My Vietnam Chronicles
Jim Fischer CE 117th AHC 1967-1968
On May 9, 1967, a Northwest Airlines 707-320B landed on the runway at the big American Air Force and Naval facility at Cam Rahn Bay, Republic of South Vietnam, depositing several hundred U.S. soldiers. The charter flight had originated at McChord Air force base near Tacoma, Washington, made a brief stop at Yakota Air Force Base in Japan for fuel, and continued on to Vietnam. It was one of many that would land at Cam Rahn Bay.
One of the new arrivals was me. I had joined the Army in Spokane, Washington in April of 1966. As a college student attending college at then Eastern Washington State College in nearby Cheney. I was not making good progress. I lacked the self discipline to go to class or study. After several lackadaisical years of going to school there I decided to join the Army. The U.S. was building up their forces in Vietnam at the time and many young men were trying their best to get out of service. Many viewed Vietnam as a death sentence. I was restless and wanted a change in my life. I viewed it as an exciting opportunity to learn to fly.
The army had (and has) a warrant officer flight program that was open to young men who could pass a class one flight physical, pass a test designed to measure flight aptitude called the ARWAB (army rotary wing aptitude battery) and pass an oral interview (board) paneled by some army officers. No college degree required. The Spokane Army recruiter set me up to take the aptitude test. The test lasted about 4 hours and was different than any written test I had ever taken. One of the sections had a picture and the question would ask where in the picture would you be standing to get the following view or if this was a horizon which way would the wings be tilted. I was the only one taking the test the day I was there. After I was through the young Specialist E-4 who administered it said �Can I ask you something?� He said �Do you believe in God?� after giving him my answer he told me that many of the young men taking the test and going on to flight school had said the same thing. At the time I didn�t know if I had passed or not and I said something like �Well I don�t even know if I passed.� He said �you will.� I said �how do you know� and he replied �I just do.� Apparently he had enough one on one time with me and others who had taken the test to get a feel for those who took it.
Some days later the recruiter called me and said that I had done fine on the test and he set me up to take a flight physical. Flight physicals are very comprehensive and it took several hours. They took blood and urine samples, checked my heart, lungs, hearing and they checked for color blindness and glaucoma. Candidates needed 20/20 vision. The army spends a lot of money on these physicals. Several more days passed and the recruiter called to say that I had passed the physical and he set me up to go before the officer�s board. I went before the board composed of three officers. They asked me numerous questions which I answered to the best of my ability. After several more days I got a call from the recruiter and he said that everything was fine. I was pumped.
The recruiter told me that I would have to go to Army Basic Training before heading on to flight school, weather I waited for a confirmed flight class as a civilian, or went directly into the army and then got the confirmed flight class once I was in. He assured me that I would have a confirmed flight class by the time I got out of basic. However, he signed me up for a basic aircraft maintenance class just in case. I knew that the army was recruiting helicopter pilots in ever greater numbers for the effort in Vietnam. Also, the army had spent a lot of money and time testing me so I felt safe in joining without a confirmed flight class date.
Several weeks later I was standing in the hot April sun in Fort Polk, Louisiana. The big Continental jet from the Pacific Northwest had deposited us at the airport in Houston. I deplaned on to the tarmac wearing a ski coat and into the sweltering, humid air. I was in Houston no more than an hour before I boarded a DC-3 bearing the Trans Texas Airlines logo. Later I was told TTA stood for Tree Top Airlines. We flew from Houston to Leesville, La., near Fort Polk. At the airport in Leesville we were met by drill sergeants who loaded us on trucks and took us to the reception center.
I spent about a week at the reception center getting my hair cut, getting fit for uniforms and taking placement tests. All the recruits received multiple vaccinations administered via �air guns�. It was a bit like running a gauntlet. We lined up and marched single file through a building where corpsmen on either side of us would deliver multiple shots. The air gun would blast the vaccine under the skin with air pressure. It was best to keep your arms relaxed. Those who tensed up were rewarded with broken skin and a rivulet of blood running down their arms. After exiting the building we moved back in formation where some of the recruits passed out from the sight of blood, their own or others.
The placement or aptitude tests were designed to measure our abilities and interests. Some measured foreign language ability, others mechanical ability. The desks where we took the tests were in a line, with desks across from us and more behind us. During one test session another recruit who was sitting behind and to my right, caught my attention. He was staring at his test paper with a vacuous expression. The two middle fingers of his left hand were buried in his mouth up to his knuckles and his right hand had disappeared into his pants in an apparent attempt to comfort himself. His last name was Clark and as it turned out we ended up in the same platoon.
When it came time to start basic training a large Army 5 ton truck pulling a canvas topped trailer arrived. We climbed stairs into the back of the truck with our duffle bags on our shoulders. We stood at rigid attention until told to sit on benches that lined each side of the trailer. As we stood we were commanded to squeeze tighter together. A wooden gate was placed across the back to hold us in. When the command came to sit several of us popped off the bench in the crush.
To say that basic was a cultural shock would be to understate the situation. Half of my basic class were black guys from East Texas and Louisiana a few were Latinos from West Texas the rest were white guys from Chicago and various Southern States and a very few of us from the Northwest. All of us brought our own language, attitudes and expectations. Basic training is designed to break down the individual and rebuild everyone as a team with one color, army green. I believe it did a good job of that.
The double floored barracks that we lived in were built in WWII with wood framing and siding. The floors were linoleum. The bunks where we slept were stacks of two made of steel tubing and springs topped with thin cotton mattresses that were they able to talk would tell of a thousand different bodies and ten thousand different dreams.
On one end of the barrack on the first floor was a latrine with five or six sinks, a trough urinal, a large shower with several shower heads and a handful of toilets arranged in an �L� configuration with no partitions. If anyone was shy or had body image problems they were forced to quickly adjust as the toilet paper rolls were passed from one user to another at the end of a day of training.
Basic training was hard but there were funny moments as well. Guys that would forget something or screw up in other ways were disciplined by running around the company area with their rifle over their heads. They would shout �This is my rifle this is my gun, this one�s for shooting this one�s for fun.� We quickly learned that in the army there is a rifle, a weapon or a piece, but not a gun. Some trainees like the aforementioned Clark had a particularly difficult time. Clark was a true �sad sack� who couldn�t seem to do anything right. When told to go left, he would go right. When told to direct his eyes to the front he would be caught looking around. In exasperation a Drill Sergeant, also named Clark, said �Clark, you can�t do anything right!� �Oh, I take that back Clark you can fuck up more than anyone else.� I made it a point to memorize everything we needed to memorize like the weight of the M-14 rifle, its cyclical rate of fire, guard post orders and my all important service number. A number I would repeat many times over the next three years. I never got caught not knowing something.
I drew K.P. (kitchen police) several times while in basic. We reported at approximately 4 AM in the morning and worked until 7 PM in the evening. There were several jobs on K.P. such as side sink man, and DRO (Dining Room Orderly) I always seemed to get the position of back sink man. My job was to wash the pots and pans. The cooks were permanent cadre and so they were able to treat the trainees like, well, trainees. The only thing we couldn�t wash was the knives. They said it was a safety thing, but maybe they were worried that we would use it on them.
The dishwashing soap consisted of small squares of laundry detergent. These were placed in a gallon can. Along the side of the can near the bottom, triangular holes were punched. A wire was fashioned into a handle attached to the top of the can. The handle was draped over the faucet and when the water was turned on it flowed over and through the soap and out the holes in the bottom of the can. If the water was turned on too hard it splashed hot water everywhere. On one occasion the sergeant in charge of the mess hall, an angry sot of a man whose career had past him by, came over and although he had never spoken to me said. �God Damn it son how many times do I have to tell you the water has to be all the way on or all the way off.� �Don�t you know you�ll burn out the bearings.� So I turned it all the way on and splashed hot water all over myself. My thought was that he was a complete idiot but perhaps he was putting me on. At the end of the day my hands looked like prunes and several days later the skin started peeling off.
Most of the cadre were very professional and did an effective job with the training. Our lead Drill Sergeant was a man named Willy Campbell. Sergeant Campbell commanded the respect of the trainees by force of personality. We knew he wouldn�t ask us to do anything that he wouldn�t do. He was a physically fit, medium built, black man with blue eyes in his mid thirties. On at least one occasion he stood atop the wooden training platform and challenged the trainees telling us that if we didn�t like the way he ran the show we could volunteer to come up and kick his ass. He told us that his ass had been kicked before and he was willing to let us try. No one ever challenged him.
At some point during my basic training I got an audience with the First Sergeant. I inquired from my parade rest position about my flight class confirmation and his response was �don�t worry about it.� He said �You don�t really like the army do you?� I said �no.� I completed basic at Fort Polk with no confirmation and was assigned to Fort Rucker, Alabama for the 5 week course in basic aircraft maintenance that I had �beenpromised.�
The first weekend I was there was over the 4th of July holiday. The local Dothan, Alabama paper had an article advising all concerned that a cross burning was to be held at an appointed time. I couldn�t believe what I was reading. This was 1966 and the idea of a cross burning sounded to me like something from an old and very bad movie. I was pretty na�ve.
The first few weeks at Ft. Rucker were spent in a casual company doing odd jobs around the post while waiting for class. At some point in time I found out that the Spokane recruiter had not put my paper work in for the Warrant Officer Flight program. Further, although they had my test results from the aptitude test, the papers from the officer�s board were not there. I was told that I would have to retake the flight physical because there was a six month waiting list for a confirmed flight class, and the flight physical I had taken some months before in Spokane would expire before I could get into flight school. The army recruiter shafted me. Many years later I found out that the Army had problems with the Spokane recruiter as he lied to many young men.
The county surrounding Fort Rucker was dry. No alcoholic beverages allowed. The county made a lot of their money arresting Army guys who came back to the fort after having had too much to drink in a neighboring county. Of course, some deserved to be stopped. But it was easy for the local police or sheriff�s deputies to pull over a car with out of state plates and go on a �fishing expedition�. This was the Deep South, the Bible belt and they didn�t tolerate errant behavior.
A number of months later a small carnival showed up in the little town of Enterprise, outside of Ft. Rucker. This was a carnival like none I had ever seen. The military police and the local sheriff�s deputies were there to keep the peace. There were at least three tent shows featuring young ladies who stripped and performed acts that would make a Tijuana veteran blush. The deputies and MPs laughed and shined their flashlights on the girls and some of the young army troops who were assisting.
I started my aircraft maintenance class and got myself rescheduled to take a flight physical. We lived in barracks that were built in World War II. They were constructed out of wood and were two stories. They were identical to the barracks in Fort Polk and indeed almost every other Army post in the U.S. The only air conditioning was open windows and the summer temperatures and humidity were brutal. The classrooms, on the other hand, were state of the art. The buildings were new and made of brick. They had air conditioning, chalk boards with chalk that glowed, and training aids, like cut away rotor transmissions systems that revolved displaying their inner workings.
Upon completion of the basic course the Army assigned me to another class, Single Rotor Turbine Utility Helicopter Maintenance (67N20). Before I started my second class I was called to retake the flight physical. The Army decided to evaluate a preexisting condition and they put me in the hospital for several days of blood work and other tests. The verdict was that my family doctor had diagnosed me incorrectly and that I was in good health. The flight surgeon knew I wanted to apply for flight school and he just shook his head and mumbled something about wanting to go off and get myself killed.
The training was fairly comprehensive although unlike an auto mechanics course we only worked on a decommissioned aircraft. Six or seven of us would cluster around the helicopter and watch one guy work. Our course work was more theory than practicum. In the United States, Army aircraft maintenance was contracted out to civilians. My only contact with a flying helicopter was a group practice in attaching a sling load to a hovering aircraft.
Several weeks later I found out that my second flight physical had somehow been lost. At this point I had been in the army for four months. I had been told that there was a six month wait for a confirmed class, an eleven month flight school program and a 36 month obligation after completing flight school.
If I had it to do over again I would have waited as a civilian for a confirmed flight class or having gotten into the army, started writing letters to my congressman, etc. I was not a very good self advocate. I gave up on the idea of flight school. I graduated second in my class in the Single Rotor Turbine Helicopter Maintenance course. Shortly before graduation I received orders sending me to Fort Ord, California.
I arrived at Fort Ord in October of 1966 and was assigned to a casual company. Casual companies exist to hold people until they get permanent orders. Fort Ord had no helicopters, at least that I ever saw. My recent training was put to use demilitarizing M- 48 tanks, repairing field telephones and breaking the beads on Korea War era truck tires.
In other words, make shift work. One unmemorable Saturday a group of us were assigned to pick up trash from the Laguna Seca Race Track. The post general had promised the promoters army help. Perhaps it was a charity event. We spent 8 hours picking up beer cans, baby diapers and whatever else people dropped. I never got to see a race.
I met a Sergeant named Raymond Miller while there. I used to baby sit his kids while he and his wife went out. Ray and I used to play chess and drink a few beers. He thought I was a good chess player but I�m not. Before I left for Vietnam he gave me a bracelet that he had gotten while he was in Vietnam and I wore it during my tour. I also played chess with one of the guys in my barracks. He was a nice guy, a bit of a nerd who liked to read electrical circuit diagrams. He had never played chess before and so after a few games he was convinced I was a genius. Perception is everything. I liked Fort Ord but when my orders came for Vietnam I was relieved that I would finally be doing something that had some meaning. Few things are worse on the psychic than doing nothing.
After my home leave I reported to Fort Lewis, Washington and again was placed in a casual company pending a flight date to Vietnam. This was early May of 1967. The old wood barracks were heated by coal fired furnaces and I drew the duty of keeping them stoked overnight. My fatigue uniforms had been cleaned and pressed but quickly became filthy. Since I didn�t have a flight date I couldn�t take them to be cleaned because I didn�t know if I would get a chance to pick them up. When I left, my fatigues went into my duffle bag unwashed.
My older brother and his wife lived in nearby Olympia where they both taught school. The casual company posted rules allowing us to sign out and visit relatives. The relatives needed to be physically present to do this. One evening my brother came to pick me up. The buck sergeant at the desk started hard timing me. He asked in a condescending why I thought I could sign out. I pointed out that the posted rules gave guidelines to that effect and he asked where my relative was. My brother had been standing quietly in the back of the orderly room and raised his hand. The sergeant�s attitude changed and he signed me out without further comment.
After about a week my orders and flight date arrived. A bus picked us up and drove us to McChord Air Force Base a few miles north of Fort Lewis. With more than a little trepidation and anxiety about what lay ahead, I boarded the Northwest charter flight and on the 9 May 1967 my Vietnam journey began.
The big jet flew to Yakota Air Force base in Japan where we stopped for 30 minutes to refuel. The flight lasted 10 hours and when we landed it was dark. It didn�t matter as we stayed on the plane while the ground crew worked. The next leg of our journey took us to Cam Rahn Bay in South Vietnam. That flight lasted about 5 hours. When we arrived it was near midnight. I was glad to be getting off and getting the chance to stretch my legs. The temperature was in the 90�s and the humidity was the same. For someone who had gotten used to 40�s and low 50�s in the springtime Pacific Northwest it was very uncomfortable.
We did some initial processing and were given a �hooch� or barracks assignment. Again I was in a casual company and during the next several days I was placed on �details� while I waited for my permanent assignment. I rolled up my sleeves during the day and for the first time in my life sunburned the skin on my arms to the point where I had blisters.
I eventually received orders directing me to Nha Trang, a coastal city north of Cam Rahn. A group of us boarded an Air Force C-123, a two engine propeller driven troop transport, for the short flight to Nha Trang. We set on the floor of the big airplane, packed in like sardines.
My stay in Nha Trang lasted several days before I received orders to go to Dong Ba Thin and join the 117th AHC (Assault Helicopter Company). Dong Ba Thin is across the bay from Cam Rahn. At the appointed time I threw my duffle bag in the back of a � T truck and along with several other troops we drove to our new home. I didn�t know at the time how dangerous the drive was and in fact still don�t know but we were given one rifle with which to defend ourselves. The rifle was given to the ranking member of our small group, a cook.
The trip took several hours and I spent my time looking at my new home. Vietnam is a beautiful place. The trees and foliage are intensely green. The ocean off the coast, known as the South China Sea, is a gorgeous aqua blue. The smells of charcoal smoke and fecund flora permeated the air. Vietnamese farmers walked slowly behind their water buffalos pulling plows through the fields in preparation for rice planting. It was a bucolic scene.
Our trip passed without incident and I arrived at the 117th orderly room ready to get settled in. A few days after my arrival in Dong Ba Thin I had my 23rd birthday. It passed unknown and uncelebrated.
I was assigned to live in an open bayed barrack or �hooch� which was constructed of wood on the lower half and screens on the upper half. The roof was corrugated metal. Metal that, although new, had begun to rust in the humid air. The floors were concrete. Around the outside and about 6 ft away from the hooch walls was a revetment of 55 gallon drums filled with sand augmented with sand bags to protect us from hostile fire. My personal area had a cot with sheets, a wall locker and foot locker where I placed my personal belongings.
Our company showers were constructed of wood also and were gravity fed from tanks of water. A simple pull ring turned the unheated water on and off. The latrines were designed like the hooches with wood on the bottom and screens around the top half. We set on a wooden bench with a hole cut in it. A 55 gallon drum cut in half was placed underneath. Each day Vietnamese workers would pull the drums out and drag them away from the area where diesel fuel would be added before they were set on fire.
The �mess hall� was constructed in the same way and of the same materials as the hooches. I quickly learned to eat with one hand while I shooed the flies away with the other. The flies bothered me a great deal at first but within in a few weeks they became just another annoyance. Our meals were much better than eating c-rations but given the heat, humidity and general conditions in Viet Nam nothing to write home about. During the first few months I was there the milk was reconstituted but eventually we got fresh milk. Our water was highly chlorinated and kool aid or ice tea made from it tasted bad. Compared to the infantry we were living high on the hog.
Each of us had a �hooch maid� or �baby san� to wash our clothes. We provided the soap which we purchased from the Post Exchange and money of about 5 dollars in the form of the Vietnamese currency, piasters, to the women or girls every couple of weeks. I was told which girl would wash my clothes and it was up to me to negotiate the price. My baby san was a cute little girl of perhaps 15 or 16, maybe older, but she looked about 12. I offered her a price less than the going wage and she said while squatting in Oriental fashion �Bull sit G.I.� in broken English. Some of the troops harassed the girls but most of us respected them as individuals just trying to get by in a tough world.
I got the idea after several months that my baby san liked me. One day while I was in the hooch two young girls came over to me, giggling, and in broken English said �You know your baby san (her name) she beaucoup love you too much. Can�t eat, Can�t sleep, Can�t drink, and can�t shit�. I had a pretty good laugh. I hope that she made it through the war and was able to live a good life.
My job on arrival was to repair helicopters. This is what my training had been for. In fact, as it turned out, my year in Vietnam was the only time I worked in my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) for the three years of my Army �career�. Each morning after breakfast we would fall into formation and march from the company area to the maintenance area where we would spend the day working on helicopters.
Although I had taken a couple of Army courses in aircraft maintenance, Vietnam was my first opportunity to actually work on helicopters. This was the first time to get my hands dirty, to safety wire bolts and to take things apart and put them back together. I never considered myself a mechanic and it�s not what I wanted out of life but at least I was contributing something.
During my first several months there we had an I.G. (Inspector General) Inspection. All the equipment needed to be accounted for. Things that we should have would be examined, the serial numbers checked against a list and things that we shouldn�t have would have to disappear. I had heard that units would lose equipment like a jeep, for example. The jeep would be driven somewhere and when the driver came back it would be gone. The identifying numbers would be painted over with the new unit and the jeep never seen again. Our unit had a generator mounted on a trailer. It didn�t belong to us so it was slung underneath one of our helicopters and unceremoniously dumped into the South China Sea.
I was in the maintenance platoon for several months when the word was put out that several crewchiefs (maintenance guys who flew) were going home and there were some openings. My friend John Cline and I went to the First Sergeant and put our names in. I never wanted to be a mechanic and the thought of flying was exciting and what I had intended on entrance into the service. Both of us were selected. Maybe we were the only two who applied. Flying was voluntary, dangerous and had an extra bonus in the form of hazardous duty pay. I was able to earn an extra $55 dollars a month.
Just as I had never worked on a helicopter before Vietnam, I had also never flown, fired a machine gun or used the aircraft�s radios. There were a myriad of other duties that I would be performing. It was all O.J.T. (on the job training) and everyone was in the same boat.
Crewchiefs were assigned to an individual helicopter. It became our baby, to be coddled, cleaned, pampered and treated with respect. It was, after all, our lives which were on the line. The �ship� I signed for, tail number 66-794, was with the 1st Platoon.
The 117th AHC was divided into 3 helicopter platoons. The first and second platoons were �slicks� which were used to ferry troops, haul supplies, pick up dead and wounded and anything else that someone could think of. These helicopters were primarily �D� and �H� model Hueys. The third platoon was our gun platoon composed of �C� model Hueys. The difference in the models was that the D and H models were longer in the body and had rotor blades that were greater in length. The C models were shorter in the body and had shorter but wider rotor blades. The gunships, C models, were configured in several different ways: machine guns (mini guns), 40mm grenade launchers and with 2.75 inch folding fin aerial rockets, in pods on either side of the helicopter.
Each of the platoons had their own nose art; pictures painted on the nose which identified the platoon. This was similar to WWII bombers. The 1st Platoon had a picture of �Little Annie Fanny�, which was a popular Playboy magazine cartoon character of the time.
The 2nd Platoon had a picture of the Pink Panther, again, popular at that time. The gun platoon, in keeping with their mission, had a sidewinder (rattlesnake) painted on the nose.
The learning curve in my new job was steep and the days were very long. Pilots were limited to a certain number of hours of flight time per month. The enlisted crew, the crewchief and gunner, flew everyday but with different pilots. When we returned from our missions at the end of the day crewchiefs would perform maintenance, sometimes alone, sometimes assisting each other, many times under portable lights. When our ships required more detailed maintenance with our maintenance platoons, the crewchiefs were there with them.
One of the specific duties in the hundred hour maintenance was repacking the �shortshaft�. Where this duty started I don�t know. The helicopters were powered by a turbine engine. A short shaft came off the front of the engine and connected it to the main rotor transmission. Every hundred flight hours this shaft was removed, taken apart, examined, repacked with grease and reinstalled. This job became the �crewchiefs job�.
Our missions took us all over Vietnam. We would pick up this officer or that sergeant, carry supplies to an artillery outpost, ferry mail and so forth. We called these �ash and trash� missions. This might sound boring but I got to see a lot of Vietnam. The area around Nha Trang was especially pretty. I used to think that in a few years U.S. companies would be building resort hotels on the beaches. Flight in Vietnam, particularly at the low speeds and altitudes we flew at, was always hazardous given the type of war we were fighting. You just never knew when you might get shot at or have a mechanical failure or have some other accident
We used to occasionally �contour fly� or hug the ground and follow the terrain. One morning we were contour flying, the pilot was flying a few feet off the ground at around 110 knots air speed. As we approached a line of trees he pulled pitch to �jump� over them. He didn�t clear the trees sufficiently and I got a palm frond on the end of my machine gun barrel which protruded about 24 inches from the side of the helicopter. This was called �pilot error�.
On another occasion we lost our hydraulics. The controls in our helicopters were hydraulically assisted and it�s difficult to fly without the assist. We heard a noisy groan coming from the transmission well and the pilot executed steep spiral turns and made an emergency landing. When I inspected the hydraulic lines I could see where a braided oil line had rubbed a hole in an aluminum hydraulic line. The hydraulic system is under a lot of pressure and it quickly bled out.
The first and second platoons traded places every month or so. Sometimes we would fly out of Dong Ba Thin, sometimes Nha Trang. Later we would trade off going to Lane Army Airfield located at An Son northwest of Qui Nhon. It was while assigned to Lane that I had my first baptism by fire. This is the official version of the event:
Total flight hours at this point: 00001274
Unit: 117 AHC
This was a Combat incident. This helicopter was REPAIRED IN THEATER
for Air/land Assault, Hot Area.
While on Landing Zone this helicopter was on the Ground at 0000 feet and 000 knots.
Helicopter took 8 hits from:
Small Arms/Automatic Weapons; Gun launched non-explosive ballistic projectiles less than 20 mm in size.
The helicopter was hit in the Cockpit
Systems damaged were: PERSONNEL, TAIL ROTOR
The helicopter Continued Flight.
The aircraft continued and accomplished all mission objectives.
Original source(s) and document(s) from which the incident was created or updated:
Survivability/Vulnerability Information Analysis Center Helicopter database. Also: UH1P2, 73934
This is my version. The South Vietnamese Popular Forces operated in the area between Lane Army Airfield and Qui Nhon. The popular forces were local militias that later were integrated into the Army Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). They were advised by Americans attached to MACV (Military Assistance Command). We were flying in the area when we received a call that an Army Sergeant attached to MACV working with the popular forces had been wounded.
The area we were flying over was on the coastal plain, flat, with rice paddies surrounding islands of houses, huts really, and clusters of palm trees. We hovered around the area and set down in a rice paddy surrounded on all sides by palm trees, near where we spotted the sergeant and some popular forces. My gunner got out and assisted the sergeant who was on his side of the helicopter, into our helicopter. When the sergeant was seated and belted in I was able to see the extent of his injuries. He had been shot in the lower jaw. It appeared his jaw was broken, his tongue and lips were hanging loose and partially congealed blood and saliva hung from his face.
Our engine was running and the rotor was spinning but we remained on the ground a few seconds too long. An enemy soldier hiding in the brush and trees on the right side of the helicopter fired at us at point blank range with an automatic weapon, most likely an AK- 47. Both my gunner and I started firing our machine guns. I fired mine into the tree line on my side of the helicopter at nothing in particular. The pilot pulled pitch and evacuated the area. The master caution light lit up followed by several other lights indicating damage to a gearbox and other systems. My gunner reported that he had been shot in the back. The pilot asked me if I was O.K. and I said that I thought I was. I had felt a sharp sting on my right leg but seemed to be alright.
We flew to Qui Nhon to the field hospital. People came out to assist the sergeant and I assisted my gunner who was able to walk. The pilots shut the engine down and I quickly onducted an inspection. The fuel bladders had been punctured and fuel was leaking. A 90 degree gear box on the tail rotor was damaged and numerous bullets had penetrated the helicopter body with unknown damage.
Another helicopter picked up the two pilots and me and flew us back to Lane Army Airfield. A maintenance team repaired my helicopter enough to fly it back to Dong Ba Thin to have the bullet holes patched and more extensive repair work done. The maintenance crew in Dong Ba Thin found the seat tube near where my right knee had been was split and recovered a bullet which they gave to me. I still have it.
One of my pet peeves was that enlisted crew members had no seat armor. We set on nylon over aluminum tubing. The danger, of course, came from fire coming up from below. We had a body armor vest with back and front panels of aluminum with a ceramic insert. Over that we wore a flak vest. All of us took out the back panel armor and set on it. I also shifted my 45 cal. pistol between my legs for obvious reasons. I know from reading once classified reports that �management� was aware of the problem. We can all ponder why nothing was done.
