ALERT AND MOVEMENT BY SHIP TO VIETNAM
I had been assigned to A Company, 101st Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division. Its location was Ft. Campbell, KY.
I arrived there from a tour in Korea and was getting used to “stateside” army living and operation. One afternoon in March of 1965, Lt. Doyle came into the hanger with a look on his face that I had never seen before. He said, “Well, it looks as if everyone is going now”!
That afternoon, our Major (Wayne) Dutton called all of the pilots together and announced that our company had been alerted “for movement at full strength, to an area outside of the continental United States, for an undetermined length of time”.
I guessed that we were being sent to Vietnam. I couldn’t imagine where else we might be sent at full company strength. My imagination turned out to be right, this time. We were going over to fight the “helicopter war”, as some people called it.
It turned out that our company was going to be one of three helicopter units to be transported by Navy carrier. The ship was the LPH-2, U.S.S. IWO JIMA. It had seen designed to carry a helicopter assault force of U.S. Marines. However, this time it was going to transport three U. S. Army helicopter companies and all of their equipment, including trucks, mess kits and new helicopters. Our vehicles were stored below on the hanger deck and all of those helicopters had been placed up on the flight deck. Needless to say, it was a little crowded.
After some home-leave, I reported to North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, CA. There, we were to join the “Huey” D model ships from the 1st Division that were stationed at Ft. Riley, Kansas and a helicopter unit from the 82nd Airborne Division, which was stationed at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Our new helicopters had arrived from the factory. They were covered to protect them for shipment from the sea air.
We left the “states” on April 12, 1965. Life for we “Army-types” aboard ship was less than exciting. So, there were a lot of card games, dice games, letter- writing and “movie watching”. We even had a chance to see the island of Corregidor and some flying fish. Yes! There really is a fish that flies—or glides.
During the first couple of days, I was convinced that somebody didn’t know which “end-was-up”. It was a “lumpy” ride, at the beginning, and I wished that I were someplace else. After five days at sea, we got into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. From there on, it was “smooth sailing”, as the saying goes.
For many of us, the trip to Vietnam was uneventful. Some people would even say that it was boring but that would change, soon. Our future time in Vietnam was like we had stepped into another world where nothing made any sense anymore. No one ever got bored over there! We found ourselves in an exciting but terrifying place.
By the time, we arrived off of Vung Tau in Vietnam, a crew had been assigned to each helicopter. The aircraft were made flyable as the main and tail rotor blades had to be replaced after shipment. We were to fly into Vung Tau, “top off” with fuel and then fly to the three duty stations. The 82nd Airborne Division helicopters went to Bien Hoa, the 1st Division aircraft went to Peiku and we, of the 101st Abn Div, were sent to Soc Trang, in the Mekong River Delta.
Many of our previous Army shipmates were taken to their new assignments by Air Force transports. I was one of those people assigned to be taken down to Soc Trang in an Air Force aircraft.
1 MAY 65 The departure of all of those “Army people”, was, somehow, more than just an arrival at a duty station. When the first helicopter wound up, with turbine screaming and rotor blades cracking, every eye on the ship watched as the rest of our ships lifted off the starboard fantail and flew into Vung Tau. Months of effort by Army, Navy and other offices of the U.S. Government had come to an end.
I thought I rode I was riding in the oldest, noisiest C-123 in the Air Force inventory. However, such was not the case. It was just not made “pretty”. The C123 was flyable and when we made the approach to land at Soc Trang airfield, I got another lesson in wartime flying. This was not the standard, safe-type of civilian flying that I had heard about.
The Air Force pilot knew that he didn’t have the luxury of standard safety procedures in that country. A person couldn’t survive very long by making long, low final approaches in guerilla territory. We were at flight altitude, lined up with the runway and the next thing I knew, we had landed.
There was a very sudden loss of power and altitude. The pilot just wanted to get that airplane, loaded with passengers, on the ground. There were no frills or “text-book” procedures. One minute we were at 5,000 feet and the next minute, we were on the ground—or so it seemed. Five thousand feet and “WHOOSH” --we were on the runway at Soc Trang! It was simply a case of getting the job done without being shot down.
A CO 101 AVN BN ARRIVAL @ Soc Trang
Since our arrival at Soc Trang (SCT) there were simultaneous unpacking, shots, equipment issue, classes, orientations, presentations and meetings to tell us when the next meeting would be (or so it seemed). The 121st (our sister unit here at SCT) is a damned fine group of men. It will be a joy to work with and learn from them.
Our quarters were built around us, so it was a little hard for us not to feel like this whole thing not, somehow, temporary. I was to find out, years later, that this whole war was, indeed, a temporary situation, as all wars are.
Although, we were all wondering what to do next, we were constantly told and expected to carry through. Like I say, we had all entered that amazing place where little that we did seemed to make any sense. We were about to spend a year finding out how to survive while doing the jobs we had learned. It is one of those things that is definitely OJT (on- the-job-training).
A CO 101AVN BN at SCT
FIRST OF MAY 1965 We all had a lot of questions about what to do and how to do it. None of us young pilots had fought a war before; therefore, it was probably just as well that we were never taught how to do it.
Since our arrival at Soc Trang, there were simultaneous unpacking, shots, equipment issue, classes, orientations, presentations and meetings just to tell us what time the next meeting was going to be (or so it seemed). Our quarters were built around us, so, it was a little hard for us not to feel like this whole thing was not going to last, too long. On the third of May, we were given the idea that this was a much more serious than any of us had imagined.
None of us “new guys” paid much attention to the deadly serious reason for this practice alert since the idea that we were at war hadn’t quite sunk-in, yet.
3 MAY 65 This evening we saw a practice alert. Being new to the place, the people in our company were supposed to watch and learn. Our sister unit on this field, the 121st Aviation Co, showed us how a field alert was supposed to be run.
The men of the 121st Aviation Company (Soc Trang Tigers) had been very, very helpful, friendly and informative. At 1830 (6:30 p.m.), on the night of 3 MAY 65, they held a practice alert for our benefit.
When the siren went off, we were supposed to just watch and learn. Well, we learned, all right. In four minutes and twenty seconds, every ship was in the air. Pilots, crew chiefs and gunners manned their ships in whatever they happened to be wearing (or not wearing) at the time. The most important thing was to get into the air and not be blown up on the ground. In five minutes, every bunker and post was manned. There was no confusion or flap. There was only cold, determined, single-minded efficiency on their parts.
A final choice had been made to select the crews of the 3rd platoon, armed aircraft in our company. I had volunteered for this while we were still on board the Iwo Jima. It made no sense to me to be in a war and not have something to shoot with. Without really knowing what that might mean, I had volunteered to be a gun-ship pilot. Gun-ship pilots also were nicknamed "the goon squad" but that nickname was never used loosely and only by certain people under certain conditions. The “goon squad” was officially named the THUNDERBIRDS and this journal tells of some of the operations of the 3rd platoon.
We were given weapons; ammunition and flack jackets. Of course, this gave rise to some outlandish speculation and guesswork, none of which had been cleared through "rumor central". We were new-in-country and I guess that you had to be shot at a few times so that you wouldn't be considered a new guy.
6 MAY 65 We are supposed to go up to Vinh Long to get a couple of weeks of gunnery and tactics training. We are going to be operational by the end of May—like it or not. That seemed to be a short time to learn an awful lot.
The ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam--the “good guys”) army is shooting .105 caliber cannons and .50 caliber machine guns. It is hard to have to trust that it is all "outgoing".
At 1934 7:34 p.m.) the siren scrambled two Dust Off ships (air ambulances) and five Vikings (121st gun ships). The Vikings were out all night and when they tried to refuel at Ca Mau, the field was mortared.
We had some gunnery and tactics training because we are going into the “thick-of-things” at the end of May. That seemed to be a short time to learn an awful lot. The ARVN army is shooting .105 caliber cannons and .50 caliber machine guns. It is hard to have to trust that it is all "outgoing". At 1934 the siren scrambled two Dust Off ships (air ambulances) and five Vikings (121st gun ships). The Vikings were out all night. When they tried to refuel at Ca Mau, the field was mortared.
10 MAY 65 We went up-north on a "skunk hunt". Returning after dark, we could see a firefight down by the river. The bright orange tracers lit up the hazy darkness like knives. There will be a 0645 take-off tomorrow so we can go on some more “skunk hunts”.
13 MAY 65 Today I pulled maintenance on my ship (#697) with the guidance of Capt. Vrba (maintenance officer) and Bob Cogdale (CE, crew chief or crew engineer). At last we took the ship out for a test flight and a fire warning light came on. I thought, "a thrill a minute with #697 (my ship).
