Charlie Troop 1/9th Cavalry Mike Askew: From Home to Vietnam and Back Home Again

Posted on January 27, 2017

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Crew Chief PFC Mike Askew

Crew Chief PFC Mike Askew

At the beginning of 1967 I knew absolutely nothing about Huey gunships, or M60 door guns. Absolutely nothing about Saigon, the South China Sea, or the 1st Air Cav. I was clueless about the political reasons why the United States was so enthusiastically sending 19 year olds to the jungles of Vietnam.
But I was 19, topped off with testosterone, looking for some excitement in my life, and a little bored in Chowchilla, California. So was my good buddy, Wayne Watson. ‘What the hell’, we decided one evening after cruising down main street, ‘let’s join up’. We did, and this is the story about what happened. It’s a story about the most exciting year of my life. A story about a year I definitely didn’t expect to live through.
For a long time I didn’t feel the need to write about that year. The memories were always with me, but…… mostly I tried to keep them where they belonged, in the past. Time can change people, however, and it changed me. As I matured, I decided the story was important to tell.
To my brothers in Charlie Troop 1/9th Cavalry who are still alive, I just want to say that it’s only a snap shot of what one Crew Chief saw between 8/67 and 8/68. You guys know that if two Vietnam Vets are asked what it was like, you’ll get two different points of view, even if those two guys were crouching side-by-side in the same Huey gunship. We all saw it a little differently. So I don’t apologize for anything I’ve written in this book. It’s an accurate account of what I saw, first hand.
Like I said, I didn’t expect to survive the war. But somehow, for some reason, I did. And on that note, I admit that I have a problem with my ‘survival’. Sometimes I feel guilty that I made it back unharmed when so many other brave Charlie Troopers lost their lives.

To my family, especially my grandchildren (and their grandchildren), I want all of you to know that as a 19 year-old gunship Crew Chief in 1967, I was a patriot.
I fought willingly. I volunteered to go to Vietnam.

I wasn’t sure exactly why I was fighting the people in that far away country, but I followed the orders of my commanding officers and I was very, very proud to be a member of the United States Army Air Cavalry.
Right now, in 2012, I don’t bump into too many folks who are interested in talking about what happened in Vietnam. When the subject of this book comes up, the sentiment I hear is “get over it Mike. That was a long time ago.” Well, I have to say that the book isn’t an obsession with me. I did get over it. I came back home, got married, raised a beautiful family, and enjoyed several interesting careers.
But what happened to me and my Air Cavalry brothers in Vietnam is real and I believe it shouldn’t be forgotten. Ever! This book is my way of keeping the story of the war in Vietnam alive and accurate, at least from the perspective of a Crew Chief in a UH-1B Huey gunship.

The Beginning
US Army Here I come

Cruising down Chowchilla Boulevard in my new, burnt orange, 1966 Ford Mustang, I could smell the wet asphalt from a recent rainstorm permeate the air. Wolf Man Jack was howling his signature howl, introducing the next rock and roll song on the radio. On one hand I felt so good in my Mustang, but on the other, I had to admit I was depressed. It was late December 1966 and I had been out of college for almost a year. As I reached the turnaround point at the end of town, I noticed a friend, Wayne Watson, sitting in his parked car. I pulled up beside him and we started talking about the Vietnam War and the military. He was thinking about joining the Navy. Just for argument sake, I said I was leaning more toward the Army. We debated the pros and cons of the two services and decided that army aviation, in particular helicopters, might satisfy both our desires. Within a week we were at the recruiting office testing for job placement in the Army. We both scored high on the placement test and we were offered the opportunity to attend helicopter maintenance school at Fort Rucker, Alabama after completion of our basic training at Fort Ord, California.

All of a sudden the wheels were turning. I realized I wasn’t depressed anymore. Wayne and I had talked each other into the Army, a good thing we both agreed, but what was going to become of my beloved burnt orange 1966 Mustang.

PHASE ONE

Basic Training

On January 21, 1967 Wayne and I boarded a Greyhound bus in Merced, California. The bus slowed and then turned south toward Highway 152. I noticed a John Deere tractor as it disappeared into a fog-covered, freshly plowed field just outside my window. Everyone sat quietly as the bus approached the coastal mountain range and began to make the long slow climb to the summit before descending toward the Monterey highway. As the bus rolled along the coastal highway, the sky was black with storm clouds and the ocean waves crashed against the rocks shooting white ocean spray in all directions. The light brown sand looked like a carpet as it disappeared into the dark green ice plant covering the tops of the sand dunes. Before I knew it the bus was making its final turn across Highway 1 toward the front gate of Fort Ord. I could see the gate guard as he snapped to attention and with a quick arm swing, motioned us into the fort. We were finally arriving at our destination where we would endure eight cold and wet weeks of intensive basic training. The first few days at Fort Ord we received our shots, got introduced to Kitchen Police better known as KP and were issued our entire supply of military clothing. All I remember about the uniforms is that they were all sized too big and smelled like mothballs.

Our new home for the next eight weeks was in a group of old wooden two- story barracks. As luck would have it, there were new buildings at Fort Ord, but they had been filled up with new recruits just prior to our arrival. So we were herded into whatever was left over from the Civil War. It was cold and wet most of the time I trained at Fort Ord. The saying was that ‘every road runs up hill at Ord’, and I found that to be too true. It seemed like every time we had to walk somewhere it was always up hill. Because the firing ranges were located along the beachfront separating Ord from Monterey, civilian access was restricted. The scenery was beautiful and mostly undisturbed. The beaches were spectacular.

There were two floors in our barracks, Wayne ended up on the second floor with the 1st and 2nd Platoon and I got the bottom floor with the 3rd and 4th platoon. We were surprised to have a trainee with us who played football for the San Diego Chargers, he was their Center and his name was Paul Ladsky. Paul was in the National Guard and only had to attend Basic Training at Ord and complete 6 weeks of infantry training at Fort Polk before returning to civilian life and his football team. Of course the Drill Sergeants put him in charge of the entire company. He was a nice fellow, however he was treated much different than the rest of us peons, he seemed to be gone a lot when the rest of us were cleaning and spit shinning the barracks. I suspect the Drill Sergeants were letting him go home on weekends and do just about anything he wanted.

Wayne and I were celebrities in our barracks, being the only two trainees going to aviation school; most of the rest were infantry or in the reserves. The other trainees would say things like, “You guys are going to be hanging out the doors of those helicopter getting shot at.” I didn’t believe that for a second. My recruiter told me I’d be working as a mechanic in a maintenance hangar repairing helicopters–He never mentioned anything about flying.

I enjoyed my time at Fort Ord. The training was exciting and life was very fast paced. One day we would be on the firing range and the next we’d be learning how to read a military map. Night combat training was the most fun for me; we had to crawl under barbed wire while tracers were fired over our heads. We would line up across an open field and practice advancing on suspected enemy positions. As we moved across the field the enemy would send up flares trying to locate our position by movement. The flares lit up the training grounds with flickers of yellow and red light as smoke filled the air. Ghost-like shadows moved across the tree line as the flares drifted down under their white parachutes. Each time a flare popped everyone had to stop moving and stand motionless until the flare burned out, then we would continue to advance on the enemy position. Most of our night training would continue until around midnight, then we would board a cattle truck and be transported back to our barracks. A few hours of sleep and we’d be standing in formation outside, in the rain, or in the cold, or both, getting ready to head for the chow line and another day of training.

Weapons training was exciting, we fired hundreds of round out of our antiquated M-14 Rifles. M-16s were still not issued for basic training or advanced infantry training. We wouldn’t see the M-16 until we arrived in Vietnam. We did fire the M-60 machine gun form the prone position. I don’t think anyone expected us to hit much, but it was exciting being able to rattle off 600 7.62 rounds per minute.

We also had some training on deploying Claymore Mines and other types of booby traps along with tossing a few hand grenades. That same evening we crawled under barbed wire while M-60 machine guns fired tracers overhead. I doubt that the bullets were low enough to have hit anyone if they stood up, but no one was foolish enough to try.

CS Gas training was something I’ll never forget. I think the DI’s really enjoyed seeing us trainees suffer in the gas chamber. We had to walk into this small building full of CS Gas. We had to remove our protective masks and call out our military ID number and our weapons serial number before we could exit into fresh air. Then we had to crawl under barbed wire where CS Gas was thrown in on top of us, we couldn’t use our masks until we smelled gas. The difficult part of this procedure was that by the time we smelled gas it was so thick that we had a hard time clearing our protective mask. Some poor trainees panicked and tried to run away. Wayne and I sucked it up and made it though along with most of the Company.

The day of graduation from basic training finally arrived. As we approached the parade field, marching in platoon formation, I felt proud of my accomplishments over the past eight weeks. I was now an American fighting soldier, ready for anything the enemy could throw at me. As we approached the Battalion Commander, the drill sergeant gave the command of “eyes right.” At that moment we all turned our heads to the right and saluted. We could see our parents and friends in the bleachers standing quietly watching as we passed. The view reminded me of the old war movies I loved to watch as a kid, where platoon after platoon would pass in review just before heading overseas for combat. All the young soldiers were looking forward to fighting, they were all ready to protect and defend their country, but not one of them knew the pain, grief and death that awaited them on the battlefield.

PHASE TWO

 Learning to be a Crew Chief

It was the end of March as the DC-3 made its final approach into the Dothan, Alabama airport. The airline had misplaced my duffle bag somewhere back in Chicago when my flight was delayed. The stewardess welcomed us to Dothan Alabama as we passed her on the way out of the plane. I can remember thinking that she was much older than the other stewardesses I had seen during my trip. I thought maybe the old DC3 might be where the airlines put the older girls before their retirement. She probably wasn’t much older than 35 at the time. It’s funny what time does to a man’s way of thinking. As I departed the plane I could see the rain falling in sheets across the tarmac.