When I got back to Lane A.A., I was still running on adrenaline. As I took my food for the evening meal a Vietnamese hired for kitchen duty looked at me and apparently reading the stress on my face, said to me �Maybe you die G.I.�. I responded with a great deal of venom in my voice �Maybe you die gook�!
The following day I flew as a gunner on a helicopter crewed by Al Bennett. We flew over the same area where the day before I had gotten shot up. We flew low looking for signs of enemy soldiers. As we approached some palm trees we saw an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldier wearing a khaki colored uniform and pith helmet, running through an open rice paddy seeking the safety of the trees.
We started shooting at him and he stumbled and fell on his back and looked up at us. Vietnam was a strange war because there were areas where we could �clear� fire and areas where we needed permission to shoot. The pilot told us to stop firing because he wasn�t sure if it was a clear fire area. By the time he confirmed that it was alright to shoot, the enemy had jumped up and run into cover.
Three days later I was the crewchief on another helicopter. We were flying in the area where we had earlier taken fire. Our job was to pick up some Vietnamese Popular Force guys that had been killed days earlier. We landed and I pinned the seats to the wall of the helicopter to make the floor space available for the dead. Some Vietnamese troops were waiting with the dead who had been placed in plastic body bags. Someone had written the names of the dead on the outside of the bags. We stacked them up like cord wood, one on top of the other on the floor of the helicopter. The stench after three days in the tropical sun was indescribable. No training had prepared me for this. I hung my head out into the slip stream for the short flight to a nearby soccer field.
A game was in progress and as we landed the players came running over and helped pull the bodies out. Shortly, the wives, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters came running over to help, and to see if their loved one was amongst the dead. They had been waiting for three days.
Helicopters are equipped with multiple radios, UHF, VHF, FM and an intercom system for crewmember communication. As one mother read the names on the body bags and realized that her child was dead she covered her face with her hands and in anguish threw herself on the body and wept disconsolate. We cracked black humor jokes over the intercom in an effort to insulate ourselves from what was happening. That image has replayed itself in my mind more than once over the years.
As the months wore on we picked up numerous dead and wounded soldiers, American, South Vietnamese and on one occasion Viet Cong. They had every conceivable kind of wound, gut shot, heart shot, head shot and ass shot. Working in the Mekong Delta toward the end of my tour we picked up a dead American soldier. His buddies placed him on the floor of our helicopter and covered his face with a poncho liner. As we lifted off and started our flight the wind pulled the poncho liner off his face. He was a very young guy with blond hair. He was probably in his late teens but in death he could have been anywhere from 15 on up. His eyes were closed and appeared to be matted shut by dried tears. The only visible sign of trauma was a small red welt below his left cheek bone.
One day we were shut down eating lunch when another helicopter landed with a dead South Vietnamese soldier. They needed help with the body so I went over to the helicopter grabbed his ankles and pulled him out. His body hit the ground with a thud and bounced. One of the other crewmembers and I picked him up, carried him to a truck and threw him in the back. I returned to my lunch with little further thought of my actions. Like the flies around my food, death had become just another annoyance. At least the deaths of those I didn�t know.
Vietnam had malaria and so each week we would take a malaria prophylaxis, a tablet, called chloroquine-primaquine. This medication was supposed to keep us malaria free. Unfortunately, it also had the side affect on some people of causing diarrhea. At Lane Army Airfield I was performing maintenance on my helicopter. Several other crewchiefs were working on their helicopters. One of the guys said he would be right back and took off. Later, he related the following story. He had been struck by a case of Ho Chi Minh�s revenge, probably related to the malaria tablet. He took off on a run to the outhouse but within a short period of time he was down to a fast walk, then a slow walk and finally he stopped, gritted his teeth, clenched his sphincter and let go. He went to his hooch and took off his clothes. He then went and showered. When he came back to the hooch his hooch maid, who had seen his soiled clothes, and who would be washing them, started screaming at him. �You G.I., you number huckin ten�.
From early morning to late in the evening we toiled. In re-reading some of the letters that I wrote home I talked about 17 hour days. When I finished cleaning up my helicopter and performing maintenance I would shower, eat, and head over to the �enlisted club� to scarf down a few beers before bed. I neglected to write home. After a couple of weeks of not hearing from me my parents contacted the local Red Cross. One evening a pilot visited and explained that the Red Cross was inquiring after me and that it might be a good idea if I wrote home.
We flew from Lane Army Airfield one evening headed south toward Dong Ba Thin. On board with us was an Army Captain that we were going to drop off in Tuy Hoa, a base located about half way down the coast to our destination. Flying at night was interesting. Tracer rounds from machine guns could be seen for miles firing in seemingly all directions. The .50 cal variety looked liked golf balls and in the dark it was difficult to determine if they were moving horizontally, vertically or somewhere in between.
We landed in Tuy Hoa on a small helipad. A jeep was there to meet the Captain and shortly after we landed he jumped out, got in the jeep and left. I had been discussing some technical issue with the A/C (Air Craft Commander). I kept a technical manual in a compartment on my side of the helicopter which could only be accessed from the outside. I told the A/C that I would get it when we landed. I got out of the helicopter, opened the compartment, got the manual out, closed the compartment and about that time the AC pulled pitch. I stepped back away from the helicopter as it rose into the night sky. I stood watching dumbfounded as my helicopter disappeared into the night sky with only a small red beacon marking its progress.
I looked around into the now quiet darkness; the distant lights from the base were cold and inhospitable because I knew that between the lights and me were guards who wouldn�t be expecting to see one soldier on foot and I didn�t relish the thought of getting shot.
As I stood there trying to decide what to do, the small red beacon that was my helicopter made a wide lazy circle and returned. I got in and we took off again. The A/C apologized and said that he thought he had heard me say �clear left�. This wasn�t the last time I got left behind.
In early December 1967 the 1st Platoon moved to Phan Rang, a U.S. Air Force base south of Cam Rahn Bay. Reportedly President Johnson�s youngest daughter�s husband was stationed there as an airman. I never saw him.
We stayed at Phan Rang for several weeks living out of barracks that were constructed similarly to the ones in Dong Ba Thin. While there we flew missions inserting and extracting LLRPs (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) from the mountainous jungles around the area. LLRPs are recon teams whose job was to locate the enemy and gather intelligence. Their job was hazardous and arduous. The team I worked with had a big german shepard that went with them. Getting them out of the jungle was difficult and required excellent flying skills on the part of the pilots. The clearings we landed in were small and we had to slowly work our way down. The crewchief and gunner would clear the flight space to the side and back that only we could see as we edged down between the trees. The LLRPs were always glad to see us.
The army introduced a new piece of equipment. It was a gas sampler touted by the manufacturer as having the ability to sniff out humans in dense forests. We attached it to the bottom of my helicopter and flew over the mountainous jungle canopy to test it out.
The caveat was that we needed to be very close to the tree tops for it to be able to pick up gas traces. As we followed the tree line down a mountain slope we were caught in a downdraft. The pilot attempted to pull up but we couldn�t break free and we continued down the mountain just a few feet above the tree tops. I tightened my seat belt and held on to a seat post as we bounced around wildly from the turbulence. Finally, with enough airspeed, and my silent prayers, we broke free. We continued on and landed at our base in Phan Rang. I heard later that the gas sniffer couldn�t distinguish between humans and orangutans and that a lot of orangutans were bombed.
From Phan Rang the company moved briefly to Phan Thiet and then to the Central Highlands to a place called Bao Loc. We left the hooches behind and took up residence in tents. Some pundit created a sign for the latrine that read �For the Mess Hall Blues�. We worked with the 101st Airborne Division. The 101st has a screaming eagle shoulder patch. On the roof of one of the buildings in their compound, written in huge script that could only be seen from the air: �Balls of the Eagle�. It was while working with the 101st that we picked up a couple of wounded Viet Cong that the 101st had captured. Many Americans that were hurt died from shock rather than the wound. These V.C., although they had been shot, were very alert.
Most Aviation units have a flight surgeon. Our flight surgeon decided he wanted to try his hand at flying to see what it was like. Somehow he convinced the company commander to let him fly as my gunner. His hair was longer than regulation but he obviously didn�t care and no one challenged him on it. Until the day he flew with me. We stopped at an artillery site and picked up a Lt. Colonel from the 101st. He looked at the doctor, sitting behind his machine gun, and said �Troop! You need a haircut.� The doctor replied �I�m not a troop I�m a doctor�. The colonel, taken aback, responded with �Well I hope you can use that machine gun.�
My helicopter was in for maintenance one day and the platoon sergeant assigned me to crew another helicopter for a companywide insertion of some ARVN�s (Army Republic of Vietnam) troops on December 8, 1967. As it turned out my helicopter, 66-794, came out of maintenance and was crewed by another crewchief.
The company picked the ARVN�s up along with a couple of MACV advisors and landed in a clearing near a compound where the replacement troops were going. When we landed the troops got off and headed toward the compound which was on the right side of the helicopter. I was on the left side. As I set there behind my machine gun looking at the tree line in front of me I noticed that some puddles of water looked like someone was throwing rocks into them. Then I realized we were taking fire. The radios started to crackle with reports from all the helicopters that we were getting shot at and words to the effect that we should leave quickly. One of the gunships was shot up and had to land. Another helicopter went in and picked up the downed crew. When I got back to camp I found out that the gunner on my helicopter 66-794, had a bullet pass through his helmet knocking off his earphone and scratching his head. The guy who had been the crewchief that day said my ship was bad luck and he wasn�t going to fly on it anymore.
I spent Christmas Eve 1967, at Bao Loc, in a tent with the rest of my platoon. There was no place to go and nothing to do. I went outside and starred into the night sky looking for some familiar star formations and wondering what my family was doing. We looked in vain for a little liquid spirits to celebrate the season.
The army had an interesting double standard. Crewchiefs and pilots were the backbone of the assault helicopter companies. Crewchiefs were Specialists. Our rank was Specialist 4 E/4 or Specialist 5 E/5. E5�s are the pay equivalent of Buck Sergeants. Some of the gunners had come from the infantry and were Buck Sergeants. Although, in an assault helicopter company Buck Sergeants had no command function they were treated as sergeants. They had their own rooms while SP/5s were treated as one of the troops. In addition, in order to buy hard liquor from the Post Exchange two requirements had to be met. The first was that you had to be 21 years old and the second was you must be a Sergeant E5 or above. A Specialist E5 like me was out of luck. Never mind the irony that the guys were old enough to fight and die but not to buy hard liquor at the Post Exchange. But the most humiliating thing was that although we were E-5�s we couldn�t use our own companies NCO club. We could use the Air Force NCO club and in the continental United States the army NCO club but not in our own unit in Vietnam.
In late December 1967, after Christmas, we packed up and moved to the big U.S. Air Force Base at Bien Hoa, east of Saigon. When we got to Bien Hoa we were assigned a grassy area on the edge of the base near the town of Bien Hoa. We cleared the area out and set our tents up. As we were clearing the area we uncovered a little green snake called a bamboo viper. These snakes are nothing to trifle with and it was quickly dispatched.
In the humid air in Vietnam machine guns and ammo tended to corrode. We had a burning barrel in the company area and someone decided to throw some corroded machine gun ammunition into it with predictable results. When the fire was lit some of the ammo started cooking off and bullets were flying everywhere. I don�t think anyone was hurt.
Inside the tents we set up our cots and covered them with mosquito netting. We had foot lockers at the foot of the bed to place personal articles. Our company area included tents set up as mess halls, tents set up as company headquarters and a tent set up as our enlisted club. Inside the enlisted club tent was a small trailer filled with water, ice and the all important beer. Someone must have had a special buy on beer because we had San Miguel, from the Philippines, which was not all that good.
As always the helicopters had their own �L� shaped revetments, barrels filled with sand or steel runway planking set on its side and filled with sand to protect the helicopters from hostile fire. Near the helicopters were trailers for parts and supplies, a flight briefing room and other infrastructure. Over the following days showers and latrines were built and we settled into our new home. The pilots lived in a compound in Bien Hoa and they were ferried via �T truck by some of the enlisted crew at the end of the flight day and in the morning.
Each day began as the day before and the day following. Our Platoon Sergeant would come in and wake us up. I would dress and go to the mess hall for breakfast. Then I would head back to our tent and get my helmet, body armor, flak vest and machine gun.
I would walk to where my helicopter was parked in its revetment and conduct a preflight inspection. The pilots would arrive and conduct their own preflight. Sometimes we flew single helicopter missions sometimes company missions. I never knew until we took off where we were going. The pilots had a �ready room� and would receive mission information about where we would be going and any pertinent intelligence on the area that might affect us.
The morning of January 25, 1968 started out the same as the days before. I went back to my tent to get my equipment and on the way to the flight line I spoke with another crewchief, SP/4 Jack Cotterell who was just getting out of the shower and was walking back to the tent with his towel wrapped around him. We chit chatted about something and said see you later. Our mission that morning was to pick someone up and drop them off somewhere. As we flew along later in the morning I was monitoring a particular radio channel and they said that one of the helicopters from the 117th had been shot down with no survivors. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. When no one else in my helicopter spoke I knew that I was the only one who had heard the bad news. I asked the A/C if he knew who was on the helicopter and I gave him the tail number. He told me and then I relayed what I had just heard over the radio.
When I got back to the company area at the end of the day I found out that all of the crewmembers: SP/4 Cotterell, WO1 John Foden, 1st LT Robert King and Sgt. Jack Sutphen had been killed. I heard that they were shot down by a .51 caliber heavy machine gun and that the helicopter caught fire in the air. They were with the 1st platoon and we all took their deaths very hard.
Three days late on the morning of January 28, 1968, we had a company mission, involving both slick platoons and our gun platoon. The gunships took off and then the slicks followed. Shortly after we got into the air we heard a mayday. One of the gunships had lost engine power and had attempted to auto rotate to a safe landing. The gunship crashed about � mile from the company area in an open no man�s land between the airbase and the local town of Bien Hoa. My helicopter was the third and last helicopter to land near the crashed gun ship. We landed directly in front of the downed helicopter approximately 75 ft. away and at a right angle to it. The other two rescue helicopters had landed to the right side of the crash, again about 75 ft. away. Both my gunner and I leaped out and opened the pilot�s doors and pulled back their seat armor, allowing them to escape if necessary. We then raced to the stricken craft. We were wearing our chest plates, flak vests and helmets. The ground was uneven and it was difficult to move quickly. As I ran I saw that the crewchiefs and gunners from the other two rescue helicopters were on either side of the crash helping the gunner and crewchief out. I also saw that the pilot and A/C were still in the gunship. The ship had landed very hard. The landing skids were splayed out on each side and the helicopter was on its belly. The chin bubble beneath the pilot�s feet was broken out. The left side of the ship was engulfed in flames around the AC�s door.
Since the helicopter had just taken off it was filled with 220 gallons of JP-4, a jet fuel, and on each side were rocket pods each holding 12, 2.75 inch folding fin aerial rockets. The warheads on each rocket had the explosive power of a 105mm shell.
We couldn�t get to the A/C because of the flames so we worked on getting the pilot out. The fire was very hot as fuel spilled out and fed it. My gunner pulled back the seat armor, unfastened the seatbelt and grabbed the pilot�s arms and shoulders and started pulling him out. I got down on my hands and knees and reached into the chin bubble, which was on the ground, to free his feet which were tangled in the rudder pedals. The pilot was non responsive and couldn�t help. The heat was starting to build as the fire got worse and the only thing on my mind was that the helicopter was going to explode. I was really scared. Finally his feet came free and my gunner pulled him out. He had him under the arms and I quickly got up and grabbed his legs.
As we hurried back towards our helicopter I could hear the pilot say �Oh my back, Oh my back� or something very close to that. We stumbled and fell with him at least once. For whatever reason I also remember how blue his eyes were. I was able to read his name tag so I knew who he was.
What I feared most happened next. There was a huge explosion. I either was knocked down or I tripped and fell forward onto the pilot. I have never been able to say for sure. I stayed on the ground for a period of time covering him and there was another huge explosion. When I finally looked back there was a small pile of ash where the helicopter had been. The aircraft was gone, the Air Craft Commander was gone, and absolutely nothing was left. Why we didn�t get blown up I will never know.
We got slowly to our feet and as we did an Air Force rescue helicopter landed on the other side of my helicopter. The Air Force used Kaman HH-43 Husky Helicopters that had side by side rotor blades canted at an angle and an open back for ambulance service. We picked up the pilot and carried him over and he was airlifted away. I never saw him again.
My helicopter suffered concussion damage as numerous panels became instantly concave. The helicopter to the right front lost its mast and rotor blades. I think the pilot was pulling pitch when the explosions happened and the concussion snapped off the rotor blades which became airborne and sailed for hundreds of feet. I don�t know if the third rescue helicopter suffered damage or not.
The gunship A/C WO1 Timothy McKiernan perished in the explosion. The pilot survived and lives in Washington State.
I inspected my aircraft�s damage with my gunner and our pilots. They then left and the A/C told me to stay there with my helicopter. I set on the floor by myself in a state of shock. Some officer�s came by briefly and spoke with me but I can�t recall what was said. I can�t remember if we flew back to the company area or how I got back.
Later that afternoon my friend John Cline, another guy, and I went to the Air Force NCO club and I proceeded to get drunk. On the way back to our company area we stopped and examined the rotor blades that had been blown off earlier. The blades were propped up on a broken link. One of the guys kicked at the link and the blades dropped down onto my right foot. The two of them struggled, lifted, and finally got the blades up enough so I could pull my foot out. I stood there for a few seconds. I told them that I was alright but I quickly became light headed. I finally set down, took off my boot and looked at my swollen, broken foot. I hobbled back to the company area and was taken to a clinic where they put my foot in a cast. It was not a good day.
Three days later, January 31, 1968, at 0300 Hrs. in the morning the Tet offensive begin. It started with a bang as enemy 122 mm rockets hit some of our helicopters, which were parked in their revetments, and blew them up. I don�t have the verbal skills to describe, and no movie will ever convey the unearthly noise that high explosives make when they detonate nearby. I was lying on my cot, my broken foot elevated, ensconced in a mosquito net when the first rocket hit. As everyone beat a hasty retreat to a bunker grabbed my crutch and hopped after them.
Estimates are that Bien Hoa Air Force Base received 150 incoming rounds concurrent with a Viet Cong ground attack. For the next 5 or 6 nights we were attacked by rockets. In the sky over the base, helicopters dropped flares and the night became like day. C- 47�s (DC-3�s) modified as mini-gun platforms laced the ground with their withering fire. Tracer rounds from their guns looked like a serpent�s undulating red tongue. The noise from them sounded like one big long burp.
Eventually the attacks stopped as the Viet Cong were destroyed. Although Tet was a big political victory for North Vietnam due to news coverage of the event in the U.S., it was a huge tactical defeat. The Viet Cong were so decimated that they were never again a factor in the war.
The days wore on as my foot healed. My afternoons were spent at the Air Force NCO club in a foggy bliss. In a little over three weeks my cast came off and although I still limped I returned to flight status.
At some point during the later part of February I started to crew a new �H� model Huey. This new helicopter, 67-17194, was assigned to me because I had �seniority�. The �H� models differed from the �D� models primarily in having an engine that had several hundred more horsepower. Hot humid air, which Viet Nam has in abundance, negatively impacted the helicopters lift ability so more power meant a greater safety margin.
As the morning of February 26, 1968 dawned we prepared for another company mission. Again, all three company flight platoons were involved. We lifted off and headed south to the Mekong Delta and Can Tho. Our objective was to pick up troops from the 9th Infantry Division and airlift them into an area where they could begin a search and destroy operation.
The company slicks landed in an open area to pick up the troops. We had ten slicks, 5 each from the 1st and 2nd platoons. We had four gunships and a command and control ship. Each slick held 4 crewmembers and could carry 6 fully equipped infantry guys. A couple of the troops would sit in the middle of the helicopter and the other four would sit on the floor and dangle their legs outside. None of them wanted to waste any time in the helicopter when we got them to the LZ (landing zone). Many would jump as we started to hover. They knew that if the LZ was hot, meaning enemy troops, helicopters would come under intense fire.
Helicopters, Hueys in particular, are very noisy. Hueys have a semi rigid rotor system and they make a familiar Wop Wop Wop as they fly. Multiple helicopters could be heard for miles. Any enemy troops in the area knew where we were long before we knew where they were.
We lifted off with the troops and flew a few short miles to the LZ where we would drop them off. The LZ was open, with tall grass. Palm trees and dense vegetation were on our left as we flared into the drop zone. Ten slicks were in line, one behind the other, with the 1st platoon in the lead. As we terminated into a hover a few feet off the ground we started taking fire from the tree line about 150 ft. away. The radios crackled with reports of helicopters taking hits. We started returning fire with our M-60�s and our gunships started gun runs on the tree line, coming in from my left rear and flying over the tree line with guns, rockets, and grenades. As each gunship would make a pass it would peel off and the one behind it would start its run. In that way we had continuous coverage.
The flight lifted off. On board were the crewmembers and remaining infantry guys who had been shot before they could jump out. We headed back to where we picked up the troops and landed. My machine gun had jammed and so I got the AC�s M-16. We loaded with 6 new troops and began another assault to the LZ. This time we knew what was waiting. I told the grunts that it was a hot LZ and that they better be ready to get the hell out when we got there. But I was preaching to the choir.
The crewchief and gunner sit on either side of the helicopter facing out. We were belted in with a lap belt. Unlike the pilots whose seats were surrounded by armor, our seats were aluminum tubing covered by nylon cloth. As explained, we had body armor which consisted of a front and back plate. Because of the danger of being shot from underneath, we took out the back plate and set on it. We had no control of the aircraft. We couldn�t jump out, couldn�t move. When we flew into a hot LZ like the one at Can Tho we were like ducks in a shooting gallery. The tendency was to try to withdraw all your body parts behind the chest plate, like a turtle. But of course that wasn�t possible. The enemy was dug into a tree line shooting at us with automatic weapons. I never saw them.
As the remaining company slicks settled into the LZ a second time the enemy fire was even fiercer. As helicopters approach the ground the rotor blades create a ground effect lift. The air is churned up, carrying the smells from the jet turbine, the sulfur and cordite odors from the machine guns and explosive ordnance into the helicopter. The sounds and feel of bullets striking the helicopter, the voices screaming into the earphones, the noise from multiple rotor blades, rockets and machine guns firing all added to the cacophony. My mouth was dry and my mind was screaming get out, get out.
We returned a third time to pick up troops. The AC shut the engine down. Capt. Blizzard in the lead ship took a bullet through his ankle and the helicopter took many hits. They were through for the day. I went over to the crewchief, SP/5 Cline, and borrowed his machine gun. In my haste to get it off the mount I smashed my right thumb. It hurt like hell but I was so pumped on adrenaline I ignored it.
When I inspected my helicopter I could see that some of our electronics near the engine compartment had received damage from small arms fire. The pilot attempted to restart but to my great relief we were done for the day. Arrangements were made for our helicopter to be picked up by a Chinook, a big tandem rotor helicopter, and carried back to Bien Hoa slug underneath it.
The AC, pilot and gunner got a ride out of our staging area and I was left by myself to await the Chinook. There was no one else around and I was very uncomfortable being left behind. We were a few short miles from the LZ and I had no way of knowing if enemy troops were nearby. I was by myself for what seemed an eternity before the Chinook came. I helped them sling my helicopter and watched it being lifted into the air and disappear into the distance. Shortly, another Huey landed, picked me up and took me back to Bien Hoa.
According to reports I�ve read we had started out with 15 helicopters in the morning and in a 15 or 20 minute period of time only 3 were still able to fly. At least two of our company members were seriously hurt, maybe more, I just can�t remember. I said at the time it was a bad day at black rock. But the day wasn�t over yet.
Back at Bien Hoa I ate dinner and retired to the enlisted club tent for a few beers and a lot of rehashing the day�s events with my buddies. My thumb was throbbing (I eventually lost my nail) plus I had a whale of a headache.
Some of the gun platoon crewmembers drove the pilots back to their compound in Bien Hoa in a � T truck, as they did every evening. By this time the sun had gone down and it had become dark. They had to pass through a gate guarded by the Air Force AP (air police) on the way out and again on the way back in. It was after Tet and everyone was trigger happy.
What follows next is what I heard the following day. On the way back from dropping the pilots off and as they approached the Air Force gate they thought they were taking fire from some buildings. They started to return fire. The Air Police thought the truck was attacking them and opened fire on it with automatic weapons and a grenade launcher. A grenade exploded near the truck blowing the tie rods out. The truck crashed. SP5 Robert Hedge and SP4 Gerald McCaffrey were shot and killed by the AP�s.
The following morning the Air Force towed the truck back into the company area. Someone had used chalk to circle the numerous bullet holes in the sheet metal and in the wood siding. The tie rods dangled uselessly underneath. I looked into the truck bed and it was covered with dried blood and most of a human brain. I could never figure why the Air Force brought the truck back in that condition.
A few mornings later we were standing in formation in the company area. The 1st Sergeant had a message for the crewchiefs. He said that if any of us were tired of flying and wanted to go back to the maintenance unit he would send us to the infantry instead. I guess we couldn�t �unvolunteer�. No one ever said it but one or more of the crewchiefs must have had enough of the carnage and decided that $55 a month hazardous duty pay wasn�t worth it.
In March the company moved from Bien Hoa to Long Binh one of the largest bases in Vietnam. Long Binh also housed the in country detention area for Americans who were convicted of various infractions. We called it LBJ, no not Lyndon Baines Johnson, but Long Binh Jail.
We again were housed in tents but these were tents with wooden floors. I continued to fly ash and trash missions. I think that I only flew in one more companywide operation. We flew down into the Mekong Delta once more and picked up some 9th Division troops. As we flew into the LZ to drop them off I was listening to the Armed Forces radio station out of Saigon. As we approached the LZ we started prepping the tree line with our M-60 machine guns. While I was firing my machine gun I listened to the popular musical group The Fifth Dimension singing �Up Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon�. It was surreal.
My remaining months in country passed quickly. The news out of the United States was not good. In April, Martin Luther King was shot and killed. Students were rioting and protesting the war. We were called baby killers. It was not encouraging. I continued to fly up until I had two days left in country. This was not my choice, just the way it was. We were shut down somewhere a few days before I left and I squatted Vietnamese style and drank a coke. One of the pilots opined that maybe I had been there too long.
As I checked out of the company the day before I left I turned in my machine gun, helmet and body armor to the supply Sergeant. I had gotten them from the crewchief before me so they were probably at least two years old. When you are belted into a helicopter you can�t use the sights on the machine gun unless you are firing at a 90 degree angle from the aircraft. If it is any other angle you watch the tracer rounds to see where the bullets hit. I used solid tracer so that I could better hit my target. As a result the barrel got extremely hot and in the humid air, over time, it rusted on the outside. The Sergeant looked at it and told me he ought to make me pay for it. He didn�t understand that I had paid for it already. According to statistics that I�ve read 7,013 �Hueys� served in Vietnam. Out of these 3,305 or 47% were destroyed.
The day I left passed quickly as I said my goodbyes to my friends and headed to Tan Son Nhut for the flight home. And so on the 9th of May 1968, one year to the day that I had arrived, I boarded the big jet for the flight home. I looked out the window one last time at the country which had been my home for a year. I know that I left some of myself there.
