A Stewardson man had a dream that one day he would be a professional race car driver.

Joe Vonderheide graduated from Stewardson-Strasburg High School in 1985 and started racing stock cars.

“That was my dream to run the Indy 500,” Vonderheide said. “And make it as a race car driver. I was eleventh in the nation the year I left for the Army.”

“Before I entered the Army I was driving the Modified Midget Racing League,” Vonderheide said. “I was running stock cars and midget sprint cars.”

Vonderheide said he was at a championship competition in Marion at a drivers meeting when he heard about Iraq invading Kuwait. He said when he heard the news he told his fellow drivers he was determined to go fight if it led to war.

“I said if it came to a full out war I would join the Army,” Vonderheide said.

Vonderheide found out the war started through a special news report while he was at work at Petty Printing in Effingham. He made a special request to one of his fellow employees.

“Watch my presses until I get back,” Vonderheide told his co-worker at 10 minutes after 6 p.m. “I told him I was going down to the recruiter’s office and if they are still there, I’m joining the Army.”

Vonderheide went straight to the U.S. Army recruiter in Effingham and signed-up for regular Army active duty.

“And that’s what I did, joined the Army,” Vonderheide said. “I came to work and told them I think I leave in three weeks.”

“So, I gave up my racing career for Uncle Sam,” Vonderheide said.

Vonderheide served in the U.S. Army from March 1991 to July 1994. He took his Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Benning, GA for infantry training.

From Ft. Benning, Vonderheide took two weeks to come home before he left for Camp Howze, Korea where he started a tour on the DMZ with the 1st 503rd Infantry Division.

“I did the last American mission on the DMZ,” Vonderheide said. “There’s a South Korean fence, a thousand meters, then a North Korean fence.”

“Anything goes in those 1000 meters,” Vonderheide said.

According to Vonderheide, several things were happening in the area, including land minds, snipers and live ambushes. Vonderheide said you could see a big city off in the distance from the DMZ that in reality had no people living there called Propaganda City in North Korea. The city was built by North Korea to entice South Koreans to go there. He said the world’s largest North Korean flag can be seen from the DMZ towering over Propaganda City.

Vonderheide compared his experience in Korea with the old television show M.A.S.H. From the early 1970s to mid-80s. He said Military personnel were required to sleep in tents.

“It was exactly like M.A.S.H.,” Vonderheide said. “On the DMZ this is what you slept in (tents). That’s just how we lived.”

“You slept on a cot,” Vonderheide said. “And you slept with your weapon.”

“All night long there are flares that go off,” Vonderheide added. “I got to the point I thought it was so peaceful even though it was a war zone.”

According to Vonderheide, when he got to Korea and found out he was a race car driver they assigned him to be a Humvee mechanic along with his infantry duties.

“I really learned appreciate small town living,” Vonderheide said about his tour of duty in Korea. “You have a year to sit around think about where you came from and what you had.”

“And you think about the freedoms you do have that haven’t been taken away yet,” Vonderheide said.

Vonderheide said it was an uneasy feeling to know you can’t get home unless Uncle Sam flies you home. He said the one thing he appreciated most was the love of family when he was overseas.

According to Vonderheide, the North Koreans were blasting propaganda over their loud speakers 24/7 and it wasn’t uncommon for a North Korean to infiltrate the DMZ.

“You always felt like someone was watching you all of the time,” Vonderheide said. “And there were firefights that broke out while we were there.”

Vonderheide said he entered the Army as an E-1 and within 9 months after serving in Korean came back to the United States as a Spec. E-4. He said he spent a year and a day in Korea.

After completing his tour of duty in Korea, Vonderheide came back to the United States and stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky with the 101st Airborne Division.

Vonderheide said one of the highlights of his career was meeting General David Petreaus when he was only a LTC serving at Fort Campbell. He was assigned to Headquarters division with the G-3 section as a colonels driver. Petreaus and Vonderheide worked out of the same building and occasionally served as Patreaus’ driver. According to Vonderheide, he also drove General Jack Keane.

Vonderheide served the last 6 months at Fort Campbell as a combat cameraman for TV-41 at Fort Campbell.

With his new duties at Fort Campbell, he realized he wasn’t living in a threatening situation like it was in Korea.

“I was living in Hopkinsville, Kentucky,” Vonderheide said. “You would go home, watch TV, and know the enemy wasn’t just over there like it was in Korea.”I felt like I was just playing Army.”

When Vonderheide’s service was coming to and end in 1994, he had to make a decision whether or not to stay in the Army or return home.

“The war was over,” Vonderheide said. “So I came home.”

Today, Vonderheide serves as post commander for American Legion Post 611 and works at John Boos and Company in Effingham.

Charles Mills can be reached at charles.mills@effinghamdailynews.com or by phone at 217-347-7151 ext. 126.


Charles Mills is reporter and videographer for the Effingham Daily News. A 1983 graduate of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, he worked as senior video editor for a Nashville television station. He is a native of Vandalia.

Recommended for you