Vet survives crash, later settles in Lincoln

By: Steve Witmer, News Messenger
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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles through May 21 that features veterans with ties to the greater Lincoln area.

Vern Luke had a lifelong interest in airplanes.  Like many of his era, once he graduated from college, Luke ended up in the military because he was drafted. 
But Luke, now 67, enlisted in the Air Force one day before he was to report for induction into the Army. His preference for the Air Force stemmed from its program that offered a commission followed by flight school. 
Luke followed that path, earned his commission and completed navigator and electronic-warfare officer training at Mather Air Force Base. He immediately was sent to Southeast Asia where his B-52 crew flew 43 sorties in four months. After returning to California, he met and married his wife of 40 years, Claire.
In typical Air Force fashion, he was soon reassigned, this time to Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, flying EB-66 support-jamming aircraft. It was during this tour that one of the most defining events of his military career took place.
Returning from a night combat mission in October 1970, his aircraft encountered miserable conditions – thunderstorms and heavy rain – as it approached its base. Although neither the pilot nor navigator had the field in sight, the aircraft descended below its minimum descent altitude and struck some trees. That impact forced the airplane down in a tapioca patch more than three miles short of the runway. 
Crewmembers suffered varying degrees of injury in the crash.  After ensuring that the electronic-warfare crew in the back of the airplane got out safely, Luke went forward on the top of the plane to check on the pilot and navigator.  Although they were dazed and injured, Luke made certain they got clear of the plane just before leaking oxygen and fuel ignited in a great fireball.
Luke was awarded the Airman’s Medal for distinguishing himself by his heroic acts at the risk of his own life.
 After his Thailand tour, Luke served in a succession of increasingly responsible assignments in the electronic warfare field, flying out of bases in Alaska, Greece and the United Kingdom.  Eventually he was assigned to Strategic Air Command Headquarters and the Pentagon, where he served as a senior manager of electronic-warfare programs. 
After leaving the Air Force as a colonel with more than 26 years of service, Luke became executive director of a defense-electronics association in Virginia.
When he retired in 2002, Lincoln Hills looked like an ideal place to relocate. Today, Luke’s busy with the veterans, hiking, computer and fishing groups and manages more than 200 trips to the gym each year. He also spends significant time maintaining and running garden railroad trains with his grandsons in his backyard.