The flight home was long. We stopped in Guam and again in Hawaii for fuel. In Hawaii they let us get off the plane. I walked around for 30 minutes or so but I was so anxious to get home that all I wanted to do was get back on the plane. We left Hawaii and flew to Travis Air Force base near San Francisco where we cleared through U.S. Customs. We then had some processing by the Army where I received orders for leave and my next duty station Fort Hood, Texas. I turned in my military script and received U.S. dollars. They took my jungle fatigues and I put on my class �A� uniform. When they were through with our processing they said you guys can go.
I took a bus to the airport in San Francisco. Nothing had changed. People were going about the normal course of their business. There was no war. There were no bands and no welcoming banners. As I stood looking around I felt out of place. I was numb from a 19 hour flight and the processing but I was also numb from awareness that I had changed, profoundly.
I went home for 30 days. I visited my friends and relatives. They asked about Vietnam and I would answer them as best I could. When my leave was up I headed to Fort Hood, Texas.
Fort Hood is a big armor base. When I was there they had two armor divisions. I was assigned to an aviation unit attached to the 2nd Armored Division. We had no aircraft. For the remaining 11 months of my enlistment I marched to the motor pool and set for 8 hours a day. When my time was up I left the Army and never looked back.
I returned to Eastern Washington State College. I was a much better student my second time around getting on the Dean�s list every quarter. I graduated with a B/A in Psychology and a minor in business and biology. On graduation I competed on the Federal Service Entrance Exam and got a job with the U.S. Customs Service. I retired in 2003.
Thirty five years after I returned from Viet Nam I was discussing it with my Mother who told me that I was �a little strange� when I came home. I asked in what way and she said that I was very quiet and wouldn�t talk about anything. On reflection I know she was right. I was a little strange.
This is not a War Story, it is a letter from one man who was not with the 117th, but is connected to us through his tour in Vietnam.
It is about his:
Journey Back to Vietnam.
Thank you Paul for sharing with us this trip. You are truly a brother.
Marcie recently contacted me and said you would like to know about my trip back to Vietnam. It was the most incredible experience. When we returned home I asked my wife who accompanied me, what she thought of the trip. She said she almost regretted going. When I asked why? She said because all future trips will be pale to the experience and open armed welcomeness that we were given.
We went during this years Tet New years days. Our itinerary was Saigon, Vung Tau, Can Tho, back to Saigon for Tet. Then over to Tay Nihn and the crash site on the Cambodian border, back to Saigon, then flew up to Danang, drove over to Hoi An, then off to Hue. The finale stop was Hanoi. We were not part of a formal tour group. Transportation, driver/guides and hotels were pre-arranged, but for the most part we were on our own. When we were around Saigon and when we went over to Tay Nihn and the crash site, we were accompanied by a friend of mine who also arranges trips back to Vietnam, along with a van driver and a guide/interpreter.
I would expect you really want to know about my experience going back to the crash site. I will try and put to words what it felt like for me. Prior to going Ron Hebert, the brother Fred Hebert, the pilot, had sent me copies of the old flight maps. They proved to be both helpful and also very troubling. I not sure if it was Ron or someone else, had indicated where they thought the crash site was. Its X marked on the map indicated it was a good click off of highway 22. I recalled the crash site being much closer to the road. A recent event that took place at that location made finding the exact crash site almost definite. A few weeks before the Vietnam government has opened a new international border crossing, at almost the exact location of my old firebase. That very much worked in our favor. But I suppose I should start in the beginning.
We had a van for the trip to the border, there was myself, my wife Sue, my friend Doug, driver and Mr. Chien our guide/interpreter. I had the maps and Doug had a GPI, so between the two we thought we could narrow it down. Before going up to the border we checked in with the Military Chief in Tay Ninh, not so much for permission but to let them know we would be going to the border. Also did they have any information on old military actions in that area. They advised us to check with the local military at the border, because they were very knowledgeable about what had happened in that area. So off we went.
Doug who had the GPI got it coordinated with the grid coordinates on the map and we went northward on highway 22 toward the border. After a while we passed through several small villes, Doug asked if anything looked familiar? I had to tell him nothing looked like I recalled. But I told him the last time I left Tay Ninh to go north I was in a chopper going about 110 knots at treetop. So I had never seen these villes before. Then we came on to a rubber plantation, mile after mile of rows of rubber trees. He then asked if I recalled the rubber trees. I again had to say no. He said they looked young so maybe they were not there when I was. By this time I was starting to get discouraged, was my dream and search for the crash site going to be fruitless? As we drove through the rubber plantation I started to describe the area as I recalled it. The woodline was 1/4 to 1/2 mile off of the roadsides. Between the road and the wood line was just scrub brush and grass, nothing like what we were driving through. It was right at that time the van exited the rubber plantation, I could almost feel the air being sucked from my lungs and I must have let out a gasp. Because Mr. Chien who was seated next to me grabbed my arm and told me to take it easy and be strong. The landscape had changed to exactly what I had just moments before described. The scrub brush and grass a little more dense but you could easily tell between the old growth and new. At this point we are about 1 1/2 miles from the border.
We drive the van to the border and Doug and Mr Chien go to speak to the border guards there at the crossing. I exit the van and am immediately swept back 35 years. Just west of the road at the border I can see where the firebase had been. To the east of the base just into the wood line is the site of the other crash. The day we were inserted into the base, the Cobra that was providing air cover for us was shot down and crashed in the woodline. We had not been on the ground more then five minutes before we were out crossing that scrub brush and grass to Cobra crash site. We got there in time and got both pilots out, WO Rick Richenbacker & Captain James MacLachlan. Looking south from the base just as the road starts to bend.... That is where I recall the crash site for your guys. Within five minutes I have gone from despair to almost euphoria. All that I have dreamed about for 35 years is now right before me.
At this point Doug and Mr. Chien return from speaking to the border guard. They had been told that yes there had been a helicopter crash just down the road during the war. In fact if we went to the small group of huts just down the road a man who drove a Honda motorcycle has spoken of that crash before. Mr. Chien goes to speak to the man and he confirms that he knew where the site was. He is at first reluctant to show us exactly where, but after a little persuasion he climbs on his Honda and off down the road we go. He stops just where I had recalled it just as the road starts to bend and about 25 yards east of the road is the crash site. Grid Coordinates 87572 & 06672
I feel a sense of peace as I bend down and begin putting some soil from the site into plastic bags. Some for Marcie, Ron, myself and for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. The man on the Honda says he had been there around November 1971 to gather metal from the site. That was why he knew exactly where it was. When I related this to Marcie she stated the thought of a scavenger sifting through the debris was unsettling. I told her that I thought the man was trying to be gentle with me. That that area was very hostile at that time, there were no civilians that lived there. So more then likely he had been VC or NVA and was just trying to find things for his own wellbeing. You might not be aware but that firebase was under siege for 4 weeks and under constant attack from elements of 3 NVA Divisions, the estimated enemy strength was between 2,500 and 4,000 men. That is why I have such feeling for those men, not only for what I believe they personally did for me. But also by placing themselves in harms way so that needed supplied could be brought to the base. Without their sacrifice maybe many more men would have perished. For that I will always honor and remember them.
I hope to be able to get to Washington DC for this Veterans Day. I will be placing a soil from the crash site in Vietnam in front of Panel 2West. Also at the crash site I left etching taken from the Vietnam Memorial of the four names. So then each place will have a little of the other. Allen not sure if this was what you were asking for. If you have any other questions please feel free to ask me. If you or anyone from the 117th AHC will be in Washington for Veterans Day I would be happy to share some photos of the area if you wish.
sent in by Mike Douglass
JUST ANOTHER DAY
by Don Douglas
It was just another day in the Republic of South Vietnam. In many ways it made no difference whether it was Monday or Sunday, June or December each day brought the same. It was 1969 and I was a combat helicopter pilot with the 117th Assault Helicopter Company called the Warlords, my call sign was Warlord 15. Like in world war II, it was not uncommon for aircraft to be named or have a picture of a woman on the aircraft and in that respect we were no different. All the nose doors on our platoons helicopters had a picture of little Annie Fanny a buxom blond caricature. Our aircraft were affectionately called Annie Fanny by the troops. We had been flying in support of Company D (Ranger) 151 infantry our mission was to use our UH-1 helicopters to insert the Rangers into known areas that the NVA/VC were operating in so they could gather intelligence on enemy locations, movement and troop strength. That intelligence was used to plan larger operations to stem the flow of North Vietnamese and NVA into the Bien Hoa, Saigon area.
It was about 2 AM. We were all asleep, but you really never slept very heavily because there was always the chance you might be called to rescue a team that has made contact with the Enemy. When I say team, it was 5-12 Rangers heavily armed but almost always greatly outnumbered in any confrontation. If the enemy troops were of any significant numbers the Rangers had very little chance if they did not receive immediate support. This particular night my ear caught the sound of our FM communications radio. Because the Rangers were almost always too far away from their home base to receive direct radio communications, a radio relay was set up using Aloft Pilots in small fixed wing aircraft to provide the vital communications link between the teams in the field and the tactical operations center (TOC). I could faintly hear the Aloft Pilot reporting that one of the teams had movement on their perimeter and very soon he was yelling that the team had made contact with the enemy. This particular team was what we called a heavy (12 men). It would require two helicopters to remove them from their jungle LZ (landing zone). At the moment a team makes contact with the enemy, an air raid siren would sound and things would start jumping. Within 10 minutes we had 5 helicopters air born and on the way, 2 cobra gun ships, 1 command and control helicopter and the 2 helicopters that would be needed to extract the heavy team this night.
Our normal procedure was if you flew the insertion mission of a team then you would also fly the extraction mission. This was done for some very practical reason; the most important being you had familiarity with the landing zone. Most jungle LZ�s were difficult enough in the day time and almost impossible at night so your chances of succeeding in a night extraction were greatly enhanced if you had familiarity with the LZ. If it was your day off, then the other pilots would draw straws, flip a coin or just volunteer to go get your team. I did not insert this particular team but the second aircraft AC (aircraft commander) was off, so I volunteered to fly the second ship and definitely had no idea know what I just volunteered for.
The LZ we would use for extracting the team this night was particularly difficult; it was very small and surrounded on 3 sides by dense jungle and would only allow 1 helicopter at a time to land. In combat flying in general and recon teams in particular the quicker you got in and got out the better chance you and the team had of surviving. The team�s exact position was quickly located and the cobra gun ships went to work. Our mission this night was to stabilize the situation on the ground using the cobra gun ships so the team could move to the pickup LZ. I was flying trail behind the lead aircraft, waiting to be called in to extract the team. This particular night there was no moon and it was like flying in a barrel with the lid on. It was so black you could not even see the jungle far below. One moment I was focused on the aircraft flying in front of me, the next moment we were enveloped by a deafening sound, our aircraft being tossed about violently. The human mind always has to find an explanation for what has happened and my minds explanation was that we were just shot at by a ground to air missile, I keyed my mike and made a radio call to our command and control aircraft (Iron Mike) that we had just been shot at by a missile. My crew chief brought me back to reality and said �Sir, that was not a missile, it was a jet I saw the pilots face when he went by!�. He missed us not more than 6 feet. After the mission, Iron Mike said he saw the jet coming, but he was heading towards us so fast there was no time to warn us. He just told the ground commanders in the back of his helicopter that he just lost 2 aircraft. Later we figured out it was one of our air force jets and he thought it was his wing man he was coming up on but because of the blackness of this night and the loss of depth perception in the dark he did not realize it was 2 slow moving helicopter until it was almost to late.
After just surviving a near fatal midair collision it was time to refocus on what we had come out to do; extract a team that was in trouble. The ground situation was somewhat stabilized, and the call came to go get the first half of the team.
The lead ship picked up his 5 men and exited the landing zone and it was now my turn. As we neared the LZ it was obvious we were in for a big challenge. The landing zone was covered in elephant grass, grass that is 10-12 feet tall, and the gun ships had set it on fire, and it was a raging fire. As I approached the tree line the team was hiding. The temperature in the landing zone must have been well over 100 degrees and was making it difficult to breath. The team ran out of the tree line and climbed on board as the gun ships continued their gun runs. I keyed my mike to let them know we were coming out. As we lifted off, the flames of the burning LZ were all around us. I remember hearing my co-pilot calling out power readings saying that we had reached maximum allowable power and we were not going up but were instead headed for some very large trees. I thought to myself, "If I can turn the helicopter sideways, maybe I can maneuver between the 2 large trees," which were now immediately in front of me. If I could get us clear of the flames and heat, then maybe this helicopter would start to fly. I banked hard to clear the first tree and the next thing I knew we were flying I could see the black sky and stars, what a welcome sight it was. We had escaped what could have been a tragic end for the second time in one night. The flight back was uneventful. We dropped off the team, refueled and it was back to bed and soon another day would begin.
by Don Douglas
Most of us were probably going to Vietnam for the first time, but there were also those going back for their second and third tours too. Because we had been up most of the night waiting to board the plane, the only reaction I remember seeing from any of us, was the look of exhaustion and boredom, as we tried to get comfortable in those airplane seats and get some sleep. And after a while I was finally able to get to sleep, after having mulled over our rather strange departure. I was still puzzled by the non-event of our going off to fight in a war, as the thought slipped from my mind, forgotten in a haze of fatigue and sleep.
I woke up later when the pilot came on the P.A. system and announced that we would soon be landing at Wake Island, a place I had seen many movie war stories about as I was growing up. I guess in my naivet� I was half expecting to see men still in fox-holes, waiting for another Japanese attack to start, or something, but I was surprise by what I did see. After seeing many war pictures about this place and it's battles and the many events that were supposed to have taken place here I was very disappointed and confused.
The island looked nothing like it had been portrayed in the movies. It was crescent shaped much like a horse-shoe, it was very small and so flat that there was barely enough room for the airfield on it. In fact, it looked like one high tide or large wave would wipe the entire island clean. I seem to remember one of the war movies made a big deal over the marines capturing a hill, or some kind of ridge line, on it. But where in the hell the marines could have found a hill to capture on this God forsaken piece of sand was beyond me, unless they brought it with them just to have something to fight over.
It was obvious to me they had no problem with AWOL's around this place, I could see the whole damned island from the second floor of the terminal. I was able to see some damaged and sunken landing craft along one side of the island, that looked like they had been there forever, but that was the full extent of anything that might even suggest that anyone in their right mind would have wanted this damned place bad enough to fight for it.
All in all, what I was able to see just told me Hollywood had spent years and thousands of dollars telling lies about things that could never have happened, at least not here anyway. I couldn't help wondering what else there was that I had been lied to about, by all of those movies.
The plane was on the ground about two hours while being refueled, so we were able to get out and walk around to stretch our legs. I was tempted to walk over to the beach to get a closer look at some of the wrecks, but when I walked outside of the building and found out how hot it was out there I quickly changed my mind. Instead I found a place to sit down so I could read one of the books I had brought with me. Long ago I had got into the habit of carrying some kind of book with me everywhere I went, and this time it proved to be a blessing because there wasn't any place there to buy anything but candy and soft drinks. The other men who hadn't had the foresight to bring something to read with them, had nothing to do but stand around and smoke or talk to whoever would listen to them.
Then it was time to get back on the plane for the next leg of our trip. The plane took-off and once it reached cruise altitude there was nothing to see but clouds under our plane, with an occasional glimpse of the ocean some 34,000 feet below us. Once in a while I would see some type of ship or boat down on the ocean but we were way too high for me to be able to identify it. A few of our brave liars claimed they could, and would challenge anyone else to prove they were wrong. And once again my book came in handy to relieve the boredom of the long flight, in between the so called meals that were served to us during the flight.
What seemed like days later, but was in reality only a couple of hours, the pilot announced that we would soon be landing in Guam, and that we would have to get off the plane in order so that it could be refueled once again. Even though I don't remember seeing any movies about Guam, it still didn't match what I was expecting of it, after seeing Wake Island. As the plane approached Guam, it appeared that the island set high above the ocean with vertical cliffs all the way around it that were anywhere from 50 to 300 feet high, I didn't actually measure them though. I realized if anyone ever tried to attack this island from the sea, they would have one hell of a time
getting past the "Beach" and on to the island proper.
It would make very good sense to stay well away from it unless you were planning an airborne assault of some kind, that's probably the reason why Hollywood or anyone else in their right mind stayed away from making attacks on it. The island appeared to be as flat as a pool table. It was a base for B-52 bombers that I could see as our plane made it's approach to land. We were told our plane would be on the ground for about two hours, and that we should make sure we didn't get lost during that time if we wanted to make sure we made it to Vietnam that day. Especially if we didn't want to answer a lot of embarrassing questions ask by the MP's when we were found after our plane left the island.
At Guam was a PX where a man can buy many of the things we should have brought with us and many things we weren't supposed to have with us. There was duty free liquor selling for prices of $1-$3 a bottle, souvenirs of all kinds, clothing, food, candy, tobacco, cameras, radios and many things normally found in any other PX anywhere else in the world. I bought several more books, a few candy bars for emergency purposes and several post cards to send home to my family. Officers were allowed to go to the Base Officers Club which was nearby, but I stayed in the terminal and read one of my books while waiting to get back on our plane, after mailing my post cards home.
When it was time to get on our plane, nearly everyone who had gone to the Officers Club was at least a little drunk, and nearly everyone of them tried to bring a bottle back to the plane with them. That was stupid because they knew they weren't allowed to drink it on the plane unless they snuck a drink or two when no one was watching and there was no place to stash it for the rest of the trip. Besides that I was willing to bet money the bottles would be confiscated when we got off the plane in Vietnam by MP's or the people running the reception center there.
After our plane took-off we were told by the pilot we should arrive in Vietnam about dusk that day. And as usually happens on a plane when there's nothing going on, we were served a TV dinner. After the meal there was time to try to get some more sleep, or to read and I chose to get some more sleep, and succeeded.
I woke just as the sun was setting behind the far horizon, and was able to see what might have been a distant shore line, but because I was looking into the sun I wasn't sure. The colors created by the clouds and sunset were magnificent to see and I was sorry I hadn't bought a camera in Guam as some of the other men had, but it was too late for that now. Now all I could do was to sit back and enjoy it. Somehow it didn't seem possible to me that somewhere out there, a war was going on and people were killing each other at that very moment.
If there was one thing I had learned in past years, it was appearances could indeed be deceptive and more often then not they were. Then the pilot came on the P.A. system again and told us we would be landing at Cam Ranh Bay Vietnam, in about 20 minutes.
As the plane let down and approached Vietnam, I could vaguely see there was a mountain range just in-shore a few miles from the bay area and that Cam Ranh Bay Air field was on a peninsula that stuck out into the ocean from the mountains and then dog-legged to the south forming a bay between it and the Vietnamese mainland.
WELCOME TO VIETNAM SOLDIER-BOY
It was full dark as our plane entered right-hand traffic for the air field, flying south with the airfield off to our right, allowing me to look down at the ocean side of the peninsula. Then we turned right to base leg of the approach and started to descend to the final approach leg of the landing pattern. I was able to see some lights below on the other side of the bay in what I assumed to be a military compound or village along the shore-line.
Suddenly, while the plane was still on it's base leg, I saw a string of reddish-orange lights arch up into the air from across the bay, they seem to move toward our plane. Someone else saw them and said loudly, "We're taking Fire !" That one simple short statement meant we were in deep shit, and it was hated by anyone who ever flew in a combat aircraft. Whether we actually were or not is anyone's guess but the plane made a couple of "S" turns, then turned right again to final approach to Cam Ranh. Seconds later there were squawks and squeals as the wheels of our plane touched the runway, then we were on the ground safe and sound. The plane slowed down, then taxied over to some buildings and then stopped and the engines were shut-down, ending our flight at last.
Then an announcement came over the P.A. telling us to secure our hand-bags and prepare to deplane, Officers first then Senior NCO's, and enlisted last. We were told to get on the buses parked beside the plane and we would be taken to the reception center. As we walked toward the buses I noticed no one seemed particularly interested in the fact we might have been fired on as were landing except the ones of us just getting off the plane, to everyone else it might have been old hat by now. The buses were the typical pug nosed school buses with the exception that there was wire gratings covering the side windows of the bus. I got on the bus first and found a seat right behind the driver and sat down to wait for the bus to take us wherever we were going next. I ask the driver what the wire was for and he told me that it was to keep the dinks from throwing grenades in the windows. That seemed strange to me, I had thought we would be in a friendly area, but I was soon learned from many people, that there were no friendly areas anywhere in all of Vietnam.
While I was sitting there waiting for the bus to startup I realized
that it was hot as hell in this area, and the humidity was even worse. It seemed to be around 200-300% give or take a little. And I felt more like I had been swimming rather then walking to the bus.
Once the buses were loaded we started down the road away from the air field. Along the way there was sand, barbed wire, darkness, faint lights off in the distance, and what appeared to be garbage or trash nearly everywhere I looked. It didn't look like any military post I had ever been on before. I could see people dressed mainly in black trousers, white shirts and conical straw hats along the road. Some were pushing bicycles, some were walking, others were on motorbikes and of course there were military trucks of all sizes. It was one of the strangest sights I had ever seen. The smell was also a lot different then I had expected. Instead of jungle or woodsy smells it was more a cross between garbage can and dead fish, with a touch of salt air thrown in for good measure. The trip took about 20 minutes and we passed many shacks that looked like they had been thrown together from anything available in this garbage dump, which appeared to be the entire area. I just hoped that the rest of the country wasn't this bad, and it turned out I was right, much of it was worse !
When the buses stopped in front of the Replacement Center I could see that the buildings appeared to be typical military style two story wooden buildings with the main difference being these had screens in the windows instead of glass. In the dark they appeared to be made of bare unpainted wood, which I learned in the morning was right, once I got a closer look at them. We were required to sign-in at the orderly room and were then assigned a place to sleep, then we went to the supply room to get our bedding. The bedding consisted of a pillow, pillow case and two sheets, no blankets were issued. During the night I was awakened several times by loud noises, but I wasn't able to find out what caused them.
When I got up to go to breakfast in the morning I discovered that the base, as far as I could see was built on giant sand dunes with very little actually growing anywhere in the area, but the trash piles and sand dunes. Breakfast was in a typical army mess hall and was a typical army breakfast, the main difference being that both the eggs and the milk had started out powdered, that didn't help the flavor very much. After breakfast I started processing in at the Personnel Office. The clerks checked my orders, looked at my records, and then ask if I needed to be paid. I told them yes and was told to go to the Finance Office after lunch. Then I was free to do anything I wanted too, for the rest of my stay at the center as long as I checked-in with the orderly room at least twice a day in the morning and at noon for my orders. The last thing I was told was to be sure to go to Finance at 13:00 hrs to get paid.
I left Personnel and headed for the PX to see what was available. At the PX I learned it wouldn't be open until 11:00 which was about a half an hour away so I sat down next to the building to wait and started reading my book to kill time. I considered going back to the barracks to wait but along time ago I learned not to hang around the company area when I wasn't doing anything, if I didn't want some son-of-a-bitch trying to put me to work, so I stayed at the PX and waited.
(Many years later I would realize what a fool I had been, I had wasted my time hiding-out from work details at the Cam Ranh Replacement Center. I had arrived as an Officer, not an ordinary soldier and could have blatantly fucked-off in front of everybody and no one would have dared to say anything to me about it. It was a waste of my time playing hide and seek from someone who wasn't even looking for me in the first place !)
When the PX opened I learned something else, I still couldn't buy any thing. All I had was "Green Back Dollars", American money and the PX could only accept MPC, Military Payment Certificates, commonly called Script which was used instead of regular money and looked a lot like monopoly money. That let out any attempt I might make to buy anything new or to replace things I had already used-up, at least until I got back from Finance that afternoon.
With that disappointment under my belt, I decided to see what was going on around the rest of the area and what there was to do for entertainment, rather then go back to the company area. I walked over toward the bay and discovered there were speed boats for riding around in, and for water skiing assigned to the R&R, Rest and Recreation Center nearby, but since I wasn't a water skier, even though many years ago back in St Louis I had gone water skiing with Charley Locke several times, I didn't try to find out more about them. Over across the bay I could see the mountains I had noticed the night before. The mountains were covered with jungle growth that looked too damned thick to try to go into with anything smaller then a bulldozer. Also across the bay I could see some kind of airfield or heliport where choppers were landing and taking-off all day long. And every so often I would see someone go zipping by where I was standing, on water skies whooping and hollering like kids anywhere.
There was also a swimming area over by the R&R Center but I didn't feel like going swimming either, so I went back to the PX, just to look around so I would know what was there and decide if it would be worth the trip back in the afternoon when I got paid. The PX had snacks like candy, nuts, crackers and cheese, toilet articles, small appliances such as radios, record players, irons, fans, and a few others items that most combat troops wouldn't have any use for. There were also cameras and photographic equipment, books and magazines, and a lot of other things, including a snack bar. The snack bar had sandwiches, ice cream, sodas, and other snacks, none of which were very good by stateside standards. After looking around for a while, I left and went back to the company area to wait for chow.
Lunch was typical army food the only major difference was the temperature inside the mess hall was hotter then I can remember it ever being unless I was standing beside a stove. And the fact that it was the first time I can recall having to lean back to eat so I wouldn't drip sweat all over my food while trying to eat it. It seemed soggy enough without my help. After lunch was over, I checked in with the orderly room, then headed for Finance to get my pay, and at the same time I was able to exchange the green-backs I had brought with me for script, so I could spend it on something later. And I made out an allotment so the army could send most of my pay-check home to Cathy and the kids every month, so I wouldn't have to worry about doing it myself. Then I went back to the PX to buy a few things, then just wandered around the area the rest of the day to learn the lay of the land, looking for something to do as I stayed out of the way of the powers that be.
That evening I learned there were movies being shown every night at the replacement center and at other places around the area. Once I learned my way around, I would be able to choose which movie to see that evening and I would also be able to see the same movie several times if I chose too, by following the movie as it was sent from one viewing area to the next one. For people who didn't want to go to movies there were Officers, NCO, and Enlisted men's Clubs, and beer halls available for them.
The people running the area tried to keep the officers out of the beer hall, intended for Lowly Enlisted men which was a reason some of the officers went there. Some clubs for officers and NCO's had floor shows and live music nearly every night, and dancers or Would Be Entertainers or Strippers who could be talked into doing nearly anything for the right amount of money. Rumor had it some girls were also prostitutes for higher ranking officers and NCO's, but I wasn't very interested in finding out for sure.
I wasn't interested in the drinking, and most of the singers could just barely speak English, let alone sing it, the music was closer to being noise then anything resembling actual music, and I wasn't the least interested in the strippers and felt more like hollering, "Put it on !", after seeing the first couple of them. I went to the movies most nights, then stopped by one of the beer halls for a coke or Pepsi or two afterward. Then go back to the barracks to read for a while before going to sleep. I also learned that the noises I had heard the first night was artillery across the bay firing at God only knows what, and fighters taking-off at night, on missions.
I stayed at the replacement center for five days and still didn't get orders to leave, even though I had arrived with orders in my hand assigning me to the 161st Assault Helicopter Company. I Spent most of my time at the PX or one of the clubs in the area during the day, then at the movies most evenings, making it a point not to be found by anyone from the center. Then on the sixth day, when the orders finally arrived I was assigned to the 17th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade at Nha Trang, and was told I would be leaving the next day for Nha Trang.