All day, the 33rd and 42nd ARVN Rangers have been airlifted out of here (SCT). The Outlaws (from Vinh Long) and the 121st Vikings and Tigers have been in the air all day. It is after 1100 and they are still at it. The Cobras and Mavericks (helicopters from Vinh Long) and Vikings have been all shot up, today. The A1Es napalmed the V.C. and the Tigers and Outlaws are still hauling ARVNs. This will be a long night for them.
The T-birds are on alert and we have an 0500 "get up". At last, thanks to Cogdale, #697 is up. Thanks also to Bustamante (the gunner) my guns are ready, too.
14 MAY 65 This was a day of gun-system maintenance for the other ships. Nothing too exciting happened today, which is just as well. I got a RICOH (camera) yesterday and wandered around taking pictures, today.
(This was such a stunning and unbelievable time of our lives, we all wanted to take pictures of everything--as if to convince people [and ourselves] that this is really happening! After all, we were still “new guys” who had a much too romantic idea about what war really was.)
18 MAY 65 Last evening we went up to Vinh Long for night firing and “recons”. I flew with Bob Berquist from the Mavericks. We were flying 7 ships--2 fire teams and the "hog" . (The "hog" carried only 48 rockets and had no machine guns mounted on it.)
We approached a major canal junction with lots of trees and “hooches”. #1 called, “taking tracer fire”. I was flying as #2 fire team leader. One, broke right. Just before I broke, my entire field of vision forward, was laced with the bright orange of tracers. When I broke, I looked out the side window and my "wing-ship" was pouring fire under my tail. Jim Rausch and Brad Welfare were flying cover for me. It was a beautiful sight. "Keep that bastards head down", I thought. We just made one run, per team and then left. We were out there to train and couldn't afford such acquiescent training aids.
It was after dark and we went to range BRAVO for an uneventful period of flare firing.
Today our ship was up (flyable) for about an hour. Then, CE Cogdale got an urgent time compliance inspection T.M. to inspect the transmission oil pumps and screens prior to serial number "so and so". We were down again.
I am learning the most amazing things! When the ARVN 42nd and 44th Rangers capture a prisoner, they cut his penis off and collect them by the sack full. Such a collection, when presented to a captive, brings about remarkable results in cooperation! The V.C. considers the Rangers as DEMONS.
19 MAY 65 At the present time, I am sitting and waiting for the alert siren (for a practice alert) The alerts here are a lot different than they were in Korea. There are 600 to 1000 V.C. in a fan 6-8 miles south of us. We staggered them at Song Be and Soc Trang East but they will be back next month with their damned mortars.
20 MAY 65 We flew with our new door gunners from the 25th Division today. They are hesitant to fire into a village full of women, children, ducks and geese. That is a purely pastoral setting of peace and quiet, here. That kind of setting suggests a quiet village life. But, we are in a war and those gunners will learn--poor guys!
Tomorrow, the 60 trucks will come down from Can Tho. There was a 72 hr. delay because of the massing of the V.C. in strategic areas and they also had another celebration of Ho Chi Minhs birthday.
21 MAY 65 I got up at 0500, had a hurried breakfast, grabbed a smoke and ran out to the line. The aircraft sat dark and waiting out there. Then, there burst upon me the spectacular, S.E. Asian sunrise. I had time so I smoked and thought. The questions and fears of a month ago were gone. We were nearly old hands now. Three weeks in country and we are almost old-timers. You either learn fast or you don't live.
We pulled pitch at 0630 and headed for CanTho. It was low level, all the way up; over roads, canals, and villages. We picked up the convoy "head" and started back to Soc Trang. The whole thing was as quiet as a tomb. The "bad stuff" will come in due time—(and it did!).
24 MAY 65 Got back from Vung Tau, today to find a maintenance work order on the tail boom stringers.
We (the T-birds) took some fire on a convoy escort. Lt. Wes Van Loon took a hit in the cargo compartment doorway that just missed the door-gunner. This was our first enemy fire damage.
27 MAY 65 On the 25th, we went to range Alpha to bore-site and the new rocket pods fired real nice. The 26th was a quiet day but today (the 27th) we escorted the Warriors at Vinh Long on a practice R.F. (regular forces mission).
Following the R.F. we were "debriefed" by our instructors. Les Haverfield, (the experienced Pilot who rode with me) would get impatient with our inexperience. However, like the real pro that he was, he would just scowl and suggest strongly to "Chief" (who was our leader), better ways of doing things and then he would lambast the rest of us.
The "Wik", (CW2 Iloweiki) was in the shower room washing his map cover, when I went up to take a shower. The whole place stunk something fierce. He and some of the other slick drivers had been hauling some of the remains off of the battlefield. "Goddamned stiffs!" Wik wasn't at all happy. "The bastards bled all over everything. The inside of my ship was a mess! We had to just turn a hose on the inside to get it clean!"
I found out something about us (me) today. I got together with a bunch of the other pilots and found out that we all had the same feelings. It really kind of pisses you off, when you fly around all day and never get to fire on anyone. When we talked about it, later, we found that we were all just looking for trouble.
Happiness for a gun-ship pilot is sinking a sampan, blowing a house to bits or getting the V.C. out in open. You can cut them down like rag dolls on a shelf. It was troubling but true. Happiness is vengeance and getting your licks in. I hesitate to write this but I should put this down as a reminder that I am not blameless.
It is all of the "mad", hate, frustration and helplessness being vented at once. This scares me but I have enough trouble just staying alive. There will be more days like this and it will really get bad the first time we have to level a village.
29 MAY 65 Yesterday, Bob Reagan and I were the "supernumeraries", so we didn't fly. The other Thunderbirds, Warriors, Mavericks and Outlaws had to fly an R.F. at Tra Vinh. Lt. Wes Van Loon took the companies second hit and first wound. They had been flying on a canal/tree line recon and suddenly the V.C. opened fire from 360° around him. Wes took his slug through the chin bubble and into his left calf. Ben Densly took a hit in the 5th transmission mount. He was flying my slot, too.
Tomorrow, there is a company party before we go on full operational schedule. Tomorrow is also Sunday and the V.C. move more on Sundays and holidays.
1 JUN 65 Yesterday was the realization of hopes and dreams--PAYDAY! I am the fire team leader this morning and we will lift-off at 0900 for range Alpha. We had our first reveille this morning, too. We will see how long that lasts.
5 JUN 65 On 3 JUN, we had an R.F. north of Vinh Long. The Mavericks took many hits and we took 5 hits. I took my first in the main rotor blade. It was a .30 caliber, A.P. (armor piercing) round. Yesterday, we went up to Moc Hoa and Cai Cai to escort a CV2 LOLEX (Low level extraction). (The CV2 was a big cargo plane and they would fly in at low level and throw parachutes out to pull out a load.) It was a quiet escort mission.
I pulled O.D. last night. The man at post #22, fell asleep. Court martial is inevitable. You just don't “crap-out” in a combat zone. When the Sgt.-of-the-guard told Top (the first Sgt.), Top said, "I don't even want to see that guy until after the trial."
8 JUN 65 We were told last night that we would have an 0400 get-up this morning. We started at 0700 flying out of Can Tho. When we got up there, we flew pre-strikes and escorts all that day and all that night. We hauled in over 1,000 ARVNs..
Gordon Nelson (Air Force, B-58 pilot) was shot down and the Wrecker (maintenance ship) picked him up. Both the pilot and navigator had to punch out over ”Lima” canal and slipped into friendly territory at November canal. The A.F. pilots were taken to Ton Son Nhut A. F. B. and bought drinks for every Army Pilot in the house. We finally got back here to SCT at 0400 on the 9th.
I had flown 13 hrs, 15 minutes. of C. A. (combat assault) time on this mission. The "G.I. can" (my ship) had taken 8 hits. Bruce Waggoner (a slick pilot) was our only injury with shrapnel in his leg. On the way back, we could here Tarzan II on F.M. (radio): "We are being wiped out!"
This tells of the scariest mission I ever flew. I checked my wallet and dog tags. I knew I was going to die and had time to think about it as we flew in.
10 JUN 65 On the 10th, we sacked in late. It was quiet all over the Delta until about 1400 when the call came to scramble the Thunderbirds and Warriors to Bien Hoa. We found out, "why", when we got there. Up at Dong Xoai they had already lost two A-1s and a slick to ground fire.
While we were on the ground up there before the mission, I met a lot of old friends and even my roommate and a classmate from flight school—Ben Locke and Preston Obray. They were my roommate in flight school and another of my classmates.