Just outside the door to the terminal lay my duffle bag, outside in the rain and sopping wet. Across the tarmac I could see the Playboy Bunny jet, it was solid black with a white bunny head painted on the tail. I wondered what it was doing in a place like this? Even though the rain was falling, the humidity was as thick as soup. Everything smelled like mildew, and my khaki uniform was sopping wet from sweat as well as rain. It was a long drive to Fort Rucker from the Dothan airport. As the bus rolled along the wet asphalt and the rain dotted the windows, I sat quietly looking out at the blurred scenery. It was like being in a jungle with tall green trees and vines growing up like a huge constantly moving wall. The rain seemed to be falling harder as we passed a small body of water alongside the road. I could see an alligator with its head stuck up out of the mossy swamp. For an instant I wondered, would Vietnam look like this?

Fort Rucker looked like something out of a World War II movie. The barracks were old and painted white, constructed of wood with dark green asphalt shingles covering the two story roofs. There was no air conditioning for cooling and only old-fashioned coal burning boilers for heat. Lining the walkways leading to each building were white painted football-sized stones with gray gravel covering the walkways. Separating the barracks area from the headquarters buildings was a large well-groomed grass parade field. On display in front of the Command Center were an old artillery piece and a large 10,000-pound bomb.

The sky was filled with the sound of rotor blades beating the air as helicopters circled overhead then disappeared over the horizon heading somewhere unknown to us. After signing in at the command center we were directed to our barracks where we unpacked our gear and made our beds. Before we realized it, it was time for dinner. Later that evening we finally had time to introduce ourselves to one another as we all settled in for a good night’s rest. There wasn’t much talking that first evening. As I looked around the barracks, a few people were writing letters, some were shining their boots, and others were just lying on their bunks reading or staring at the ceiling. As I lay in my bunk that evening, I felt sure that I’d made the right decision in joining the army. I was positive there wasn’t any other place in the world that I would rather be than right where I was.

Just before daylight the Charge of Quarters Sergeant walked through the barracks telling everyone to rise and shine. Breakfast was being served and formation was scheduled for 7:00 AM in front of the Command Center. After breakfast we were all standing at parade rest waiting for our new Company Commander to appear. Out of the Command Center walked a tall, slim major dressed in jungle fatigues. As he approached the formation, the First Sergeant called attention, then at ease. After his introduction and a short welcoming speech the commander turned the unit over to the class platoon sergeant.
This was nothing like basic training, no one was yelling or ordering us around; formations were for role call and information only. If this was the real army, it was going to be a piece of cake. The first day of classes was finally starting and I was excited about getting to work on helicopters. I was wondering just how many people actually got to work on and maybe fly on helicopters for a living. Not many I supposed. At our in briefing, we were told that our first two weeks of training would cover reciprocating engine troubleshooting and repair and the second six weeks of training would be turbine engine repair, which included Crew Chief and door gunner training on UH-1 Huey helicopters. I hadn’t figured on door gunner training.

As the weeks passed we all started wondering if our first duty station assignment would be Vietnam or if we would stay state side for a time. It wasn’t long before we had our answer. For the first time rumor control was correct. Our orders were posted on the information board just outside of our barracks. Everyone who graduated from Crew Chief and door gunner school was assigned to the Republic of Vietnam. We were given a 30-day leave and a reporting date which included a time and place for deployment to Vietnam. My reporting date was August 6th at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.

PHASE THREE
Vietnam

I was finally on my way to the most exciting, most life changing, and most dangerous experience of my entire life. The long 24-hour flight to Vietnam would give me plenty of time to think about my past and wonder just what influenced me to take this path in life. I had been in college where I was safe and sound, but I decided to take a break for a year or two knowing that I would probably be drafted. I think down deep, I wanted to join the army right after high school, however, the pressure to go to college was so great from my peers and parents that I gave in and did what they wanted me to do, not what I wanted to do.

The sky was pitch black as the jet reached an altitude of 32,000 feet and leveled out heading west toward Hawaii. The chime sounded giving the OK to smoke and to remove our seatbelts. As I lit a cigarette and reclined my seat I began thinking about home, my past and how much I had enjoyed my youth. I thought about my friends and what they might be doing. I wondered if Wayne was enjoying his new adventure. He had been given the opportunity to attend Air Traffic Control School at Rucker and had decided to accept the offer. I thought about my old buddies from high school and college and wondered if any of them were now in the military.

As my mind drifted I began thinking about my family and what they had endured during WW2. My father was never in the military, however, most of my uncles were, including my brother who served four years in the navy in the late ‘50s, during the Cold War years.

My father worked in the Long Beach navel shipyards building war ships and my mother worked in a bomb factory during WW2. My father was 31 years old when the war started and was married with one child. His age, marital status and job kept him from being drafted. I think my father was bothered by not having served in the military during the war. He never discussed those years with me and by not doing so made me tend to believe that it was something he regretted. I was always proud of both he and my mother for what they did during the war years. Now it was my turn to do my duty.

It was early morning when the pilot’s voice came booming through the PA system announcing that we were on final approach into Bien Hoa, Vietnam. We all began looking out the windows of the jet, straining to see what this new country really looked like. I could see some smoke drifting up from the mountainside just north of Bien Hoa, but nothing to show that there was a war raging just below. The jet made a quick turn to the right and started a steep nose down approach to the runway.

The tires screeched and the plane bounced and shook as it contacted the pavement. The pilot immediately reversed the engines, throwing everyone forward against their seatbelts. The jet engines roared and the seats vibrated as we slowed to a coasting speed. I found out later that the fast nose-down landing was to avoid enemy fire when approaching the runway. The pilot maneuvered the aircraft to a large parking area just outside the air terminal. As we exited the aircraft a stewardess thanked us for flying United and wished us good luck and a safe return.

At that moment I wondered how many of us would still be here in 365 days. I knew many would perish long before then. I just hoped it wouldn’t be me. During my tour in Vietnam, I never could conceive of the day that I would board the plane for home. I was sure that I would crash and burn someday somewhere on some mission.

Now I’m not a romantic, but when I stepped from the stairs of that United Flight onto the steaming tarmac, I expected something out of the movie Green Berets. You know, a little spit-and-polish. Some hardened old timer meeting the new recruits with a snappy salute and an inspiring speech.  “Welcome to the good fight men. We appreciate your volunteer spirit. It’s an honor to have you with us”?

But that didn’t happen. In the oppressive humidity, our receptionist to the good fight was an unsmiling, bored-looking 20 year old wearing wrinkled fatigues, a dirty sweat-stained hat, and unpolished jungle boots. He was slumped behind the steering wheel of a blue Air Force bus with black, steel-barred windows covered with jungle camo screens. The bus filled up, the kid closed the door without ceremony, and drove us away without a word. We were simply more replacements on our way to the 21st replacement center.

As we passed through several small villages I noticed a few women walking around in black pajama bottoms and white silk looking blouses. They wore funny-shaped straw hats tied under the chin with a black ribbon. A few were carrying 6-foot long poles made of bamboo across their shoulders with baskets hanging from ropes at each end filled with rice. Little children were playing in the street, some were fully clothed and others wore only tops with no pants. There were lots of young boys, but not many young men. I could smell a strong odor that I had never smelled before. Later I would find out that the order came from fermenting fish used to make Mam fish sauce for flavoring food. Everything looked strange to me. The mud huts and straw roofs reminded me of old movies I watched as a child. I had expected to see more modern living conditions, but it looked as though nothing had changed for hundreds of years.

The roads were unpaved and filled with bicycles and motorbikes. Mud houses with lean-tos extending from their fronts were being used as stores with rickety wooden tables for store displays. My concentration was broken when the driver came to a sudden stop. Looking out the front window I could see an old man crossing the road leading a black water buffalo. Sitting on the back of the buffalo was a small child wearing black pajamas and a straw hat. The child carried a switch that he used for hitting the buffalo on the backside encouraging it to move along. The old man didn’t even look up at the bus as he moved slowly crossing the dirt road disappearing through a large green hedgerow.

The bus brakes squealed as the driver slowed and entered the gate to the 21st replacement command center. I could see rows of unpainted buildings with screened in windows. The grounds were clear of vegetation and the dirt was red clay. Dust from the red dirt was blowing in swirls as the vehicles passed back and forth down the unpaved roads running through the compound. It seemed to be a very busy place. Soldiers were walking around in all directions and jeeps and trucks were moving back and forth delivering supplies and in some cases men. At the south end of the compound was the location of the 21st replacement office buildings. Each new soldier had to process through the replacement office where he or she would be assigned to a field duty station. I received my field assignment to Charlie Troop 1/9th Calvary Air Mobil at An Khe in the Central Highlands. The next day I boarded a Caribou Airplane and headed for An Khe.

The hydraulics screeched and moaned as the landing gear lowered and the Caribou turned on final approach to the An Khe runway. Looking down toward the rear of the aircraft, I could see the soldiers lined up as if we were getting ready to parachute from the plane. Everyone sat quietly as the plane’s wheels touched the runway and the engines roared as the pilot reversed the props and applied the brakes, bringing the aircraft to a quick stop. As the plane taxied to the unloading area everyone grabbed their duffel bags and began removing their seat belts. The plane came to an abrupt stop and the crew began lowering the back ramp.

The sound of the plane’s turbine engines was deafening. Dust was blowing around from the prop wash as other planes taxied by, and helicopters hovered for landings and take offs. We were definitely in a strange environment. Helicopters were lined up between sand bagged bunkers along both sides of the runway for what looked like a mile. I could feel the intense heat as the sun beat down on my steel helmet and the hot wind burned my eyes. This was Vietnam at its best.