I spent most of the rest of the day trying to get ready, before realizing I had no idea where I was going, or what I would need when I got there, let alone what I should buy at the PX to take with me, so I went back to my usual routine of staying out of the way.
After supper I went to a movies, about half way through it I realized I had been so busy thinking about tomorrow, that I had no idea what the movie was about, so I left and headed back to the barracks. Once at the barracks I decided the best way to pass time until tomorrow, was to sleep, I just might need it since I had no idea what to expect for tomorrow, so that's what I did.
In the morning I got up early, went to chow, then back to the barracks to pack my things, then turned in my bedding so I would be ready to go when the time came to leave. Then I went to the orderly room to check on transportation and was told that a jeep would be along soon to pick me up at the barracks and take me to the helipad, where I would catch a chopper to Nha Trang. I went back to the barracks to wait for the jeep to arrive and having been in the army long enough to know what to expect, I got out my book and settled down to read while waiting. I knew that, Soon, in the army meant any time between now and next year.
About two hours later "Soon" and the jeep both arrived and I loaded my gear into it and then jumped in for the ride to the helipad. On the way I realized the impression I got the night I arrived was been well founded, the area did look like one huge garbage dump and didn't smell any better after it had been heat treated by the sun for several hours.
When I reached the helipad a chopper was there with it's engine running, waiting to go to Nha Trang, I and several other pilots, including Bill Campbell a classmate of mine from Rucker, climbed in with our baggage. The chopper lifted off the pad, turned north and headed toward a valley laying between two mountains at the north end of the peninsula Cam Ranh occupied. As the chopper neared the valley I could see we were following a road and a railroad track through the valley. Because of clouds, we were staying low to go under them. Near the center of the valley I saw a derailed train laying on it's side along the tracks, but couldn't tell if the train had just been derailed or if it had been there for awhile. As we passed it, I could see some men walking near it, they appeared to be wearing American uniforms, but I wasn't sure if they were Americans or not.
As the chopper flew out the end of the valley we came to the sea and up ahead on the left I could see a city with a large airfield near it's middle. The city was built right on the coast, there were large buildings right on the beach that might have been hotels. The chopper circled around the air-field and then landed at an area marked with a large white "H" with a white triangle around it, the standard marking for a helipad. A 3/4 ton truck was waiting at the pad for our chopper, we climbed into it for the ride to HQ's.
The trip through Nha Trang proved there was a place that looked worse then the Cam Ranh area. Most of the roads were dirty and dusty, with trash all along them. Most of the buildings I saw were bare wood with corrugated tin roofs that were covered with rust. Small children were running around the streets wearing nothing but oversized shirts and begging for food and cigarettes from passing soldiers and vehicles. As far as I was concerned
this place smelled even worse then Cam Ranh had, if that was even possible. My main thought during the ride was, "God, I hope I don't have to stay here for my full year!". I don't think I would have been able to stand it if I had too. I couldn't understand how the military could allow this place to look like this and with all of the barbed-wire around and the GI's, it had to be a military post of some kind.
Finally the truck arrived at the 17th Grp HQ's, I went inside to sign-in and was told I would be sent to my unit the next day, meanwhile I would stay in one of the nearby buildings. The building was the same kind I had seen on the trip in from the helipad. This time I wasn't issued any bedding, instead I was shown to bunks with bare mattresses on them and told that I would have to make do with that for the night. Then I was shown where to eat, where the club was, and told not to get lost and to be sure and be back at HQ's the first thing in the morning.
The food wasn't too bad, if you could ignore the smell of the surrounding city, and after dinner a movie was scheduled. After the movie was over the club got so noisy and smokey from all of the men and cigarettes that I went back to the barracks to get away from it. There was artillery firing off and on all night long. Looking out the window I was able to see parachute flares floating down out of the sky all around the area. I guess the artillery and flares went on all night long from what I could tell, because every time I woke up during the night, there were flares still floating down out of the sky.
In the morning I got up and went to breakfast, then I went back to HQ's with the other pilots to find out where I would be going now. I was assigned to the 10th Aviation Battalion at some place called Dong Ba Thin, along with a couple of the other pilots. I was told that a 3/4 ton would take us to the pad for our chopper ride to Dong Ba Thin and the 10th Bn's area later that morning. By this time I was beginning to wonder what the hell was going on. My original orders had assigned me to the 161st Assault Helicopter Company, but there had been no mention of the 161st in any of the paperwork I had seen so far.
The truck picked me up and took me to the same pad I had come in on the day before and then I had to sit and wait there for the chopper to come and pick me up, so I got in some more reading while I was waiting. Eventually a chopper arrived and I climbed in it, then it took-off and headed back down south over the same route I had taken the day before when I arrived at Nha. Tang. As we flew through the same valley I saw the same train still laying on it's side, and more then likely the same men still standing beside it. This time the chopper flew down the west side of the bay, and landed across the bay from Cam Ran, at the same airfield I had been watching choppers take-off and land from the previous week. I thought to myself "How funking typical of the army, I had just spent two days and traveled 75-100 miles, just to arrive less then a mile from where I had started out from in the first place ". It was obvious to me the army was in full charge of what was going on around there.
The chopper came to a hover at the pad and then hovered over to an area surrounded on three sides by wooden ammo boxes and metal drums filled with dirt, called Revetments, and used to protect the choppers from shrapnel if a rocket or mortar shell landed nearby, then set down inside the "U" shaped area and the pilot shut down the engine. Once again a 3/4 ton showed up, to take me to 10th Aviation Battalion HQs.
This area looked a hell of a lot better then the others I had seen so far, there wasn't any trash laying around the area and at least the outside of the main building, which if I remember correctly was a two story building was clean and neat and had been painted white even though the rest of them weren't. The other buildings in the area were single story unpainted wood, that had four foot walls, made of ammo boxes and sandbags filled with dirt, surrounding them to protect their occupants from any shrapnel or bullets during attacks.
For once it looked like I was in a real military post in the middle of no where, not like the other "Garbage Dumps" I had been in so far. So I was hoping that this was where I would be staying, instead of moving on to somewhere else worse in a few days.
Inside 10th Aviation Battalion HQs I had to sign-in again in another Officers register just like I had at every other place I had visited so far and I was beginning to get writers cramps from doing it so often. Once again I went through the "In-Processing" procedure, and once again I was told I would spend the night there before being sent to my unit in the morning, but at least this time I didn't mind it too much at least the place didn't smell like it was in a garbage dump and the club was next-door to the barracks.
The food at the club was even half-way decent compared to what I had been eating so far, and it even smelled like food for once. And as usual there was a movie after supper in the club. I sat around the club for after the movies was over, drank a couple of Pepsi's and read my book for a while. Went back to the barracks, read awhile longer, then finally went to sleep.
In the morning I got up, went to chow and then went back to Bn HQ's to find out where I was going to go today. While there I was told our Battalion was one of the oldest ones In-Country and had been there since the start of the fighting. It was known as the "Vagabond" Battalion because it traveled all over Vietnam, and used Vagabond as part of the battalion's radio call sign. Vagabond 6 was the Battalion Commander, Vagabond 5 was the Battalion Executive Officer, and second in command of the battalion. About noon a jeep came to get me, but didn't take me to the helipad this time.
117th ASSAULT HELICOPTER COMPANY
At first I was expecting to head back toward N.A. Tang or some place else God had forgotten, but when the jeep headed toward some buildings on the post, instead of the helipad I wasn't sure what to think. A block from the helipad the jeep turned left off the main road and onto a side street. It drove past half a dozen buildings, then stopped in front of the orderly room of the 117th Assault Helicopter Company. I was finally home, I hoped.
I signed-in as usual then met my new CO, Major David Jayne. Many years ago the Major was in a helicopter accident somewhere in South America and been badly burned, leaving him with bad scars on his face, arms and hands. According to the story I was told by other members of the unit, the Major had been wearing shorts and a short sleeved shirt when he had his accident, and in such bad shape after the accident that he had tried to kill himself several times.
After he started to recover, the story went, he found out his right hand was so badly scarred that he couldn't grip the cyclic control of his chopper so he could fly it, so he had a doctor re-break his hand, then reset it so he would be able to grip the control properly so he would be able to fly again. And that took a lot of guts.
Now he was considered one of the best pilots in the area and one hell of a fine Commanding Officer to be flying for. Everyone in the unit loved him, and would gladly have laid down their lives for him with no questions ask, and they often did too.
The 117th AHC was known as the "Beach Bums" and used that as a part of their radio call sign. Major Jayne was Beach Bum 6. The 1st Platoon's radio call signs began with a "1", so that the platoon leader was Beach Bum 16, pronounced Beach Bum One Six. The 2nd Platoon leader was Beach Bum 26, or Beach Bum Two Six. Our Gun Platoon used the call sign "Side Winder" and had a rattle snake painted on the nose cone of each gun ship. I was assigned to the 2nd Platoon as a "Slick" pilot. A slick is a troop carrying UH-1D helicopter-copter armed with 2 M-60 machineguns, one in each cargo door and manned by the Crew chief and the Door gunner. The gun ships were UH-1B and C models armed with either 4 modified M-60s or 2 mini-guns mounted to fire forward and con-trolled by the pilot. They also had 2 regular M-60s that were manned by the Crew chief and Door gunner, and rocket pods. Some had a belt-fed automatic 40 millimeter grenade launcher. The gun ships were hell in a fire fight. The ships that had the 40 mm were referred to as "Frogs" and the ones that had large rocket pods were called "Hogs".
The slick platoons usually consisted of 8 choppers and 16 to 20 pilots and 20 to 25 enlisted men. Our job was flying troops and supplies to units and bases throughout the area and up into the mountains, as well as any other place someone needed us. Usually we would go out singly or in pairs but, sometimes the whole platoon or company would go on a mass lift or a CA. The re-supply missions we were sent on were called "Ash and Trash" missions. 2nd platoon leader was Captain Britt Knox, his call sign was Beach Bum 26, but we often addressed him simply as 26, instead of by his name and rank.
All of us pilot slept in 2 man rooms called "Hooch's", that we could decorate any way we chose within reason. The buildings were bare rough wood with rusty tin roofs. The top half of the building was open but covered by screen to allow the breeze to blow through them to help keep them cool and still keep some of the bugs out. The bottom halves were wood with a 4 foot high protective wall surrounding them. The latrine and showers were in similar buildings set perpendicular to the barracks buildings and shared by all of the company officers. The mess hall was at the far end of the company area and each platoon had a small Hooch to use as a platoon office and as the platoon club. The enlisted men slept in another part of the company area away from the officers quarters.
I was assigned a room with an Old Timer, Mr. Reese, a Warrant Officer like myself, who's first name slips my mind. Reese was affectionately known as "Magnet Ass" because if any ships were shot at, it would normally be his ship, even though he had never been hit himself. Reese was the happy-go-lucky type, a friend to nearly everyone, in spite of the fact it sometimes seemed dangerous to be around him in the air.
One afternoon shortly after I moved into my hooch I decided to walk out to the compound perimeter and see what the real Vietnam looked like up close and try to get an idea of just how safe I really was living there. I was expecting to see trenches, firing pits and high piles of barbed-wire much like those shown in the many movies I had seen, in a way I was a little disappointed by what was actually there. There were a few bunkers widely spaced, watch towers spaced about 50 yards apart, and what appeared to be a regular barbed wire fence about eight feet high. The one thing that did surprise me was the guards weren't Americans as I had expected, instead I was being guarded by ROK, Republic Of Korea, soldiers. Later when I ask an old timer about the ROKs I was told the ROKs were some of the most feared troops in Nam. The Vietnamese were scared to death of them and didn't screw with them at any time. So what may have seemed like very poor security for our base, was in reality more then adequate. At least that's what I was told.
A day or two later after I was given a chance to get settled-in, I was scheduled to take a check-ride with the Operations Officer Major Spencer. I guess the purpose of the check-ride was to see if I could fly a helicopter. It didn't seem to mean a hell of a lot that I had recently successfully completed flight school, and been awarded my "Wings", they still wanted to see if I knew how to fly. I suppose they could have been checking to see if I was impersonating a pilot or something, God only knows what goes on in the minds of the people who set these things up.
During the flight, after having performed several standard maneuvers, the Major told me to shoot an auto-rotation to the airstrip at Dong Ba Thin which was made of PSP, Perforated Steel Planking. I approached the strip at the proper height of 500 feet, picked out my touch-down spot on the ground, and then lowered the collective pitch control and rolled off the throttle in a text book entry into auto-rotation. At 75 feet above the ground I flared the chopper to slow it down, as I had been taught to do, and kept it headed down the runway toward my chosen spot to land. At about 10 feet I pulled in the initial pitch to stop my descent, then eased the chopper onto the ground with very little forward movement, and brought the chopper to a stop, right where I had planned to stop, with no problems at all.
The Major started cussing me out for the way I landed, without bothering to explain to me what the problem was. I thought to myself, "What the fuck is your problem Major ?, I did exactly what you told me to do, and now you're pissed about something. You must be a real Ass-Hole!". It had been a perfect landing, just where the Major had told me to land.
The Major flew the chopper back to our pad without bothering to explain what was wrong, got out of the chopper and stormed away. Later, I was told that I would have to take another check-ride the next day.
The next day when I went out with Capt Waddell, he explained that we weren't supposed to auto-rotate to PSP because the ship might catch a skid on the PSP, and cause it to roll over and crash. I made the auto-rotation and landed 10 feet to the right of where I landed the day before, then the Captain congratulated me on a fine job. I wondered why the Ass-Hole from yesterday hadn't explained it to me like a man, instead of acting like the Ass-Hole he was. After all, I had set the ship down safely, and that's what it was supposed to be all about. I may have been wrong about landing on the PSP, but no one ever told me not to land on PSP before, so how was I to know it was wrong ? The Major hadn't acted very much like an officer and gentleman about it. He could have taken the time to explain what I had done that caused him to be so upset, but he hadn't even bothered to do that much. I just hoped that would be the last time I would ever have to fly with that Major. Or anyone else with his attitude for that matter.
For the next couple of days I flew some standard Ash & Trash missions, with a different Aircraft Commander, an old timer called an AC, each time. I was learning about our Area of Operation, AO, so I would be able to find my way around the area. I learned right away that the standard radio procedures I had learned in flight school were seldom if ever used. They reminded me of the guy in flight school who had gotten fucked up and told everyone over the radio. I told the AC about it so he laughed and said to me, "You think this is bad ?, wait till you hear the guys getting shot at or in some kind of trouble, then it really gets bad and this will only seem like normal talk !".
During the evenings, if I wasn't flying somewhere, I went to the "O" Club, Officers Club, for my meals and then stayed and watched the evening movie, even if I had already seen it, and stayed around a little while after ward to drink a couple of cokes while reading, to easy my thirst in the hot and humid climate of our area. Then I went back to my hooch to read some more before going to sleep.
Being an FNG, Fucking New Guy, I didn't know many people in the unit. Most of them were 8 to 10 years younger then me, unmarried, and more interested in drinking, gambling, and partying then I was, so we really didn't travel in the same social circles anyway. They weren't hostile or any thing, we just didn't have very much in common other then doing the same job and being in the same unit. So we went our separate ways once we left the flight line, after our mission was over. Some went to a steam bath house near our compound where they could get a steam bath, massage and a little personal attention from the girls working there, for a few extra dollars. But that wasn't one of my interests either. I was married and wasn't about to cheat on Cathy, even though I could have and she would never have known. But I would have known, regardless of what any of the others might have thought, or done, I knew what was right, and stuck with it. And to hell with what any one else might have thought about it.
It was an interesting time for me I was learning my way around the area and learning who were the good guys to fly with. Some were great and let me fly a lot, they were willing to explain what was going on so I could learn. Others were real Ass-Holes and acted like they had been insulted by having to fly with me, a new man on the job. A couple even acted worse then the IP in flight school who I had refused to fly with. The main difference now was if they pissed me off bad enough I could invite them outside to settle it or tell them to get fucked without having to worry about getting into very much trouble for it.
Just a few of the "Good Guys" were Capt. Knox, Barry Nordlof, Jim Bell, Steve Reising, Bob Rench, Dan Tripp, Reese, Bouchard and Joe McGovern. They were all fine pilots and men I owe a lot to. They taught me what I needed to know to be able to stay alive in a very hairy place called Nam.
On the 29th of October I was scheduled to fly on my very first real CA mission. I would team up with WO Bouchard as the AC, SP-4 Wood as Crew chief and PFC Turner as Door gunner. The whole platoon was taking part in the CA. This is the first time that I would fly with this crew, but I wasn't worried because they knew what they were doing, and I knew they would keep a close eye on me until I had learned the ropes. I heard a lot about CA's in flight school and from the Old Timers in the platoon. Some things I heard were true, others were highly suspect of being Bull-Shit stories or at best, exaggerations of what had really happened when the events originally occurred.
I was expecting all sorts of things that could happen during a CA. From the stories I heard, we might be mortared in the LZ, machine-gunned, run into Booby Traps, or any number of things the old timers claim they had faced in the past. All sorts of ideas, and things flashed through my mind, I found my self asking, "What do I do if - ?", then I would run down all of the stories I had heard plus a few I would invented trying to find a reasonable answer. I began to realize I had no idea of what I would do under any of the circumstances that came to my mind. I knew what I would want to do, but I also knew that what I would want to do, and what I really would do might not come close to being the same thing.
I didn't feel like the "Hero" type but I was also pretty sure I wasn't a coward either, but this was to be my first time in actual combat, and only time would tell. I had seen so many movies about how combat effected people, that while I wasn't really scared I was at least a little worried. Not about the actual combat, but about how I would react to it. I didn't want to be a coward and cause other people to get hurt like had happened so many times in the movies.
We were flying a chopper with tail number 135 as we went into the PZ, Pick-up Zone, early that morning to get our first load of troops who were making the CA that day. Because 135 was a "D" model, we were only able to carry 6 American combat troops at a time. D model Huey�s didn't have enough power to lift the full 10 men they had been designed to carry in the hot, thin air of Vietnam without risking a crash landing on take-off or not being able to get off the ground at all.
Once all of our ships were loaded with troops, the platoon lifted out of the PZ, with 26 in the lead and headed toward the mountains. We climbed as we went, until we were about 2,000 feet above the ground. In a combat zone a chopper was supposed to fly either below 300 feet above the ground or above 1500 feet. The area in between 300 and 1500 feet was the area where you could get your Ass shot-off by just about anybody on the ground, known as the "Dead Mans Zone".
Below 300 ft the enemy wouldn't be able to see you until you are almost directly over them and then chances are he wouldn't have time enough to take aim at you. Above 1500 feet you were normally out of range of most small arms fire such as rifles, pistols, and submachine guns. But if Charlie had a .51 caliber or something bigger, you were in deep shit no matter where you were in the air, the .51 could easily shoot several miles or more.
Our ships orbited over an area away from the LZ for a short time while the artillery fired into the LZ trying to knock out any enemy positions that might be there. Then 26 received the call from the C&C, Command and Control, ship to head for the LZ. As our ships turned toward the LZ the Guns, Gun-ships, came up along side of our flight to escort us to the LZ. Radio calls were exchanged between the flights. "26, this is Sidewinder 1, I have 2 gun teams for your escort, Sidewinder 3 is to your left and I am to your right" called the Guns flight leader as they joined the assault flight. "Roger Side Winder 1, start your LZ prep fire when you're ready" answered 26.
The guns started their runs firing into the trees and bushes surrounding the LZ with their machineguns, rockets and grenade launchers, while 26 and the rest of our flight were approaching the area. As we neared the LZ I could see the rockets exploding in trees at the edge of the LZ, and the dirt being churned by the machinegun bullets as they were hitting in the area. The guns set-up a "Race Track" pattern so there was always one gun ship fly flying toward the LZ, while the other one was flying back out to be in position to come in firing as soon as his wingman was clear of the line of fire.
As we approached the actual LZ, our door gunners started firing at any likely enemy hiding place around the LZ to discourage the enemy soldiers who might be lurking there, making sure in their enthusiasm they didn't shoot at any of the other ships in our flight. The LZ had high trees around it with just room enough for all of our flight to get into it at the same time. As my ship slowed and got close to the ground the troops loaded their weapons and got ready for a hasty exit from the ships. The troops all knew choppers made a great target for any Charlies in the area, as they were coming in low and slow to the LZ, the sooner they got away from the choppers the less chance there was of getting shot, or winding up underneath of one of them if it got shot down.
When our chopper reached about 6 to 8 ft above the ground, the troops started jumping out the doors, or "Un-Assing" the area as it was referred to by them, so that by the time our ship was on the ground, if we ever got that low, we were usually empty anyway. "Chalk 2 is clear !", came the call of the number 2 ship in the flight, and the first ship to be emptied and ready for take-off. The others called in as they too were ready to go. Once all ships had called in, 26 made his call, "Roger flight, lead is pulling pitch in 5 seconds". Looking out my window I could see the troops spreading out in the LZ and running toward the tree line, some were firing, but I couldn't see what they were firing at, besides the trees and bushes. Then 26 started to lift off, with the rest of our flight following him. The next few moments were the most dangerous part of the CA.
When a flight lifts out of an LZ it is going real slow, made a hell of a target for any enemy in the area, and we wouldn't be able to shoot back for fear of hitting our own troops in the LZ. This was when we were the most vulnerable, Charlie seldom passed up a chance to try to shoot a few choppers down. As the flight gained altitude and passed over the trees at the end of the LZ the last ship in the flight, usually called "Trail" called in, "Lead, this is Trail, your flight is up". "Roger Trail, understand flight is up, let's head back to the PZ for another load", answered 26. There would also usually be a call from trail telling lead that his flight was clear of the LZ, and how many ships were still with the flight, in case a ship had been hit or had problems preventing them from continuing the mission.
The rest of the day was spent taking more people into the LZ and then supplies, but on those trips there was normally no firing because the LZ had already been secured by the first lift put into it. In a way it had been a little disappointing to me, after all of the stories I had heard, I had expected a big battle and to see people get shot in the LZ. At the same time I was relieved that nothing had happened, but it really hadn't proved anything to me. I still didn't know how I would act when I was being fired on by the enemy. As I was to learn this flight was typical of most CA's that I would participate in. It wouldn't be my last. That day we flew 9 hours and 40 minutes, carried 89 troops and around 5,050 pounds of cargo, all into the same LZ. It had been a very busy day.
A couple of days later two ships were sent to work with a LRRP, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, unit in Pleiku. Barry and I flew one of them. Pleiku was located in the central highlands on the west side of a mountain range that lay a few miles inland from the coast. The LRRP's main mission was to sneak into enemy territory in small groups of 4-8 men without getting caught or seen then report on the enemies activities and movement. Occasionally they would be sent in to assassinate the enemies leaders or their tax collectors, or just to snipe at the enemies positions and harass him in his own back yard. But mainly they were told to stay out of trouble and sight, since there weren't enough of them to defend themselves against the larger enemy forces found out in the jungle areas.
Our job was to get the LRRP's in and out of the patrol areas, when they went on missions. We had several ways to do it. The main method was to fly into the area low level and fake landing at several different places. But we would actually drop the patrol off at one LZ, hoping to fool the enemy as to which one was the real one used for the insertion, giving the patrol time to move out of the area before the enemy came looking for them. Another method was for the chopper to hover at tree top level and drop long ropes out each side of it so the troops could rappel down into the jungle in an area not normally kept under surveillance by the enemy. The VC and NVA, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, were know to watch many of the areas that were big enough for choppers to land in, just in case a landing was made. Of course the advantage to this method was that we didn't need a large open area for us to land in. The main disadvantage was that we made a big target hovering there above the trees while we waited for the troops to rappel down the rope and hovering there gave away the location of where the troops had gone in and told the enemy where to start looking.
On the other hand there were about four different ways for the LRRP's to get out of the jungle. The 1st being by LPC's, Leather Personnel Carriers, or more commonly called "Boots", in other words they would walk out on their own two feet. The 2nd method of course was to have choppers land and pick them up, and this was the most common method used.
The 3rd method was called a Maguire Rig. In this method 3-4 ropes, with sling seats attached, were lowered out the doors while it hovered above the area. Then 3-4 of troops would sit in the sling seats and hang on while the choppers lifted them out of the area, then fly to a safe area to land and let the troops get in the chopper for the rest of the flight back to a safe area. This method presented several problems. The 1st was the chopper had to fly real slow when it was carrying the troops in the sling seats. The 2nd was that the ropes could get caught in the trees and cause the chopper to crash. The 3rd was that the chopper made a damned good target while it was hovering over the jungle. The 4th was that the trees might be to tall for the ropes to touch the ground so the troops couldn't get into them. The 5th was if the pilot wasn't careful he could windup dragging the troops through the tops of the trees causing injuries or death to the troops. Last but not least, was that the troops had to be able to hold on to the sling seats so they wouldn't fall out of them. The major advantage was that the Maguire rig could be used almost anywhere, providing the patrol was small enough to be picked up by 1-2 choppers, and the ropes were long enough to reach ground.
In the 4th pick-up method, the chopper hovers over the area and a rope ladder is lowered out the doors, and the troops climb up the ladder to get in the chopper. It has the same basic advantages of the Maguire rig, except the troops have to be in good enough physical condition to climb the ladder. Of course in both the ladder and the Maguire rig, an injured man could be tied to them if necessary. It wasn't the best method for getting the LRRP's out of an area, but it beat hell out of them being left there for the enemy to find them.
Our crews were treated like kings by the LRRP's. Nothing was too good for us, the people they would have to rely on to pull their asses out of a tight spot out in the "Bush" some day. We worked with the LRRP's off and on for about 10 days letting the LRRP's practice with the Maguire rigs, rope ladders and rappelling out of our ships while the local Montagnards, the hill people who lived in the area, stood around watching the crazy Americans try trying to kill themselves. When I wasn't flying, I was often taking movies of the goings-on with my camera, to preserve the fine acts of bravery committed by the LRRP's, for future viewers. While I was there I became friendly with most of the LRRP's, and learned a few of their secrets.
For example I learned most of the LRRP's hated their LT Platoon Leader, as much as any man can and still not take any direct action to do something about it. One day while I was visiting their hooch I noticed a coffee can full of money sitting on top of their hooch refrigerator and ask one of the guys if it was safe to leave all of that money where someone could steal it.
The section had put $50 in the can. The money would be there as long as the LT was still in the platoon. One day, hopefully very soon, the LT wouldn't return from a mission and the money would be gone, no questions ask, to who ever made sure the LT didn't return from the mission. According to my LRRP acquaintance, the LT had been responsible on more then one occasion, for the deaths of several of the LRRP's because he had given some bad orders or made some very bad decisions in combat, and had gotten his LRRP's killed. Besides that, the LT was an Ass-Hole in general and didn't know how to treat his men properly or look out for them like he was supposed to.
