MILWAUKEE — Every day for 46 years, Vietnam veteran Jeff Savelkoul was haunted by a single thought: When he came home, he left some of his buddies behind.
Savelkoul survived a helicopter crash in 1967 that killed almost everyone on board, including his best friend, Lance Cpl. Merlin R. Allen of Bayfield. For decades the Marines' remains lay undiscovered, but a recovery team excavated the crash site last year and found Allen's remains.
Now, almost 46 years to the day Allen was killed, his remains are coming home to Wisconsin so he can be buried next to his parents. The burial will be Saturday on York Island in Lake Superior.
Savelkoul said it was "incredible, breathtaking," to receive the news he'd waited decades to hear about Allen. Savelkoul spoke to The Associated Press by telephone Tuesday from Honolulu, where he was escorting Allen's remains to Wisconsin.
"It's been a constant dream of mine, every night for 46 years," said Savelkoul, of East Bethel, Minn. "Some days it's not real — but it is now. I just closed his coffin, I'm getting ready to board the aircraft."
He paused, then added, "He's coming home."
Allen was 20 years old when his helicopter was trying to land in hostile territory in Thua Thien-Hue Province, Vietnam. The aircraft was a foot or two off the ground, and the Marines were about to jump out and begin a reconnaissance mission when small-arms fire rang out. Suddenly a rocket slammed into the helicopter, severing a fuel line and igniting a fire that filled the chopper with thick, choking smoke.
Allen, who was standing near the door, took the full brunt of the rocket's impact. He died instantly.
The helicopter tried to lift off but it hit treetops and plunged to the ground. Savelkoul, who was thrown out the door, was badly hurt. He broke his neck, back, knees, both shoulders and right arm and he fractured his skull in two places. The intense flames had burned both his ears off. He spent 13 months in a hospital and underwent 32 surgeries.
Eventually Savelkoul returned home to Minneapolis. He felt obligated to visit Allen's family in Bayfield, about four hours away, and share with them their son's final moments. But he couldn't bring himself to walk up to the front door. Three times he made the long drive and three times he got as far as the Allens' driveway before turning around and going home.
In part he worried that his own scarred appearance would make Allen's parents worry that their own son had suffered even more. But he knew he had to be strong. He knew his buddies would have done the same for him.
"It's an honor thing that Marines do," he said. "It's just something that had to be done."
So he made the drive one more time, his fourth effort in about 16 years. He knocked on the door and introduced himself.
Allen's family reacted with skepticism, he recalled. The Pentagon had told them no one survived the helicopter crash. But Allen's sister recognized him from letters he used to write to her from Vietnam, piggybacking on Allen's letters because Savelkoul wanted to receive mail too.
From then on he became close friends with the family.
They spent hours talking about Merlin, whom they called Merl. They laughed about how he used to love to play practical jokes, and how they couldn't stay mad at him afterward once he flashed his signature wide grin. They reminisced about how he loved cars, nice clothes, pretty girls, basketball and rock 'n' roll. They recalled how he once drove from California to Wisconsin, scoring much-needed gas money in Reno, Nev., when he won $24 on a nickel slot machine.
Savelkoul was to escort Allen's remains from Hawaii to Wisconsin. Fellow Marine Mariano Guy, who also survived the crash, was to escort them the rest of the way to York Island, where they'll be met by Allen's five brothers and sisters.
His funeral is planned for one day before the 46th anniversary of his death.
"He was the best friend you could have asked for. He was always happy, easy to get along with, an easygoing guy," Savelkoul said. "The world needs to be told his story. Because then people don't die in vain and then get forgotten."