at attention, their American flags motionless in the hot sun.
While the honor guard saluted, the piper played “Flowers of the Forest,” an old Scottish lament.
A vigil service at Dahl Funeral Home has been set for today at 7 p.m. A memorial Mass will be celebrated Friday at 10:30 a.m. in Holy Rosary Church. Burial will follow with full military honors at Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery at Laurel.
His mother has asked that the coming days be a time of celebration, not of black-veiled mourning. She wore a pink pantsuit on Wednesday to welcome her son home.
There will be many to remember the good times with her, including Magers’ friends from Central High’s Class of 1963. It was a small class — fewer than 100 students — and a close-knit bunch, many of whom still keep in touch. They have set up a scholarship fund in Magers’ honor.
In the innocent days before the war and near the dawn of rock ’n’ roll, teenagers from Central hung out at the Big Boy Restaurant at 10th and Broadwater.
Joanne Schwarz (now Driscoll) sipped many a soft drink there with Magers, the boy she dated. Then they’d hop in a friend’s car, head downtown and “burn the point.” Teenagers in big Chevys and Fords cruised the town through the evenings, meeting friends, laughing and making plans for the next big dance.
Magers was a great dancer, Driscoll said. At parties closely chaperoned by priests and nuns, they’d do the twist and the hully gully and bebop around the school gym.
“Catholic schools were pretty strict in those days,” she said. “There was a lot of fast music, and not a lot of slow dances.”
But every school dance ended with the sentimental favorite “Blue Moon,” Driscoll said, and she and Magers often finished the evening swaying to the classic tune.
“He was warm and affectionate and pretty loyal to his friends,” she said. “He was smart — very, very smart.”
They lost touch after high school, after she married their classmate Jerry Driscoll and after Magers went to college. She doesn’t remember exactly when she learned that he had died in Vietnam.
“I don’t think anybody knew right away,” she said. “We didn’t hear for a long time.”
Jim Hickey, a Vietnam era veteran, got the news when his mother sent him a clipping from The Gazette reporting that Magers had been shot down.
“I still miss him,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Gazette. “I remember him as a bright, friendly guy and a great track athlete. I also credit him with getting me through algebra. He got it and I didn’t.
“One event we shared together was my driver’s license, which I got on my 15th birthday,” he wrote. “I tested for my license on the day of my birthday — took my father’s ’57 Ford, picked up Paul and had my first ticket within three hours. As the officer put the siren on, Paul looked at me and said, ‘Oh-oh. Not good.’ He did not get excited; just matter of fact.”
Mike Schruth, another classmate and Vietnam vet, said his best memories of Magers were connected to their junior and senior years in track.
“He would bug me to run the Big Ditch to our track practice at Colton Field,” Schruth wrote. “It was difficult to keep up with him. He was an inspiration, a hard worker and a true leader.”
Rickard Ross, a classmate now living in Austria, e-mailed that he remembered Magers as a friendly and likable guy who “always seemed to have a smile on his face and was a decent young man. I remember that Paul was a good kid, never one to get into trouble.”
As events unfold in Billings, Ross said he will spend time in church praying for Magers, his family and the Class of 1963. On Sunday he will dedicate the Mass he plans to attend in Grinzing to Magers’ memory.
His friends say they have thought of Magers often in the 47 years since graduation, and he is always remembered at class reunions.
“I never lost thought of him and prayed they would bring him back sometime. Our prayers are answered and thank God his mom is still here to see that happen,” wrote Hickey. “He was a very good, loyal friend.”