When I heard this I didn't know whether to believe him or not. But once I got to know the LRRP's and the LT, I realized that it was probably true. The Lt WAS an Ass-Hole from the Get-Go, and even seemed to enjoy being one. He fucked over his troops every time he got a chance, never once cutting them any slack (go easy on them). I realized the LRRP had been serious about the coffee can fund, and I felt that the LT was making his own fate by the way he was treating his men. I didn't even bother to mention the fund to the LT, I figured that the LT would deserve whatever happened to him.
I recall late one night, one of the LRRP's came running into our hooch to wake us up. We were needed for an emergency extraction. One of the teams had gone on a patrol earlier that evening and was now in deep trouble. Both crews got up and headed for our ships to get ready for the mission.
Once our ship was ready, we cranked-up, then lifted off to fly to the general area of where the team was supposed to be, understanding that we would receive more info as we neared the area. It was dark as hell out, but we could see lights from several military posts and villages in the area.
In several areas we could see muzzle flashes as someone on the ground fired their weapons, but couldn't tell who it was or why they were firing. But we assumed it wasn't our LRRP�s.
We flew around out in the dark for a while, waiting for the info we would need to make the extraction. Finally we were told the team was trying to make it's way out of the area and lose the enemy following them, and they would try to find an area suitable to be used for an LZ for extraction. We continued to fly around looking at the ground and wondering if any of the firing we could see, was from our team that was in trouble somewhere down there. It was a frustrating time of us up there, wanting to do something to help, but not being able too because we didn't know where they were.
Finally we got word from LRRP Headquarters we were no longer needed. We were told the team we were waiting to extract, had got safely way from their pursuers, and were now in a safe area. The team had decided to stay in the area and try to complete their mission as best they could, hoping the enemy would think they were long gone by then. So we turned around and headed back to our parking area in the LRRP compound, then shut down for the night, and hit our racks. It had been a long tense night, we were ready for some rest.
On one of the training flights, the LRRP's talked a couple of chopper crew members into taking a ride in a Maguire rig with their LT. I was flying the lift ship, and decided to give them a good ride. After lifting them off the ground I dragged them through the very tops of a bamboo patch where the smallest bamboo saplings could slap them as they were pulled through them. Then flew them through a small rain cloud at about 60 knots. I was supposed to be flying at 40 knots, the pelting 60 knot rain drops took their toll on the guys in the Maguire rig. Lastly I hovered over a small lake, then dipped them into the water, just for good measure. The LRRP's riding in the chopper as safety men thought it was a good joke on their LT, but the LT and crew members weren't too impressed with the ride, and I made it a point to not take a ride in the rig later on that day, or any other time for that matter.
The purpose of the safety men in the chopper during any of this training, or any actual insertion or extraction, was to keep an eye of the troops and let the pilot know if there were any problems, and cut the ropes loose in case the chopper started to crash. The three ropes being used were run across a small log, and the safety men stood by with an axe which was used to cut the ropes if the chopper lost power and had to make a forced landing. It was felt that the men hanging from the ropes had a better chance surviving the fall from the ropes then they did if the chopper landed on them during the crash. I never found out if it was true or not, but the LRRP's seemed to understand what it was all about, and they accepted the risks involved in doing this kind of operations.
On the 9th of November our crew went back to Dong Ba Thin and started flying resupply missions again. A week or so after returning from Pleiku I heard the LRRP LT had been killed while out on a patrol. According to the story I heard, someone dropped a fragmentation grenade called a "Frag", at his feet one night out in the bush. As they say out in the bush, "Pay Back Is A Mother-Fucker !". The day after the patrol got back, the money was gone and no one bothered to ask where it went to, or who got it. It had all been worth the price to the LRRP's, and was part of the deal they had made. The news didn't bother me a bit. I knew how the LRRP's must have felt about it. I might very well have done the same thing myself had I been in a similar situation.
SWEATING IT !
During the second week of November, my platoon was sent south to Phan Rang to work with the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Div. On the 15th, I was flying with 26 as the AC, SP-4 Brothers as Crew chief, and SP-4 Sura as Door gunner. We were scheduled to take supplies into the mountains south east of Phan Rang to a Battalion TOC, Tactical Operations Center, I believe we were working for 1st Bn 327th Inf. that day, set up in a saddle near the top of one of the mountains at map coordinates BN778585. As we were flying up the side of the mountain on our way to the TOC, 26 called the TOC on the radio to get approach and landing info from them. 26 was talking to men on the ground, when suddenly, I heard a loud banging noise echo through the ship. The man talking to 26 on the radio was interrupted by a background voice yelling, "Charlie's shooting at our bird !". About the same time, SP-4 Sura, came on the intercom with, "Sir, we're taking fire from the left !".
I immediately banked the ship away from the mountain, dropped the nose of the ship to gain speed, then head away from the area and back down the side of the mountain to get out of range of the sniper. Over the radio at ground control I could hear someone giving instructions to the grunts on the ground to, "Get somebody after that Damned Bastard, and shut him up so our bird can land !".
I circled a couple of times away from the area waiting for the troops to clear the sniper out of the area. After a short time the TOC called on the radio and informed us that it was now safe to land at the TOC. So I made another approach and was headed for the TOC pad when several more shots were fired at us from the jungle below us. I immediately turned away from the TOC again and dove back down the side of the mountain to gain speed as fast as I could, then I pulled back on the cyclic stick and swooped back up in the air gaining altitude, and then started circling high over the area again.
Again I heard the people at the TOC, over the radio, giving instruct-ions about the sniper. And a little while later there was another call from the TOC saying again that it was now safe to land, but this time I made the approach fully expecting to have to make another dive to safety. Then the TOC called and said, "Sorry about that 26, we thought that we had cleared the area for you, but don't worry, that Bastard won't bother anyone again, ever, we got him this time !". I made one more circle of the area to check the winds, then shot an approach to the saddle between two large humps near the top of the mountain, set the ship down, then shut it down so we could check it over for damages from the hit.
There was a hole about 6 inches aft of the left door, that came out in the crew compartment and went through the firewall about a foot to the right of where SP-4 Sura had been sitting. The only damage was the wear and tear on the nerves of Sura and the rest of us in the ship from getting shot at, and few minor hole in the ship. While we were checking over the ship, some troops from the TOC came and unloaded the supplies we had brought with us. After SP-5 Brothers finished checking the ship, I cranked it up and we went on with our resupply mission.
Later that afternoon as we were getting ready to call it a day the CO ask if we could hang around a little while longer, he had a LRRP patrol out and had just gotten word they were in contact with the enemy and we might have to make an emergency extraction of them real soon. 26 told the CO we could stay, but we didn't have a lot of fuel left so we wouldn't be able to do very much flying.
A few minutes later the CO jumped in the ship and told us, "Let's go, I'll show you where they are". I cranked up the ship and lifted off while 26 and the CO gave instruction on where to go. We headed across the mountains toward the ocean, while the CO got on the radio to his LRRP's on the ground. As we neared the area where the LRRP's reported they were the CO called them on his radio again. A man on the ground started to give us more directions, but suddenly in the middle of his directions he stopped talking to us. The CO called him back, but got no answer.
While I circled the area the CO tried to called his LRRP's several more times, but still got no answer. We were about to give up the search and go back when suddenly the LRRP's came back up on the air with the instructions we had requested earlier. The CO got on the radio to ask, "Where the Hell've you been?, we've been worried sick and were about to give you up as lost!". The man on the ground answered back, "I was trying to call you back, but one of the Dinks was standing on my antenna, and I was afraid he would hear me talking to you !".
The CO couldn't argue with that kind of logic and didn't even bother to try. I turned the ship toward a clearing as directed by LRRP on the ground and shot an approach into it. As I was touching down the LRRP's came running out of the jungle, shooting back into it. They jumped into the ship screaming "GO, GO, Get the fuck out of here!". I pulled maximum pitch to get out of there as quick as possible, then headed back toward Phan Rang as fast as the ship would go. The LRRP's were sitting in the back of the ship laughing and slapping each other on the back, glad they had gotten out of there in one piece.
Dark had arrived as we were lifting out of the clearing where we had picked up the LRRP team. I knew all along we were low on fuel, on the way back to Phan Rang I found out just how low we really were. While the LRRP's were in the back celebrating their survival, I was up front starting to sweat. First the 20 minute Fuel Warning Light and then Fuel Low Level Light had just came on, and according to my calculations we were about 20-30 minutes flight time from the nearest refueling point back at Phan Rang.
And as usual, when one warning light comes on, a large bright one that says, "MASTER CAUTION", came on and started flashing right in the middle of the instrument panel, at the same time a loud beeper started going off over the intercom. I shut-off the light, I already knew we were in trouble, and I didn't need some damned flashing lights to remind me of it. A few minutes later the Master Caution light was back on, with it was the Right Fuel Boost Warning light, telling me the fuel level was so low the fuel was no longer being picked up by the boost pump. Once again I shutoff the Master Caution Light, thinking to myself, "Christ, when it rains it pours!". Having no real choice I gritted my teeth, leaned forward in my seat in hopes of seeing Phan Rang make a magical appearance right in front of us, and uttered a silent prayer that all of those flashing lights were wrong.
A few minutes later the Master Caution light was back on again but this time I just said, "Fuck It !" I didn't need anymore bad news right now so I didn't even bother to see what else was going wrong. As it was, the whole instrument panel was lit up like a Christmas tree already. Just as I started looking for a place to land, which wasn't easy since it was pitch dark out side, the refueling point at Phan Rang came into view. I ignored all of the normal procedures for entering a refueling point and headed for the nearest refueling pad. I had just brought the ship to a hover over the pad and was starting to lower the collective to land when the engine quit on me. So I eased the ship to the ground in a near perfect hovering auto-rotation.
While the rotor blades were still turning, I started shutting down what little there was that was still working in the ship and then climbed out of it and joined the LRRP's over at the side of the pad. They had already dismounted-mounted from the ship, and were there shaking hands with the rest of the crew and thanking them for getting them out of the jungle in one piece.
While Bothers was refueling the ship I talked to the LRRP's at the side of the pad. I ask what in hell they had been doing out there and one of them said they had been watching an NVA Battalion CP up in the mountains. When all of the soldiers left on some kind of mission. The LRRP's waited until they thought the soldiers were far enough away, then went into the CP and killed everyone left behind. They also killed 2 doctors and 3 nurses they found there, and stuffed 101st patches in their mouths. One LRRP showed us a ring that he had taken off the finger of one nurse. He said he had to cut her finger off to get the ring as a souvenir of the mission. Then just as the LRRP's were leaving the area, some NVA soldiers had returned and had spotted them and started chasing them. The LRRP said they had been running and hiding from the NVA for the past 2 days and almost been caught several times. If 26 and I hadn't come when we did, it would have been all over for them by now.
I was glad we had been there when it counted and had helped them out but I wasn't sure how to feel about what the LRRP's said they had done. I had heard many stories about the things the enemy did in the past, but I wasn't sure it could justify American Soldiers doing the same sort of things to them.
Once the ship was refueled, I climbed back into the ship and started it up again and then the LRRP's and their CO jumped back in. Then I took-off from the pad and flew to the Brigade CP pad at Phan Rang and dropped off the LRRP's and their CO, then headed for the pad where we were staying during the missions. It had been one hell of a day for all of us but it could have been a lot worse. We could still be out there somewhere beyond the barbed-wire trying to walk back to Phan Rang with an empty gas can right then after we ran out of fuel but we weren't, THANK GOD !
Two days later I was assigned to an Ash & Trash mission with McGovern as the AC, using ship number 671, with SP-4 Turner as Crew chief, and PFC O'Malley as Door gunner. We were flying for a MAAG Detachment at Than Hai a short distance from Plan Rang. It was S.O.S., the Same Old Shit, take someone somewhere and someone else somewhere else, no one usually told us who or why, and we couldn't have cared less. We were just passing the time logging flight hours toward the end of our tour in Nam.
When we arrived at the village we landed in a soccer field across from the detachment HQ and then shut down the engine to await the start of the days business or at least for someone to come tell us what they wanted us to do. Finally Mac went to HQ to get briefed on the mission while I waited at the ship with the rest of the crew. When Mac returned we set about getting the engine started again.
Instead of a normal start as we expected, we got what's known as a "Hot Start". The exhaust temperature gauge jumped up way above normal level, requiring us to abort the start and shut down the engine to prevent damaging it from the excessively high temperatures.
I immediately rolled off the throttle and turned the engine fuel off expecting to hear the engine shut down. This just wasn't my day. Instead, the engine continued to run, just as if I hadn't done anything to it only moments before. Despite all of my efforts to shut the engine down it continued to run, unhindered. Soon the exhaust temperature dropped back to normal operating range and stayed there. Looking over at Mac, I ask him, "Now what do we do ?".
Mac replied, "Fuck it, we can't shut it down, we might as well fly it". So I completed the "Run Up" and then pulled pitch, and headed back to Dong Ba Thin to get the ship checked over by the maintenance people. Just to make sure that nothing was wrong with it after that hot start. Since Mac was the AC, it was his job to decide what to do about it. It was either fly it back, or leave it there where we had the trouble and have someone else come out to get it, and there's no telling how long that would have taken.
Mac made the wise choice in my opinion, we went home for lunch, and a maintenance check-up of the ship on the side. After lunch we got ship number 680, with Martin as Crew chief and Tennison as Door gunner, and finished the day's mission.
THE PANTHER & ANNIE
One day 2nd platoon decided we wanted to have our own identity that would be unique and easily recognizable from "Common" chopper units flying around Nam. Not that we didn't like being "Beach Bums", we were proud of the call sign, but Beach Bums was the whole company and we wanted to let everyone know who WE were.
After a discussing it, we chose "The Pink Panthers", I volunteered to paint the nose cones of our ships with a picture of the Pink Panther so we would be easily recognized when we went somewhere. When I wasn't flying I would worked on the paintings and drafted a couple Crew chiefs and door gun- gunners to help me with the art work.
After seeing the results of the first few paint jobs I had done, the 1st Platoon decided to get a name for their platoon too. Their choice was the cartoon character from Play Boy magazine, "Little Annie Fannie". And the painting they chose for their nose cones showed the Lady in question with a head and shoulders portrait, I guess it would be more appropriately called "A Head and Bust" portrait because the picture did in fact show her tits, nipples and all.
The unveiling and the painting was quite spectacular, and so was the attention it drew. Everyone in the 1st Platoon loved it, it became the pride and joy of the platoon. 1st Platoon's ships drew lots of attention wherever they went.
The joy wasn't to last very long because a few months later they were ordered to cover up Annie's tits or paint over the whole picture. It seems that some General, or some other Ass-Hole, decided the picture of Annie was bad for the troops morale, and sent down the order. Whoever it was that made the asinine decision, never bothered to ask the troops their opinion of how their morale was effected by the pictures. When the order came down, and the dastardly deed was completed, the morale of the troops in 1st Platoon really went down hill.
Instead of painting over the whole thing, several inventive Crew chief made small bikini bra's for Annie out of army green tape others just painted over enough of the picture to cover her nipples. In my opinion the idea that the original pictures did anything to hurt moral was worse then asinine and the effect was the opposite for everyone I talked to about it.
Both platoons started using their new names as their call signs when they were out flying as individual platoons or on single ship missions, but when we were working on company size flights we still used Beach Bum. And Major Jayne pretended he didn't know we were using unauthorized call signs when he wasn't around, and he made it a point not to notice them being used when he was around.
On the 19th of November our platoon moved to Qui Nhon to make that our base of operations for a while, and relieve 1st Platoon so they could return to Dong Ba Thin and work out of our home base. At Qui Nhon we were assigned a parking area for our choppers at Lane Heliport, which is northwest of Qui Nhon, about 5 miles up a valley and connected by a road that lead into the city of Qui Nhon. When someone from our platoon would approach Lane for a landing the radio calls would go something like this. "Lane tower, this is Panther 22". "Panther 22, this is Lane, go ahead with your traffic". "Roger Lane, Panther 22 is 2 miles east, in-bound for landing at the Pussy Pad". "Panther 22, this is Lane, you are cleared to land Pussy Pad, number two in traffic, check final with gear down and locked". "Roger Lane, this Panther 22, number two in traffic, - on final, - gear down and welded". Of course, there were many variations of this call, depending on the humor of the tower operator and the pilot calling in, but it was all in good fun and few people ever objected to it.
On the 21st of November, a two ship mission was scheduled to work Ash & Trash for a MAAG Detachment in the Qui Nhon area, I was assigned as pilot of ship number 747 and 26 was the AC, SP-4 Povey was crew-chief and PFC Ballard was Door gunner. There wasn't a lot of flying on the mission, but during the afternoon we received a radio call from a FAC (Forward Air Control) ship on Guard (the emergency radio frequency for all aircraft in Nam, 243.00 MHz).
The FAC pilot was trying to locate a chopper in the area to give him a hand with something. 26 answered the FAC's call to find out what he wanted. The FAC told us he had spotted a man with a weapon in a clearing and was keeping him pinned down, and could 26 come and assist in the capture ?
26 called the MAAG people and got permission for us and the other ship to go help out, and the MAAG people sent some of their people along with us to act as a ground party if we needed help to make the capture. The FAC gave 26 the directions to the area and I flew our ship, leading the way. When we arrived over the area we found the FAC circling low over a clearing. We could-ld barely see a figure dressed in black trying to hide in the grass near the middle of the clearing.
We alerted our gunners to watch for the man and not to shoot him unless he tried to get away. I brought our ship to a hover in the clearing and then started to hover toward the man. Suddenly a man carrying an AK-47 jumped up and tried to run away from our chopper toward the jungle crouching low to the ground. Our left Door gunner fired at him and knocked him down, but he jumped right back up and started running again. This time the machine gun jammed, so the gunner grabbed my M-16 and started firing with it, knocking the man back down again. Seconds later he was back up and running away again so the gunner fired my M-16 again, it jammed after firing about three more shots.
Angry and frustrated by our bad luck with our weapons, 26 called the other ship and had them fire on the man. Again he was knocked down but once again he jumped back up and tried to run away. By this time our door-gunner had his machinegun working again, and both machineguns opened up at the same time hitting him once more. But this time he didn't get up and run.
After waiting a few seconds to see what would happen, 3 of the MAAG people jumped out of the other ship and went over to the man laying in the grass. Once they were close enough to see the man clearly, they stopped and watched him for a minute or so. When they felt sure that he wasn't going to get up again, they walked over to him. One man pointed his weapon at the man on the ground, another one picked-up the fallen AK-47 while the third walked to the man laying in the grass and rolled him over with his foot and then bent down to check if the man was still alive or not.
Then the bending man stood up and signaled our choppers that everything was all clear, and that the man was dead. Then 2 of the men picked up the body and carried it over to the second chopper and threw it in, then the man with the AK-47 and another man jumped in the chopper and the 3rd man came and climbed in ours. Once the second chopper called that it was ready to go, I took-off out of the clearing and headed back to the MAG compound.
When we landed at the compound the body was dumped out on the ground and the MAAG troops climbed out of both choppers and were greeted by many other members of their detachment. Then they called us on the radio and told 26 we were free to leave anytime we wanted too. I suggested to 26 that we shut down and look over the captured trophies, but 26 decided that we should head for home.
Until this time I hadn't seen a man get killed before. It was nothing like the way it happened in the movies. Before this, I hadn't realized just how difficult it could be to kill a man with a gun. Maybe I should have felt a little more then the excitement of the moment, but it had been just like watching it all happening in a movie to me. There were no feelings of guilt or horror at the event I had witnessed. It was like watching John Wayne or someone getting shot during a Saturday Matinee and knowing after the screen went black the man would get up and walk away, just to do the same thing again next weekend in another movie.
On the way back I heard 26 complain over the intercom, "Damn, I should have taken some pictures of that!". And I thought to myself "Yeah, right, that's what I wanted to do, but you wouldn't listen to me, NOW you finally think of it, big Funking Deal".
When we got back to Lane, I learned the whole platoon was scheduled for a mission the next day at Ninh Hoa and we would be leaving before dawn with 26 as AC and Povey and Ballard as our crew again, in good old 747. So I made it an early evening and turned in to get some sleep to be ready for the next days flying.
On the morning of November 22nd the whole platoon was awaken at 03:00 hrs and we were at the flight line by 03:30 hrs to prepare for the mission. At 04:00 hrs our flight lifted off of Lane and headed south out of Qui Nhon flying around the mountains at the south end of Qui Nhon bay and down the coast. Our mission for the day was to fly lifts for the ROK soldiers in the Ninh Hoa area which was about 10-12 miles north of N.A. Tang. We were about 15 minutes out of Qui Nhon and climbing toward 5,000 feet in order to avoid running into the mountains in the area, with me at the controls.
Suddenly, looking out through my windshield I saw what appeared to be clouds or a fog bank that I hadn't noticed moments before, so I pointed it out to 26. He immediately grabbed the controls while saying to me "I have the aircraft!". Then he called over the radio to our flight, "Flight, this is Lead, we just ran into a cloud bank, Lead is doing a 180 to the left!". Then 26 started his left turn, flying right back through the rest of the platoon which had been flying right behind us. The trail ship later told us that it looked like a covey of quail scattering before a hunter as 26 and I, in the Lead ship, came back through the center of our own platoon.
As 26 turned the ship to the left I noticed something funny about the clouds. They didn't move as our ship turned away from them like they should have so I reached up and touched the windshield and discovered the inside of our windshield was fogged over. I grabbed the controls then told 26, "I have the aircraft, the inside of the windshield is fogged over you'll have to clean off your side of it, so you can see where we're going !" Then I stuck my head out my side window so I could see where we were going and flew the ship like that while 26 was cleaning his side of the windshield.
After cleaning his side, 26 took over the controls while I cleaned my side, then he had the platoon re-form in a normal formation once more, then we headed back towards Ninh Hoa. What must have happened was that the warm air that was trapped inside of our ship while we were on the ground because we were flying with the windows and doors closed, had condensed when we made the climb up into the cooler air to our en route altitude, and formed a fog on our windshield without any of us noticing it until we weren't able to see through the windshield. And that made both 26 and me think we had flown into a cloud bank.
As far as I know our's was the only ship to have this happen to it. In a way it was kind of funny, but the rest of the platoon wouldn't let 26 for-get it anytime soon. But at the same time, if the rest of the flight hadn't been able to get out of our way, someone, more then likely several of them, would have been killed that early November morning, in a mid-air collision when my ship ran into one of the other ships. It's a lesson worth remembering and passing on to others and another very good reason to Thank God. He had to have been looking out for us, and all of the rest of the platoon that morning. Once our flight was reformed, we headed for Ninh Hoa and arrived with out any further problems. Later on that morning an enemy soldier was captured by the ROK's and was brought to the pad, where we were picking up supplies for the ROK units. 26 and I were sitting in our ship taking a break at the time. I watched as the enemy soldier was being questioned by several ROK soldiers and every time the ROK's got an answer they didn't like one of them would hit the captive on the head with a steel helmet. After watching for a few minutes, I walked over to an American Advisor to the ROK's, who was standing there watching, and ask why he wasn't doing something about the way the captive was being treated. The Advisor told me there was nothing he could do about it, that the prisoner had been lucky so far. Normally, the Advisor told me, the ROK's treated their prisoners much worse then that. Then he went on to tell me about an incident that had occurred earlier that year.
It seems that one day, the ROK CG, Commanding General, wanted to take a drive through his AO, to visit some of his troops in the field. As he was passing a certain village, someone fired a couple of shots at him from near the village without hitting him or his jeep. The next day, before daylight, a ROK Battalion moved into position surrounding the village so no one could enter or leave. After the sun came up the ROK's moved into the village and took everyone in it prisoner. They went through the village and killed every animal in it while the villagers stood by and watched. Next the ROK soldiers set fires and burned down every structure in the village, making sure that all of the villagers were watching.
After that they started killing every man woman and child and made them all watch as their families and friends were being killed off, until their turns came. Finally the ROK's hung the bodies of all of the dead villagers over the fences around the village as a warning to the rest of the people in the area of what would happen if the ROK CG was ever fired on again.
According to the Advisor, the warning had it's intended effect, no one has ever fired at the ROK CG since and he drives through the area in his jeep almost daily. According to the Advisor that was the only thing Vietnamese could understand. You show them what will happen if they don't do what they are told to do, then tell them what you want them to do and what will happen if they break your rules, then you won't have any trouble from them after that. That was the way the ROK's did it and it worked every time.
I had to admit that the Advisor had a point, it seems that the nicer you treated the Vietnamese, the worse they treated you. I have heard many stories about GI's giving candy and food to the Vietnamese, then getting shot at when the GI's turned their backs toward the same Vietnamese to go somewhere. It shouldn't have been that way but it sure as hell was and there seemed to be nothing we could do about it. It was no wonder to me that most GI's serving in Vietnam refused to place any trust in any Vietnamese they came across, including those wearing "Friendly" uniforms.
During another mission a few days later I was flying up the coast, at low level, which was the way I liked to go whenever I had the chance, it was a lot more fun then flying up high. I don't recall what the mission was, or where we were going, just the incident. I was screaming along about 10-20 ft above a large area of rice-paddies. Up a head I saw birds in the paddies and continued along knowing they would clear out of the area at my approach, as they always did. As I passed over the area where the birds had been, a duck that hadn't left with the rest of them flew up in front the ship just as I was passing over it. It happened too fast to do anything about it in order to avoid the duck, I just saw it then I hit with the left Homing Antenna mounted on the front of the ship. The next thing I heard was the Crew chief cussing as he started to clean the duck guts off of his machinegun where the duck wound up after splattering on the front of the ship. All I could do was laugh, I knew damned well I couldn't have done that again no matter how hard I tried. I guess the duck was just suicidal that day.
AN OLD FRIEND
Several days later, on my day off, I went into Qui Nhon to the PX to look around and get a few things I needed. While I was wandering around the PX I heard someone call my nick-name and turned around to see who it was and to make sure they were calling me and not someone else. I didn't see anyone I could immediately recognize, but I did see a tall slim Army Spec 5, with glass, walking towards me. When he was close enough to talk without shouting he said, "Excuse me Sir, but isn't your name Duke?". I answered by saying, "Yes, it is, you look familiar, but I don't remember your name or where I know you from".
The soldier smiled and said, "I'm not surprised I had almost forgotten who you were too !". Then said "I'm Don Free, we were friends when you lived in St Louis 6 years ago". Then I remembered Don from when I was stationed at Lambert Field in St Louis with the aviation section, back before going over to Germany in 1962. Don had been with me when I had met Suzanne, back when Candy was in Colorado. I grabbed Don's hand and shook it and said, "God, it's good to see you again Don, what the hell are you doing in Vietnam ?". Don said he had joined the army a little while after I left St Louis, he had been in the Naval Reserve at the time, the army had trained him as a radio repairman. Now Don was working on a floating repair depot called the FAMF, out in Qui Nhon harbor and was doing aircraft avionics repair work. Years ago when I had left St Louis, I had never expected to see any of the people from there again, so I hadn't tried to keep in touch with any of them, and now seeing my old friend Don again, especially here in Vietnam, it was like a miracle or something. Don and I had some great times together around the St Louis and St John area when I was there.