One fellow I ran into, George Lesnick, was with the Razorbacks. He loudly informed us that he had only, "12 days and a duffle-bag drag" left in-country. That was better than looking forward to a birthday when you were a kid. George was getting real "short". This was his last C.A. (Combat Assault).
There were over 70 ships staged out of Phuoc Vinh and we (the THUNDERBIRDS) escorted Warrior 6 (our Major) in the last element.
When we got closer to the L.Z, I could see the town was on fire. There was a VNAF (Viet Namese Air Force) air strike in progress and the V.C. were mortaring the L.Z. There were at least five .50 caliber machine guns going against us. One slick was shot down in flames with twelve people on board and another slick was blown up by .60 m.m. mortar fire in the L.Z. We flew into a veritable curtain of bright orange tracer fire.
As we came closer and all three channels on the radio were screaming death, fire and explosions. I was ready to die and a remarkable calm came over me. I got terribly efficient. I checked the cockpit, my pockets and my memory. I took a last look (I thought) at the velvet green carpet of the jungle, the gorgeous sunset and then nosed over into the fire.
I didn't understand at first but then it registered. The radio was screaming, "All units, climb, climb, climb"! They had broken off the attack and we went up and out of that hell and returned to Ton Son Nhut. I looked back and remembered that we had left twelve American advisors, dead in the flames of Dong Xoai.
It was too late to go back to SCT so we stayed at the villa of the 120th Avn Co. We all got roaring drunk. There was talk of women, home and each other. This night, there was no talk of flying, like there usually is among pilots.
11 JUN 65 We went back up there today and hauled reinforcements into the Dong Xoai outpost but received no fire. Later in the afternoon, we went back to SCT.
Tonight at dinner, the Vikings were scrambled because the V.C. were mortaring Ca Mau. I escaped death at Dong Xoai but there is still a war here, and I am part of it, now. The feeling that this is all temporary, is long gone.
12 JUN 65 I find that I am having a real hard time putting my feelings into words. I cannot verbalize my feeling as my guts "knot" when I see a dozen men in my sights, pull the trigger and machine gun them to death. There are also the drawn faces of the helicopter crews as they hurry to re-arm, refuel, search for the “hits” they took, jump back in the ships and replace the other teams "on station". This is part of that other world that I live in, now. When I fly along the streams of tracer bullets, shooting my rockets, I hear the screams of a man as he dies, over the radio. That is what this year is really all about.
(When that kind of thing happens on a daily basis, it adds to the effects on your mind. Eventually I was going to find out what it really means to be a soldier.)
The days, when I am on alert and the call comes to “SCRAMBLE THE THUNDERBIRDS!--------
I never know when I am going to be called out or where I am going. I wonder how it is going to be "out there" as I grab my flack jacket and race for the ship.
The crew chief shows me that I am clear by giving me a thumbs up signal--"clear to start"--the igniters pop-"Comin' hot"-the turbine begins to whine and the blades flatten into a plane overhead. I check the gauges--my turbines scream--helmet on, radios on--hydraulic pressure is up and I call, "Thunderbird Four is up"--When we are all "up", Thunderbird Chief calls, "Thunderbird flight, take the active!"-The tower then radios us, "Thunderbird flight, clear for take-off".
As the runway blurs under us, the gunner and crew chief slam belts of bullets into their M-60 machine guns--the co-pilot switches my gun system to armed and tells me, "Your guns are hot, Dave".--I lock into Jims wing position.--Now, if you are not flying, there is time for one more quick smoke before we get to the war zone.
This eventually becomes another job that you (sort of) get used to. It is just another day-at-the-office. You kill people and get paid for it but try not to get killed, yourself. You get used to it-in a weird sort of way but it does things to your mind.
21 JUN 65 For the passed couple of days, we were up north working out of An Loc and Song Be. The aircraft that were there came from six different companies that numbered over 100 slicks and gun ships. The operation was designed to search out the damage done by the B-52s on the 19th of this month.
We stayed at he 197th villa and I saw George Lesnick again. He was "bloused" (drunk) and happy to be going home but admitted he would miss it here. I knew exactly what the Giant (he was tall) meant.
22 JUN 65 We flew an R.F. this morning. We searched and “reconned” all day with little luck. We could see where they had been and where they were going but not where they were, at the time. Our (flight) section will have alert, tomorrow.
24 JUN 65 We got another aircraft which we nicknamed "the PIG". The reason for this name was that it had a belt-fed, M-5 grenade launcher mounted on it. There were no machine guns or anything else on this ship. With the ammunition and the hardware of the launcher, the “B” model couldn’t carry anymore. I took it out to the range to test-fire it. It was quite a feeling to fire grenades like a machine-gun. We were glad to get this equipment because anything that gives you the edge in a war, is desirable.
27 JUN 65 Today we were on a “ready alert” for another "Saigon R.F." It is supposed to be the largest used of helicopters of the war, so far.
On the morning of the 28th, we were part of the largest helicopter assault in the history of the Army, at that time. The 82nd, the 101st, the 120th, the 118th, the 501st and the 197th Aviation companies all were part of this. (It involved about 180 troop carriers. The operation was staged out of Bien Hoa because that was the only airfield that could handle so many helicopters, all at once.
That afternoon, we took part in a lift that was unusual, for us. It was strange, sad and somehow grand to be supporting American combat troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
On the way into the L.Z, the Thunderbird platoon made sure that the aircraft of the 101st received no fire on this lift. All of the troop carrying aircraft flew in and came out of the L.Z. on a carpet of rockets. We may have overdone it but no one shot at the 101s and 173rd!
29 JUN 65 Today, we were supposed to be “off”. I was up in the O’clu dressed in “civvies”. I was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. Suddenly, the phone rang. It was a call to,“SCRAMBLE THE THUNDERBIRDS!”
I raced for the flight-line but when I saw Dai Ui (Captain) Miller, he confirmed it, so, I ran in to change. Five minutes later, we were in the air for Tam Hiep.
The Outlaws (a gun platoon from Vinh Long) had lost one gunner in a firefight; he had been hit through the chest. Another man had been wounded and they needed some relief.
We bombarded a canal line on a couple trips out to the action and orbited on one trip. On the second bombardment of the objective, a bullet shattered my windshield and I got a face full of Plexiglas. I wasn’t hurt but I was scared out of six good years. Capt. Short got hit in the windshield, too, and got a number of superficial cuts.
30 JUN 65 We (the whole company) went out on an R.F. with the 121st Aviation Company. We went out once and dropped the troops off. The troops were advancing without contact with the enemy so we came back here (to SCT) to stand by.
2 JUL 65 At about 1130 at night, I went to bed. The next thing I realized, I was sitting up—something was wrong! The other guys were dashing about and I heard the sporadic—WHUMP—WHUMP—WHUMP.
No one had to tell me—we were being mortared--again. It was 1155. I jumped out of bed, donned a flight suit and shower shoes and buckled on my .38 pistol. All of the time, the explosions from the “incoming” rounds kept crashing in on us. I ran out the door and around the hooch toward the aircraft. All of the time, I had to keep pushing some guy who was in front of me. I shouted, “Keep moving, keep moving!
Just as I got to the ship, another series of rounds hit us and shrapnel whizzed all around me. I will never know how I escaped injury. Only about 20 feet in front of me was a CONEX container that became riddled with holes and a crater where a mortar round hit, just after I ran past. That metal container was in the right place, or, I was.
Capt. Short was already in the ship and running it up, so, I just jumped in the left seat and cleaned up the switches. Once again, it seemed to take forever for that damned turbine to get going. We smoked off and began to climb to our orbit point. The gunner rapped off a burst at a V.C. who was shooting at us as we took off and dropped him. A ship went down ahead of us but a Dustoff ship got the crew out, O.K.
It is now 0330 and we are back at SCT. All of the Thunderbird ships and crews got out O.K. We will have to wait until tomorrow to find out anything else.
In the midst of all of this craziness, I found time to read Thomas Wolfe. Things like that, kept me in touch with sanity.
6 JUL 65 During the next few days, (the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th) I was on R&R (rest and recuperation) to Saigon with Ben. He and I enjoyed one another and Joe Lemming. He (the man we called Lee-Ming—the Chinese maintenance officer) was outrageously funny.
Saigon is truly “the Paris of the orient”. In this city, every thing and everyone is bought, sold, negotiated and can be the topic of conversation. National intrigue is representative of the life of here.
As I walked, watched and listened; I also tasted, touched and smelled. Every hour that I experienced could be lots of writing or telling stories. The food, shops, people and the influences of the two hemispheres told countless stories and brought to light the many intricate differences.
