As a child growing up near Chicago, Ill., Frank Stees enjoying aircraft and building models and dreamed of becoming a pilot.
Two uncles on his father’s side were pilots. His father served in the Marines during World War II. He had a brother in the U.S. Coast Guard along with two brother-in-laws. A third brother-in-law was in the Air Force.
“I always wanted to be a pilot, but my eyes wouldn’t allow me to do it,” he said. “So that was out. Next closest was to be a jet mechanic.”
But he had plenty of chances to fly.
“When we were shore-based, they let us get in flight time too,” he said.
The mechanics went up with the pilots whenever there was an extra seat. The pilots figured the mechanics weren’t use to flying, so they would test their mettle. One pilot took Stees up to 42,000 feet, nosed the plane over, plummeting straight to the ground, pulling more than six Gs and overstressing the aircraft as he pulled up at 12,000 feet.
“I thought my head was going to go through my feet,” Stees said.
With a bubble canopy, Stees could see everything, including the quickly approaching earth.
“I enjoyed that,” he said. “After that you get quite a kick.”
He definitely had a lot of adventures.
Those adventures all started when, at age 10, Stees’s family moved to Albuquerque, N.M., near Kirtland Air Force Base, because his father needed a warmer climate for his rheumatic fever. Stees joined the U.S. Navy in Aviation at age 17 and graduated from high school while in the Navy.
His first tour to Saigon, Vietnam, was on the U.S. Ranger aircraft carrier. In November of 1962, they headed first to Cuba, but the Cuban Missile Crisis was settled on Nov. 8, so they were rerouted to Laos.
Back from Vietnam, Stees was stationed at Miramar Air Force Base near San Diego, but soon shipped out on the U.S. Orinsky. He went to Hawaii several times, and multiple ports in Japan and the Philippines. He has home movies posted on a website for the U.S. Orinksy of pulling into Pearl Harbor and other ports.
But Stees had his share of danger and hardship as well. During his second tour of Vietnam, they kept transferring men out of his squadron until they were down to seven, but they had 16 aircraft to take care of.
“We had to work around the clock to keep the aircraft going,” he said. “One guy would go lay on a bale of rags to nap up in the ship. When the next guy got tired, he would go wake him up and take his place. We were doing this for weeks on end. “
They received a commendation for their efforts. Their squadron was dropping the equivalent of 250 tons of dynamite a day on North Vietnam.
“Our aircraft delivered those bombs,” Stees said.
Sometimes Stees was the one in harm’s way. In his military records, Stees was in a convoy that received mortar fire. But he doesn’t remember the incident.
“We lost several people over there,” he said.
He married his wife Sharon in 1964 and she worked at the Sharp Army Depot as a secretary where they shipped supplies to the Navy while her husband was deployed.
In 1970, Sharon talked Stees out of re-enlisting. Vietnam was going nowhere, she told him.
That decision may have saved his life. He said his next assignment would have put him in a land-based squadron in South Vietnam flying twin-engine sub-hunting aircraft at treetop level. When land-based, jet mechanics went aboard planes as gunners.
“They lost half that squadron in the first 90 days,” he said. “I knew 30 guys who lost their lives in that squadron. That’s where I would have gone if I had re-enlisted.”
After he got out of the Navy, Stees was surprised by the animosity aimed at all the military men returning from Vietnam.
“I feel bad I got rid of my uniform and dumped everything because of how we were treated,” he said.
So in 1970, as a petty officer second class, which is the equivalent of a sergeant, Stees used his vast experience and multiple certifications for aviation to get a job at NASA’s Aims Research Center.
“We built a super sonic transport simulator,” he said. “I loved the work but I didn’t like the crowded area.”
So they began looking at other possibilities. Sharon Stees was from California and became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when she was 18. She married Frank four years later. He also joined the church.
“We had friends from church who wanted to move back to Idaho,” Stees said. “We thought there must be something in Idaho.”
While camping in Idaho Falls, the woman working there referred Stees to her father, who owned Art’s Muffler Shop on First Street.
“He hired me on the spot,” Stees said.
Since moving to Idaho, the Stees have lived in Garfield, Coltman, Wapello and are now in the Shelton area near Ririe, which Stees said they love.
In 2007, Stees was asked to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars and his wife encouraged him to join.
“You represent those guys that didn’t come home,” Sharon Stees said. “If you don’t represent them, they will be forgotten.”
Since Stees worked 29 years at the Idaho National Laboratory site, with 12 years as auditor, he was given the job of Quartermaster. Sharon Stees serves as president of the women’s VFW.
“We (Sharon and I) have been at it 55, almost 56 years,” Frank Stees said. “She’s the greatest thing that ever happened in my life.”