During that week it was like old home week for me, having Don around. We tried catching up on what we had been doing since then. Don told me that not long after I left the area Suzanne had gotten married to some guy in the Air Force. I wasn't sure how to feel about that. Candy had left me and gone home to her parents before I met Suzanne. And at one point I had been on the verge of making the separation permanent so I could stay with Suzanne, but had eventually changed my mind. Not that I didn't want to be with Suzanne, because that was what I really wanted, but Candy had my son, and I didn't feel right about leaving him behind, which is what I would have had to do to stay with Suzanne. And that choice I still regret, considering the way our marriage turned out later on.
Every time I got a day off that week, Don and I would get together and find something to do. Several times we got ammo and took my guns out and had some target practice outside the wire around Lane. We took turns firing and used my camera to take movies of each other firing my M-16. Don was able to capture some embarrassing movie footage of me nearly getting knocked on my Ass when I was showing-off while I was firing that damned rifle. We went in to town a couple of times, but stayed out of trouble and seldom stayed in any of the bars more then a couple of minutes, just long enough to realize they weren't decent places to be.
At the end of that week my platoon went back down to Dong Ba Thin, and that was the last time I saw my friend Don, even though I have tried to con-tact him several times in recent years, without any success. Don my friend, where in the hell are you now ?, I could sure use your friendship again.
We were in Dong Ba Thin long enough to clean our gear and get ready to go somewhere else. Then we were sent back down to Plan Rang to work with the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne once more. On December 1st our mission was a CA into the mountains near the town of Boa Loc. The crew was Mac as AC, myself as Pilot, SP-4 Pribble as Crew chief and last but not least, PFC Good-rum as our Door gunner. We were flying ship 800, and were to land two ships at a time, on a mountain top LZ, and insert the 101st troops there.
As we were making our approach to the LZ the Lead ship discovered that the LZ wasn't big enough to hold two ships at a time, it was a small saddle between two hills covered with trees right down to the edge of the intended LZ. Lead called us on the radio and told us to make a go-around, then make another approach once he had cleared out of the LZ. But Mac had spotted an-other area nearby that he thought we could get into, so he called Lead and told him "Lead this Chalk 2, there's another open area to the right about 100 yards short of the LZ, I'm going to try for it !". Then Mac headed for the opening he had spotted in the trees. It looked fairly clear to us, from about a quarter of a mile out, but there were what looked like small trees in the area.
From our position on the approach path it didn't look like there would be any problem getting into it, so Mac continued his approach. As we got lower into the clearing we discovered that the "Small Trees" we had seen from the air were actually burnt off trees that were between 15-25 feet tall. Mac tried to bring the ship to a hover to stop it's descent into the burnt off trees but he discovered that the air was too thin to hover in, and with the load we had on board, we were too heavy to hover anyway.
The ship started to settle into the trees that were in the would-be LZ, and the main rotor blades started hitting the tops of the taller trees. Mac hollered for the troops to jump out of the ship since we were too heavy and we were going to crash in the LZ if they didn't. He was hoping their exit would lighten us enough to stay in the air and hover. The troops immediately started jumping out of the ship, even though we were still about 15 feet in the air. And as the last grunts jumped from our ship, it continued to settle into the trees and finally hit the ground. Meanwhile, the grunts had been heading for edge of the area as fast as possible so they would be out of the way, incase we crashed there.
The ship sat there shaking and vibrating really bad as the rotor blades continued to chop at the trees around the ship. Not really sure of what to do in that situation, I was ready to roll off the throttle to shut-down the engine. But Mac decided that he didn't want to stay there with the grunts, and that the ship would probably still fly good enough to get us back to a safer area. So he tried picking it up to a hover. Finding it would hover now, when it was too damned late, he flew it out of what had turned out to be a shell hole cause by artillery fire, or a bomb being dropped into the area, and headed toward Boa Loc.
As we gained altitude away from the mountain and over the nearby valley another of our ships radioed that they were coming up a long side of us to look our ship over for damage. Our ship was shaking so badly, it felt like it was about to shake itself to pieces. The other ship then called us on the radio, "Mac you're trailing smoke, it looks like you might have a fire on board !".
A thought flashed through my mind "FIRE?, Jesus Christ, Holy Shit, Now what do we do ?". Then another ship came up along side of us called, "Mac you're not on fire, you just busted a hole in your belly, that's fuel spray-spraying out of there". This time I thought, "SHIT, this could be even worse then a fire, if that fuel blows up into our hot exhaust it could ignite like gas-gasoline, and we would blowup in mid-air !". Mac was on the radio to the other ship, "I'm going to set this damned thing down in the first open area I can find !".
Up ahead of us was a jungle clearing and Mac headed straight for it. It was the exact kind of area the VC liked to set up with an ambush. As we came into the clearing we saw the ground was all covered by tall elephant grass, but we couldn't have cared less. Mac set the ship down in the grass and started to shut it down as fast as he could.
While Mac was shutting down the engine, our crew looked over the ship for damage, then started unloading the ship. They were unloading our personal gear, machineguns and ammo, the aircraft's radios and anything else they could take out of it. Meanwhile, I grabbed my M-16 and ran out past the ship toward the jungle to stand guard, while they did the unloading, hoping that my damned M-1 6 would work a lot better this time, if I needed it, then it had the last time we tried to use it. I wanted to be able to protect our crew until someone came to rescue us from our predicament.
As I ran past the ship I noticed the landing had jammed the tail-boom between two stumps that had been hidden by the grass and another stump was jammed up through the belly of the ship where it had originally been damaged in the shell crater. The last 3 ft or so of the main rotor blades had also been chopped off when they hit the trees in the shell crater. It's no wonder that 800 was vibrating as bad as it had, during the short flight to where it was now, we were lucky it had been able to fly at all.
The wait in the clearing wasn't long, before the ship that had been looking us over landed nearby, and our crew started loading our gear into it. I stayed in position between our ship and the jungle to guard both ships from a surprise attack by any nearby enemy.
Once all the gear was loaded into the other ship the rest of my crew climbed on board it, then they shouted for me to hurry and get in. I turned and ran toward the ship, trying to keep my eye on it, and the jungle over my shoulder, at the same time, half expecting to be shot in the back as I ran. When I reached the ship I threw my rifle in it and jumped in just as it was lifting off the ground, and then turned to look back at the clearing, still expecting to see VC running toward us out of the bush, firing their rifles.
But no one was there. We lifted off without any more problems and head ed for Boa Loc. At Boa Loc we got our equipment out of the rescue ship and then sat down to wait for a replacement ship to arrive from Dong Ba Thin. I tried to smoke my first cigarette in over 3 years to calm my nerves, but I nearly choked to death on it and put it out. When the replacement ship number 099, finally arrived, we flew a couple of resupply flights, and then went back to Plan Rang for the night.
On the way back I was cussing myself for not having had my camera out and been taking pictures that day. Something I had been doing on some of our other flights. It seemed like I was always missing all of the good action shots.
A day or so later I heard one of the CH-47 Chinooks commonly called "Shit Hooks" with the unit call sign "Freight Train" went in shortly after we left the area to sling load our downed ship out of the area and take it back for repairs. And on the way back to the maintenance shop, according to the reports we got, 800 started swinging back and forth under the Shit Hook causing the pilot to have problems keeping his ship under control. And that resulted in 800 being dropped from about 2,000 feet in the air and landing upside down and being completely destroyed. I was able to fly over it a few days later and take some movies of it laying there. Whether 800 broke loose and fell on it's own, or the pilot of the Shit Hook deliberately punched it off I never learned, but it had been a good flying ship until Mac introduced it to that mountain top shell crater.
A couple of days later we went down to Plan Thiet and worked that area for a little while. We were always able to tell when we were near Plan Thiet because there was a factory there that made Nuc Mom. An oily fish sauce used on most of the food the Vietnamese ate, made of fermented rotting fish. We could smell the place any time we were down wind of it.
One day I was sitting with some of the enlisted crewmen while they were working on their gear. I was talking to Danny Asmus, the Crew chief on ship number 789. What we were talking about wasn't very important, he was calling me "Sir", and I was calling him by his first name. While we were talking, 26 walked up and stood there listening to us for a short time, then he told me he wanted to talk to me so I got up and went with him a little way away from the men.
26 gave me hell for using Danny's first name when I was talking to him, he said it was bad for morale and not to do it anymore, then he walked away. I didn't try to explain to 26 that I felt a lot more comfortable being there and talking with Danny and the other Crew chief, then I did when I was with 26 and the other officers. At least the crew chiefs and door gunners weren't stuck-up and snobbish like some of the officers were. And having spent most of my twelve years in the army as a Crew chief, I felt a lot more comfortable with them, then any one else.
On the 4th of December, my birthday, there was no day off for me. What the hell did the army care that I had just turned 30 years old, it was my problem, not the army's. I was scheduled to fly on a CA mission and wound up flying two of them. The first was in chopper 877 with WO Arann as AC, SP-4 Hulshoff as Crew chief, and PFC Bynum as gunner. The flight was uneventful and lasted about an hour. A little later in the day I changed AC's and wound up flying with Major Gower the new Operations Officer for the unit. We put in another 2 � hours on another CA mission and then called it a day. A CA Day wasn't exactly the birthday present I was hoping for but since nothing exciting happened it was a lot better then a "Hot LZ Day". But what the hell made me think I could get a special favor from the army in the first place ?
On one flight I was flying down south of Plan Thiet over the salt flats when I noticed something going on down on the road that headed south along a narrow strip of land between the ocean and mountains that came right down to the waters edge. There seemed to be a roadblock set up on the road, and the people using the road were being stopped by men dressed in black pajamas and carrying rifles. I ask the Advisor in our ship what was going on and he told me it was a VC tax collection point. I ask if we could do something about it and was told that we had orders to leave them alone, that we would get into trouble if we interfered with them. I thought to myself, "What the Fuck is going on here ?, we can see the VC down there robbing people, the government and the Advisors know it's going on and we can't do anything about it with out getting into trouble ?, this is some shit !".
On another flight we were loading troops to take them out into the bush to a grunt CP. As the troops climbed in my ship one of them had a scout dog on a leash, a big German Shepard. When it came time for us to check-in with Lead with the number of troops on board my AC called in with, "This is chalk 2, we have 6 men on board and a dog the size of a Mountain Lion !".
On the flight to the LZ the dog stood on the console between me and the AC, and looked out through the windshield. I wanted to shove the damned dog off the console but I didn't know if the dog was friendly or not, I wasn't in any position to find out the hard way, so I just let him stand there. As we were coming into the LZ the dog got off of the console and went to the door of the ship.
While the ship was about 15 feet in the air, still moving forward, the dog jumped out of the ship, with his handler firmly attached to the end of the dog's leash. I was surprised to see the handler survive the fall into the LZ, but I guess he was a hardcore paratrooper and could handle it, and was probably used to it by now anyway. Obviously the dog was in a hurry to get out of the ship, and whether the handler was, or not, didn't seem to bother the dog very much. At least I don't remember seeing the dog ask if it was time to get out, the dog seemed to have a mind of it's own and acted like it was the Team Leader.
On December 8th we were given a mission of taking replacements to an ARVN, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, South Vietnamese soldiers, compound near the town of Tam Bou. The compound had been under attack earlier in the week and now needed replacements for soldiers that had been either killed or wounded. All three of our platoons were going on the mission, both lift platoons and the Gun platoon were to make the flight.
When I heard about the mission, I couldn't help wondering why the Guns were going along, if all we had to do was drop off a few replacements. But I didn't spend any time worrying about it, since most of the things the army does have nothing to do with common sense anyway. According to the briefing we got before taking off, the area was reported as safe by the people at the compound we were to visit, so no trouble was expected during the mission.
There were 8 ships available for the flight, each carrying 8 ARVN's, plus 3 American Advisors, a Lt Colonel, a Captain and a Sergeant all onboard one of our ships. I was the pilot on chalk 8, the trail ship for the flight, ship 794, Jim Bell was AC, SP-4 Shumate was crew-chief, and PFC Young our gunner. It was late afternoon as we approached the LZ, it was in the middle of what seemed to be a Soccer Field with trees and bushes on 3 sides of it.
Since this wasn't supposed to be a CA, once we landed in the LZ we just sat there waiting for the men who were being replaced to come to the ships for a ride back to their base camp, instead of taking off right away as we normally would on a CA. The unit we had brought into the LZ jumped out of the ships, walked away, disappearing into the surrounding tree line. After waiting for a few minutes our crews became restless because no one had shown up for the flight back to the main ARVN compound, we were wondering what the hell was going on.
Then I noticed some small spouts of dirt and dust appearing around the LZ and wondered what was causing them, suddenly there was a load banging noise in the ship and Young came on the intercom with "Sir !, we're taking fire from the tree line, I've been hit !". I half turned around to look back at Young to see if he was all right while Jim called on the radio, "Lead, this Trail, we're taking fire !".
There was no response from Lead. Then another ship came on the air
with, "Lead, we're taking fire, Lets get the Fuck out of here !". I heard several similar calls over the radio while we were sitting there getting shot at. Still there was no response from Lead. Then I heard another voice on the radio, "Lead, this Sidewinder 3, I'm rolling in to give you cover fire !".
About that time Lead came on the air, "Flight, Lead is pulling pitch in 5 seconds, let's get the Fuck out of here !". Then the flight started lift-lifting out of the LZ. I thought to myself, "We're really in the shit now, we'll be lucky to get out of here alive !". As our ship cleared the trees at the end of the LZ I kept expecting to get it shot out from under us. We were the last ship in the flight making us the only target left to be shot at as we left the area and got out of range of the ground fire. But we didn't take anymore hits.
Then I heard over the radio, "Lead, this is Sidewinder 3, taking hits and going down in the LZ we need some help !". Sidewinder 3 was Dale Garber, from our gun platoon. Then I heard "Don't sweat it buddy, Old Butch is on the way !". That call told me that Good Old Butch LaRoue was on his way to help out a friend who was in trouble. Meanwhile the rest of the flight continued on toward an airstrip known as Dalat II, so we could land and check our ships for damage.
When we landed I had expected to find Young laying on the floor in the back of the ship dead, or at the very least badly hurt and bleeding. Young had a headache, but other then that he was all right, and happy as hell that he was still alive. It was a close call for him and he knew it.
After I shut down the engine, we checked our ship for damage and disc-discussed what had just happened to us. 794 had taken one round through the left door near the Crew chief's shoulder, it went through the left fire wall, hit the tail rotor drive shaft putting 2 large holes in it. Then it went through the right fire wall, hit Young's flight helmet breaking his right ear-phone, and exiting across his right temple leaving a slight scratch on his temple and forehead, but nothing more.
A short time later Butch came in and landed with the rescued Dale�s gun ship crew on board. Butch's ship had taken 27 hits while he was going back into the LZ to get the gun ship's crew. Dale told us that he was on his first pass when the controls on his ship had been shot away and he had no other choice then to land in the LZ or crash into the trees. He told us he hadn't been able to shut his engine off after he landed and the last he had seen of his ship, the engine was still running while the ship sat there in the LZ by itself.
While we were talking about what had happened in the LZ, we decided the reason the enemy had waited so long to shoot at us, was because under normal circumstances the flight would lift out of the LZ as soon as we dropped off the troops. It was very likely the enemy had been instructed to wait until then before shooting. And when we didn't lift off right away they were confused because more then likely they hadn't been told what to do if we just sat there.
The VC and NVA had a very strong tendency to obey orders to the letter, regardless of whether the order was the right thing to do at the time, and more then likely when our ships didn't lift right away as we should have, one of them got nervous and fired early, or a new order had been given to start shooting right away. It was also suspected by some, that the reason that the firing hadn't started until after the ARVN's had disappeared into the trees was because it was the ARVN's who did the firing. Another opinion included the strong possibility that some of the ARVN's were in cahoots with the VC in the first place, whether they took part in the shooting or not.
A short time after Butch's ship left the LZ, another gun ship went back and tried to destroy the downed gun ship, but after firing several rockets, and a hell of a lot of machinegun ammo at it, the gun ship was still sitting on the ground running the last time it was seen that evening. That night a "Spooky" gun ship fired a couple thousand more rounds at it without having any noticeable effect on it.
The next morning another chopper flew by it at low level and the door-gunner threw a hand grenade into it and blew it up, hoping to prevent the enemy from taking the guns and radios out of it and using them later on. We never learned if the efforts had been successful, but in my opinion, by the time the ship was destroyed it was already far too late to prevent the loss. The enemy had more then likely stripped the ship during the night and been long gone by the time the downed gun ship was destroyed the next morning.
A few days later we learned that we had been surrounded by a Hard Core NVA Battalion while we were in that LZ. We also learned that the ARVN's we had taken into the LZ, were all taken prisoner without firing a single shot or losing a single man. Meaning to us, they had thrown down their weapons and surrendered without a fight reinforcing our belief that they were always in cahoots with the enemy.
The only casualties were the 3 American Advisors. They were found with their hands tied behind their backs, shot through the back of the head. This was another reason for us to hate and distrust the damned ARVN's, many of us would have gladly killed every damned one of the Bastards we saw, from that day on.
On the 14th of December the 117th was sent to Bao Loc to fly missions for the MAAG Detachment there. We sat-up our living area in squad tents, off to the side of the red dirt airstrip that had been laid with PSP. Every time one of the C-130s took-off, we found ourselves in the middle of a red dust storm.
A day or so after we arrived, we started building bunkers for our own protection. While some guys were filling sandbags, others were carrying them to the bunker sites. I was doing the easy work, turning the sandbags right-side out so the tie strings were on the outside so they could be filled with dirt. You might say I was just cooling it, when suddenly it got interesting.
As I reached into a sandbag, I felt a sharp stinging sensation on my right arm. Then I felt several more sharp stings in rapid succession, so I jerked my arm out of the sandbag as fast as I could.
As my arm came out of the bag so did a 6 inch long brown scorpion that had been in the bag. After stomping all over the scorpion I looked at my arm and saw it was already starting to swell. Someone grabbed a jeep and drove me to the Aid Station so the medics could check my arm. The Doctor told me not to worry about it, if I was still alive by this time then the scorpion wasn't deadly and the swelling would go down in a couple of days.
The Doctor told me I was very lucky, had the scorpion been a blue or white one, he wouldn't be talking to me right then and I wouldn't ever talk to anyone else again. When I got back to my area, I decided to let someone else search for the scorpions, instead I went to my tent and laid down for the rest of the day. I didn't fly until the swelling in my arm went down. I had gotten one hell of an early Christmas present from "Friendly Downtown Boa Loc", and it could have cost me my life.
There wasn't a lot to do around the area when there was no flying going on. During the day we could go into Bao Loc to visit the restaurants, bars, "Cat Houses", or walk around the city and visit the large market place that was there. The one restaurant I visited had halfway descent food, especially when compared to the mess hall food.
We weren't allowed to be in town after dark for obvious reasons. And of course there were movies shown nearly every night out at the airfield. Some guys told me there were a couple of whore-houses in town, but I didn't even bother to find out if they were telling the truth or not. And even if I had been interested I seriously doubt if I would have been able to trust any of the Vietnamese to be alone with them long enough to make it worth my while in the first place.
We also had some Montagnards soldiers living on the airfield with us. In the evening some would build bonfires to attract flying bugs and then sit by the fire and try to catch bats that were attracted by the insects. The "Yards" would try to knock the bats out of the air using rifles, shovels or anything else they had as the bats came to feed on the insects. The Yards liked bat stew and this was one way to get the main ingredient for it. Just the thought of having bat stew, or bat anything, left me feeling a little sick, and I declined several offers to share it with them.
I noticed during the western movies the Yards, as far as I know none of them could speak any English, would go nuts rooting for the Indians every time they appeared on the screen. Every time there was an Indian attack, the Yards would whoop and holler along with the Indians on the screen. I guess the Yards considered the Indians relatives, because they looked similar, in fact they had both been treated the same way in their own countries by their invaders from other places. How the Yards knew that, if they did, I don't Know. Maybe they just sensed it from what they were seeing in the movies.
One night a Dracula movies was being shown, with the Yards gathering around the screen. Every time Dracula appeared the Yards would moan and sigh in fear. Part way through the movie, just as Count Dracula was bending over to attack a beautiful blonde lady the Yards opened fire at the screen and Dracula, with their rifles, to save the Lady.
Nearly all Americans went scrambling for cover, thinking we were under attack. When the projectionist turned off the projector and dived for cover the firing stopped, the Yards all cheered, thinking they had killed Dracula and saved the Lady. Once the noise died down, and we realized what was going on, we got a big laugh out of it. But the rest of the movie was canceled and an order was put out "No more Dracula Movies were to be shown in the area!".
I have often wondered what stories were later told about the incident. I can imagine stories about them killing a terrible monster that flew, and ate young girls and how brave the Yards were when they destroyed it. Whether they really destroyed Dracula or not is unimportant, but they sure as hell did a job on the movie screen.
The Yards were good soldiers, they were hard fighting, fearless, very loyal to anyone they liked, and they loved Americans. They were also a very fun loving, happy-go-lucky people, but had a hard time deciding who they hated and wanted to kill most, the VC and NVA or ARVNs. The Yards hated the ARVNs because they were part of the Government who had oppressed them for hundreds of years and because they were Vietnamese who always treated the Yards like they were second class, or lower, citizens.
The cowardly ARVNs would usually stay well away from the Yards unless they had the Yards out numbered, even though most of the Yard's officers were ARVNs. It wasn't unusual to see fights between the Yards and the ARVNs in Bao Loc and it seems that some of the fights were started by Americans, just to see the ARVNs get their asses kicked. And even though we were told not to get involved in any of the disputes, that didn't stop our people from rooting for the Yards and even occasionally encouraging them regardless of what they were fighting about. I fully understood why.
During the last week in December the 117th was told to pack-up and get ready to head back to Dong Ba Thin. The unit was closing out of the area and had to pack up everything we owned, so we could move down to Bien Hoa by the first week in January. We were going to join the 145th Aviation Battalion that was already stationed there. According to what we were told, Bien Hoa was about 20 miles north of the capitol of Saigon.
When it was time to depart Bao Loc, I was told there weren't enough ships available for me to fly one of them back to Dong Ba Thin and there fore, I would have to ride there in a gun ship that had a little room left. I packed what little I had with me and loaded it aboard the Charley model gun ship that was to take me to Dong Ba Thin, and then climbed in it. The pilot cranked the engine, then Ran it up making all of the usual pre-flight checks before taking off.
While this was going on I realized it had been a long time since I had ridden in the back end of a chopper, the last time being only for a short distance when Mac had broken our ship in the hill top shell crater earlier that month. During this trip I figured that I would be able to sit back and enjoy the scenery for once.
Once the run-up was finished we were ready to leave. But when the pilot tried to pick the ship up to a hover he discovered it was too heavy to hover so I started to get worried. The pilot tried again, but was only able to get it about an inch off the ground. Then he started sliding it along the ground on it's skids. I could hear the skids scrapping as the ship moved along and started to pick-up speed. Soon it bounced a couple of times, on about the 4th or 5th bounce it was just barely airborne and flying about a foot or two above the ground.
That has to have been one of the longest and scariest take-offs I have ever experienced since I started flying, and we still weren't really in the air yet. We would still have to gain enough altitude to clear the fence at the camp perimeter, that must have been at least 4 or 5 feet high. And until it was actually done, I still wasn't really sure the over-weight pig would take us anywhere but to an early grave.
So far it looked to me like gravity was going to win the struggle for supremacy. Later, when I talked to the crew of the ship I was told that it had been a typical take-off for a Charley model gun ship. They were always heavy like that, hard to get off the ground even under the best of circumstances, and being in the mountains like we were at AO Loc didn't make things any easier either. I decided then and there that I would never ride in one again, and I wasn't about to try to transfer into the gun platoon to become a gun ship pilot like I lot of the guys wanted to do.
Once the take-off had been successfully completed, I was able to stop fearing for my life, for a moment there it had been the "Moments Of Stark Terror" part of the old saying. Maybe there was a lot of glory that went with being a gun ship pilot, at least according to most of the gun ship pilots there was, but that take-off had been enough to convinced me that I wanted no part of it, ever.
Back at Dong Ba Thin, I packed up everything I owned for the trip to the new area and then I helped pack up the companies equipment. When I went down to the helipad to catch a ride to the Bien Hoa, none of the 117th's ships had any room left in them so I wound up riding in a Shit-Hook that belonged to another unit, and was transporting some of our equipment and people for us. I just hoped that it wasn't the same one that dropped 800 back on the 1st of December.
The back of the Shit-Hook was full of troops and equipment, there were no empty seats so I climbed in a jeep that was with the rest of the cargo and rode there for the trip to Bien Hoa. Until then, I had thought about try -trying to fly one of these big choppers, but after sitting there for a couple of hours watching hydraulic fluid drip down from overhead hydraulic systems and listening to the racket it made while it was flying, I decided maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all. This one looked like an accident searching for a place to happen. But contrary to my worst fears, it was a very boring and uneventful flight into the unknown. Boring, but also noisy, nasty, and tiring for me.
When the Shit-Hook landed at Bien Hoa I was able to catch-up with the rest of my unit. We were setup on the southeast side of the Air force Base, near the gate leading into Bien Hoa. To the west of our area about half a mile or so was a large building called the Jupiter Club, it was a civilian run night club sitting inside the barbed wire surrounding the airbase. Most of the company would be living in tents again, just like at AO Loc, but the officers would only be there until regular quarters could be found for us in an officer's billeting area in Bien Hoa. We hoped it wouldn't take very long because we were tired of living in these damned tents. I guess the enlisted men felt the same way the officers did, but didn't have any choice in the matter, they were stuck in the damned tents for the duration of their stay in Bien Hoa. The one good thing about it was we wouldn't have to build the helipads ourselves this time. They were already there waiting for us to use. We setup our tents about 30-50 yards from the barbwire and mine fields that separated us on the base, from those in the city of Bien Hoa.
We spent the first few days setting up the area so it could loosely be considered livable by Vietnam standards. On the second evening there some of us pilots decided to go visit the Air force Officers Club to celebrate the move and the setting up of our new home-away-from-home. Once I and the other guys living in my tent were ready to go, we headed toward the tent of the other guys who were going to go with us on the excursion to the club.
As we approached the other tent the guy in the lead started to enter it and was met by a large black Cobra snake. The cobra was standing up on it's tail about 4-5 feet tall with it's hood flared, in the middle of the tent. The guys who had already entered the tent before seeing the cobra yelled, then hastily exited the tent. Then the guys that had their guns with them started shooting at the tent hoping to hit the snake inside of it.
After a hail of gun fire was directed into the tent someone who was thinking clearly called a cease-fire. Then we cautiously went to inspect the tent. Needless to say the snake was long gone, it probably left, right after seeing the guy who entered the tent first. The tent and most of it's original contents were still there, most of it with severe "Battle Damage". That left the guys that were supposed to live in the tent with a problem or two. The first was to pray that it didn't rain until a new tent could be provided to replace the one that had just been shot full of holes. And second, they would have to replace or repair the gear that had suffered severe "Combat Damage", at least that's what they would tell the supply people, had happen- ed to all of the stuff when they tried to turn it in for replacement. And after that happened, I don't recall to this day if we ever made it to the club that evening or not.