The Saigon I chose to explore was not pre-planned or in anyone’s guidebook. I just yelled for a taxi and we lurched into the tumult that floods the streets. There are few, if any, rules of the road, here. Narrowly missing an ingratiating demise at every turn, we sped and wheeled past stalls, slums, palaces, cathedrals and countless, nameless public establishments.
The “cyclo”, Vespa and Lambretta motor scooters, bicycle, cart and sedans; Vied for position and access to traffic. Added to this mélange was the armored car, for this was a city at war.
Not only was there the “shooting-war” but also the personal, psychological war of ineptitude, fear, speculation (one never new who to trust), treachery. There is also the antagonistic police forces who were not trained and were little more than farmers in a uniform (we called them, the white mice because they all wore white uniforms). One result of this mess was the song we Americans used to sing to the tune of an old mining song, “Saigon, oh Saigon is a hell of a place, the organization’s an awful disgrace.”
As I walked around the city, some people reach out to me with an ill-concealed malevolence. Some wanted money but some people simply felt a joviality that was careful and guarded. They just needed to find some means of communication by which they could share what they had learned by living in a war.
I was twenty five years old and unaccustomed to that kind of sensory stimulation. It is all here in Saigon. There is another city I must experience where there isn’t so much shooting and that is—HONG KONG.
While I was gone, the 101st caught the V.C. out in the open and had a “turkey shoot”. O’quinn has some shrapnel in his shoulder but it is nothing serious. We have an R.F. tomorrow with a 0550 takeoff. I am looking forward to a day behind the guns. I really don’t know why. I will have to think more about this.
10 JUL 65 Yesterday, while it was still dark, we took off early to a stage field near Go Cong to support the Warriors in a search-and destroy on the coast. During most of the day we simply orbited over the troops. They were just moving through the remains of a fishing-village and the blackened mangrove swamps following a napalm and rocket pre-strike made by the Air Force.
One ship saw some V.C. bobbing in the water off the coast. We shot “fish-in-a-barrel” for about 10 minutes, until all were gone. I “hip-shot” a pair of rockets onto a V.C. He appeared to have pulled a weapon out of no-where. This is hardly a case of proper gunnery but, “you do what you have to when into a “tight”.
13 JUL 65 At 0715 we heard the sounds of very heavy bombs being dropped just west of here. Later, four Air Force B-57s boomed-the-tower in “V” formation. It is good to have them around.
19 JUL 65 John Daum and Bob Cogdale took shrapnel in the legs from the same round. They were flying with Cpt. Miller in #1 slot. He took all of the hits in the aircraft, this day.
20 JUL 65 The THUNDERBIRDS were scrambled to Ca Mau on the 20th to cover an outpost under mortar attack. When we got there, the “attack” was over. During our recon, we took some automatic weapons fire. We expended our ammunition and came back to SCT.
21 JUL 65 The past few days have been a constant round of convoy escorts, R.F.s, raids and alerts. Most of the action has been near Sadec and out of Ca Mau to V.C. lake and east of there. A Falcon (O1-F) went down near Bac Lieu and we flew cover until we were sure the pilot was safely out of the area.
This tour and life in the Army is beginning to grind on me. I am seriously considering flying with Air America and living a civilian life. I have realized that armed service life exists mainly to fight wars and that life is scary.
24 JUL 65 I had written (as some young men are inclined to) about my fiancée--, now my wife), JANET. I wrote about my foolishness at feeling nervous and afraid of marriage. It’s a good thing for me that I got over that.
28 JUL 65 Today, on our third pass on a sampan, I took four .30 cal. Slugs in the tail boom. I didn’t know that I had been hit nor did I notice any difference in the handling of the aircraft until I tried to land at Go Cong.
On short final, as I unwound through about 30 knots, the ship started to swerve to the right when I applied power. II couldn’t correct that swerve by applying left pedal. Right away, I put the nose down again and made a “missed approach” or “go-‘round”. As I went around the landing pattern again I found that I had no left pedal or lateral directional control.
It was necessary to clear the field and make an emergency approach. This is one of those times when you had better get it right the first time because there are no second chances.
I had to counter the torque effect of the engine by retarding the throttle at just the right moments. So, just before the skids scraped in, I shut all the engine power off and autorotated. It turned out to be a perfect approach and when the ship stopped skidding, I was real happy that it had ended well. When we checked for damage, it turned out that bullets had severed my tail-rotor cable and done extensive damage to the tail-rotor drive shaft.
Les Haverfield (my local instructor pilot) had shown me that little trick with the throttle just a few weeks before. He knew that this technique just might come in handy someday. Well, it probably saved at least four lives. I have never been so relieved in my life as when that ship finally came to rest and the danger was over.
There is talk of another morning R.F. and an afternoon trip to Tent City Alpha for another war zone “D” operation.
29 JUL 65 Sure enough, there was a flight up here to Tent City Alpha for an operation today and on the 30th. We lifted troops out of Bien Hoa and Vung Tau. Seventy-five slicks (Troop carriers) and escorts (Gunships) hauled troops from the “Big Red One” (First Infantry Division) and the 173rd Airborne Brigade into a mountain road north of Vung Tau. Not a shot was fired because the B-52 bombers had laid a good amount of jungle to waste. We were released and returned to SCT in the morning of the 31st of July.
31 JUL 65 I was able to spend a couple of days in Saigon with Brad Welfare. A calm but determined indulgence was what we had in mind. We ate a lot at every decent restaurant we could find. However, there were some “indulgences” that we didn’t want to mess with.
Things were quiet in the Delta while we were gone and I returned to SCT at about 1800. I just ate and read the mail that had come. This time, I was even glad to hear from the bank and get a bill.
2 AUG 65 It is night and at 2140 it started. Those “goddamning” mortar rounds started coming in. It was the nerve-tearing mortar barrage that the gun-ship pilots couldn’t hide from but had to run through in order to get off the ground and shoot back. There were no major injuries on this one, though.
Every door that slams and any unusual noise brings us to our feet in a low crouch. We are ready to run to save our aircraft and ourselves. I suppose that I should be thankful for the feelings of caution that it gives us but I still hate the feelings of fear.
14 AUG 65 Many days have passed without any entry in this journal. I have been seized by a boredom that has left me just sitting, staring and sweltering in this damp-heat.
On the 10th of this month I got severe, dual-blade damage at Vi Than. There was one of bullet damage and the other blade had cracked or started to separate along the leading edge. If we had kept flying on that blade for another ten minutes, we would all be dead.
Yesterday, the Thunderbirds took a lot of bullet damage but everyone got back O.K. Warrior 22 went down about four miles out with main-bearing failure but the crew and the aircraft are O.K.
20 AUG 65 We were scrambled to Ca Mau to cover an outpost under attack. When we got there, the attack was over. We “reconned” (reconnoitered) around the area and took a little fire. We expended all of our rockets and came back to SCT.
22 AUG 65 There was an R.F. today that was staged out of Can Tho. Intelligence says that the V.C. have orders to move out of the delta area into the 3rd Corps area (around Saigon) to support the offensive there. There are indications that they are gathering for a crossing of the Bassac River east of Can Tho.
Once again, they had been there but were gone, now. We moved on to the IRON TRIANGLE area and took some fire there. There was a troop lift into both areas but little action was encountered.
The “PIGS” (Razorbacks) came down from Saigon to help support the R.F. One of their ships had to make an emergency landing at Can Tho because the crew chief shot out the hydraulics out on the right gun pylon.
Tomorrow, is another R.F. to stage out of Bac Lieu. This is another “search-and-destroy” operation; so, we may or may not, run into something.
Yesterday, the T-bird pilots poured the patio for our clubhouse. It was about six yards of concrete that was all hand mixed. I have a door on my room, now. One of these days, I will have walls and a ceiling, too !!
28 AUG 65 For many days, I have had an infection and canal obstruction in my left ear. This has left me half-deaf and so unbalanced that I was walking into walls. At last, the infection is stopped and the ear was cleaned. I can hear again!
Yesterday, we thundered off to Vi Than to get our cans shot off. Intelligence had expected little action, so, we thought we would get an early release. We didn’t get lucky and there was lots of action. We found many .30 caliber machinegun nests and five of our six ships were incapacitated—one of which was shot down in the war zone.