After a short time of waiting for our ride, a ¾ ton truck came speeding up to our location and skidded to a stop forming a large cloud of dust engulfing us all. The driver stuck his head out the window and yelled for the 1/9th replacements to get in. Fearing that he might leave as quickly as he arrived we all grabbed our gear and pitched it on board and jumped in. Grinding the gears the driver spun the truck around and headed up the hill to our new unit. Although it was questionable, we did arrive in one piece.

PHASE FOUR

1st Cavalry Division

The driver stopped in front of an unpainted wooden building with screened in openings for windows. Looking inside I could see a line of green army cots and a few coffee cans used for discarding cigarette butts, the floor was made of gray rough cement and hanging from the door frame was a broken screen door standing wide open. The driver told us to pick out an empty bunk and stow our gear, then report to the first sergeant.

Just up the hill from our new home was the command center recreation room. After stowing our gear and picking out our bunks we reported to the first sergeant for our in briefing. He informed us that we would be attending a jungle-training course starting first thing in the morning. The training would last five days and would include survival training and rappelling. We spent the rest of the day signing for our personnel weapons, getting our unit patches sewn on our fatigues, and adjusting to our new environment. Jungle training consisted of classes on personal hygiene, weapons and equipment care, and rappelling. It was funny to watch the older soldiers rappel, they were very afraid of the height, some even refused to climb the ladder to the top of the tower. The younger soldiers weren’t very impressed with their leaders for being such cowards. I grabbed the rung to the ladder and started my long climb to the top of the rappelling tower. I was scared to death about jumping off the thing backwards while relying on a rope someone else had tied around my waist, but I wasn’t going to let anyone else know how terrified I really was. After attaching the harness to my waist, I backed up to the edge of that tower, took a good hold on the rope, closed my eyes and jumped off.

The trip down was exciting; everything worked as the instructor said it would and I arrived at the bottom alive. I couldn’t wait to climb that ladder and rappel again, and again and again.

PHASE FIVE

Charlie Troop 1/9th Cavalry

Before we knew it the jungle-training course was over and we were packed and ready for the trip to our field unit at North Two Bits in Bong Son South Vietnam. Waking up early we grabbed our bags and walked up the hill a short distance to a small landing pad just above the Charlie Troop Command Center.

Now. Before I go any further, let me tell you serving in Vietnam you had to learn anew Language. No, not Vietnamese but Vietnam Army Lingo. Here is a sampling:

Communicating in Nam’s special vocabulary was confusing at first, but within a week I became fluent. Not because I was smart but because it was a matter of life and death to be accurate. In the heat of battle aboard a gunship, all of the communicating was on the radio. The places, people, and equipment we were dealing with every day had to be described with complete clarity. Unclear commands or inaccurate emergency requests meant people were going to die.
In writing this story, it was natural for me to ‘speak’ in the present tense and to use the vocabulary routinely spoken in Nam. While anyone who served in the Air Cav in Nam will know exactly what a ‘slick’ refers to in the italicized paragraph above, most readers will appreciate a little help. Following is a brief translation with Cliff Notes for a few common terms. I hope it helps clarify what we were doing in Vietnam, and to some degree, why.

“VC”– The bad guys. The ‘Gooks’. The barely visible soldiers in the jungle who are shooting deadly tracers up at #051. The enemy. That guy in my gun sight who is desperately trying to kill ME! The ‘Dinks’. VC is our derisive nickname for the enemy. In the press, VC respectfully translates as “Vietnamese Communist”. The North Vietnamese government did not pay the Viet Cong who were volunteers from the South and supported the North and their idealism. They had no uniforms and their weapons were of all different types. Some carried M-16s captured from our soldiers, others carried what we called the Chi-Com or Chinese Communist bolt action long rifle or the SKS semiautomatic rifle, but the most popular weapon for the infantry soldier was the AK47.
BLUES – The Blue Platoon in Charlie Troop is made up of one infantry sized platoon, they use 4 D-series Hueys (called Slicks). Each slick hauls 10 ground troopers into battle . The Blues are as brave as they come. I’ve watched them jump out of the slicks without hesitation into the elephant grass for face-to-face combat with the enemy. They also know they’ll be fighting the booby traps, the leeches, and the bamboo vipers. The Blues have it tough in every way! Hanging out of my gunship I know I’m a slow, low-flying target, but I’m happy to be above the jungle supporting the Blues, not in it with them.

“#051”– My helicopter. The Bell UH-1B Gunship I am assigned to as Crew Chief. For me, action central every day of the week. The role of #051 is to locate the enemy by flying low enough and slow enough over the jungle canopy to entice the VC to shoot at us. When they do, we mark their location with smoke and call in the slicks with their Blue squads. Then #051 becomes a gun platform, diving into the firefight in support of the Blues.
SLICK – In order to carry a squad of Blues, the UH-1D and later the UH-1H is stretched a tad longer than my attack UH-1B. It’s called a slick because it has no rocket pods or mini guns. Its primary role is delivering and picking up ground troops. Don’t think for a minute that slicks have it easy, they have to land those things in what we call hot LZ’s with Charley very intent on destroying the helicopter and the crew.

“ARVN” – An acronym pronounced Arvin, it stands for Army, Republic Vietnam.

“ASH-AND-TRASH” – To maintain operations, a remote fire-base, like LZ Two Bits, has to be constantly re-supplied with mail, beer, ammo and C-Rations (in that order of importance). In between combat missions, gunship crews take turns flying grocery runs to the big supply bases like Phu Cat, or An Khe. I’m sure there is a good story connected to the name ‘ash-and-trash’ for these supply runs, but if there is, I’ve missed it.
“North LZ Two Bits” – Fire bases all over Vietnam were first established by the 1/9th as a simple clearing in the jungle for offloading troops and ammo. Little-by-little some of them have developed into fortified Landing Zones (LZ) with oiled flight lines, secure perimeters, and separate tents for mail, meals and communications. LZ Two Bits, my first assignment in Nam, is located in Binh Dinh Province, about 50 km north of Phu Cat.
PHU CAT – A major logistic and personnel Air Force base. 40 km due east of An Khe and 50 km south of LZ Two Bits, Phu Cat has all the amenities and is a world away from the way we live at Two Bits. I spent many nights at Phu Cat waiting to be called to protect Two Bits from suspected attacks.
DUST OFF – A term I don’t like to hear over the radio. It means a helicopter is being called in for a medevac. Usually, it relates to a critical situation involving a Blue platoon, a downed Huey, or just plain bad news.

CHICKEN PLATE – In an effort to make us feel safe in our gun ship, the Army supplies each man with a protective vest. It has convenient little pockets on the front and a metal plate sewn into the area covering the chest. It’s supposed to be bullet proof, and it would be if our gunship was on the ground with the bad guys firing straight at us. The problem is that we are up in the air, above the bad guys. They are shooting straight up at us. With bullets coming up from below, it seems smarter to sit on the plate than to wear it. It is common knowledge that some gunship crew members have been hit on the chicken plate and the bullet has ricocheted up into their throat or jaw. Most of the time I don’t wear the damn thing. It’s too hot, too heavy and, frankly, only protective as seat armor.

PETER PILOT – Both guys up front in #051 know what they’re doing. The more experienced guy is the aircraft commander (AC). He normally is in the left seat, however, depending on the mission and his need for specific control of the aircraft, he might choose to sit the right seat. The other pilot, the co-pilot, is called the Peter Pilot in the Air Cav. My regular Peter Pilot is Jr. Giddens. He’s a good guy and an excellent pilot. I trust him with my life every day, and he depends on the accuracy of my guns to keep him alive.

POP SMOKE – Out in the open, on the floor of my compartment, I keep several “wooden boxes filled with grenades of all types”. There are extra C-Rations, extra 60 barrels (just in case we burn one out), and a supply of Willy Petes, and smoke grenades. The smoke grenades are dropped to identify a target location for a bomb run or to mark a LZ for the infantry or maybe to set up a navigational reference for a re-supply drop for the Blues. There are lots of reasons to pop smoke, and it’s my job to get the smoke in exactly the right place at the right time and use the right color.

CS GAS – CS was a gas grenade used to purge underground caves, bunkers and buildings used as hiding places by the enemy. In enclosed areas it would cause the enemy to seek fresh air without regard to their safety.

WILLY PETE – War speak for White Phosphorus grenades. I don’t carry too many regular grenades on-board. They’re useless because they can’t create any smoke. I need smoke, and lots of it, to identify a target deep down in the triple layered jungle canopy. Willy Petes get the job done like nothing else.

“KIA” – Killed in Action. In the end, 2,594,000 persons will have served in South Vietnam. 58,169 will have died. 2,274 Crew Chiefs and Gunners will be killed in action as will 2,197 pilots.

“60s” – In addition to the gunship itself, and other equipment and weapons, I’m responsible for two 7.62mm M60D door guns aboard #051 (my gunship). One of the 60’s is mine, hanging in the left door (my permanent position as Crew Chief). The other is hanging in the right door (my gunner’s position). They are referred to as ‘machine guns’ in the press. To us they’re just plain 60s. It’s a big deal to be in the left door. Everyone knows the guy in the left door owns the Huey. They know he’s the Crew Chief. Before and after each mission, I make sure our 60’s are cleaned, checked-out, oiled and prepped for the next mission. I insist that my gunner clean his own weapon, but I always inspect it after. If it jams in a firefight, we could all die. Each gun weighs 20 pounds. The ammo belt is fed from a wooden hand grenade box holding no less than 1000 rounds of 7.62 steel metal jacket straight tracers. In action the two 60s are LOUD and very lethal. They swing from a tether above the open door so that we can easily (and quickly) aim in any direction. In an extended firefight, it’s possible to burn up a barrel, so I keep replacement barrels in my tool box. A few days ago, on our final approach into LZ Two Bits, I pulled the operating handle of my 60 to the rear to remove the ammo belt. This is standard operating procedure for clearing the weapons before landing. The handle slipped from my hand accidentally and fired a tracer round into busy Bong Son village below. Boy, did I feel stupid, even though I’m not the first gunner to make that mistake. Luckily no damage done.