After living in tents for several days we finally got good news for a change. All of the officers were to move into a villa in downtown Bien Hoa, on Cong Lee street, we would live at the 145th Avn Bn's officer's compound with the rest of the battalion's officers. Each of us got our own private room at the villa. My room was about the size of some of the smaller motel rooms I have seen back in the world, with a shower that may or may not work depending on the civilians who were supposed to keep the reservoir on top of the building filled with water. The water was heated by the sun so it wasn't always warm and it was never hot, but it was always a rusty red color, and better then nothing at all, like it had been at several other locations we had worked out of, in the past.
There were several Officer's Clubs on Cong Lee street, that were set-up by the different companies in the battalion, and we could visit without ever leaving the compound. We were welcome to visit any of them to eat, drink and watch movies in the evenings, or participate in what ever entertainment was going on at the time, usually cards of one kind or another.
Not being a gambler, I never got involved in the card games being play-ed, I spent my time between the movies and playing the slot machines that were in most of the clubs. But it was just to pass time while I was waiting for something else to do and I usually either broke even or came out winning a little more then I had started out with. The only problem with being there was the compound was located 4-5 miles across town from the airbase, so we had to get up earlier then normal, to make the drive in a 3/4 ton, driven by one of our crew members, to get to work each day before the missions started heading out. But even with that it beat hell out of living in those damned tents that we had been in for the past month or so.
On January 9th, a few days after we finally got settled into our new area, I was assigned to fly a mission with another company in the battalion, the 118th Assault Helicopter Company known as the "Thunder Birds". This was done with all pilots from the 117th, so we would have a chance to become familiar with the area and learn our way around with the minimum amount of delay.
I flew in chopper 064 with WO Jackson as AC, Cerniglia as Crew chief and Pinckney as Door gunner, members of the 118th. Our mission was to fly over to Tay Ninh, pickup some MAAG people, an ARVN Officer, and go from there to an area known as "The Parrot's Beak", south of Tay Ninh where Cambodia sharply jutted into Vietnam, forming a shape on the maps suggesting the name used by Americans to identify it. At the parrot's beak I made a landing about 50 yards east of the Cambodian border. Once on the ground, the ARVN jumped out and walked toward the border, he was met by an officer from across the border. The two officers stood and talked for a while, then the Cambodian officer traded an enemy submachine gun to the ARVN for an American M-16 he had been carrying with him. They shook hands and the ARVN walked back to the ship and got in. I didn't know what to think about what I had just witnessed, no one bothered to offer me an explanation, so I assumed it was all right, but I still had a few doubts about it. We flew back to Tay Ninh to drop off the ARVN we had picked, then headed back toward Bien Hoa.
On the way back we flew over an area known as the Iron Triangle that was between Tay Ninh and Bien Hoa. As we were flying along I looked down at a village we were flying over, and spotted a Viet Cong flag flying from a flag pole in the center of the village. When I reported my sighting to the AC and the MAAG personnel in the ship, I was ordered to turn back and fly over the area again, low level, so the others could get a better look at it. One guy in the back wanted me to fly real low so he could try to grab the flag as a souvenir, but it was voted down by me and the other people in the ship with a little common sense. The flag was obviously put there to attract attention to it and it was most likely intend to lead someone dumb enough to try to get it, into an ambush of some kind. The flag was probably booby trapped, or it might be covered by several automatic weapons in hopes that some fool would try something stupid like taking it down. After the low pass, I headed back to Bien Hoa and reported what we had seen to Operations and let them decide what to do about it, if anything.
I flew another mission with the 118th on the 11th of January in ship 709, with Easton as AC, Castle as Crew chief, and Mower as gunner, and then started flying with our own ships and crews again. Most of the missions in this new area weren't much more exciting then the ones I had flown in the coastal area before coming here to Bien Hoa.
One afternoon I was visiting a club on the base and I ran into a guy I recognized from Flight school. His first comment was something to the effect of "What the hell are you doing here ?, word was going around you had bought the farm a couple of weeks back !". I replied something to the effect that I was too poor to buy anything right then. I was just a lowly chopper pilot with a family of 5 kids who were most likely eating me out of house and home right then, so I couldn't afford to buy anything right now, I couldn't even afford to pay attention.
My old classmate and I talking about some of the other guys from our class that we had heard about lately. He told me that he had heard a rumor that Howie Anderson had been killed sometime in December but he wasn't sure of any of the details, only that someone had said it to him.
I didn't think very much about the rumor that Howie had been killed at the time, after all the guy telling me about it had thought I was dead too, before I ran into him that day. (Years later I would learn that Howie had, in fact, been killed on the 27th of December, and now I can't help feeling just a little responsible. If I had minded my own damned business back there in flight school, chances are Howie would never have made it through the school, and would now be home with family and friends where he should be. Instead, he's now just another name on a Black Granite Wall in D.C. It's a damned shame.)
During my off duty time, I occasionally walked into Bien Hoa to look around and for shopping, but only during daylight hours. However I never felt very comfortable when I was there, and was more then happy to get back to the Villa I lived in. Even though I always carried a weapon with me when I went to town and was ready to use it if need be. There were just too many strange people and too much noise in town and I couldn't really handle all that at the same time. There were always some Vietnamese approaching me to get me to buy something, or a pimp, or whore, wanting me to do business with them.
It got so I could recognize them before they had a chance to start a sales pitch, and I would usually yell something like, "Get the Fuck away from me!", at them as they approached me. So I finally stopped going into town, even for a short visits, all together. And spent my spare time at the clubs on Cong Lee Street, but I chose my times there carefully to avoid the sloppy drunks who were usually there late in the evening. And I had nothing to do with the "B" girls who frequented most of the bars and clubs in the area. I had heard too many stories about the strange incurable diseases that were floating around Vietnam, and I made it a point to stay as far away from any possible points of contact as I could.
On the 20th of January I was assigned to fly ship 847, with Bouchard as AC, SP-4 Bennett as Crew chief and PFC Welty as gunner. It was a CA carrying ARVNs. The LZ was in an area of the Mekong River known as "The Testicles" because of the shape of the land formed by the river flowing past it. I was filming most of the assault with my movie camera at the time.
As we approached the area I could see smoke rising ahead of us in huge mushroom clouds where artillery shells had landed. As we got closer I could see a lonely column of yellow smoke rise up marking the LZ in the middle of a rice paddy surrounded by nipa palm trees and dikes. There was a "WHOOOOOS H" as rockets fired by the gun ships went by to land in the nipa palms and along the dikes. And the bright flashes, with clouds of dirty grey smoke as the rockets detonated. Then row after row of smaller splashes appeared as the machineguns fired, chewing up any area that could possibly be a hiding place for enemy soldiers in or near the LZ.
That was followed by a roar as gun ships raced passed on another gun-run to the target area, putting out suppressive fire on the LZ, and surrounding area. As our slicks got to the LZ, the gun ships kept making firing runs on the surrounding area. Bouchard brought our ship to a hover in the LZ and the ARVNs started to climb out. Our ship never actually landed, because it could be mined or booby trapped, or the ship might get stuck in the soft mud of the paddies.
This was the time the gunner and Crew chief were busiest. They had to watch the tree line for the enemy, and at the same time had to watch the departing ARVNs closely, to make sure they didn't shoot back at us, or try to throw a grenade into our ship. It happened many times before, to other unfortunate crews, and our crews wasn't going to take any chances. They were told if the ARVNs acted the least bit suspicious, shoot and worry about explaining their actions later on if any one even bothered to ask.
Often the gunner would have to physically throw an ARVN out of the ship to get them into the LZ and several gunners had been known to start throwing the ARVNs out of the ship, while it was still on short final to the LZ then point their guns at the ARVNs to keep them from getting back on the chopper when it did land. As far as I could tell none of us trusted the ARVN when we were around them and they were watched all of the time by anyone not busy doing something else.
After the ARVNs got out of our ship, one near my door, cocked a BAR that was nearly as big as he was, then walked away from the ship shooting toward the tree line. I halfway expected to see him turn and fire at us, so I told the gunner to keep an eye on the Dink with the BAR until we left the LZ. Lead called pulling pitch, and our flight left the LZ. As we climbed out of the LZ, Bouchard looked over and saw me putting down my camera and said, "You were supposed to be on the controls with me, in case I get shot or something". I replied, "I wasn't worried about it, you had everything under control". It wasn't the first time I had been taking movies during a mission and sure as hell wouldn't be the last time either. Later on I would get some pretty good shots on other missions around the area.
We made several more lifts into the same LZ that day without anything happening, then toward evening, went back to the area and extracted them from the area, to take them back to their base. The PZ that we picked them up in, couldn't have been more then 300-400 yards across several flat rice paddies, from where we dropped them off that morning. They were close enough that a person standing up in one area could see into the other area without any problems at all. Our crew was pissed about the mission. We had spent the day flying these damned ARVNs into the area, and the Bastards hadn't gone far enough to justify the waste of fuel and the time it took us to do it.
The ARVNs had more then likely just gone into the trees around the LZ, and then slept until time to be picked up by us. It was a real Funking waste of our time.
On January 25th 1968, a two ship mission was scheduled to go to Duc Hoa to work with the Advisor Detachment there. I was pilot of ship 747, with WO Walker as AC, SP-4 Povey as Crew chief and PFC Peterson as gunner. The other ship came from 1st Platoon and had Lt Robert King as AC, WO John Foden as pilot, Sgt Jack Sutphen as Crew chief and SP-4 Jack Cotterell as gunner. (At the time I didn't know who was in the crew of the second ship and I wasn't able to find out their name's until 1992.)
My crew got to the flight line early, and pre-flighted our ship. Once we finished I talked Walker into leaving early so we could get on with the job, rather then sit around and wait for the others to get ready and join us. We took-off heading around Bien Hoa on it's north side, and then south-west on our way to Duc Hoa. The weather that day was mostly low overcast, with most of the clouds right down on the deck in some places, but once you got up to the normal cruise altitude of 1,500 feet or higher it was clear.
As we passed Di An the clouds in that area were such that I had to make a choice to either go over or under them, depending on how I wanted to fly. Under them I would have to fly low level which was always a lot of fun, or over them. Which meant flying along straight and level without being able to see the ground, and not knowing for sure where I was because I couldn't see any land marks to navigate by. I chose to go low level, underneath the cloud cover, at least part of the way.
The ground in that part of Vietnam was fairly flat, near sea level, so I was able to fly between 50-100 ft altitude most of the way without worrying about running into any hills or mountains because there were none along the general route we were taking. Also there were no buildings larger then one story. Occasionally I had to go around some of the areas where the clouds were right down on the deck.
As we reached the Duc Hoa area all the clouds were down on the deck in a condition commonly known as "Fog" by those who don't fly. So I climbed up through a hole in the clouds into a bright blue sky, then we radioed to the Advisor compound at Duc Hoa to find out where the hell they were in all of that white stuff that was covering the ground below us.
Duc Hoa answered our call and gave us a long count on the radio so we could tune the direction finding radio to their signal and could follow it to where they were supposed to be. Several more calls were exchanged between us to keep me on course. Once I was in the general area I spotted a radio antenna sticking up out of the fog and flew toward it. As we reached it, the Advisors called us on the radio and told us they could hear a chopper right over their area, they told us to land about 50 meters south of the antenna if we wanted too.
I hovered the ship over to where they told me to land, then just hover-ed there for a minute or two, giving the main rotor blades a chance to blow some of the fog away. As the fog thinned out I slowly lowered the collective and eased the ship down into the hole I was creating in the fog, until my skids finally touched the ground. Then I prepared to shut the engine down to wait for the fog to lift. When I first saw some figures walking toward my ship out of the fog I was a little apprehensive about who they were and as to whether I was really in the right area or not. It was just possible that I had been tricked into landing there by an enemy that spoke good English. The figures emerging from the fog turned into the American Advisors from the Duc Hoa compound. Once I had the ship all shut down, they lead us back to their compound for coffee and a briefing on the days mission.
By mid-morning the fog had lifted, but the other ship hadn't shown up yet, so we had the advisors make a call on their more powerful radios, back to our base at Bien Hoa to find out when we could expect them to arrive. Our base at Bien Hoa said they didn't know, but said they would check on it and call us back. A little later we were told to go on with our mission, the other ship would not be joining us after all. That left us wondering what had happened to change the plans. Because the other ship hadn't arrived the mission took a little longer then we had anticipated during the briefing that morning. When we finally finished with our mission that afternoon we were released and then we returned to Bien Hoa.
Back at Bien Hoa, I ask what had happened to the other ship. The Operations Sergeant told me about it. They had taken-off about 15 minutes after we left the pad, and was trying to catch up with us by flying over the same general route I had taken. Just past Di An where I had gone low level, the other ship had been fired on by a .51 cal. machinegun. The ship had taken several hits, one had gone through the Co-pilot's door, hit his armored seat, gone through the seat and killed him. It continued on through him, hit the AC, killed him, went on through his seat and out his door. Then the chopper, with both pilots dead, had nosed over, and hit the ground at about 100 miles per hour, killing both the Crew chief and Door gunner, who were in the back of the ship.
(I couldn't help wondering if it was my fault or not. We were supposed to have been together on the mission, but I had gone on ahead. Maybe I woke up the machine gunner so he was ready for Lt King's ship when it came along. Maybe the gunner wouldn't have fired if there had been the two ships instead of just one. There were so many "IF's", and no answers, but it still seems to me that I wasn't entirely innocent of the responsibility for what had happened that day to those four young men. And no number of years will ever completely erase the feeling of guilt no matter how small an amount it is.)
By this time most of the AC's in the platoon had come to realize I was a competent pilot, when they were scheduled to fly with me they didn't have to worry about whether I would be able to handle the ship or not so some of them started slacking off a little. Usually they wouldn't drink very much the night before a mission so they would be fully alert and ready. But with me in the cockpit, a couple of them would get carried away at the clubs the night before and not be in as good of shape as they should have been. They knew I was willing to do most of the flying and seldom needed any help.
One AC in particular would come to the flight line so wasted that for the first couple of hours he would just lean against his door jamb and sleep leaving me to do everything myself. Not that I minded the peace and quiet of not having him tell me what to do all of the time, but it seemed I was being taken advantage of by him, he should know better. He was supposed to be in-charge of the ship, share the work, and act in a more responsible manner. I figured if I could stay sober to do my job then it was only fair that he do the same thing in return. So I decided to do something about it.
The next time he crawled into the ship and went to sleep I started to gently move the cyclic control in small circular motions as I flew along. Gradually the circles got bigger and bigger until the ship would be rocking from side to side and back and forth. Before long my inebriated AC would be hanging his head out of his window, and puking his guts out. It only took a couple of these "Special Treatments" before he caught on and quit drinking so much the night before our flights. I never gave the Special Treatment to someone who was just tired or feeling bad, but if they arrived smelling like brewery, shame of them, I had no mercy for them.
The 28th of January I had a CA mission in ship 877 with Barry Nordlof as AC, Sp-4 Povey as Crew chief and PFC Lutz as gunner. It was a simple and quiet flight as CA's go, nothing interesting happened during it. But later on that evening, all the company officers were told to report to the company area first thing in the morning. We were told a 1st Platoon ship had lost it's engine on take-off out of our pad, and had landed in the minefield just outside of the barbwire at the end of our ramp. 26 was flying along-side the ship when it crashed, and had his main rotor head and blades, blown off by the explosion of the ship hitting a mine. But I don't recall if anyone in 26's ship was hurt or not.
When we got to the flight line the next morning we were told that when the ship went down it had hit a mine and then exploded killing WO Timothy J. McKiernan by blowing him out through the front of the ship, still strapped in his seat. When his body was recovered it was discovered His pistol was missing and everyone was being ordered to go into the minefield to search for it, so the company wouldn't get into trouble over a missing pistol.
To say the idea was stupid, would be selling it far short of it's true classification. It was beyond stupid, fast approaching criminal negligence. We had all ready lost one man killed, so far, and had three more injured by the same accident, and now some Ass-hole wanted us to risk the lives of more men by looking for a damned pistol in the middle of a minefield ? You must be shitting me !, was my view of the situation.
The company was on the verge of a full scale mutiny, and the Ass-hole that thought up the order was subject to getting fired on by his own men, when someone with some intelligence had the order canceled. But not before one group, with me in it, had already searched a part of the minefield.
We had spent about an hour, very cautiously moving around a portion of the minefield looking for the pistol, and finding nothing but what appeared to be some pieces of the chopper, and some unnamed bits that attracted some flies and other insects to feed. I shuddered to think what they might have been, and hoped they weren't, parts of Tim.
The guys in the search didn't know whether to be more angry about the original order or the delay in issuing the 2nd order that canceled the 1st one. Someone could very easily have been killed during the search and it was a miracle that no one was. And it was even more amazing that the small group of us had actually tried to obey the order before it was canceled.
I was fairly sure, without any real proof, that the Ass-hole giving the original order was the probably same one that had given me my 1st check ride, but I could have been wrong about it. And I didn't mention my suspicions to anyone else, but the men in the company, knew who the company Ass-holes were and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that some of them had come to the same conclusion I had.
Things seemed to be calming down for awhile and the Vietnamese New Year known as "Tet", would start on the 31st of January which was just a couple of days away. We were told to expect a stand-down from missions until after the Celebration was over. The Tet celebration usually lasted about a week, so we were all looking forward to getting a few days off. Tet was the time when all Vietnamese went home to visit their families, decorate the graves of their ancestors and shoot-off fire works in celebration of the new year. We were expecting it to be noisy, but peaceful.
On the 31st I went on a simple, unexciting CA, in ship 135, with Steve Reising as AC, SP-5 Tom Halliwell as crew chief, PFC Peterson as gunner. We were more interested in the up-coming cease fire and nearly forgot we were supposed to be on a CA. We spent more time talking about what we were going to do during the next few days of easy living then we did about the mission. When we returned that evening we were all looking forward to sleeping-in the next morning, and then going to a nice lazy breakfast at one of the clubs. And after that maybe a trip into town to watch the festivities or do some shopping. And most of the people went to the club that evening to celebrate, not worrying about the coming morning. I went to a movie at the club, then went back to my room and then went to bed to read for a while, before going to sleep.
Late that night I was briefly awaken by a Popping and Crackling noise, but I attributed it to fire-works from the Tet celebrators and promptly went back to sleep. A little later just after midnight, I was re-awaken this time by something much more distinct, a loud "Ka-WHOOOM", repeated several times. And an echoing scream out in the hallway of, "In COMING !".
I immediately rolled off my bunk onto the floor, then did a low crawl to where my rifle and flack vest were waiting. Once dressed, I went to look out my window, but was unable to see anything that could have caused all of that noise. My window was facing the southeast, away from the city and the airbase. Then I decided to go up to the roof of the villa where I hoped to have a better view of the area to the north.
Once I got to the roof, I was able to watch what must have been rockets falling out of the night sky into the general area where the airbase was and explosions as they hit the ground, or whatever it was they hit. Soon other men started appearing on the roof nearly all asking the same question, "What the hell is going on ?".
The natural response given to that was, "What the Fuck do you think is going on ?, Charlie is celebrating Tet, Ass-Hole !". In the distance I could see choppers firing rockets at the ground and long strings of tracers raking the area under the choppers. I wasn't able to see what they were firing at but I had a good enough imaginations to make a reasonable guess. I wasn't too happy about the pictures that were forming in my mind.
Most of us would have given anything we owned, to be out there in one of the choppers, in the middle of the action, especially the gun ship pilots. Most of the Sidewinder pilots were cursing their rotten luck of being on top of the villa, while all of the action was going on somewhere else, without them. We were also worried about our ships and crews. They could be right in the middle of that attack for all we knew. So far we had no word of what was really going on. On top of that, we were all helicopter pilots, not grunts, and we all felt very uncomfortable being there on the ground when we should be up in the air where we were safe. There we could move around a lot easier and where we weren't sitting ducks.
Looking around the roof at the men who were up there, I saw some were still in their underwear, but all of them were armed and ready for war. I have never seen so many different types of weapons all in one place before. Some of them I wasn't sure I have ever seen them before, anywhere. A Captain from the Sidewinders was carrying an M-79 grenade launcher with the barrel cut down to about ten inches long, and had the stock sawn off so it looked like a large single barreled derringer pistol.
I remembered what it had been like to fire the full sized version of the M-79, and could imagine what it would be like to fire the customized model that the Captain was carrying. In my opinion he would probably break his arm the first time he fired it that way. So I assume he hasn't fired it yet or he wouldn't still be carrying it around with him now. It was obvious by the way some of the men acted, if you could believe them, that they were hoping that Charlie would attack the Cong Lee Compound. But I wasn't sure I agreed with them, I would just as soon Charlie stayed the hell away from us all together, I didn't feel like shooting at anyone and I was damned sure I didn't feel like having anyone shooting at me tonight, or any other night or day for that matter.
Most of the guys spent the night on the roof of the Villa, making occasional trips downstairs for coffee, and to use the latrine. In the distance we could hear small arms fire, rockets and mortar shells exploding around the area, but none came close enough to cause anyone any great concern as far as I could tell. There were flames leaping into the sky from burning buildings in other parts of the city, and an occasional flash and explosion from inside of one of the burning buildings.
None of us really knew how serious the attack was. We didn't know if it was just a local attack or was happening all over Vietnam. All we could do was sit where we were and wait for the sun to come up and for the news from someone that really knew what the hell was going on around the area and the country.
At dawn someone arrived to tell us to get ready to go to the flight line as soon as possible, we had missions that day, which was no big surprise to any of us. All night long we had suspected we just might be busy the next day, it's fairly obvious what gave us the 1st clue. And because there were reports that the VC were all over the town, we were told one of the parking lots had been turned into a hasty helipad, and we would be taken out of the compound by chopper and flown to the airfield, instead of trying to drive there as we normally would have.
When I arrived at the helipad, I looked around and saw the tail fins of an unexploded 122 mm rocket sticking up out of the ground at one end of the pad. Needless to say, everyone stayed well away from that area.
I jumped in the chopper waiting to take us to work, with several other pilots. The chopper lifted out of the Cong Lee Compound and headed toward the airbase. As we flew over Bien Hoa I looked down and saw several houses that had been destroyed by fighting and an M-48 tank parked in the middle of what had once been someone's house, with it's gun poked out over the remains of one wall.
Along the road leading from Bien Hoa I saw several APCs that had been ambushed and destroyed some time in the night, by what was probably an RPG, Rocket Propelled Grenade, or by B-40 rocket. The APCs were full of holes and there were several bodies laying around them, but I wasn't able to tell from our altitude whether they were ours or theirs. There were also some soldiers walking around the area, but it was obvious they must have been friendly, otherwise they we would have been shooting at them, and they at us.
When we reached the airfield I saw that our flight line had been hit by several rockets sometime that night. One rocket hit close enough that it had destroyed 2 gun ships. That caused the rockets the gun ships were armed with to be fired. They in turn shot forward and hit several more ships that were parked in front of the gun ships. One rocket hit about 20-30 yards from the ship I was scheduled to fly that day, blowing holes in the windshield and the pilots door effectively putting me out of the missions for the day.
With my ship being out of commission, for at least the rest of the day, I went to the troop area to see how they had faired during the night. One of the gunners I talked to told me that they hadn't had any trouble. There had been a couple of snipers fire at them from the village on the other side of the wire, but they had easily been able to take care of the problem by them selves. And I didn't doubt him for a minute, in fact, I felt kind of sorry for the snipers and the villagers.
Either the snipers we pretty damned dumb and didn't known who they were shooting at, or they had deliberately fired from the village in an effort to get our troops to fire into the village. Either way they found themselves in serious trouble very soon after firing the first shot. Our unit had about 20 ships assigned, each one carried at least 2 M-60 machineguns. Those machineguns were all kept in the company area when the ship wasn't flying, which was most evenings.
On top of that, each crew member and man assigned to the unit had a personal weapon and some of them had several. That meant those snipers had fired into an area armed with somewhere around 40-50 M-60 machineguns, and God only knows how many rifles, pistols and grenade launchers.
Our troops returned the fire and destroyed nearly two city blocks just because a couple of snipers felt brave. Odds are, those snipers will never do that again, the fact is they probably didn't live long enough to realized their mistake, once they were caught in the middle of the Barrage they had started.
It was obvious to me the troops were doing fine all by themselves, so I decided to scrounge a jeep and go see how the rest of the base was doing, not that it was any of my business, I was just curious and wanted to get out of the area before someone invented a job for me. I found a driver and jeep, and then headed out along the perimeter road checking the area out. As we neared the east end of the base where the road, the runway, and the barbed-wire met, we came to a couple of MP jeeps blocking the road, so I had my driver stop beside the other jeeps.
I jumped out of my jeep with the intention of talking to the MP's over near their jeeps, to find out what was happening. But before I got to the MPs, I noticed some bodies in the barbed wire and decided it would make some great movies, so I started around the jeeps to get closer for better pictures. I hadn't taken many more then 6-7 steps before one of the Mp's yelled, "Sir, you'd better get back, some of them may still be alive and there are snipers out beyond the wire!". Discretion being the better part of valor, so they say, I made a hasty retreat back behind the jeeps, after all the jeep would furnish me with a nice steady camera platform as well as give me some thing to hide behind, without being obvious.
From behind my jeep I could see half a dozen or so bodies, tangled in the wire, and others laying between the rows of wire. Most were either dressed in black pajamas, or had been burnt black, it was hard to tell from that distance which. A few of them had on what appeared to be either white shirts or maybe trousers, it was also hard to tell from that distance which end was which. Most of the ground in the area had also been burnt, but it could have happened last night, or last week, for all I could tell. After taking some movies of the area with what film I had left in my camera, I decided to head over to the PX later in the day to get some more film. Especially since we couldn't go any further on this road anyway.
(Several weeks later, after sending in the film to be developed, it was returned, minus about half of the footage I had shot at the road block. And I had to wonder if the film had been censored by someone, or if the film had just been stolen by someone at the processing facility. Either one is quite possible, and I wouldn't put it past the government to have censored my film either.)
My driver and I jumped back in our jeep and head back the way we came, trying to decide where to go next. We decided to try for the PX, even though it might not be open yet and headed that way. We drove past the Jupiter Club and on toward the Bien Hoa gate, where would catch the road leading to the main base area and the PX. Actually since we were on an Airbase it's called a BX for Base Exchange. But PX or BX, it didn't make any difference to me, as long as they had what I wanted.
As we neared the gate, I saw several vehicles stopped along the road parallel to the fence around the base with several soldiers, or maybe they were airmen from the Air police, standing behind them and looking towards a tall water tower just outside of the wire. I had my driver pull over behind the other vehicles this time, and stop so we could find out what was going on here too.
I walked over to the men and ask what was going on, one of them told me there was a sniper in the water tower, he had been shooting at them and any one else he could see. About this time two choppers came over the area and the gunners started shooting at the top of the water tower with their guns. While one chopper kept-up a steady stream of gun fire aimed at the hatch on top of the water tower, the other chopper came in low and then hovered just above the water tower, at the far edge of it away from the hatch, and three men jumped out of the chopper onto the roof.
The men were shooting at the hatch as they walked over to it. The other chopper had stopped firing. And once the men were around the hatch they shot down into the water tower. After they had fired several bursts into it they stopped, then one climbed down into the hatch, while the others covered him and watched. A few minutes later the man came up out of the tower hatch then waved an "All Clear" signal. Then the chopper returned and they climbed back into it and it flew away.
