West Middlesex, PA
US Navy, Vietnam Era
Militarily, the word “heroic” describes people who perform well in the face of enemy fire – sometimes for just a single day, or even a single minute.
But what about members of the armed forces who perform outstanding service for 20 years without ever being in combat? There should be another word to describe them that would garner as much respect as the word “heroic.” But there isn’t.
Consider 21-year navy veteran Bill Brandenstein, who never served in a combat zone. Without service like his, the United States armed forces would never be able to win a battle, much less a war. There wouldn’t be any heroes.
Brandenstein joined the Navy after graduating from high school in 1970. Trained as an electrician in San Diego, he was assigned to Vietnam. But his orders were changed, so he spent the next year and a half in the Philippines preparing, repairing, and servicing ships.
“I got to see a lot of the ships coming back in from Vietnam and heading over to Vietnam. The destroyer Higbee came in there after an enemy round blew the gun turret off all the way back to the aft superstructure down to the water line. The Newport News had a blowback in one of her gun turrets. They were still pulling bodies off of her.”
In June, 1973, Brandenstein returned to San Diego, then went on a WestPac (western Pacific) cruise on the USS Cleveland. In December, 1974, he left the Navy and spent nine months as a civilian.
After rejoining, Brandenstein was trained in fire control – the systems that operate the weapons on board ships. He then went on a WestPac cruise with the USS Prairie, a destroyer tender.
In early 1980, he was again in the Philippines, on a WestPac cruise that was ready to head home. He requested a transfer to a ship that was en route to Iran because of the hostage crisis, but it was disapproved by his Commanding Officer. “He said you need to come home and be with your family – you’ve already served your time.”
Following training at Naval Station Great Lakes on close-in weapons systems, Brandenstein went on another WestPac cruise on the aircraft carrier Coral Sea. He was aboard while it sailed through a hurricane in 1983.
“One of my three systems just happened to be on top of the ship’s island. So we’re looking at eight levels above the main deck. And the flight deck itself is like 60 feet off the water. I’m sitting up there looking out, and I’m watching green water up over top of my system. Not white water, green water.”
Next, Brandenstein was transferred to the training station in San Diego.
“They had no instruction guides to tell people how to check the close-in weapons systems, and they liked the way I did it on the Coral Sea, so they got me orders to come down there and work with them. I built the whole program up for them. As a result I got sailor of the year nomination.”
During 1986 and 1987, he served as a recruiter right here in Sharon, then finished out his career at Naval Station Great Lakes.
“One day the chief detailer showed me a paper with my name on it to go to Desert Storm. He says you aren’t going now because you got your papers through Congress approved to go to the state reserve [that is, retire from active duty]. So three times in my career I was headed into danger areas and each time somebody changed it.”
Brandenstein’s retirement was by no means the end of his service to his country and his fellow veterans. In a sense it was just a beginning. By chance, he happened to be present for the opening ceremonies when the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall came to Hermitage in 1992.
“I never knew – and still don’t know to this day – who took my place going over to Vietnam, whether or not they ever made it back. Somebody went to Desert Storm instead of me. They could have been in the building that got blown up with the Scuds. So I have a little bit of survivor’s guilt from time to time – it bugs me.”
The experience moved Brandenstein to become active in the Mercer County Vietnam Era Veterans Organization, then in the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars. He was commander of the West Middlesex post from 1995 to 2002. He also served as commander of the Mercer County Council of the VFW. He was instrumental in setting up the Mercer County Veterans Advisory Council and became its first commander.
For the past five years, Bill has been running the Veterans Transport network through the Disabled Veterans Association. The network transports veterans free of charge from Hermitage to the VA hospitals in Butler, Pittsburgh, and Erie.