“SKIDS” – The Huey’s don’t have wheels and tires. They sit on metal tubes that look like skis. We call them skids because the ship skids like a sleigh along the ground when a fast, hard landing is required in combat, or if an engine fails. Sometimes I step out onto the skid in flight to get a better visual on VC hiding down in the jungle. The jungle canopy is three levels thick, so we have to fly as low as possible, about 50 feet off the deck, to see the enemy. The running joke is that attack gunship guys get a nose bleed if they fly higher than 50 feet. Our job is to draw fire so we know where the bad guys are. Today I balanced on the skid as the pilot held a wobbly hover over a floating reed ‘island’ where a surrendering Viet Cong stood, hands above his head. I stepped from #051 on to the thick reed mat carrying my heavy 60. It was like a water bed. My side of the mat island went down as his side rose up. I motioned him over to the gunship, under the wind blast of the rotor, and onto the skid, where I boosted him up into the ship. The moment I stepped on the skid, hanging on to my 60 with one hand and onto the door handle with the other, the pilot dropped the nose and accelerated over the lake gaining immediate elevation. He wanted to get the heck out of that exposed area as fast as possible. Whoa. What a ride! I don’t know who’s eyes were bigger, the prisoner’s or mine.

“SONG RE Valley” – This is the location where I flew my first combat mission in August, 1967. It is also at the far edge of our 1/9th operational area. A‘combat hot’ zone and dangerous place to fly. I take a deep breath every time I hear the pilot say we’re headed for Song Re Valley. Many of our fine Charley Troop soldiers lost their lives in the Song Re in late July and early August of 1967. This battle is still talked about today when soldiers from Charley Troop gather for yearly reunions.

“OD” – Just about everything the Army owns is painted OD (olive drab). OD is also the name of our mascot here at Two Bits. We call him “OHdee”. He showed-up one night at the main gate, crawled under, and adopted us. Pretty smart move since the locals like to eat dogs. Somehow he figured out that the 1st Air Cav feeds dogs. He’s very good natured and sleeps near my hooch. He’s also a great watch dog and companion when I’m pulling guard duty.

“HOOCH” – When I decided I wanted my own quarters, away from the communal tent, I built a 12 x 12 bunker with sand bags for walls and a rain proof roof made from pallets and tar paper. Two Air Force guys traded the tar paper for two rockets when I was at Phu Cat. Don’t ask me what they plan to do with the rockets. My hooch is waterproof now and very close to the flight line, so I’m usually the first one at the gunship when a mission is called. I like it that way because #051’s readiness is my responsibility. I need to be close by her at all times. The mess tent is a short walk to the west and the bunker where I pull guard duty is due south.

“DEROS” – The Army loves saying everything the hard way, and then turning it into an acronym. Every soldier’s ‘Date Eligible for Return from Overseas’ is known as his DEROS (pronounced DEE-rose). While it is the count-down date for getting back to the real world, it’s bad karma to talk about it too much. It seems that the two most vulnerable times for becoming a KIA statistic is during the first three months in-country and during the last three months. So it’s best just to forget about your DEROS (but nobody really does). My DEROS is August 8, 1968. I’m not superstitious about the date, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be shipped home in a metal box. I see gunships going down so often that it’s just a matter of time before #051 goes down in flames.

C-4 – A very high explosive that looks and feels like a bar of artist’s sculpting clay. It won’t detonate without a primer and fuse, so while it can be dynamite deadly, it’s not volatile to handle. It can be tossed around and even burned without detonating. It burns like a fire starter, so I often light a pinch of it with a match to heat my C-Ration lunch (Beans & Wieners) on the floor of the Huey. Yummm Yummm. Nothin’ better! But you’d have to be here to understand.

C-RATIONS – As Crew Chief, I have to make sure we have food on board my gunship. The guys call them “Cs”. They come in a case, 12 meal packages to the case. Each individual package contains 1 can of meat, 1 can of fruit, and a can of bread or dessert. The package also includes a B unit (chewing gum, cigarettes, matches, coffee, cream, sugar, salt, a spoon and toilet paper), and a P-38 can opener. My favorite meal is “Beans & Wieners”, so I always dig through the case before the others to find my prize. One of the other meal options is Ham and Lima Beans, a truly disgusting meal. Instead of eating it, I position the can under the belt feed of my 60, right next to the chamber. It works perfectly as a ‘clip roller’; a rounded track that helps eliminate jamming when 600 rounds/min are wildly flying into the chamber.

DOWN-TO-THE-RUSTY-ROUNDS – The box of belted 7.62mm rounds that feed into my 60 is too heavy to haul in and out of the helicopter, after each mission, I simply re-fill the box on board with fresh rounds, leaving the unused belts at the bottom of the box. In the tropical humidity, the unused rounds at the bottom rust after a few days. In the middle of a frantic firefight, if I see rusty rounds coming out of the box, I know I’m nearing the end of my ammo supply. I know I’m in trouble.

GRUNT – Some say this name for a ground trooper comes from the sound he makes jumping out of a slick with full combat gear.

JESUS NUT – This is not the long haired wacko on a soap box in the park. It’s the nut at the top of the Huey mast that keeps the blades from flying off. Checking it before and after every flight is my responsibility. You can see me sitting on top of the mast of #051, checking the Jesus Nut, in one of the photos in this book.

MONKEY STRAP – A shoulder harness designed to keep me from falling out of #051 when the pilot banks suddenly.

MPC – I receive the equivalent value of $20 a month in Military Payment Currency here in Vietnam, another $110.00 Dollars is deposited into a savings account back home. Possessing U.S. currency is against the law in a theater of war. I pay Mama-San 3 MPC for doing my laundry in Bong Son Village. A haircut is 2 MPC. A beer in the village is 1 MPC. I don’t think I have ever spent a full months allowance. The Air Cav pretty much supplies me with everything I need. I just go into the village (unauthorized by the way) with the other guys for something different to do. Can you imagine? $130.00 a month to risk my life every hour of every day I’m in Vietnam. Hell, as much fun as I’m having I’d do it for free!

PULL PITCH – I didn’t ever get around to pulling up on the collective and gaining transitional lift in a take-off, but I did take the stick and drive #051 when I was up front flying log runs or ash-and-trash missions to An Khe. “Let’s pull pitch and get airborne” the pilot would say once the rpms reached 6500. I enjoyed flying old 051, she responded with a slight movement of the cyclic stick. I always knew that I had the ability to land her if the situation called for me to do so, and for me, flying was just like driving my mustang back home.

PULL THE TRIGGER – Hearing those Huey turbines whine when the pilot pulls the trigger on the cyclic to start the engine is always a thrill. If the Vietnam War has a soul, and if that soul has a voice, it’s definitely that special sound of 20 Huey’s starting up with their single rotor blades slapping the air as they lift off. There is no other sound in the world like it.

PZ – Every flying situation in Vietnam is dangerous. Flying into the pick-up zone, however, is extra dangerous. #051 is an attack helicopter, so we’re usually orbiting above a PZ to deliver covering fire. There were times when we picked up surrendering prisoners, and being so exposed, on the ground, gave me great respect for the slicks that routinely go into a hot PZ.

SQUELCH – To keep words at a minimum when the action is hot, two squelch clicks on the mike means “message understood” and/or “will comply”. During a mission yesterday, my pilot said he wanted me to drop two willy petes into a cave. Instead of keying my mike and saying I understood, I simply clicked my mic twice. He knew I was ready. During fire fights and other dangerous missions it was important to keep the verbal traffic to a minimum, so clicking the mic switch for yes and no was important.

MR. A regular officer is called by his rank: Captain, Lieutenant, Major and so on. Warrant Officers are called MR.

I wrote many a letter home while I was in Vietnam. I am going to post them before I get deep into Charlie Troop, Crew Chiefing, missions and thoughts,

September 1, 1967

Dear Mom & Dad,

I’ve been writing to you every day since I arrived in Viet Nam, but I have to confess. I haven’t been telling you the truth about where I am…………or what I do each day.
When I first arrived at An Khe, the Army put us through ‘Jungle School’. One of the classes was about letter writing.
“Don’t worry your parents, wives or sweethearts unnecessarily”, they warned us, “and don’t put your outfit in danger by giving out classified information about where you are or what you’re doing over here!”
Most of the guys here don’t write home that much anyway, but, as you know, I never miss a day. Writing every day is important to me. It’s become a comfortable habit. It keeps me closer to home, I guess.
What I’m not supposed to write to you is that I’m flying very dangerous missions every day. The odds are pretty good—maybe too good—that I won’t be coming back home. This place is crazy. The war is crazy.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what I’m doing and I’m proud to be in the Air Cav. I made the right choice to join up. But……..after what happened today, I really don’t see how I’m going to get out of here alive!

Love Mike
September 13, 1967

Dear Mom & Dad,

I’ve been assigned an attack helicopter tail number 051, she’s olive green except for her pea green tail boom, it’s been replaced due to combat damage and I guess there just isn’t any olive green paint around to cover the tail boom. When #051 is on the ground, she is mine! All mine!

If I say she’s ready to fly, no one questions my word. As soon as we lift off, she belongs to the pilot, but he completely depends on the entire crew to keep us safe. The pilot and co-pilot fly the ship from up front. I am in charge of the business end of the M-60 guns here in the back. In most cases we fly our missions in what is called a free fire zone, that means my right hand gunner and I can fire our guns without asking for permission and without being fired on first. When we fly in areas where civilians are located we always ask for permission to fire. There is one exception to the last rule, if we are fired on we can return fire without asking anyone.

