Wheeler Brooks - Staff Sergeant
Wheeler D Brooks was born in Ollie, Iowa, a small town in Keokuk Country in the southeastern portion of the state. He was born to Harold and Frieda Brooks on March 6, 1948, along with his twin brother, Bernard, who goes by the nickname Buzz. They grew up out in the country about 2 miles southeast of town.
Childhood friend and distant relative Arlen Wonderlich fondly remembers growing up with Wheeler. “We’d go out to the creek and catch frogs, and then his mom would make us frog legs.” Wheeler was a happy child, very outgoing and full of adventure. He attended high school in the neighboring town of Pekin, where he was involved in activities, including band, and he was an honor student. He was full of life and devoted to his friends and family.
Wheeler enrolled in Iowa State in the fall of 1966, majoring in Agricultural Engineering. This interest ran deep, as we was also involved with the Agriculture Engineering Club and the Agricultural Council while he was here. He also was very involved in student government and with his fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho. Outgoing and charismatic, Wheeler also had a keen sense of humor, and he loved practical jokes. While at Iowa State, he took flying lessons, unbeknownst to his mother. Before a required solo trip, he called his mom and asked her to meet him and “his friend” at the airport in Ottumwa. When she arrived, she met him on the tarmac and asked where his friend was. He replied, “Oh, I am me.” And that’s how his mother learned he had been taking flight lessons.
Cousin and fraternity brother Norm Wonderlich remembers Wheeler's love for practical jokes, even when he was on the receiving end of them. He recalls a time when Wheeler and another brother constantly gave the fraternity kitchen staff grief. So much so that the kitchen staff decided to prank them at formal dinner. The staff put their meals in the freezer overnight, and served it to them the next day while everyone else enjoyed their warm food. After a dinner of confusion, Wheeler discovered he had been pranked, and was a good sport about it. It's safe to say the kitchen staff never had a problem with him again!
Wheeler attended Iowa State until the summer of 1970, when he left to serve his country.
In a letter to Visions Magazine, Larry DeWitt from Urbandale, Iowa, wrote the following:
“I am a 1970 Vietnam War veteran. While I was in training at Ft. Polk, La., I became close friends with a young man by the name of Wheeler Brooks. His name is now inscribed on your Gold Star Hall in the Memorial Union. He was a warm-hearted, very intelligent young man who wanted to be a teacher when he returned home from Vietnam. His death (as were the other 58,000) was a tragic loss for America. They were the BEST of our generation, and America has never recovered from the loss of such treasured souls and great young minds … I had already been home for a few months when he was killed in combat (I returned home in March of 1971 and he was killed in June), so Wheeler’s death was just another tragic reminder of that war for me.”
We reached out to Larry to learn more about Wheeler, and he shared many more memories about the upstanding young soldier he met in basic training at Ft. Polk in Louisiana. Together, Larry and Wheeler talked about survival tactics often, because Wheeler had a plan for his life after service. He knew he wanted to be a teacher when he returned, and together with Larry, they created a plan for their time in service to their country. They decided the best way to stay out of the infantry was to find a way to remain state side long enough for the war to end. Their first plan was to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). Selection for this program was based on a battery of tests, including math, science, and language. After studying hard and taking the tests, both Wheeler and Larry learned they weren’t accepted to the program. So, they moved to plan B, which was to become a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO).
Historically, NCOs trained their soldiers and held battle lines, which often meant they weren’t placed on the front lines during battle. This strategy shifted during Vietnam, however, resulting in what were called “Shake and Bake” NCOs. The Army found themselves in need of individuals to lead platoons who were trained in map reading, communication, weapon usage, tactics, and first aid, among other skills. Since these NCOs were in short supply during Vietnam, the Army developed a program during basic training that would identify soldiers with leadership potential and expose them to extra training, the completion of which would entitle the Soldier to the rank of E5 Sergeant.
Wheeler was accepted to this NCO program and went to Ft. Benning, Georgia, for NCO school. Larry stayed behind, and they lost touch, although both ended up in Vietnam at about the same time.
Wheeler deployed to Vietnam on August 13 of 1970, and joined the Aero rifle platoon, D Troop, 1st squadron, 1st cavalry, Americal Division, US ARV. He was stationed in the Quang Ngai province, and he was due to come home in a few short weeks when his platoon was summoned to help another platoon in trouble on June 20, 1971. It was on that day that Wheeler was killed in small arms fire. His body was recovered and returned home, and he’s buried in his hometown of Ollie, Iowa. He was 23 years old when he died.