Life from the sky

Some people spend a lifetime searching to figure out what their passion and their purpose on Earth is. Some discover it, most don’t. A young lad from the pine barrens of South Jersey knew exactly what he was signing up for when he signed that dotted line.

Retired Air Force Col. Merwin Horner Jr. was raised in a quaint farming community in Salem, N.J. during the early 1940s, where he would go on to receive a degree in dairy husbandry from Deleware Valley College of Science and Agriculture. He thought he was going to live the life of a herdsman, but he couldn’t have been more spot off. Instead he was going to spend much of his time off the ground. His future was up in the air, literally.

Horner entered the United States Air Force in 1965, receiving commission through pilot training at Webb Air Force Base and officer training school at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. For the next couple years he would hone his craft before being sent to do so under the most unfriendly of circumstances. Horner was chosen to fly C-123’s through the hostile airways of Nha Trang and Phan Rang, Vietnam.

Horner devoted one year (April ‘67-68) of his 26-year-long service to combat in the Vietnam War. During this time, what may seem to others like an eternity, he logged more than 1,000 hours of combat and delivered 1,265 aerial strikes “sorties” in defense of the 5th Special Forces (The Green Berets).

On paper, Horner’s missions seemed straightforward, thwart the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) from the air and drop off “beans and bullets.” Most supplies consisted of C-rations which are the modern day version of MRE’s (meals ready to eat). In reality, Horner’s missions were some of the most treacherous tasks other than being on the ground fighting face-to-face with the enemy.

On Feb. 28, 1968 Lt. Horner commanded a tactical-emergency resupply mission in support of friendly forces under attack at the Battle of Khe Sanh. While under duress and intense ground fire and the probability of mortar attack, Horner executed the objective without a scratch. Despite being shot up on numerous occasions while making deliveries from the sky, Horner somehow managed to escape unscathed.

“I was full of piss and vinegar and didn’t really think about those things,” Horner said with a laugh.

After returning home from the war, Horner decided to do the only thing he ever knew and it didn’t involve livestock. He became a basic jet trainer, more specifically a T-37 instructor back at the same base he once trained. He was not out of the air very long since Vietnam, before he knew it he was flying the C-9 Aeromedical Airlift transporting POW’s (prisoners of war) back home.

“The transition was seamless. For some people they have problems with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). If I have it, I don’t know it,” Horner said.

Throughout the remainder of the ‘70s he would go on to do similar operations in Germany, except this time around Horner chartered congressmen, ambassadors, and other high-profile politicians throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Bloc. During those miles in the sky, Horner shared many memorable encounters; however, he was not at liberty to speak about them.

Although he doesn’t like to gloat or “toot his own horn,” Horner was awarded five air medals including the Distinguished Flying Cross for his extraordinary efforts in Khe Sanh and the Meritorious Service Medal for his outstanding service during those high-sensitive post-war flights.

“I’m not one to be telling war stories. I don’t harbor it inside. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. I just don’t talk about it that much,” Horner shared. “Either you don’t remember or you shut it out. I’d like to think I don’t shut it out but there’s probably some things I do, I just don’t think about it.”

After finally returning to the stateside for good, Horner was admitted to Air War College’s Senior Service School in the early ‘80s. He would go on to become commander of the Aeromedical Airlify Squadron at Scott Air Force Base and then deputy commander of resources at Charleston Air Force Base. Later he would serve as professor of aero studies and commander of ROTC at the University of Cincinnati.

In October 1991, Horner retired from the Air Force altogether at the rank of colonel. Although still today he still volunteers two days a week at Charleston Air Force Base. In his spare time Horner also serves three days a week at East Cooper Meals on Wheels.

“I’d do it all again. You’re contributing to the welfare of someone else and I enjoy the flying environment,” Horner added. “I was just a young, dumb lieutenant having fun.”

Horner is an active life member of Mount Pleasant VFW Post 10624, where he serves as junior vice commander. Most recently he was awarded the inaugural District 1 VFW Volunteer of the Year Award.