That ship was on a pass when it suddenly became uncontrollable and began to settle. The windshield had exploded into Lt.. Dadantes face—His co-pilot, Mr. Wotkyns, lurched in his seat. He had just taken a bullet in his right shoulder. The crew chief, Simpson, collapsed in back with his right leg shattered by machinegun fire. Only the gunner, Barbre, was left unhurt. The ship settled into an even glide and was landed with power. They immediately turned the switches off in order to prevent fire; GET OUT!! Barbre yanked Wotkyns out and Dadante dragged the bleeding Simpson into the mud of the Delta. The Cong were firing now and bullets sang through the grass at them. The other ship in the team roared down to haul the bleeding and shaken crew aboard. The rescuers pulled pitch as bullets blasted them and mortars shook the ground around them. The lumbering ship fell, overloaded, onto the strip at Vi Than and the wounded were evacuated.
That began a sad procession of battered aircraft returning from the action. Capt. Miller shuddered to a stop with hydraulic fluid gushing red—Regan roared in trailing transmission oil from a shattered oil cooler--#550 had taken a slug through the M-5 cable—one ship was down with exploded guns and another had so many holes in the rotor blades that they looked like Swiss cheese. Out of the six aircraft, we had only one ship that was useful.
As we left for SCT, “Bull Moose” (commander of the ground forces) was pounding the V.C. with 500 lb bombs and napalm. IT WAS A BAD DAY ! !
In he next couple of days, Capt. Toner, who was Bull Moose, came to visit us at SCT. He told us about it from his perspective. There is a letter in my journal about that day that I typed but never sent, to my folks. They didn’t need to heart about this garbage at home. It is tough enough on parents without having to read the eyewitness stuff, too.
9 SEP 65 We went up to Tra Vinh to escort lifts into the Long Huu outpost. They were taking in replacements and supplies. John Daum and I were flying wing position on Bob Regan and Len Dadante. We all worked (“reconned”) the area around the outpost. So, we were “reconning” and took a shot, here and there. We had taken in one slick and were circling at 1500 feet awaiting the arrival of another slick for the last trip. We went down to about 70 feet to escort it in. We were turning left around a tree line that was just north of the area, and they just didn’t pull up. I saw their ship just hit the ground and explode immediately without a sound over the radios from anyone.
John said, “Jesus Christ, did you see that?” We cut right and then left to circle the flaming wreckage to see if any of them got out. Capt Miller came immediately from the west landed next to the flaming mess. He was trying to see if he could rescue someone or do anything!
There were many secondary explosions as their load of machinegun ammo and rockets cooked off in the fire. Tracers were going every- where and he had to get out of there before he was blown to pieces. At that time, the weather closed in and we all had to go back to Tra Vinh.
Once on the ground once again, we all just stood in the rain and stared. This was one of those times when the losses of war had left us all speechless.
15 SEP 65 I have to admit it now; I am afraid—in a quiet sort of way. Eventually, everyone arrives at this point. Ever since ship #972 went in with Regan and Dadante on board, fear is a part of my life that I admit, now. In the past, I have been able to get past the idea of personal danger. Now, it is a part of life that is with me all the of time. Strangely enough, the roar and explosion of the rockets, seemed to help me.
I am told that fear makes the soldier thoughtful and cautious. The fear is all part of this life and I guess you need some of it to make you an “old hand” and good at your job. Then again, it affects every meal and every moment of sleep (when you get lucky enough to get some).
Our C.O, Major Dutton, has gone up to battalion h.q. at Can Tho to become the S-3. Major Donald Elmore will replace Major Dutton. We shall see how things may change around here.
Yesterday we returned from Ton Son Nhut in Saigon from another “Saigon R.F.” We were supposed to be gone on that mission for five days but were released early.
When we got back, I found that I will be a pall-bearer for Len and Bobs plane side services.
21SEP 65 We had a man assigned to our unit (some days ago) from the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile). He was a warrant officer pilot who was supposed to observe the use of helicopters in the combat situation in Viet Nam. The “First Cav” is going to be sent over from the “states” and by that time, he is to have some experience of helicopter use in guerilla-war conditions.
On the 21st of the month, that man, Dave Tisdale, was wounded by accident. He was flying #3 (first fire-team wing slot). The top, left machine –gun jumped its mount. It was firing at the time and the bullets tore into the left door, the collective, the chin-bubble, the tipping plate and Dave’s left ankle. He was taken to the hospital in Saigon and eventually, the states.
27 SEP 65 We had another “Saigon R.F. I ran into a number of guys that I had known before as well as one of my previous classmates from flight school—Denny Arndt. Denny had come direct from Europe. He was as positive and self-confident, as I remember him being in flight school. His self-confidence and drive was what got him into and through flight school at the top of the class, in the first place.
I also ran into Joe Lemming. He was given the nickname, “Lee Ming”--the Chinese maintenance officer. We all acted silly sometimes, just to stay sane.
28 SEP 65 I find that I have to concentrate, now, to remember anything beyond yesterday. Sometime in the passed few days, we sent Bob and Len home on that one-way flight. They will be interred at Arlington. Neither one wanted to be a hero. Nobody does. In this world and in these conditions; it just happens.
We have started the “Pinochle-siege” here in the T-bird lounge. We play double-deck pinochle. It is thoroughly enjoyable to take a communal break from the war.
I have had amoebic dysentery. One of the side affects is stomach cramp. This has left my insides so sore inside that it is a “chore” just to walk. Then again, the only important thing is to live long enough to go home.
10 OCT 65 We flew an operation out of Vi Than, today. Dai Ui (the Capt.) was shot in both legs and his right hand. He will be laid up for about three weeks. He is “just hopping” to fly again. His spirits are high and he is mending real well. It won’t be long and he will be back in the cockpit.
Pilots and machines are rolling into the country. Now, all of the First Infantry Division is assigned here to VN. Frank Donahoo (an acquaintance from Korea) is with the 1st divisions “Cav” squadron. He is down here, flying with us as he learns gunnery, tactics and the use of armed helicopters in combat.
We (the men who can see the end of this tour) are over the hump now and everything is “the same”. We are just hacking away at a block of time and finding it harder to laugh. Meals are a necessity and operations are simply grim and dull, unless we get into a good brawl. We look for anything that will liven things up and interrupt our waiting. It is nearly a neurosis for all of us to look for something that will make the time pass more quickly.
15 OCT 65 In the days since my last entry, we have seen a gradual drying out of the countryside. The change in weather, heralds the end of the monsoon season. I never
thought a change of season would be important to me but the continual dampness of the monsoon season here is much worse than anything I have ever seen. This dampness seems to invade every phase of life. It produces mud, infections and mould in every facet of life—every day.
Our company “continues-the-march” in the grand Army tradition. We fly, fight, eat, sleep and then do more of the same 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. On the 12th, we started out at 0445 in the morning and got back at 0615 in the morning of the next day. We had locked horns with the V.C. Ta Do battalion. We were pounding ordinance (rockets and machine gunning) into the jungles lining the canals. We still haven’t found out if it did any good.
21 OCT 65 It is night now night and I sit in my room. I think, “I must do something or want something”! Nothing comes. I just draw a blank. Everything is the same, every day and I am so bored, now. I try to read and get my mind on something else.
I am here to fight a war. Anything else is superfluous and unnecessary. We either stand by or fly to fight. At times, we hope for a battle so it that will pass the time and provide some excitement. Time is passing so slowly, now.
7 NOV 65 We heard from Dave Tisdale. He is in Fitzimmons General Hospital now with nerve damage to his foot. He is confident that all will be O.K, in time.
AT LAST!! Tomorrow we will have an operation. It is scheduled near Phung Hiep, in the seven-canals region. For days we have been sitting and waiting. The constant “standby-but-no-action” has left us all fairly panting for a brawl. With luck, we will find Charlie tomorrow and bottle him up in strength. It could be a real hassle.
22 NOV 65 This morning @ 0128 the uneasy quiet of three months was broken as 81mm and 105mm recoilless rifle rounds crashed into the compound. I missed being cut down by the quirk of pausing long enough to pull on my boots. We had awakened immediately by the, now, too familiar, sound of “WHUMP-WHUMP“ !!
The crash and explosion of incoming ordinance is unmistakable. Everyone else got to run to a bunker. The gun-ship pilots have to run through the barrage (again) to take off and shoot back.
It was pitch dark outside and I thought (or felt) “Get to the aircraft!” There was a continuous “WHUMP-WHOOSH - WHUMP!” As I ran (staggered too), there were rounds crashing all around and making craters in the ground. Men are slashed and punctured. They fall and blood splashes the ground. One body has no back to his skull.
People are leaping into the ships. Everyone’s face is marble-colored and the only thing that drives each of us now is the will to survive so that we can fight back.
BATTERY ON-FUEL ON-“CLEAR” !! I think, “O God,-start-start-START-START!! Get gone-Get gone”! The incoming attack continues with a “WHOOSH-ROAR”!
