Last week, the nation commemorated National Vietnam War Veterans Day to honor those who sacrificed so much. For one Vietnam War veteran who holds a special place in the leadership history of NATCA, this year’s remembrance of those who served carries more significance due to a long overdue, rare, and prestigious honor recently and finally bestowed upon him.
After 53 years of fighting for what he felt he properly earned and was denied, retired charter member Joe Bellino – the Union’s first Great Lakes Regional Vice President (1988-1991) and second Executive Vice President (1991-94) – was invited by the National Pathfinder Association (NPA) to become a lifetime associate member. The invitation came after a long process in which Bellino convinced the NPA to agree to take up his cause in validating that he was, in fact, a Pathfinder during his tour of duty in Vietnam.
The NPA is a chartered non-profit organization which supports active duty and retired veteran Pathfinders from World War II forward in U.S. military history. The two primary missions of Pathfinders are combat air control and downed aircraft recovery, though the teams on which Bellino served were not involved in downed aircraft recovery. Pathfinders are the first to be deployed in a battlefield and operate in small 5-7 man teams to set up landing zones (LZs) providing air traffic control instructions to all aircraft arriving into the LZ for the combat operation.
Teams of the 125th ATC operating as Pathfinders during this time were responsible for the safe operation of arrivals and departures for as many as 300 helicopters, each carrying 8-10 fully outfitted combat troops, followed by the aircraft with artillery, supplies, etc., in and out of the LZ until the full combat operation had been completed. In 1966, the motto for teams of the 125th ATC was “Mission First.” Years later, Bellino learned and adopted the Pathfinder Motto: “First In – Last Out.”
After the Korean War, the Army felt it no longer needed Pathfinders, so it stopped training them. Then in 1965, the Army decided with hundreds of helicopters going en masse into landing zones in Vietnam at the same time, Pathfinders were again needed.
“Until the Army was able to get the Pathfinder schools up and running, they chose certified air traffic controllers to do the job,” Bellino said. “It made sense to the Army. It was probably the most common-sense decision the Army ever made; hundreds of aircraft all arriving at the same time to a small area to land and take-off from. They said, ‘Hell! We need air traffic controllers!’ We were untrained for jungle warfare or survival, but the United States Army said we were air traffic controllers - problem solved - and I’m proud to say we did do the job.”
Bellino graduated from Keesler Air Force Base air traffic control school in Biloxi, Miss., in December 1965 with orders for Japan. Then, before leaving Keesler the Army changed his orders to Vietnam.
“I was very happy about my new assignment,” he said. “I was 18 years old and had watched enough John Wayne movies to make me more than stupid, so Vietnam was right up my alley. Upon my return from Vietnam, the Army refused to allow people like me to be classified as a Pathfinder because I had not been specifically trained as a Pathfinder in the States.”
Eventually Bellino was able to convince the Army to include within the Pathfinder history page of Fort Campbell’s (Ky.) 101st Airborne website a few paragraphs explaining that prior to the re-opening of the Pathfinder schools in the U.S., untrained personnel were used in their place. Bellino was content. Then 14 years ago, those paragraphs were removed. The reason given to Bellino? There wasn’t enough room on the website. That started Bellino’s quest to reclaim the valor earned by those of the 125th ATC who served on field teams in 1966-67.
“That name - Pathfinder - was important to me,” he said. “My fellow controllers and I during 1966 and part of 1967 had earned the name. Although the 1st Cavalry had Pathfinders from Pleiku and north, the 125 ATC field teams were the only Pathfinders from 50 clicks south of Pleiku down and into the Mekong Delta; about 75% of Vietnam.” Bellino was specifically assigned to operations in the 2nd and 3rd Corp of Vietnam.
Finally, after more than 50 years, the NPA asked Bellino if he was willing to sign a release of his medical and historical Army records from the National Archives, which he happily provided to them. Most of these records were classified for 50 years.
Following NPA's review of the records, he was invited (and has accepted) to be "Lifetime Associate Member #3,” only the third since WWII.
“I'm very proud and cannot thank the National Pathfinders Association enough,” said Bellino, who with his wife Deb will attend their first Pathfinder Convention in July in Colorado Springs.
Bellino is hoping to find Pathfinders with similar backgrounds, air traffic controllers of the 125th ATC who served between late 1965 through the fall of 1967. He asks that if any retired NATCA members are among this group and could possibly be in this category, or if any know who might have been, that they contact Bellino so he says he can help fight for them to be officially recognized Pathfinders as well.