Veteran and Coach Pendergraft shares life lessons and love of golf

Tanya Chilton Staff Reporter

September 29, 2013

Surry Community College Golf Coach Tom Pendergraft is a decorated soldier who served three tours in Vietnam and received a Bronze Star for valor after rescuing a group of soldiers under fire in Vietnam.

Yet, his favorite award is the distinguished title of master parachutist that he received in 1965.

“If I was jump master, I was in charge of what took place.”

Pendergraft’s role as master parachutist was to get 120 parachutists out of the C141 airplane per second with 60 jumping of out each side.

Pendergraft had two minutes in which he had to physically hang outside a C141 to accomplish the feat.

“I never lost a parachuter getting out of the aircraft in 19 years.”

He said after he had accomplished that mission of safety for parachuters. They went on their next mission. He said he often did not know what happened to them after they made it out safely.

Anytime you put a person in harms way in the unknown, it is difficult, said Pendergraft.

He said it helped him knowing that he did what was ask of him to the best of his ability.

Pendergraft carefully recounted that fateful moment when he and his battalion was confronted with life or death that led to the Bronze Star Medal with Valor. “Easier to talk about it now than it used to be,” said Pendergraft.

“We were along the South China Sea and I was with the Delta Company, 1st of the 5th battalion of the first cavalry division when the group came under intense rocket and grenade fire on a search and rescue mission and we came under a barrage of intense enemy fire.”

Under the barrage of fire, Pendergraft stayed with the wounded soldiers, doing what he could to help, until medics arrived and got the soldiers to safety, he said.

His award stated that his courage in the line of duty reflected great credit on himself, his unit, the army and upheld the traditions of the military.

The toll of the war and what he witnessed has always played on his heart, he said. Now, when he hears helicopters, he said it is still comforting. “I think of the helicopter bringing us food taking or taking us out of the jungle. It lightens you up some,” he said.

In 1966, Pendergraft’s second tour was with the tiger division of the Korean Army.

“I was a liaison sergeant and created all artillery support in a 50- to 60-mile radius.”

He said he learned much from the Korean Army. They gave food to communities, but were very dominant in what they said or did. “They were well respected, and spoke with authority. They were good soldiers and I was glad to see another country’s soldier in operation.”

His third and final tour was in 1970 with Americal division. Their mission was to defend the Danag American Fighter base, a 60-mile radius around the base, the units controlled.

Pendergraft said they faced a very dedicated enemy. It was in a jungle environment. Many were just villagers who wanted to harvest rice and trade fish.

The battle between the communists and the democracies and those political powers in the top were top issues, said Pendergraft.

“Friendship was not a thing you talked about, at any time 10 to 13 feet an enemy could be near you. Soldiers were separated because being together could kill so many,” he said. He called that part of it, a lonely war.

Pendergraft is also an accredited jungle expert, after training in South America.

In the latter part of 1970s, he started doing hanggliding. When the manufacturer of Ultralight Aircraft came to the old Mount Airy Airport, he gave Pendergraft the job.

His wife, Susan, got a job at Surry Community College and is now retired.

Pendergraft has taught golf for 15 years. Five years ago, they reopened the golf program at Surry Community College and he is coach.

“Golf is a game of a lifetime. It is mastering mind over matter and you can play this game well. It is a game between the ears,” said Pendergraft.

In the military, Pendergraft played golf at the bases, and on his days off.

“I grew up a poor kid in scout Troop 665 in Smithfield, I had a Boy Scout master who played golf and he had friends who played at Johnson Country Club and they would carry me to caddy. I was 12 or 13 years old and did it for about three years. When I was 30, I got real serious in the game.

“A kid can pick up, swing his arms and play until he is 95. It is a game of longevity. I think it is the greatest game there ever was.”

As a soldier at Fort Bragg, he worked on off-time for Pinkerton Security and began to play more frequently at Southern Pines.

“I’ve been playing a long time,” said Pendergraft, who would not tell his age.

One of his greatest lessons from his diverse life is knowing the importance of voting.

“No one should speak against our government that does not vote. You have no recourse in a Democratic society if you don’t vote,” said Pendergraft.

He said the opportunity to travel during his 24 years of service in the military was a wonderful opportunity.

He said it is good to play a sport like golf during his retirement years.

He recommended Harvey Pennick’s “Little Red Book” to all golfers and makes sure all students at Surry Community College get one upon graduation.

Reach Tanya Chilton at or at 719-1921.