One ship is off. Your turbine is screaming. “Nav” lights are blinking. Your power is up. Now it is O.K. to go, go, “GO”! The thundering rounds seem to chase me down the runway. I need AIRSPEED—AIRSPEED! Suddenly, I am flying and the danger of being blown apart is behind me—I think. I check the instruments and everything is in the green. The next thing is to climb, climb climb, so that I can join the other ships in a counter attack.
The aircraft ahead of me are firing now and the radios begin to come alive. “T-birds, this is CHIEF. Head 210° from the field! I have the positions located”.
Now, it is my turn to rain some death on our attackers. I turn on the gun sight. My machine guns begin lacing tracer fire onto the target. I start my dive, press down on the button and my rockets roar and boom onto the target. Those are not men down there, they are “V.C,--bad guys--slopes--Charlies”—targets!
Chief calls for flare illumination and we hunt for more. Five, Ten, Twenty minutes pass and the Chief calls for Lt. Harmon to fly cover with the platoon. He says, “I am going back in. I am not feeling very good”. I suddenly know that Chief was hit. Bob Johnston, his co-pilot, told us about it later :
“I got to the ship--was just climbing in. He was flippin’ switches and squeezin’ that trigger. Three rounds hit in front of us and Chief slumped forward on the console. I pushed him back up and he kept on crankin’. As soon as we had R.P.M, we were gone. He seemed to function O.K. He was losin’ blood. I told him I would take him to Can Tho to the doctor. He wouldn’t go until he was sure we had hit the target and stopped the barrage. Then he consented to go back in.” I learned later that he had been hit twice in the side and once in the head. THAT was Chief. He was not going to quit fighting until he knew that his platoon was doing its job!
The barrage seriously injured six men. One of them lost a leg and Sgt. Cook may die. Yet another, two-hour eternity, comes to an end. At least the boom of artillery is “outbound”, now and I can get some sleep--maybe.
LATER, IN THE SAME DAY
Twelve miles southeast of here, we took a heavy fire team that circled and skimmed over the swamps and canals looking for a V.C. force on the move. Women and children leave the area because they know that we are looking for trouble or just may star5t some. We go around and around, up and down and there is no activity.
Suddenly I hear, “I’m hit! This is Two. My pilot is hit. Pull him back, there and what is it—was it, his leg or arm or what?” One of the new pilots was squeezing the radio button too hard and went through the inner-ship communication position and was transmitting so that we all heard him. “Pull him back there and stop that bleeding. God! The blood is all over.”
I call him and say, “Two, this is four; head for SocTrang”. He calls back and says, “Rog. Which direction is it”? I tell him, “Two, you must pull up, and climb, climb. Head 330°--Just head north and climb. Get some altitude or you’ll get hit again”. He answers, “O.K, Babe—cover me and call tower”. Then a third ship called him, “Two, this is seven. I already have--you are cleared straight in, zero-four. They will hold all traffic. Land by the Dust Off ship running up on the runway”. He calls back, “Two, rogah”.
One of our three ships was now out of commission and it was not a good idea to fly, so, our flight leader called, “Soc Trang tower, Thunderbirds--mile final—straight-in--zero four”. Tower answered back, “Roger T-birds, all traffic will hold. You are cleared to land”. For some reason, on that flight, I was never so happy to hear that landing clearance.
We then landed at Soc Trang. Lt. Bill Bryan; the second fire-team leader with the handsome, ready smile was put into that ship with the big red-cross on its nose. He will go home early but he will see home.
Quite a few days went by and I did not record, here, every flight that I had. There were a number of single-ship missions and escorts that didn’t amount to very much—to me. I was so sick and tired of everything at this time. I was only doing what was right, to get the job done and get out of here. So, this is why it feels so good to be a “short-timer”.
19 DEC 65 Another of those nightmare nights has passed, now. At 0100 in the morning, the rounds started coming in. We were being attacked, again. I flew in #8, the HOG, this time. (It carried only the 48 rockets—24 pair of rockets and no machine guns were mounted on it—due to the weight). This time, I flew with “Boof” (Ed O’quinn). We all got off, O.K, although Jim Simpson’s starter energizer took the whole, agonizing forty seconds to get the engine going. Someone would think that you might get used to that immense feeling of fear for survival that is primal and basic to human nature.
Between the temporary-peace of sleep to the security of flight altitude, there is the terror and “gut-wrenching” fear of being hit. We “got the word” that they would hit us again, after the barrage of the 22nd of NOV. So, it looks like it will be a lively Christmas season!
Bill Bryant has been sent to Letterman General (hospital) because complications have arisen. The Drs. Have continued cutting pieces of his leg off and now, he couldn’t move his right arm.
I hear that Doug (my brother) made the Deans list. His wife went off to chase a star in Hollywood but he still makes all A’s and B’s. What a guy!
21 DEC 65 I have a feeling of disgust and loneliness. I just want this “thing’ to be over and become “a financially delinquent member of the P.T.A.” I feel dead and totally out of touch, to so much, now. All of the Christmas cards reflect what is important at this, or any other time of the year. But, who really gives a damn, now?
22 DEC 65 We are supposed to be hit, again, tonight, tomorrow and for the next three days. This afternoon, the locals are supposed to throw us a party in SCT. The VIKINGS (the armed platoon of the 121 AVN CO) are going to give us a beer party after the “walk-in-the-sun”. (That was the name we gave a quiet search operation)
23 DEC 65 I went to Saigon and met Ben. We stayed at the Mai Loan hotel. We got thoroughly drunk to celebrate Christmas and surviving this long. We slept through much of Christmas day but I managed to go get coffee at Brodards café. I didn’t feel much like celebrating, then.
On the 25th, I went back to SCT and found everyone still on alert. The V.C. have moved up an infantry battalion complete with a heavy weapons company. The next time they hit us, they may do a real job. It is thoughts like that one that tend to have a dampening affect on ones Christmas spirit.
28 DEC 65 We have had no attack on us since the 19th but we are still on full alert. Nerves are beginning to fray and every night is a “fright-night”. The “bad guys” know that we Americans try to relax, at this time of year; so, they think that maybe we will get careless. Every night is a “fright-night” because the V.C. have moved up a battalion of troops with heavy weapons. It could be a frantic time.
6 JAN 66 I have a new year but this year is no different from the last except that I will go home this year! There is only a few months left in my war and now I really understand why “getting short” is so important.!
Yesterday we scrambled to Bac Lieu and then to Gia Rai where an ARVN patrol had been ambushed and cut up pretty badly. As we neared the area, we could hear “Shotgun” on the radio, telling the ground advisor to pull himself together because we would need his help to get him out. The advisor was wounded but his companion was also dying of a belly wound, which caused extensive bleeding. This put the man on the radio in a near-hysterical state.
We could see the smoke of the battle fires as we roared along at 105 knots, just inches above the trees. We came in over the battlefield not knowing if it was still hot or not but we didn’t care. It was not a time to care about details like that. Some of our people were down there in the mud and dying. That was what was important to us. Thunderbird Four spotted them and we (I was flying with Chief), whipped around and landed next to the two bodies lying in the slime. Our radio screamed, “Thank God, oh, thank God.” We pulled them into the ship and as #Four covered us, we barreled out.
One man, apparently, died. His eyes were rolled back, his mouth was ajar and his guts were bubbling blood. The other man had collapsed on his friends body. He was sobbing and his ankle twisted, grotesquely.
After dropping them with Dustoff (the air ambulance) at BLU (Bac Lieu), we went back out to cover the first fire-team as they “policed” the battlefield of wounded and dead. They found the other two advisors dead. They took them out of the paddies and back to Bac Lieu and their own people.
The ARVN troops were trying to re-gather. The Cong had crossed the fields to the east. Trojan force (American-advised troop) was struggling at a fording point on a stream two miles west, trying to link-up.
We “reconned” their link-up with the regrouped ARVNs and broke off to the northwest to search for V.C. The 1st fire team, with #8 (#8 carried 48 rockets and that made the 1st team a heavy fire team) had gone to BacLieu to refuel.
We (2 ships) were working along a tree-line west of the ambush area. As I searched the canal below, I saw numerous muzzle flashes and heard the unmistakable rattle of enemy fire. I cranked the guns down, squeezed off a burst and called taking fire.
As Chief broke, #4 planted rockets under us and then he broke, too. We struck that area, also. Every time we turned inbound, all the way down, until we broke, we took heavy machinegun fire. Chief silenced the machinegun with rockets. After two more passes, apiece, we had silenced all of the fire and expended (our ammunition).