In the air, my position is in the left bay door, right behind the pilot. He and I work very closely together to get off the ground safely, to complete the mission, and then to get back to our LZ in one piece. The fourth man on our team is my right hand door gunner, he’s usually a Blue platoon guy. Our Blues are a platoon of fearless infantry soldiers, we can depend on the Blues to deploy and rescue us if we should be shot down or crash while out on a mission.

We fly several missions a day every day and sometimes we even fly at night, at times things can get scary. I love it, but it’s definitely scary. I know that you’d rather I had a desk job or something a little safer, but I’m really into this flying thing and I don’t think I’d be happy doing anything else. You know me I’ve always liked living on the edge.
We fly around 60 knots, keeping the helicopter just skimming the treetops, by flying in that manner we are hoping to draw enemy fire. Our job is to get the bad guys to shoot at us. When they do, we report their position, while shooting back. It sounds strange to say this, but I’m not at all afraid. Scared to death, yes, but not afraid. There’s a big difference. In fact, I wake up each morning just itching to get back in the air. Each flight gets my adrenaline pumping like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Yesterday we lost one of our Hueys. I saw our guys go down. There’s nothing much we could have done about it, it’s sad, but we have to go on fighting if for no other reason than to get revenge for our fallen brothers. We Air Cavalry soldiers stick together like brothers, when one falls there will always be another to take his place. I don’t know about this war Mom, they say it’s to keep communism from spreading and to help the South Vietnamese stay free, but I’m not sure that’s true.
Anyway, here comes my pilot. I’ve got #051 all ready to go.

Love Mike
September 16, 1967
Dear Mom & Dad,

I just landed back here at Two Bits. It’s late. Today was tough!
I pulled guard duty last night. Didn’t get any rest before lifting off on this morning’s mission. It turned out to be a long one.

As soon as we landed, I had to clean-up #051 and prep the guns for tomorrow’s flight. When I finally got to my hooch (expecting a well-deserved rest), a pilot, Dirk Kretschman stuck his head inside and urgently asked me to replace his Crew Chief on what could turn into a last light mission.

“Sure”, I said and immediately grabbed my gear and took off running to the flight line where a gunship was already running and ready for take off. I failed to inform Red Mike I was crewing another gunship on the mission.

It was late afternoon as we flew over a suspicious village scene near the Binh Dinh mountain range. Too quiet. No villagers. As we dropped down to investigate I spotted a Viet Cong hiding in the underbrush, he was armed with an AK 47 and wearing black PJ’s. I advised Mr. Kretschman about what I was observing as he turned the helicopter and dove toward the hiding VC. My tracers found the VC — I could see his bloody remains and his weapon on the ground beside him — but several others were scrambling away trying to make into the village for cover.

Mr. Kretschman decided it was time to called-in the Blues. I kept an eye on the village as we circled and waited for back-up. When the slicks finally arrived and landed the Blues below us, I could see the rotor wash from the slicks blowing the elephant grass. Red dust was rising above the grunts as they jumped out and took their positions. Then the village erupted with gun fire. It was coming from everywhere. Our guys were pinned down. Slick pilots were quickly positioning their Huey’s between the VC and our guys, acting as shields.

Mr. Kretschman reacted immediately, diving straight down on the center of the village. He was punching off rockets and calling for more gunships all at the same time. Me and my gunner were blasting away. I saw secondary explosions from VC ammo stored in the thatch-roofed village huts. We pulled out of the dive and shot straight up over our guys on the ground. Another quick dive on the VC allowed our guys to re-position and avoid the ambush. When our back-up gunships arrived, we all took turns emptying everything we had on the burning village. After expending our 60 ammo and rockets, we made gun runs on the village using hand grenades and our Willy Petes to keep the enemy more interested in us than our slicks that were loading and removing our infantry from the ambush and kill zone. It was twilight when our commander called us back to LZ Two Bits. We lost another man. James Wise; a Blue Platoon soldier. It was a sad ending for a long day.
What a tough day! I’m still alive. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I won’t forget today and I won’t forget James Wise. A brave Cavalry soldier.

Love Mike

October 3, 1967
Dear Mom & Dad,

Just another day in my office.
Every day I am bombarded with hurricane-force downdraft from the rotors above my open door position; and then our forward speed blasts my face with hot, humid wind all day long — it’s like standing up in a convertible at 80 mph on a freeway.

There is only one large strap holding me in my seat and a web tether attached to my free swinging machine gun. The loose strap has enough slack to allow me to lean way out so I can maneuver my gun forward and aft. When the pilot suddenly dives or banks hard without telling me, it becomes a test of balance that a trapeze artist would applaud. Believe me, riding the door in a firefight is like nothing else in the world.

Now, add the intense noise of a whining turbine engine next to me, the loud slapping of the blades just above my head, the on-going intercom chatter (we can hear all transmissions between ground troops and air support), the explosive hiss of a rocket from the launcher 2 feet from my knee, the ear splitting blasts of two mini guns firing three thousand rounds per minute each, along with the door guns spitting out 600 rounds per minute……and you have a typical day at my office. Believe it or not, I am very calm and collected on these missions. I only get the shakes once in a while.

Too calm today. I wasn’t paying attention and I was leaning way out the door, when the pilot made an unexpected steep diving turn and nearly launched me out into space. No one on board even noticed. I had a red face there for a while. I actually lost hold of my M-60 the rotor wash caused the gun to spin around. When I finally gained control of the gun, the barrel was pointing strait at me.

We’re a good team. All “hardened” veterans – meaning we’re still alive after several months in-country. We know our lives are dependent upon each other’s judgment and quick action. But we also know God, and luck, have a lot to do with our survival. We all know each mission may be our last. I’m o.k. with that.

Love Mike

October 10, 1967

Dear Mom & Dad,

Today we flew one of those rare ‘uneventful’ missions. They don’t happen too often, but when they do I like to look at the beauty of the landscape where there is no human activity.

Today the mission was like a dream vacation. Like a low-level helicopter tour of a remote Hawaiian Island, or some exotic movie set in the tropics.

The jungle landscape was so impressive. No clouds in the sky. We were skimming the tree tops when I saw a beautiful, blue pool in a jungle grotto. Not a sign of human activity.

The waterfall above the pool was fed by a clear stream.

A beautiful meadow of elephant grass and tropical plants surrounding the pool made the place look like Eden. I could see myself living in a grass shack near that waterfall, sitting by the pool, soaking my tired feet in the cool water, totally relaxed and without a worry in the world.

The daydream became so real I actually forgot about the war for a short minute, then without warning we topped a mountain and the bottom fell out as I viewed the large green valley below. That’s what’s so fun about flying in a helicopter you can be skimming the treetops one minute and within a micro second you can be looking far below. Sometimes it feels like my stomachs in my throat.

Love Mike

The Full Story of action pertaining the death of PFC James Wise is as follows:

It was a Saturday afternoon and I had just finished checking #051 after a long day of flying. I entered my hooch anticipating some well-deserved rest. An anxious pilot. Dirk Kretschman stuck his head though the door and informed me that a night mission was ready to lift off. He said his Crew Chief was nowhere to be found. He asked if I would crew his helicopter for the absent Crew Chief. Without hesitation I grabbed my weapon. Five minutes later I was sitting in his helicopter giving the all-clear signal for take-off. The date was September 16th 1967.

Approaching the recon area I could see a small village just at the base of the Binh Dinh mountain range. Located around one side of the village was a small river flowing toward the South China Sea and across the front were several rice paddies with hedgerows separating each paddy. It was unusual to be flying over a village at that time of the evening without seeing civilian activity. Something wasn’t right. As we circled the empty village I saw a person hiding in a hedgerow, near a small stream that ran past the western end of the village. The individual was armed with an AK 47 and wearing Black PJ’s.

I informed Mr. Kretschman and He immediately banked down toward the crouching man. As we dove, we spotted another person, dressed in black and wearing a pistol belt. We realized these guys were VC. One of them ran across the open rice paddy toward the village. Moving very slowly, Kretschman turned the helicopter to the right, circling the VC in the hedgerow. I opened up with my door gun, covering the area with red tracers. When the smoke cleared the VC’s crumpled body lay lifeless under the green cover of the hedgerow; his weapon lay beside him. The other VC had disappeared into the village. Assuming that we had come upon a small Viet Cong unit moving through the area, Mr. Kretschman called for backup from LZ North Two Bits.

He asked for another set of gunships and the deployment of our Blue Platoon to move through the village and clear out any remaining enemy. But he had no idea how serious the situation actually was.

When the slicks arrived carrying our Blue Platoon they were instructed to deploy about 200 meters north of the village in a dry rice paddy.

Looking out the door I could see the lift ships circling as they made their final approach into the landing zone. Each helicopter flared out for touch down. The rotor wash from the ships blew a tornado of dust and dry grass in giant whirlwinds. The Blues jumped from their helicopters and ran to defensive positions at the border of the rice paddy. Just as the last helicopter was delivering its troops, the whole village erupted. AK47 and small arms fire streamed out from every mud hut. It was a well- organized surprise attack.

Hearing the automatic gunfire and seeing the tracers skim across the rice paddy at the hunkered down Blue platoon, we immediately began a gun and rocket attack on the village while the Blue platoon returned fire from their prone positions in the rice paddy. There was no way the Blues were going to be able to enter the village from the rice paddy area. The automatic weapons fire was just too intense, making any forward movement impossible. I watched as one heroic pilot and crew from the left platoon positioned their helicopter in front of the Blues position, blocking enemy fire while the other lift ships made quick landings to extract the pinned down platoon and escape the ambush. Mr. Kretschman turned our gunship in the direction of the enemy fire and with both door guns blazing and rockets firing, nosed the helicopter over and made a direct run at the center of the village. Houses were burning and secondary explosions were filling the air with smoke and fire. The Viet Cong were running in all directions trying to evacuate the village and head for the mountains to escape.

