Back When They Bucked with Dick Hermann
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
Dick Hermann served his country well. The former saddle bronc rider and pickup man was in the U.S. Navy for 25 years, five years in active duty, mostly in Vietnam, and twenty years in the Reserve. After he was Seaman Hermann, he became a cowboy.
Dick’s story starts as a farm kid, one of seven children born to Roy and Alta Hermann, in 1948 near Lesterville, S.D., southwest of Sioux Falls. For his twelfth Christmas, his dad gave him a set of harnesses, and Dick hitched up Corky and Princess, two of the saddle horses around the place. “They just looked at each other,” Dick laughed. His grandpa tied them together so they couldn’t split apart, and Dick trained them as a team. He remembers pulling his sisters on a toboggan on the lake near the house, behind the team. “I’d cut the corners a little sharp, and roll the girls out” of the toboggan. “They’d laugh till somebody got hurt and then it wasn’t fun anymore.”
There were plenty of chores to do on a dairy farm, and Dick couldn’t participate in after-school sports. When he was a junior, he quit school. “I wasn’t much of a school guy,” he remembered. He did odd jobs, and youthful energy started getting him into trouble. A friend suggested they join the military. “We were going to get into trouble if we didn’t.”
He joined the Navy in 1966, because the Marine and Army recruiter weren’t around. “The only guy there was the Navy recruiter,” Dick said. “I said, if I don’t have to milk cows, I’ll join the Navy.” Uncle Sam sent him to Vietnam for three years, and he returned to the States in 1970.
After getting home, he went with a friend to a rodeo, where he got on a bareback horse and broke his arm. But the experience was worth it. It was a rush, and the rodeo bug bit him. He needed a place where he could work and get on as many bucking horses as possible. Someone recommended he talk to stock contractor Erv Korkow in Blunt, S.D., so he did. “I said I’d try it for a while, and I ended up staying for 30 years,” he joked.
For the first couple years, Erv wouldn’t let him get on bucking horses. He worked, making $75 a week, plus board, which was good money, better than he had made in the military.
Then he found out about the nightly rodeo held in Cody, Wyo., for six weeks during the summer. He quit work and went to Cody, where he met up with world champion saddle bronc rider Bill Smith and his nephews Jack Wipplinger and Tom Wipplinger from Red Lodge, Mont. Smith coached them in the finer points of riding saddle broncs, and Dick’s rodeo competition career began. He competed in Cody and area rodeos, becoming a member of the Rodeo Cowboys Association (the predecessor to the PRCA) in 1972 (his permit year) and often slipping off with his buddies to the Canada rodeos.
But every fall, he’d be back to the Korkow Ranch. At that time, Erv didn’t have any fall rodeos, but he had a trucking company, so Dick hauled cattle all winter. And every spring, after helping with the rodeo school Erv put on at the ranch, he’d be off to rodeo again.
Erv and his wife LaFola were like second parents to Dick. He “treated me good,” Dick said. “He treated me like one of his boys. He’d chew on you once in a while, but that happens to everybody. He was a good man.”
And Erv always took Dick back on the labor crew each fall. “I’d go back to the ranch, and Jim (Erv’s son) would tell him, ‘Dick’s back in the bunkhouse’ and I’d pick up where I left off.”
In the 1980’s, Dick started working as a pickup man. He was in Dallas, at a Steiner rodeo, on the labor list. Tommy and Bobby Steiner wanted to know if Dick would come to Austin, to work for them, and in Austin was where he first picked up. The Steiners were bucking horses at the ranch when the pickup man didn’t show up. Would Dick pick up? He agreed to, even though he never had before.
That fall, at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City, Erv talked Dick into returning to South Dakota the next year, to pick up for Korkow Rodeo Co.
As time went on, he purchased a semi-tractor and used Erv’s trailer to haul a load of bucking horses and bulls to rodeos, plus ride broncs and pick up, all at the same event. In addition to working for Korkow Rodeo, he also picked up for Jim and Steve Sutton.
Dick credits Jim Korkow with teaching him the finer points of picking up. “He was good,” Dick said of Jim. Picking up “is all about timing, being at the right place at the right time. By watching other people, I learned. And I had different people point out different things, which I appreciated.”
In 1986, he broke his arm in June, and his leg a month later. Lying around, the realization hit him: what would he do for finances if he was seriously hurt? “I realized I had to do something different.” He decided to go into the Naval Reserve, serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
Dick served until 2006. In 2002, he decided to quit as a pickup man. He knew he was to be deployed in 2003, to Iraq. He and forty others were sent to train in Italy for two weeks with the Marine Corps. After the training, the group was sent home, which disappointed Dick. “Gol dang, I wanted to go.”
Since his retirement in 2006, he enjoys his home in St. Onge, S.D. in the summers and in Phoenix in the winters. He has a team of Belgians that he uses to pull wagons in the parades for the rodeos in Deadwood and Belle Fourche, S.D.
In Vietnam, Dick was one of a four-man crew on the PBR river gun boats: patrol river boats. They were little gun boats, as Dick explains, 28 feet long, and ten feet wide, with a forward gunner, driver, an M60 gunner, and a 50 caliber gunner. The job of the PBR in Vietnam was to search and destroy. Dick was on many PBR patrols with the Navy SEALS, the Green Beret, and the Army, and two of those missions nearly killed him.
Twice his life was in peril on the patrol river boats. On June 21, 1968, the boat he was in was completely destroyed, killing two of the men. He and one of his original crew, plus two new members, were assigned a new PBR, and two days later, the new boat was damaged to where Dick got blown over the side of the boat. It was 3 am, so dark a person couldn’t see the jungle tree line. When he came to the water’s surface, another boat ran over him, causing serious injury. The secret to surviving was staying in the middle of the river; the enemy was on the beach. Dick treaded water for so long his legs cramped up. He was the only survivor of the four in that incident. He nearly lost his life, but he can joke about it now. “I drank half of that dirty old river. It took me all these years of drinking beer to get rid of it,” he laughed. Out of the four men who were part of Dick’s original boat crew, he was the only survivor.
For his bravery, he received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Navy Commendation Medal, with Combat V and the Gold Star. At one time, his days in Vietnam troubled him at night. But the dreams have subsided. “The nightmares ain’t nearly as often as they used to be.”
Rodeo has provided him with a lifetime of recollections. “I got a saddle bag full of memories and friends that all of the money in the world can’t buy,” he said. He loved riding saddle broncs, and watching bucking horses. “When I got tapped out on one, it was like poetry in slow motion. You’re so engrained in what you’re doing, you don’t even hear the whistle. There’s nothing better than watching a good horse that bucks.”