It was dusk now. The 1st team was scrambled. They made a night-strike further down the canal where we had also drawn fire. Then, with all ships expended, the dead and wounded evacuated, the re-organization and link-up complete, we headed back to SCT.
The aircraft were full of mud, blood and expended shell casings. Since we had “been-the-saddle” all day, we were bone tired, hungry, our nerves were screaming and we were all sad. Sheer guts seemed to take us back to the field that looked like a relief from that war, at that moment. We only go back to Soc Trang field to await another departure. I will be sent to hell (WAR) or to heaven (home in the states).
10 JAN 66 We (#2 & #4) escorted General Heintges around the north Delta Special Forces Area. That included stops at Chi Lang, Tin Binh, Chau Duc, Moc Hoa and An Phu. Upon reaching Moc Hoa at about 1710 (five-ten P.M.), we were released to fly a recon east of there. A Special Forces operation had been hit by hard-corps V.C. The cong had broken off and moved north of the river up a little canal. We went out to look for them. We were directed into the area by “Shotgun” and came down onto the canal out of the late afternoon sun. We moved along the canal. The gunners in the team were “reconning” the bushy areas by fire.
Suddenly, #2 yelled over the radio, “Watch out! That bushy area. You’re right over it!” At that instant, we were hit by V.C. with a .30 caliber machine gun. The ship was violently rocked and SP/4 Spain, crew chief of #994, took four heavy armor piercing slugs in the chest and stomach. He lurched forward and literally exploded blood all over the ship, splashing the entire interior. The gunner, Huckell, leaped to him and feverishly administered first aid, trying to stop the squirting blood.
I broke immediately for Moc Hoa and radioed the hit. At Moc Hoa, a special Forces medic worked over him with artificial respiration, glucose and adrenalin. There was no pulse and no breathing. He had a punctured lung and his back was blown out. He was “evaced” to Saigon and we doggedly took off for Soc Trang. About an hour after we landed here, we learned that SP/4 Spain was pronounced dead at 1910. He was the 19th one killed in our company.
We fly again tomorrow.
11 JAN 66 I sit here trying to make some kind of sense out of yesterdays violence. In the back of my mind was the thought that we all have-“it can’t happen to me”.
Well, I have just about decided that “it” not only can happen to me but that it will happen to me. This war had gotten to me and I am just tired of trying to be positive about everything and flying—no matter what.
25 JAN 66 I returned to SCT after a three-day R&R in Saigon. Saigon is a city-of-the-night. Everything and just about everyone is available to someone who can meet the asking price. Like people everyplace else, the people here are on the side of power, money and apparent control.
2 FEB 66 I have flown numerous missions such as, escorts, night, re-supply and three straight days of Dan Chi #199. Dan Chi is a Vietnamese term meaning “the peoples will”. The operation took place south of Vi Thanh, below the “two rivers area”. During the operation, we captured over four tons of weapons, ammunition and war material.
During this operation, I actually shed some blood, in a very minor way. A bullet shattered the wind screen and deposited a shower of wind-blown and jagged, plexi-glass in my left arm.
The final day of this operation began with a frantic, early morning phone call. “Scramble the T–birds to the operations area! Stormy 1 is being overrun”! We were out of a sound sleep and on our way in five minutes. Upon reaching the area, we marked the forward edge of the “friendlies” with smoke and rolled in on target.
“Beautiful, Thunderbirds. Right on target”. It was still dark and the wooded areas were little more than ebony patches on a slate landscape. “They are breaking off and moving west. It’s a good thing you guys came along: I don’t think we would have made it through that one”. (That kind of radio call is why we keep going up.)
We then evacuated four loads of wounded. One young corporal would lose his leg. Later that evening, as the operation slowed down, we extracted troops, sent captured goods to Saigon, then we stuck around while “Side mill #8” packed up the last of his stage-field control. We headed back to SCT following that.
(Two more of us had Purple Heart medals but no one died, this time). Ron Crotty will had a groove cut in his foot by a .30 cal. Armor-piercing slug and I will be picking glass out of my arm for awhile.
(I didn’t report the injury because I didn’t think it was THAT serious, in comparison to others I had seen and I was never awarded the Purple Heart)
Tomorrow we will have a two-day operation that will be a combination “ground-air” operation south of Ca Mau. The area that we will cover is deep in V.C. controlled territory. It will require us to RON (remain over night) at the stage field. This is an area on the southern edge of the Uh Minh forest. (That forest area is totally controlled by the V.C. and is just one of those areas you don’t, ever, fly over.)
17 FEB 66 The above-mentioned operation turned out well. We stayed three nights at CMU (Ca Mau) but it turned into a four-day operation. The 7th of FEB was a day of escorts. We escorted the Cowboys-(slicks) and Dustoffs-(air ambulances) but on the 8th, we started a three-day shoot-out south of Vi Thanh. Over four tons of weapons and war material were found, cached in the areas near the rivers. There were a couple of quiet days and on the 14th and we took the ARVN officers to the range. They loved it! Today (the 17th) was the wrap-up of a two day search northwest of Vi Thanh.
Those of us “old pilots”, are training our replacements hard and fast as we prepare platoon leaders, fire-team leaders, wing men and crews for the changeover. Some are naturals and others we seriously doubt.
We are getting shorter every day and it feels good. A new air shows itself among the “old pilots”. I am, now, beginning to imagine the peace that I worked so hard to forget about when I first got here and that is the home front. This is when I began flying “slicks” (cargo and personnel transport) aircraft. That was so I could get a “rest” from the shooting war but THAT didn’t quite happen.
27 FEB 66 We departed SCT at 0500 and at full company strength (slicks and guns). We flew via BNH (Bien Hoa), PAT (Phan Thiet), DBT (Dong Ba Thinh) and eventually arrived at Tuy Hoa at 1230, the same afternoon. It was a beautiful flight up. The weather and the scenery were both gorgeous. I was very impressed with the beauty of the coast after so long in the mud and rice paddies of the Mekong Delta.
Our company flew up to Tuy Hoa, for a short stay, to support the arrival and initial deployment of the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” Division. The ground elements of this brigade are located in Tuy Hoa valley and are there to guard the peasants during their rice harvest.
As a part of initial establishment, the brigade will conduct LRRPs (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) in the mountains to the west in an effort to locate and destroy V.C. strongholds.
I will include a word on the men who made up the LRRPs. These men were not afraid of anything and looked like they ate nails for breakfast. These guys are trained, clandestine killers and that is what they do for a living.
During a V.I.P. flight to the 1st/327th area, I met Capt. Doug Sklar. He impressed me as being a quiet, purposeful and very efficient young Captain. He mentioned the 101st Tiger Force. I was told that they were the fiercest and most fearless of men who were specialists at clandestine warfare. In the next few days, I was to meet some of these men on a very personal basis.
I had been assigned to fly as co-pilot with Frank Ovnic. He was one of the best “slick” pilots in the company. He was the kind of man for whom the phrase, “operate-under- pressure”, was coined. When everything got so bad that it all looked quite impossible and the world appeared to be coming to an end—you could bet your life that Frank would find the presence of mind, to do the right thing.
(The following is an actual account of what happened on one my slick missions that was supposed to be “more restful”).
That night, we learned that he and I had a mission to lift one of three of the LRRP teams, 20 miles back into the enemy held mountains. In the next morning, we were to report to the TOC (tactical operations center) for a briefing and final liaison with the team leaders.
We were told at the briefing that the teams were to be lifted in at the last possible minute of daylight, that night. The teams would then spend three to five days hiding and watching the V.C. villages and access routes for signs of military strength.
That afternoon, we flew our teams over the areas that they were to land in for the purpose of pinpointing an L.Z. (landing zone). That evening, we dove into a tiny slot in the jungle and discharged those five amazing men. The team leader said that we wouldn’t hear from them again until it was time to take them out. I assured him that we would get them out, regardless of the circumstances.
We flew back to Tuy Hoa south and rolled up in our sacks for sleep. Early the next morning, Frank and I were shaken awake. We were told that team #2 was in trouble and had to come out. We took off and picked up a “commo-sargeant.” Who had their frequency and situation. We proceeded to rendezvous with a radio-relay ship that had contact with our team.
Ancient Tracker 6 was the relay aircraft
Sleepy Buzzard was the call sign for LRRP team #2
Thunderbird Chief was Capt. Miller, the leader of the armed helicopters and
we were Warrior 21. Chuck Slezak was the Crew Chief. Since Frank was captain of the ship and, by far, the expert “D” model pilot, he did most of the flying and I flew as co-pilot and did the radio work.
“Ancient Tracker 6, this is Warrior 1-2”.