Now that four gunships had arrived on station, we were able to attack the village in force. One by one, each gun ship expended its entire load of rockets and ammo on the enemy. We continued our gun runs on the village using our sidearm’s and throwing hand grenades, our actions were meant to suppress the enemy fire long enough for our slicks to load and remove our infantry from the ambush kill zone. It was twilight when the Commander canceled the mission and ordered all helicopters to return to North Two Bits. He said that we would return the following morning and search the area for any remaining enemy.

After returning to base that evening, we were informed that one Blue Trooper had been killed in action (KIA) in the rice paddy early in the battle. His name was James Wise. He was an infantry soldier in our Blue Platoon and had volunteered for the mission that evening. From that point on, September 16th 1967, the name of James Wise was burned into my mind forever.

I had barely finished my dinner when Sergeant Jackson requested my presence at his hooch ASAP. Sergeant Jackson was normally quiet and easygoing, but on this occasion he was very upset. He informed me that my Huey, #051, was the second helicopter to be called out on the mission. He had looked all over for me, but I was nowhere to be found. He didn’t know, as he searched for me, that I was in the thick of the firefight. He didn’t know I was covering for a missing Crew Chief on the first helicopter to respond to the the Binh Dinh valley incident. He told me that the CO was pissed at me. I was tired and said nothing in my defense. To make things worse, he explained, the pilot of my helicopter grabbed a new guy in my absence, and that guy wasn’t much of a gunner. On the first gun run at Binh Dinh, the new guy lost control of his machine-gun and shot a hole through the pilot’s door just missing the pilot’s leg. After a long day flying two dangerous missions, I wasn’t bothered by Sgt. Jackson’s tongue lashing. What the hell could he do? Send me to Vietnam?

Later, when all the facts were in about the incident, I received an Air Medal for Valor for my actions that day. I had killed a Viet Cong soldier and performed bravely under heavy fire. Sgt. Jackson didn’t apologize for falsely reprimanding me (Platoon Sergeants don’t do that); and no one gave me a proper slap on the back for jumping into another helicopter in support of a pilot’s urgent request for help. But that’s why it is called “war” I suppose. I chalked the whole thing up to ‘just another day at the office’.

Before we knew it the jungle-training course was over and we were packed and ready for the trip to our field unit at North Two Bits in Bong Son South Vietnam. Waking up early we grabbed our bags and walked up the hill a short distance to a small landing pad just above the Charlie Troop Command Center.

All four of us were excited to finally be boarding a helicopter and flying to Two Bits. We pitched our bags on board the helicopter and sat across the floor in front of the Crew Chief and door gunner. The pilot ran the engine up to full speed and lifted the aircraft off the landing pad. My stomach felt light when the helicopter nosed over and then caught transitional lift as it turned and departed the An Khe area. The pilot climbed to about 1500 feet and leveled out for the remainder of the flight to our destination. All of us new guys were straining to see what was beneath us as we passed over miles and miles of three-layer canopy jungle and open rice paddies between An Khe and Bong Son. We had no way of communicating with the pilots or Crew Chief. We were wearing our steel pots and the noise coming from the wind and engine was deafening. My mind was racing as I tried to see anything that might be related to combat below.
Circling over a small village just north of the Bong Son River, I could see Charlie Troops helicopters setting with their rotor blades tied down in between five foot high sandbagged bunkers strategically placed around the black, oil-soaked landing zone.

Just off to the left of the flight line were eight or ten tents of various sizes and a few small buildings made out of wooden ammo crates and sandbags. Slowing and turning over the village, the pilot approached the LZ with the helicopter’s nose up and tail down. The rotor wash whipped the dirt around like a fast moving dust devil. I could see people running for cover while holding their hats and looking away from the rotor wash trying to keep their eyes clear. After landing the pilot began his engine shut down as the rotor blades whirled and slowed to a stop. Grabbing our gear, we thanked the pilots for a good ride and headed across the LZ to the command center.

Two Bits wasn’t much to brag about, I could see four brown rusty 55-gallon drums used for burning trash with smoke still drifting slowly from each one. Across the east side of Two Bits was a six-hole outhouse. Two men were pulling what looked like small cutoff drums from under the outhouse and dumping the contents into a large pit where aviation gas was mixed with the waist and burned. Beside the outhouse was a one-man shower with an overhead 55-gallon drum for holding the shower water. A faucet was protruding from the bottom of the drum and a beer can with holes punched in it was hung by bailing wire under the faucet used as a showerhead. In the center of the compound was the mess tent.

At the mess tent I could see the cooks roaming around preparing the evening meal and a soldier with no shirt on was standing by two 35-gallon hot water cans washing pots and pans. At the south end of the LZ there was a large bunker and a barbed wire fence crossing a dirt road blocking access to and from the village located just outside of the LZ. This bunker was Charley Troops responsibility. Surrounding the perimeter were two rows of concertina wire separated by about 10 yards.

In between the concertina wire, approximately fifty feet apart were large 55-gallon containers of Fu-Gas, “ a flammable jelly.” When triggered, the blast would throw burning jelly 25 to 30 feet in a half circle across the front of the perimeter. Every 50 meters was a guard bunker manned by at least two guards with machine-guns and small arms weapons. In front of each bunker, four claymore mines were strategically placed. As our nervous group of newcomers crossed the LZ heading toward the command center, I could see a few soldiers sitting in lawn chairs playing cards while others were standing around talking or cleaning their weapons. No one seemed to care about the four new guys that had just arrived.

Waiting for us at the command center was Red Mike our platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Jackson. He was a short chubby man with a red face and commanding voice. Our first meeting was short and sweet. The four of us–Foley, Beekman, Virgin, and I–were assigned to Red Platoon gunships, better known as attack helicopters.

Only four days had passed since Charlie Troop had lost several gunships and a four-man crew killed in action (KIA), while on a recon mission in the Song Re Valley north of Two Bits. We were their replacements. Sergeant Jackson told Foley and I to report to the supply sergeant and sign for our machine-guns and flight helmets. We were to eat dinner and report to the flight line where a helicopter would fly us out over the South China Sea so that we could practice firing our M60 machine-guns.

The pilot pulled the collective up slowly and pushed the cyclic forward as we caught transitional lift and set a heading due east for the South China Sea. Leaving the Bong Son area and skirting across the open rice paddies, the excitement of flying as a door gunner that day seemed overwhelming. On all of my past flights at Fort Rucker the door had been closed and I was strapped in tight, but on this flight I was hanging out the door with a loose strap across my knees with nothing between me and the ground but open air. Flying east toward the South China Sea I could see smoke drifting up from a small village surrounded by hedgerows and rice paddies. I could see a few farmers walking their water buffalos back toward the village while several young girls on bicycles rode by in the opposite direction. I still had not seen anything that would make me believe there was a war going on anywhere. The landscape was beautiful and the people seemed to be going about their day-to-day activities without concern.

Arriving over the South China Sea the pilot came to a hover about 500 feet west of the shore line, then turned the helicopter over to the left at about a 45 degree angle and began to fly in a slow circle. As I looked out the door I was facing straight down at the water, for a moment I thought I was going to slide out of the helicopter. I grabbed the seat and held on tight. As the pilot continued to circle he told me to start firing my gun in ten round bursts. After catching my breath and putting both hands back on the machine-gun I started firing into the sea. We circled for about 10 minutes while Foley and I fired most of our ammo. I could feel the centrifugal force pushing me against the seat as it held me safely in the helicopter. Soon the practice was over and we were headed back to LZ Two Bits. The sun was setting behind the mountains just as we made our approach into North Two Bits. I was feeling good about the practice and I had enjoyed the exciting flight that first evening.

That night Foley and I lay in our bunks. Neither of us could sleep. Bombs were shaking the ground and lighting up the eastern sky, machine-guns were cracking far off in the distance, and the popping of small arms weapons was constant. I could hear the slapping sound of rotor blades as helicopters flew overhead and in the distance was the roar of a mini gun spitting out 3000 rounds per minute. I couldn’t help but wonder what my first day of combat was going to be like.
Foley was from a town not far from where I grew up called Dos Palos California. In fact his high school football team was my high school’s top rival. Foley and I had never met before Crew Chief School, but it seemed as though we had known one another forever. Some time after midnight we both faded off into a restless sleep not knowing what the next day would bring.

It was Sunday and we finally had a few hours off time to explore Bong Son about a mile to our east. Before leaving, Foley, Beekman, Virgin and I were informed that Saturday evening eight to ten Viet Cong had attacked a small ARVN (South Vietnamese Soldier), MP base camp in downtown Bong Son. We were told to keep our eyes open and guard up just in case some of the VC were still in the area. There was a lot of traffic on the road to Bong Son that day, not only military jeeps and trucks but also lots of civilian scooters and ox carts as well. We were all a little nervous from receiving the information about the VC, so we kept our M16s at the ready.

It was a long dusty walk down the dirt road to Bong Son. As we arrived at the main intersection in Bong Son we could see three dead Viet Cong soldiers laying in the middle of the road stacked like cord wood. I could see villagers walking back and forth not even looking in the direction of the dead bodies; they seemed not to care one way or the other. The stench of the dead was repugnant. As we stopped for a moment to stare, I noticed a fly crawl into one soldier’s nose and out his eye socket. Maggots were crawling in and around their mouths. After a short time of staring we turned and walked toward the center of town. The rumor was that the ARVN soldiers had placed the bodies in that location to warn the local population about what would happen to them if they turned VC. Death was ever present and just like the local Vietnamese we had little to no feelings about the rotting bodies lying in the road that day.