The show was over. And I was pissed off, because I had just missed one hell of an opportunity for some great war footage just because I was out of film. Damn It! It was just like the damned Air force, to put on a good show when no one was ready for it. And I knew it would be impossible to get them to do it again later after I had time to get some film at the BX. So I had the driver turn the jeep around again and head back to the company area, my whole day had just been spoiled.
The rest of the day was pretty boring, when I went to the villa that evening, some of the other pilots decided to stay on the roof again that night, just in case, but I went to my room and tried to enjoy the comfort of my own bed. Through out the night, whenever a noise was heard from outside the compound, or whenever someone thought they saw some thing outside the compound, someone on the roof would shoot at whatever it was they thought they had heard or seen.
The next day we were told that there would be a sweep through the area around the compound that day, and the troops doing the sweep didn't need any help from anyone inside the compound, in fact it was put to us as an order. Our troops started bitching about that, someone was always trying to spoil their fun and had just done a damned good job of it this time too.
The clubs on Cong Lee street were still showing movies in the evenings, but every time a shot, or loud noise, was heard from outside the club, it would empty out as the men went running outside to see what was going on. And for once the talk in the clubs about Whores and gambling was overshadowed by talk about the war with everyone adding their own two cents worth, even though some of them were short changing the conversations by nearly a cent and a half. One thing new to the sessions was that no one seemed to be interested in going downtown. For once they were all content to stay in the compound, except when they had flights. I guess some may have been concerned that they might miss out on a real good mission, if they were in town when the bosses came looking for someone to go on the last minute missions, that kept coming up out of no where. War is Hell ! (actually I believe the town was placed OFF-LIMITS until the end of TET, and the fighting going on in town.)
My first mission after Tet started was on the 2nd of February and I was assigned to fly in chopper 747, with Steve Raising as AC, SP-5 Povey as crew chief, and PFC Pribble as gunner. Our mission was supposed to be a CA some where south of Saigon a few miles. But we spent most of the day with all of the choppers, including the gun ships parked side by side along the top of a rice paddy dike, waiting for something to happen. And when I wasn't sleeping in the chopper, I was standing on top of it watching F-4s and A-1Es putting in air strikes around the area, and filming some of them.
I also spent sometime wondering who in the hell was in charge, and why we were sitting there making targets out of ourselves. It seemed to me to be an ideal spot to get hit by mortars or rockets, and at the end of the day I was extremely surprised we hadn't been hit by someone, if only by a single sniper. Charlie must have had his head up his Ass about a mile and a half not to have seen the opportunity, and taken advantage of it. I'm sure he could have destroyed nearly half of our ships with just one mortar shell, but he didn't even try. I guess many battles have been lost just because someone missed seeing an opportunity like that or wasn't smart enough to take advantage of it when he did see it.
A day or two later I learned through the grapevine that between 40-50 of the bodies left behind when the VC withdrew from the American side of Bien Hoa Airbase after the attack, were those of men who were assigned to the VNAF, Vietnamese Air force. They were normally stationed at the other end of Bien Hoa airfield, from the area under attack that 1st evening of Tet. It seemed to me the "Gallant Allies" of the U.S., in this war, had decided to help their American Friends celebrate Tet oriental style with a knife in the back. Is it any wonder that few of us ever trusted any of the Vietnamese ?
On the 9th of February I flew another CA, this time in chopper 135, with Raising again as the AC, SP-4 Pribble as Crew chief, and PFC Moore as gunner. The southern part of Saigon known as Chou Lon hadn't been cleared of enemy troops yet so we were scheduled to assault into the Phu Thu Race track carrying troops from the 101st Airborne. Our entire unit was to provide the choppers for the CA.
On the way to the race track, I saw smoke still rising, in nearly every part of the city. In several areas artillery and air strikes were going in. As we neared the race track, I saw and filmed a Huey flying along the opposite side of the race track from where we were, laying down a smoke screen supposedly so the VC in the area wouldn't be able to see our flight as we approached the LZ and couldn't shoot at us. As we got nearer I saw that the area in and around the track was burnt off, so we wouldn't have to worry about someone hiding in the grass and shooting at us as we came in to land.
But that turned out to be more of a curse, then the blessing I thought it would be. Steve brought the ship to a hover in the LZ, and the ashes, soot, dust, and what was left of the grass started blowing up into the air, making it nearly impossible to see anything in the LZ. Once we were on the ground, the troops jumped out and headed for the bleachers area of the track fully expecting to get shot at every step of the way.
Then the RF, Romeo Foxtrot, or Rat Fuck, (a term describing something that wasn't planned right or isn't going right) really began. Lead called and told everyone to pick-up to a hover, and then do a 180 degree turn, we were going out of the LZ back over the same area we had crossed when we made our approach to the LZ. This meant that the trail ship was now the lead ship and vice-versa.
If I hadn't had my camera out and been filming the whole damned thing, even I wouldn't have believed it, and later on I would have thought it was all some kind of nightmare I had dreamed up. It would have been bad enough if we had done it one ship at a time, but to do it with all 20 ships at the same time was suicidal. With all of that trash flying around in the air from the 20 choppers all hovering at the same time, making it extremely difficult to see, it was lucky that no one was killed right there. There were plenty of near misses, and plenty of frantic radio calls of, "Watch out !", or "You almost hit me !", and others suggesting someone in the group had only one legal parent, or that they probably slept with their own mother.
Some how there were no accidents or injuries. Eventually everyone was turned around and heading in the right direction. Once the dust had settled back down so we could see where we were going, lead called pulling pitch and everyone lifted out of the race track, in the middle of another dust storm and headed for home. To the best of my knowledge the only firing had been from some of the grunts we had just put into the race track. It looked like Charlie had another good opportunity to hit us damned hard and he had missed it again, THANK GOD ! Either we were getting very lucky, or someone had a special connection with someone in much higher authority then anyone trying to run this RF show, there in good old Friendly Downtown Vietnam.
On the way back to Bien Hoa, we flew along the Saigon river. Down below I could see block after block that had been leveled and burnt to the ground by the fighting that had been going on in the area for the past 9 days. The area reminded me of pictures I had seen of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb had been dropped on it. It made me glad I was there as a chopper pilot and not a grunt. I wasn't sure that I would have been able to stand it, if I had to be down there as a grunt while the attacks and all of that fighting had gone on. It also presented me with another opportunity to record what war was really like, and I didn't pass it up either.
As our flight arrived back at Bien Hoa I could see a large billowing cloud of black smoke that appeared to be coming from a couple of miles the other side of the city. When we got closer I was able to see flashes as some thing exploded in the fires that were causing the smoke cloud. There were also smoke and fire trails as rockets, and other ammo, "Cooked Off" in the fires. It was the Long Binh ammo dump, still burning after it was attack and set on fire by VC Sappers the 1st night of Tet. That was the loud explosion I had heard in the middle of that night, that had woke us all up, and told us something was going on. It would continue to burn for several more days.
Why I hadn't seen it before this, I don't know. I guess one reason may have been we always took-off out of our helipad flying to the south, away from the Long Binh area, on top of that there were too many other things all going on at the same time for me to notice something that wasn't directly effecting me at the time. But I was able to get a few feet of movies film showing some of the smoke and fire going on there.
As Tet died down in our area, things returned to normal, by Vietnam standards that is, and we went back to flying our standard "Hurry Up & Wait" missions. Once the "Extra" VC, not to be confused with the Regular VC who were normally in the area, were run out, we went back to the old method of riding back and forth to the flight line in the back of the 3/4 ton again. Occasionally, there might be some sniper fire, during an evening or early morning ride, so one of the gun ship Crew chief, who did the driving, decided to provide some extra protection for himself and anyone who rode with him. He mounted one of the spare mini-guns from his ship, that could fire 6,000 rounds per minute, in the back of his truck. Then he hooked a truck battery up to it to give it power to work, then loaded 20-30,000 rounds of ammo in the truck, just in case.
Late one evening, on the way back to the flight line after dropping some of the pilots off at the villa, he encountered what he thought was an enemy roadblock. The driver crashed the truck into a nearby store front in an effort to escape what he thought was an ambush, leaving just the rear part of the truck sticking out. Then he started to fire the mini-gun at the ambush roadblock hoping to keep the enemy away. The engagement lasted, off and on, for the rest of the night.
When the sun finally came up that morning the driver discovered that the road block had been an MP roadblock and not a VC one. (This is all acc-according to the stories I heard about the incident later on.) There were no casualties on either side, but the driver caught hell for being out after curfew and for having the mini-gun mounted in his truck, even though the idea had worked perfectly. As far as I know no one bothered to ask the MPs what it felt like to be fired on by a weapon that fired nearly 6,000 rounds per minute and sounded like tearing canvas as it fired, and put out a muzzle flash nearly 6-8 feet long.
I can't help believing it was a terrifying experience and that the MPs were scared "Shit-less" as it was going on. I also can't help wondering why they didn't let someone know who they were, like the driver for instance. The driver wasn't given credit for his inventive ideas, or for wanting to protect his passengers. But Nam was like that, do something right and no one would remember it more then 5 minutes, but just do something wrong, and no one would forget it, ever. Ask anyone who served there. The only change in that occurred at the Command level, they could remember the wrong things, and forget why they were wrong, then go back out and do them all over again, and get someone else killed because of the Commanders stupidity and lack of memory. They never seemed to learn a damned thing, and seldom told anyone else what they did learn, and they were never believed when they did. Each new successive Commander to a unit seemed to think that he was a lot smarter then the man he replaced and would usually ignore any advice given from many months spent learning the hard way and then go out and do the same stupid thing as the last man had, often in the same place. It was one hell of a way to run a war !
I can recall much later watching news footage about the Tet Offensive on TV, but I can't remember when I saw it. It might have been while I was still in Vietnam, or I might have been some time later, back in the states. But I do remember being pissed about the way it was shown.
On the TV, the assault on the embassy was ran every night for what see-med like a couple of weeks, making it seem to the people watching TV, that the attack had lasted that long, and was still going on. That really pissed me off. As far as I was concerned the news media was lying to it's viewers. The attack itself only lasted about 4-6 hours the night of January 31st and then was over with, and the VC making it were all killed, but the news media kept on reporting it every night, like it was still going on.
The news media would also show the piece about the Saigon Police Chief shooting the VC who had been captured, without ever explaining the details of the event. The news reporter never bothered to mention the fact that the man had just finished killing the family of the best friend of the Police Chief, they only showed the film and said something to the effect that it was a terrible thing, and how terrible our side was for the things we did. And as Tet went on, they continually lied about who was winning and ignored everything that was shown them about the things the enemy had done during the war. For example; 2,000-3,000 civilians were murdered in Hue by the NVA, because they were associated with the South Vietnamese Government in some way, but the News Media refused to show the pictures taken there, or even mention the incident at all. To me it was a deliberate sabotage job of all of our efforts in Vietnam. And I learned right away that I couldn't trust anything I read or heard from the news media to be the truth, or even close to the truth.
Sometime in the past couple of months the rest of the 101st Abn Div had arrived in country and was stationed on the north side of Bien Hoa airfield, in the area of the attack by the VC during Tet. On the morning of the 19th of February I got up later then usual missing breakfast and went on out to the flight line. Once I arrived, I learned that I and several other pilots from the company, were being assigned to the 101st. When I learned that, I had what I thought at the time was a minor panic attack, but years later I learned it was the onset of something called "Hypo-Glycemia", leaving me feeling weak and slightly disoriented for a few moments. But after getting a bite to eat at the mess hall I started feeling better.
We were being sent to the 101st to give it some combat experienced pilots, to teach the pilot, who had come over with the division, how to fly in a combat area, and how to get around Vietnam. At least that was the story we were given during our briefing before being sent over to the 101st. But that was not the way I was treated when I got there. I don't recall ever being ask for any advise, or having it accepted when I offered it. As a matter of fact, I was treated like any "Rookie" pilot that didn't know a damned thing, after having flown nearly 4 months in combat already, by other pilots fresh off of the boat that had just brought them to Vietnam.
We were camped at Tuy Hoa south, the third time at Tuy Hoa for me, it was probably February or March of 1967. Our shower water was in barrels that were supposed to be filled every day. It was nice if they got around to that in the morning so the sun would heat the water but alas, they did not get filled for several days.
My good friend Robert Hedge was not one to depend on other people for his needs. He fell out one morning with the avowed intention of digging a well beside the shower so we could pump the barrels full. If I had been there, I would have tried to tell him the sand was so deep there that a cave in was likely. Indeed, for all I know, someone did tell him that. But Hedge was pretty hard headed and probably wouldn't have listened anyway. When I returned from whatever mission I had been sent on, Hedge was telling me about it.
He had dug down an incredible 15 feet or so, digging the dirt and putting it in a bucket for a helper to pull to the top of the ground. A vehicle drove by close to the hole and it caved in. It covered him completely up. Hedge told me, "Jeez Charter! (Carter) he was from Boston, remember? The happiest moment of my life was when someone hit me in the head with a shovel, I knew I could breathe in a minute then," he said. They then brought the wrecker up and hooked a strap around him.
He again said "Jeez Charter! I thought they were going to pull me in half before they got me out. When it caved in, my foot got into the bucket and was stuck and they pulled me and the bucket out together."
By Tommy R. Carter Jan 66-July 67
One day in �67 we were flying ash and trash to an island offshore to some scouts that were camped out on some type of a boyscout (Vietnamese) jamboree. The island was secured by a mix of RVN's and US troops. While going in for landing at the helipad in between the rocks we were being guided in by US troops. The pad was clear as the pilot flared for the landing, but all of a sudden a five foot dragon lizard went flying across the pad! The crew in back, being startled as much as the pilot was, played rock and roll in the seats. The pilot wavered momentarily in his landing, got his composure, then looked up to see all the GI's standing around laughing. Apparently, they had shot the dragon earlier in the day and tied a rope around it, just waiting for the next suckers to fly in. No one was hurt and we all had a good laugh after finding out what was going on.
Taylor and I arrived at the 117th during the afternoon. By the time we had processed, we were running out of time for our M-60 training course. SSG Carter, our platoon Sargent had my complete attention for the fifteen minutes that the training lasted. I had never seen an M-60 up close before, but I had a suspicion that knowing how to mount it on the chopper, load it and how to take the safety off might come in handy later on.
Taylor and I were the only people in the Annie Fannie's tent, so we just picked cots without mattresses and settled in for the night.
I bolted upright when the light flashed in my eyes, desperately trying to figure out where I was and what was happening. The voice behind the light brought me crashing back to reality, or what passes for reality in Vietnam. The CQ's voice droned on, "Listen up you two. You've got a pre-dawn flight on chopper 739. That's the last three numbers on the tail of the bird. She should be parked in the first group on the flight line." He continued, "They don't usually put two new guys on the same chopper, so be sure to tell the pilots that neither of you have ever shot a 60. They might be able to find a free fire zone so you can shoot a few rounds before you need them for real. Draw your weapons from the armory and a case of C rations from the mess hall. Good luck to you and welcome to the Warlords."
We took off just before dawn and the pilots took us to a free fire zone to try out our 60's. We flew south of Saigon and landed at an infantry base camp. Not much was happening at first, then we were called in to dust off three WIA from underwater booby traps.
As we approached, I could see two platoons in the paddies, one on each side of a canal. The closest group popped smoke and we headed in to pick up the wounded. As they were being loaded, there was a loud explosion on the other side of the canal. I thought we were being shelled, but it turned out that they had hit another trip wire and we had two more wounded on the other side. We med-evaced the casualties to the nearest hospital, then returned to pick up another soldier who had fallen victim to another booby trap while we were gone. So far, there had been six casualties and no trace of Charlie. Soon afterward, our patrols started reporting bunkers, warm rice, abandoned equipment, etc. They requested a dog team be brought in to pick up their trail.
We flew to Saigon and picked up a tracker team which consisted of a handler, a rear security man and a black lab tracking dog. As we dropped the team off, the dog must have spotted something, because he lunged ahead, fighting the handler. We were about fifteen feet in the air when his last lunge brought him down on a trip wire, blowing him off the leash. The security man was facing away from the blast and his pack soaked up a lot of the shrapnel, so we were able to save him, but the handler didn't have a chance.
The pace picked up after that, and when we were shot down coming out of a hot LZ later that day, my only feeling was of relief that the day was over for me and that we had all four come out of it without a scratch.
In the days that followed, I was caught up too much in the present to dwell on the past, but many times since returning to the world, especially on those sleepless nights, that first day enters unbidden and once again wanders the pathways of my mind.
IMAGES OF HOMECOMING
All is well now. It's our time to come home. Hope everything is fine in the good 'ole U.S. of A. I think you know it's important for us to see the flags and yellow ribbons everywhere, to have the hugs and kisses and slaps on the back. We need the support and admiration of the people for our sacrifices. But I'm not sure you know how important it is to me. When I came home from Nam, I hid my uniform and tried to hide the fact that I was there. It's not that I wasn't proud, I was and am proud. But I had to make people believe I wasn't there to survive. The looks and comments made all of us uneasy. Now we hear and are told of cheers and pride, great feelings about us and our country. I want, I need the experience of feeling proud without it being a closely held secret. We all need that; to swell with pride for ourselves, our units and our country, to see the yellow ribbons and smiling faces. You see, we Saudi-Nam veterans are coming home again.
MY DAY OFF
Tuy Hoa, Republic of Vietnam. 5 November 1967. While enroute from LZ English to Dong Ba Thin we had a warning light come on the master caution panel of our chopper. It was the fuel control warning light. Up ahead was Tuy Hoa south, a major airfield and army base. We landed safely; maintance checked it out and stated we needed an engine fuel control change. Go to the beach tomorrow and our ship would be ready the next day. Great I needed a rest, and swimming sounded super. A day at the beach, what a deal. It was a short walk to the beach. God the waves were big. The sand was so white, the water blue, and the temperature well over 100. The waves were too big, but a few hundred yards away a river emptied into the sea. The waves were smaller but the river caused a strong current and considerable turbulence. You could feel the undertow and my gunner and I were careful not to get caught up in it. There were also some individuals swimming from the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Then one got caught and was overcome by the current. Everyone watched as he became exhausted while attempting to fight the current and was in imminent danger of being enveloped by the churning water. I dove in and swam about 50 yards until I reached him. Both of us were being pushed out to sea. As I secured him he started to climb on top of me pushing me down under yelling and screaming. I managed to get away and surface and punched him in the head. He pushed me under again and this time I hit him two more times. I grabbed him by the neck and hit him once more. Either you cooperate or I�ll let you drown. You�re not going to kill me. He calmed down and I dragged him close to shore where my gunner helped me secure him and make it to shore. I fell back on the beach totally exhausted. A few minutes later he got up and walked away. Not even a thank you. Never learned his name. He picked up his gear and him and his buddies walked away. My day was ruined. �IT DON�T MEAN A THING.� Specialist Five E5 Cooper, Willam C. was awarded the Soldiers Medal for Heroism not involving actual conflict with an armed enemy force. 15 February 1968.
Take Me Home
Tuy Hoa, II Corps Tactical Zone, Vietnam 1967
The 117th Assault Helicopter Company was supporting the 4th Infantry Division out of a small airstrip called Tuy Hoa North. We were living out of GP Medium Tents as usual. The weather was clear and hot. I can�t remember the month, but we did quite a few eagle flights and a lot of local area work. One didn�t have to go far to find Charlie. One afternoon around 1400hrs, we monitored a call for any chopper in the area to pick up a friendly WIA (Wounded in Action). A patrol was hit and one man was down in the center of a small clearing with heavy bush and hedgerows all around. My ship, Beach Bum 553, was the closest so we elected to go in and make the pickup. The patrol popped smoke; we identified the color and proceeded to touch down in the clearing. I could see the soldier lying in the field; his weapon was next to him. The other members of the patrol were out to the edge of the LZ looking and firing into the bush. The sides of the LZ were thick and impenetrable. Charlie was in there, one man was down and I wondered who would be next. No one moved, they just scanned the brush. My M-60�s ability to cover my side of the LZ was extremely limited due to the gun mount stops. Now we were sitting ducks. Everyone was scared, no one moved. I looked at the soldier in the LZ and wondered if he was still alive. I pulled off my flight helmet and ran to the soldier. His eyes were open and he was bleeding from his mouth, ears, and nose. There was blood under his head. I grabbed him under the arms and started dragging him back to the chopper. No one would help me. Suddenly, I recognized that enemy rounds were kicking up all around me. The patrol opened up again, and as I neared the chopper, my door gunner helped me load him into the ship. I climbed back into my well. As we left the LZ, my door gunner and I opened up with our machine guns. The flight back to TUY HOA was a short trip. All the way back that soldier stared at me. His head was even with the side of the cabin. Blonde hair, 18 or 19, and he was now gone. His eyes were open and I knew that he was grateful that I got him out of that LZ. Then I thought about his family back home. I watched him die! His parents will cry tomorrow, for I am crying for him now! I reached down and straightened his bloody hair. Then I gently closed his eyes. It was all I could do for him now. My gloves were full of blood, and the floor under him was slowly turning red. His chest was still, and as I looked at his face I couldn�t help but wonder that when my turn came would I go as quickly as he did?
Those damn boots! I'm sick and tired of looking at them! You always see them sticking out of the poncho. Dirty worn out boots. Either they're covered in mud, or blood, or red dust. I am tired of seeing them! They don't move, or speak: they know their walking days are over. Graves and Registration is the next stop. Piled in a heap, no one wants them. Would anyone want them? What if they could speak and tell their story? No longer are they out there, no more weight to carry, thrown or blown around. Did they see it coming? Did they stop or turn? What if...? Too late now! They walked point, advanced under fire, and crawled into tunnels. Endured the brush, grass, vines, and then the mud! "That damn mud! It packs in and is so heavy! Now add the weapon, the radio, heavy, extra batteries, extra ammo, three canteens, poncho, flat jacket, and C-rations stuffed in socks! Then the leaches working their way up! Body salt and sweat pouring down! Take a break! Take me off, and air me out! Lets go! I will lead the way. Together we are one, till the chopper ride back. Which way will I face? On the chopper floor or facing out? That damned crew chief keeps staring at me! If he only knew!"
You fly over it. You look at it. Peaceful, you can see the birds gliding. The vines reach all the way to the top. As you get lower it gets bigger and you can see the branches reaching out for the sun. Lower till you enter, we are all scared as the bottom of the chopper forces its way in. The force of the impact throw�s us forward and we enter into the darkness. The blades are chopping as we enter. The vines are now ripping and tearing us to shreds. The pilots are secure but us in the back are being whipped to death. Eighty miles an hour, things start to break and fall off. The blades are separating and pieces are entering the cabin. You can hear us screaming as the jungle is flying by. We are upside down. Then side ways. Backwards now. The cabin is full of leaves. You can�t see the sun only green as we tumble end over end. Branches, leaves, bark, fill the cabin. Bounced up down, fore and aft. Everything is flying as we are slammed to a stop. Then the moaning starts and the cries for help. The blood drips and the bones are flexed to the limit. Can you hear me, is anyone alive. My god we are still in one piece. In their place now. I still have my 45 but I hurt all over. When death is near they cry for their mother. Call on the radio, can they help us, push the button help us. Just call they will get us.
THREE GOOD MEN
Kontum, November 1966 in the Central Highlands, A bad place to be. This was my first week of flying as a crew chief on aircraft 553. Our unit the 117th Assault Helicopter Company was staging out of Kontum Airfield one mile north of the city. The 101st Airborne Division was engaged with the North Vietnamese Army 324B Division. There was heavy fighting on the ridges of the mountains. There were many hidden high-speed trails beneath the jungle canopy. All the mountaintops were in the 4000� to 5000� range. �REAL BAD AREA�. My ship Beach Bum 553 had landed and shut down just off the left flank of the surrounding ridgeline. This was a large, fairly open clearing, where a high-speed trail crossed the clearing and then disappeared into the jungle ahead. The elevation was around 4000 feet. The view was great and my crew was checking out some NVA backpacks. Every thing was made in China. Written in English I was amazed. One pack was a medical bag, needles and stuff. Then I saw the hand saw. It was for cutting off limbs. What could you do up here in the mountains without a leg. You are finished. Push you off the trail and wait to die. Maybe a tiger will make you his next meal and end it for you. Being in country less than 30 days, one had to learn and cope and move on. Things happened so fast. If you made a mistake it might be your last. The whole area was covered in pungi stakes. Hundreds of them here in the middle of nowhere. Who put them there? The angle was perfect, placed so as to enter into you shin. The grass was high enough so that you never saw them. I never saw anything like this. Then there was heavy shooting off the trail in front of us. Then a Sergeant came up and asked me if I could take three of his people back. I said sure we would be leaving in a couple of minutes. Come when they heard us crank up. Soon it was time and we were ready to depart. The Sergeant came back and I gave him the thumbs up sign. He disappeared down the trail. A minute later he was back and they were dragging three men by their ankles. Their heads and arms dragging on the trail. Full of dirt and stuff. Just men with blood soaked uniforms and heads and arms dangling. I took a deep breath and smelled death. It was there all right. A smell I would learn to live with and never wash out of my mind. The look on everyone�s face was the same. Was this to be them in the future? Dangling heads and arms on the mountaintop. I looked the Sergeant in the eyes and gave him the thumbs up sign. Total silence for a split second. That was all it took between living and dieing. He just turned and disappeared down the trail. We pulled power and headed back towards Kontum. Those boys heads stared at me all the way back, and there fingers just lay pointing out of the cabin, full of blood trying to cover the holes in their chest. Hair blowing in the wind, blood soaked bodies, worn out boots and the smell of death. Something I will never forget but learn to live with on a daily basis. It was a curve in the trail and as they continued they were instantly cut down by a machine gun. Charlie had seen them first and it was all over. One split second, stay alert and stay alive. We dropped them off at graves and registration, and headed back out into the mountains.
The Price For Freedom
The call came into operations at 1600 hours at Riyadh-South Air Strip, previously abandoned but now much alive with the activity of the 336th Medical Detachment. This was the day the Ground War started and a C-130 was arriving at KKIA with the first load of American wounded. Two Dust Off MEDEVAC aircraft would be required to transport the most seriously injured to nearby hospitals. Our aircraft took off piloted by Capt. Pachulio and CW2 Castronova; medic SGT Don Mahon and myself as Crewchief. The weather was sunny and clear. Our two aircraft landed some minutes later and shut down, waiting for the arrival of the C-130. We watched as the C-130 appeared in the final descent, land and taxi to the Clearing Hospital. With two of the four engines shutting down, the rear ramp and door started to open. The flight crews and other medical personnel were waiting there to receive the wounded. Everyone was nervous and tense as that ramp slowly lowered, slower than I ever remember one dropping, waiting for a glimpse of our wounded boys. There it was. Hanging from the ceiling of the aircraft and so enormous that it obscured the wounded from view. It was the largest American Flag I have ever seen. The colors stood there strong and loud. I started to look around and noticed most everyone else was doing the same thing: looking at each other and swallowing hard. Something reached out of our hearts for those wounded and those we knew were dying far from here. I could see tears welling in almost every eye. And I will never forget the look in those eyes of the young men so far from home, paying the price for freedom.