“Warrior 1-2, Ancient Tracker--go”.
”Warrior 1-2, we are enroute to pick up Sleepy Buzzard. What is his position and situation and what is the enemy situation”?
”Warrior 1-2, this is Ancient Tracker 6, Sleepy Buzzard is on the edge of the L.Z. you dropped him into and is aware of enemy in the jungle all around him. He is ready for pick-up and is not receiving fire at this time. I repeat: he is flanked on three sides, over.”
“Roger Ancient Tracker. We will fly over the Lima Zulu (the L.Z. was the the landing zone) at three thou’. Have Sleepy Buzzard show one man in the open and we will come into the southwest end for pick-up. We have gun platoon escort but they will hold their fire until we get hit, over”.
Then our team called us, directly:
“Warrior 1-2, this is Sleepy Buzzard, do you read me”?
“Roger Sleepy Buzzard, this is 1-2—reading you clear but weak. (He was almost whispering on the radio) What is your situation”?
“This is Sleepy Buzzard, we are at the south end and I am in the open, right below you, at your 3 o’clock. Look straight down, now”.
I asked Frank if he could see the man. He was nodding vigorously as he broke left in a 360º dive that put us on high key for the L.Z.
“Roger Sleepy Buzzard, we got you—we’re comin’ in. We have gun-ships but we will hold them off until we get fire. Are any of your men hurt”?
His answer was clear and to the point. He simply said, “Negative—negative”.
I answered: “Roger—1-2s on the way”. 0
I called the “Chief”: “Thunderbird Chief, Warrior 1-2”
“This is Thunderbird Chief, go”.
“Rog, Chief. I want you to hold off ‘til I call fire”.
“Rog—I got you, Babe”.
We dove at the L.Z. and stood it on its tail to kill off the airspeed. We fell into that green notch in the jungle that was 80 feet deep. Frank was working hard but he handled that big, “D” model huey like a surgeon must in the operating room. Suddenly we were slowed at 3 – 4 feet from the ground.
Immediately, the jungle wall to our right exploded with gunfire.
Our team dashed from the trees, stumbling through the grass for the chopper. They were firing behind them as they ran and lobbing hand grenades back into the jungle. The crew chief and gunner cut loose, spraying both sides of the L.Z. with M-60 machine-gun fire.
I called, “Chief, we’re takin’ fire!! We’re takin’ fire on our right”! In an instant, the already blazing cacophony turned into deafening thunder, as the gun-ships opened up on our flanks. The sudden, loud booming of the 40mm. grenade launcher and the awful tearing-shrieking-roar and explosion of the rockets from our gunships, turned the stillness of the jungle into a thundering, roaring, crashing hell and we were right in the middle of it! All year long, I had been on the other end of those rockets, so, I didn’t know what they sounded like, until now !
Our team ran out of the jungle, firing over their shoulders as they ran. They leaped and fell into the ship from the right side. I saw a movement and muzzle flash to their right side and emptied my pistol into the jungle, there. The Crew Chief yelled, “Clear Sir--You’re clear”!
As the enemy fire ripped up the ground around the nose of the ship, Frank pulled pitch and with the iron nerve and the skill that got us into that slot, nursed us back into the air.
“Thunderbird Chief, 1-2 is comin’ out. We’re comin’ out”!
My eyes were riveted on the instruments: oil pressure in the green—EGT (exhaust gas temperature) 590º Centigrade—RPM is dropping!!—6600—6500—6400—6300. The ship is shuddering upward at 400 FPM and 20 kts. At 6200, the engine RPM held! My feeling was, “We may clear those trees, after all”.
Slowly, we gathered forward speed. Suddenly, there was the life giving translational--lift. We were flying! I directed the Gunner and Crew Chief to shoot up the hill on our left as we skirted it on climb-out. As soon as possible, Frank made a left pedal turn and practically fell down the hill.
It then seemed as though I wanted to call everyone at once. “Thunderbird Chief, We are out, o.k. We’re o.k. Your strike was beautiful, Dad.”
He replied, “No sweat, Babe. We did it for you”. “I answered simply, “Rog, 1-2 out”.
“Ancient Tracker 6, this is Warrior 1-2”. We are out with everyone on board and no one is hit. There are no injuries”
“Warrior 1-2, Ancient Tracker, “Understand no WIA (wounded in action). Will report to home station. Can you give me location of enemy fire? I have some TAC AIR (Air Force bombs) to unload”. I gave the radio-relay ship the approximate position of the V.C. and we headed for THA north.
Everyone was grinning, “back-slapping” and shaking hands, in the ship. I took the controls from Frank to give a much-needed break from flying and we headed for the strip.
On the ground over coffee, the gun-pilots, Frank and I and the team, relived the narrow escape. The team had been crouching in the jungle blackness all night as the V.C. searched all around them. The team could not maneuver or observe, were surrounded and had to get out.
Frank and I took these same men into a similar L.Z. on the south end of the same valley the following night and tomorrow night, we will go in and pick them up again. Although, I sincerely hope that we do it with a lot less excitement, this time.
As a result of this last mission by the LRRPs (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) and the SLAR (side looking aerial radar) flights, there is a large troop lift going into that area. The V.C. lair has been pinpointed. This assault will be a result of these patrols by LRRPs.
Chuck Slezak remembers this mission
It was an incredible mission, at about 3 or 4 in the morning. These LRRPS were surrounded by a Battalion of VC and we dropped in and picked them up right under their noses. Until we set down on the ground in the middle of the LRRPS not a shot was fired. The LRRPS had a POW VC Major. The VC didn't want to endanger their Officer I guess. Once the LRRPS started to go for Warrior 25 the Major tried to escape. He got away from the LRRP holding him so the LRRP shot him. Then all hell broke loose. All the LRRPS, myself, my gunner and the T-Bird escorts were firing for all we were worth. Hand grenades were being tossed out of Warrior 25 as we broke ground. As we got out of range the first question was who got hit? To everyone's surprise no one even had a scratch on them. When we returned to Touy Hoa and dawn broke I inspected Warrior 25 for any hits. NOT A SINGLE HOLE. What a night. I'll never forget it. It felt like we were in the middle of a Fourth of July fireworks display and we were the target. But not a single causality or even a hole in the bird. UNBELIEVABLE.
I think that's why, a few weeks later, I transferred to the T-Bird Gunships. The gunships had to be safer then that. Besides we got to take revenge in the gun platoon.
Co A 101st Avn 101st Airborne
Soc Trang Vietnam 9/65 - 9/66
Slick Crew Chief Warrior 25 and
Gun Ship Crew Chief T-Bird #1
11 MAR 66 We returned from Tuy Hoa to SCT on 3 MAR and found that there were five new men in the company. Since then, three more have arrived. Of these new arrivals, WO Silva was assigned to the Thunderbirds.
We seven (original Thunderbird pilots) have flown a few slick missions and on the 8th of MAR, I flew all day with Bill Hitch on his last mission.
Yesterday, I took the blood test and today, I shipped my trunk. I am due to depart for a week in Hong Kong, on the 24th of this month. The tour is nearly over for the original men and a gradual relaxation of the months of shattered nerves is becoming apparent.
Frank Ovnic and I have been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross medal for the rescue of LRRP team #2. Now, the endless paperwork has begun.
20 MAR 66 I just finished the most difficult task—that of writing to Jim Flippens girl, Marcia; notifying her of his being hit. I went down to the dispensary and stayed there until he had to go. I put him on the Dustoff ship and handed him the mail. As we pushed him into the ship, he feebly waved the letters and he asked me then, that I write to Marcia.
I agreed but what does one say in a letter ?? He said a number of things when I was there but his greatest fear was not being able to fly again. I remember him as being a pilot, first. Jim got one of those million-dollar wounds that got him out of this war but he will fly again.
Today, I got my Hong-Kong orders and will leave on the 23rd. Getting “short”, sure feels good!
30 MAR 66 Today, I returned from a modern, clean, remarkably efficient city—Hong Kong. The city offers much to every visitor and to me it was hot water, a dry, soft bed (without mosquitoes), good food and service. I could go all over that city and didn’t have to worry about getting shot at. Remember, that was a new feeling for me, at that time.
I called long-distance” to Janet (my fiancée) and was almost overcome by the “unreality” of it all. It felt like I was talking to someone from another world; and, I was.
3 APR 66 Capt. Milller (Chief), Ben Densley, Ed O’quinn, Jim Winner (we called Jim “super-chief” because he was a W-3) and I left for San Francisco.!! Don Begay will leave a few hours later for Hawaii. There are no words that could possibly convey our feeling.
WE CAME HOME !!!