Walking through the center of town, we noticed an old woman serving hot soup or as the Vietnamese call it ‘Pho’ out of a large brown clay pot. She was using only one porcelain-serving bowl and one spoon. As a customer would finish their soup the old lady would take a rag and wipe out the bowl and clean off the spoon and place them both back on the mat for the next customer. Vietnam is known for it’s Pho, it’s really delicious, however, in 1960s Vietnam, dog or rat might be the meat of choice in the local Pho kitchen.
There seemed to be a lot of people walking around the streets, some stopping at the street vendors for vegetables and some just strolling down Main Street. It seemed like everyone was busy going nowhere. Most of the civilians didn’t even look up as we walked by. They were busy with their produce and visiting with their village friends. It didn’t seem like there was much food on display, I did see some rice and a few vegetables but not enough to feed an entire village as big as Bong Son. I always worried about the children and wondered if they had enough food to survive.

As we walked around the next corner we observed a man cutting hair, his barber chair was made with bamboo legs and a rice straw seat. His shears were hand-operated due to no electricity and he was using an old straight razor for shaving. It had been some time since we had our hair cut, so we decided to take a chance and have this guy do the job.

Knowing that some civilians posed as normal workers during the day and fought as VC at night, we decided it would be best for our safety if we posted a guard with an M-16 loaded and ready to fire, just in case the guy decided to cut one of our throats with that old rusty straight razor. The barber must have been very nervous when it came time to use the razor, knowing that an unstable wild-eyed American fighting man was watching his every move. I’m surprised he didn’t cut one of our ears off by accident. Looking spiffy and ready for a cold beer we found a nice little open-fronted grass shack with a cute little momma san serving cold beer. As we reclined in the lawn chairs provided by the shop owner, Virgin decided he wanted to recon the rest of the block before relaxing. About five minutes had passed when all of a sudden we heard a loud bang and screaming voices coming from Virgin’s direction. Thinking something was terribly wrong; we jumped from our chairs and prepared for the worst. At that moment Virgin came running by the shack waving his 45 Cal. hand gun over his head while dead on his heals was a mean looking, fire-snorting big black water buffalo.

I guess Virgin had pissed that buffalo off by shooting his gun into the air and it was definitely out for revenge. Virgin disappeared around the corner as the water buffalo finally tired and came to a slow stop just before trampling our out of breath buddy. I laughed so hard I almost busted a gut. I think Virgin learned that day to never underestimate the speed of

I guess Virgin had pissed that buffalo off by shooting his gun into the air and it was definitely out for revenge. Virgin disappeared around the corner as the water buffalo finally tired and came to a slow stop just before trampling our out of breath buddy. I laughed so hard I almost busted a gut. I think Virgin learned that day to never underestimate the speed of a hard-charging mean snorting pissed off water buffalo.

All four of us new guys were finally assigned our own helicopters. Mine was a UH-1B Huey gunship armed with two mini guns, fourteen rockets and two M60 door guns. The Huey had a pea green tail boom because the original tail boom had been replaced after combat damage, but never painted. The helicopter was underpowered, but it had a good engine and airframe. That old Huey never let us down, it took us into harm’s way and returned us safely on every mission I flew during that terrible year. I would like to extend my gratitude to the pilots and crewmen I had the opportunity to fly with while on old 051. They were beyond reproach and the best America had to offer.

As my helicopter began climbing out of LZ Two Bits, the pilot made a long sweeping turn to the east toward the South China Sea. Passing over open rice paddies, I could see a few old men and woman working. In the shade under a large tree, a little boy with a straw hat covering his head was sitting on an old black water buffalo. As we crossed Highway 1 the dust from a truck convoy that had just passed was still whipping around like a small tornado.

Our mission that day was to comb the shore line of the South China Sea for about ten miles to see if we could locate a small group of Viet Cong who had been harassing the local civilians every night for the past week. The VC had killed the Village Chief and they were expected to return for more blood the next night. Breaking out into the open water, I could see the waves crashing against the rocks that towered up from the sea like giant pillars. It was hot that day, but a cool breeze was blowing in from the sea causing the smell of salt water to flow through the helicopter. I was sure this would be an easy day. The VC would be underground, out of the hot sun and waiting to go into the village again just after dark. Our flight path was due north at an altitude of 50 feet and about 100 feet out over the South China Sea. As we rounded the first large outcropping of rocks, I noticed a large opening about half way up the mountain. Sitting along the inside wall with their knees up under their chins were six to eight men dressed in black pajama tops and black short pants. They were VC, and in the open!
I was shocked to see so many Viet Cong together in one place. Normally we would see one or two at a time if we were lucky. I yelled for the pilot to break left. As we turned left to take them under fire, I opened up with my M60 door gun filling the mouth of the cave with red tracers as the VC disappeared into the darkness. While we circled the inlet I spotted two VC swimming in the surf trying to hide behind some big rocks. We chose one and gave the location of the other to our chase ship.

The steep terrain prevented us from landing and capturing either soldier. The only thing left to do was take them both out with our door guns. Pointing my M60 in the direction of the terrified VC, I pulled the trigger. The ammunition for the door gun was straight tracers, making it easy to see the direction of travel for each round fired. As I walked my rounds up to the VC, the belt on my gun would slip forward and the gun would stop firing. The VC was panicking while trying to hide behind a big rock. The pilot made three passes around him and on the third pass my rounds hit their target and the soldier disappeared beneath the surf leaving the water stained red with blood. That Viet Cong soldier was the first enemy soldier I had to kill while in Vietnam. I’m sorry to say he wasn’t the last. As we turned to the west and headed back to LZ Two Bits, I felt numb and ashamed. I began to feel sorry for the Viet Cong soldier. He may have been my age or younger and like me, just trying to survive.

It was a cold and foggy morning, unusual for the time of the year, I was sleepy from pulling guard all night and could barely hold my eyes open. Just as we rounded the mountain flying at tree top level a C130 cargo plane came out of the fog headed straight for us, my pilot screamed and pulled the cyclic full left just missing the C130 as it broke left as well. This day would be a day I would never forget. I was flying as a substitute Crew Chief as well as the left hand door gunner on a UH 1C Attack Helicopter.

Our recon mission started at the mouth of Happy Valley. We were flying at tree top level on the edge of a large mountain range when I observed two North Vietnamese soldiers looking up at our helicopter as we passed over their position. I keyed my mic and told the pilot to break right and go back around to where I had observed the enemy soldiers.

The pilot made a long wide turn out over the valley and then began our second pass over the area; this time we could only see jungle. That is until the two NVA soldiers with a .51 caliber machine-gun opened up on us. The big green tracers were coming straight at our helicopter, I immediately pulled the trigger on my M60 door gun, but it didn’t fire. I pulled the trigger so hard it should have broken off and still it didn’t fire. By this time the green tracers were just missing our tail boom by inches. Everyone including me was screaming, BREAK RIGHT, BREAK RIGHT and FIRE, FIRE. It was complete panic.

At that moment I looked over at my gunner and the tracers were flying across the tail boom between the tail rotor and the main rotor, past his head and across the front right side of the gun ship. My gunner couldn’t fire because his side of the helicopter was toward the valley and away from the enemy. It seemed as though it took forever for us to get out of range and away from what should have been our demise, but it was finally over and we were out of range.
I wasn’t flying in my assigned helicopter that day and the machine-gun I was trying to fire was not my assigned weapon. I never applied the safety switch on my gun, but the Crew Chief who’s helicopter I was flying in that day always used his. That’s why nothing happened when I pulled the trigger. The safety was on.

After all was said and done, the enemy just melted back into the jungle and disappeared, .51 caliber machine-gun and all. We inserted our Blues for a good recon of the surrounding area. While combing the area they found several camouflaged hoochs and a few unmanned bunkers. There would be many occasions during the next twelve months when my helicopter and crew would fly into harm’s way.

We all learned something that day, the pilots learned that you should never approach enemy in the same direction twice in a row, you should always alter your direction on each pass. This tactic will keep the enemy guessing on which way you are coming into the kill zone. I learned to always check the safety on my M60 before each mission. We were lucky on that mission, most mistakes were deadly and only made once.

I was assigned to C Troop 1/9 Cavalry airmobile Red Platoon attack helicopters. Red Platoon was assigned four attack helicopters called gunships. White Platoon had four Scout H-13 bubble helicopters and Lift Platoon had four Huey D model helicopters for carrying our infantry platoon. A gunship crew for one attack helicopter consisted of one aircraft commander, one co-pilot, one Crew Chief / left hand door gunner and one right hand door gunner–a total of 16 crewmembers for the four guns ships.

In the twelve months I flew with Red Platoon we lost eight crew-members killed in action and five crew members wounded in action. Only three of the sixteen crew members remaining in Red Platoon escaped death or injury. I was one of the lucky ones.

I don’t think either of us slept much that first night at LZ Two Bits. We were both eager for the morning to come. When it finally did, Foley and I were both assigned as door gunners on the first two flights out. After eating breakfast and retrieving our equipment we headed for the flight line where our helicopters were already warming up. I introduced myself to my Crew Chief for the day, and with a nod and a grunt he motioned for me to board the right side of the helicopter and ready myself for takeoff. As I was securing my weapon and getting ready for take off, I couldn’t help wondering what this Crew Chief must be thinking about having to deal with this new guy all day long. I wasn’t aware of what that crew chief had been involved in at the Song Re Valley the weeks leading up to today. He had lost 4 good friends and several more were wounded as well. The pilot increased the engine speed to 6500 RPM as the Crew Chief and I cleared both left and right for take off. As the helicopter cleared the LZ and began climbing to altitude we loaded our machineguns and settled in for the short flight to our area of operation, the Song Re Valley. Being naïve about combat, I only had anticipation and the unknown on my mind, but I’m sure the rest of the crew knew exactly what we were up against on my first day of combat. As in the week before, death would be following us at every turn as we searched the valley and mountain jungles of the Song Re.

Arriving in the Song Re Valley, we began to fly low and slow along the far side of a large valley just at the bottom of the mountain range. The mountains were covered in three-layer canopy jungle making it impossible to see any activity beneath the trees. When the battle had first begun, reports of heavy enemy activity along the northeast side of the valley were coming in daily. The NVA had dug caves into the mountainside and placed their artillery and heavy machine guns inside the caves on tracks. Each time a target came into sight they would roll the gun out of the cave and fire on the target. The North Vietnamese were very smart and tenacious, they figured out what direction a helicopter might turn when fired on and placed their 51s in that location.
After loosing several helicopters and the four crewmembers our leaders realized what was going on and changed our tactics. From that point on we gained the upper hand. By using napalm we were able to penetrate their hidden artillery causing them to depart the area.

The reason for flying low and slow was to draw enemy fire, making them give away their position. In return we would take them under fire and radio their location to all of our infantry, artillery and air support. I wasn’t sure how that tactic would keep us safe, but it did seem to work, at least in the first part of the war. In later years the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers would get much better at targeting helicopters. Speed and surprise would become a factor, which lead to the development of new tactics and the introduction of the Cobra Attack Helicopter. Huey gunships were still used, but their tactics and missions were adjusted to complement the new Cobra helicopter.

While making a slow pass over the jungle canopy just east of where the four-man crew had perished the week prior, we began to receive heavy automatic fire from the tree line to our front. Large golf ball sized green tracers seem to come from every direction. One just missed the Crew Chief’s head by inches and the others flew past the helicopter like hail in a thunderstorm. We immediately returned fire. I was so green I couldn’t see anything but jungle, so I pointed my gun toward the tree line and pulled the trigger. I knew that returning fire immediately would stop most enemy fire for a short period of time. Our combat training suggested that by returning fire immediately we would cause the enemy to assume their position was compromised, making them move out of range or at least put their heads down.

The enemy .51-caliber machinegun fire did stop as we continued to recon the area without further contact. The rest of the day was fairly quiet. We saw little enemy activity and spent most of the day covering our infantry while they walked through several villages looking for hiding Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Soldiers.

The Song Re was an interesting place, Charlie Troop had placed supplies of fuel and ammo in a secure area on the east end of the valley, the location was used as a staging area for our helicopters waiting to join the battle and for refueling and reloading of ammo. Our parameter was secured by our blue platoon located in a circle around the LZ. Within a few yards of our perimeter stood an old Montagnard village.
Montagnard Woman and children were standing around watching our helicopters land and take off, some of the soldiers were giving the children candy and C-rations. I noticed that the woman were topless. These people were real natives “jungle people” who had probably never seen Americans before. Their hoochs were on stilts and made of bamboo and grass, they had no electrical power of any kind, not even generators. Cooking was done over an open fire inside the hooch. I don’t know how they kept from burning down their homes. Hunting and foraging for food was the way they fed their families. For the most part, Montagnard men were good fighters and in the past had fought with the French against the North Vietnamese. Some of our Special Forces units were already using Montagnard guides as scouts and forward recon.

The sun was close to setting when the order was given to return to North Two Bits. After refueling and reloading our ammunition at our field-landing zone, the pilot pulled pitch and turned our helicopter south heading back toward North Two Bits. The sun had just gone down as we topped the last set of mountains heading south. I could see the pilot, Dirk Kretschman pushing the cyclic stick back and forth and side to side as he announced that we were losing hydraulic fluid. Our Huey C model was very difficult to fly with no hydraulics and impossible to hover.

The Crew Chief removed the inspection plate on the backside of the crew compartment exposing the servos that controlled the directional movement of the main rotor. As he lowered the panel, hydraulic fluid began spurting all over the inside of the crew compartment covering the front windshield with a red slimy film. By this time both our pilots were becoming a little testy. Not only were they having problems flying the helicopter, now they had to skid land the thing after dark and without clear vision. I began to get very nervous about our situation. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I felt like what ever it was, it wasn’t going to be good.

Calling ahead, Mr. Kretschman requested an emergency landing at the nearest runway. He would have to skid land by sliding the helicopter to a stop without damaging or crashing it. The Crew Chief and I began securing everything that wasn’t already tied down. We removed our M60s from the bungee cords and shoved them between the ammo boxes and the back of the pilot’s seat. By this time I was beside myself. I had survived my first day of combat only to crash and burn as the pilot attempted to land the broken helicopter.
As we approached the runway, the Crew Chief and I tightened our seat belts and prepared for a rough landing at best. I could see a group of soldiers standing by a fire truck and an ambulance. Mr. Kretschman struggled to keep the helicopter in straight flight as he dropped in for the skid landing. At about five feet from touch down I closed my eyes and held on to the seat with all of my strength. Kretschman was as cool as a cucumber. The helicopter hit the tarmac, bounced once and began to slide to a grinding stop. It was undamaged and after the leak was repaired and hydraulic fluid replaced we were up and flying again. My first day of combat was over and I was still alive, hungry, and ready for a good night’s sleep.

On our second day at Two Bits, we were informed that all four of us so called new guys would be pulling guard on the main bunker all night. We were to report to the bunker at 6 PM. As we arrived we were introduced to two seasoned Crew Chiefs that were also on guard duty that evening. The ranking Crew Chief assigned us our hours of duty. Each shift would be two hours on and four hours off until 6AM the following day.
This guard duty would last for six months, until the cavalry moved north to Dong Ha. We would fly all day, then pull guard at night seven days per week. No rest for the weary.

Just after dinner we reported to Charlie Troops main gate bunker, several of the old timers were already manning the M-60. I could see that the main gate was nothing but two rows of concertina wire rapped together. Just before dark one of the guards would go down and close the gate by dragging the wire across the road and attaching it to a post. Being the new guy on guard duty, I was told to close the gate. Just about dark I slowly walked down to the gate keeping an eye on the brush and trees along both sides of the road leading down toward the village. I felt like at any moment a VC was going to jump up and let loose with his AK-47. Just as I touched the wire all hell broke loose. I hit the ground and began to crawl back to the bunker. I looked up and the guards were laughing at me and slapping one another on the back. The old timers had open up with the shotgun and their 45’s just to see what I would do. It’s hell being the new guy.
The guard bunker weapons consisted of one M60 machine-gun, one 12-gage shotgun, two M-79 grenade launchers, one night vision scope and our side arms. Most nights we were given the order to fire H and I (harassment fire) five minutes on the hour. Only the M79s and shotguns were to be used. Machine-guns and 45’s were not to be used due to the possibility of the rounds entering the village to our front. We did fire our 45’s at times, but not when the officer of the guard was anywhere close to the bunker.

I spent many hours on guard duty giving me lots of time to think about home and family. If it wasn’t raining cats and dogs, it was hot as hell most nights at the guard bunker. I would think about lying under the water cooler in the hallway of my house while taking an afternoon nap. I used to lie there before a summer baseball game, just resting and thinking about the game and other insignificant things. I could almost feel the cool air pass over my body as I sat looking into the darkness.

It’s true; if you stare out into the darkness long enough everything starts to move. I learned to use my peripheral vision to observe any movement in the wire. By doing this, things that were stationary stayed that way. Sneaking into the village after dark became a game for the Charlie Troop front gate guards. Guard duty for the most part was boring duty. Long hot nights with little sleep and no way to read or even talk with other soldiers made pulling guard difficult at best.

Frequently we would plan a night recon mission into the village after dark, usually three or four of us would venture into the village while two others continued to pull guard as though nothing was out of the ordinary. The officer of the guard might check by the bunker. If he asked about the off duty guards the on duty guards would just tell him they were under the bunker sleeping. One night while sneaking down the main road of the village we saw the lights of a jeep coming down a side road headed toward where we were walking. We all four ran down the first opening between two huts that we could find not wanting the suspected MP’s to see us. In our haste to escape we didn’t see the invisible fence blocking the entrance between two mud huts. One by one each of us ran into the fence causing helmets to fly off and weapons to be dropped.

Realizing we were trapped we quickly gathered up our gear and ran back across the road where we could see a small candle light glowing in an open door. Without a second’s thought we ran through the open door just in time to escape the approaching jeep.

Sitting just inside the door to the mud hut was a Vietnamese family eating their dinner. They looked surprised, but only smiled as we passed through the hut and disappeared out the back door into the darkness. Thinking back, I doubt that we won the hearts and minds of that Vietnamese family.

On nights when we didn’t encounter interference from the patrolling MP’s, we would sit quietly in a Vietnamese hooch and drink a few beers while waiting for our on duty time to arrive. I can’t remember ever worrying about a VC sneaking up on us. I’m sure that most of the villagers would have warned us of any VC activity in the area. Their main income came from doing business with the soldiers from North and South Two Bits. Charlie Troopers weren’t the only soldiers sneaking off Two Bits after dark. The bars and back rooms were filled with GI’s drinking beer and flirting with the local girls. You had to know where to go to find them, but they were there.

One night as I sat quietly pulling guard, the wind was blowing and a cool breeze was making the night bearable. I was relaxing in an old lawn chair while sitting on top of the bunker under a five-foot by five-foot overhead tarp. The moon was not out, making the night extra dark. Looking toward the village to my front, I could see the fireflies dancing above the wire like sparks from a campfire. Over the past few nights the guards had reported a monkey moving around the guard bunker causing false alarms and making the guards somewhat nervous.

I was deep in thought as I watched the fire flies dance around in the darkness when all of a sudden something ran across the tarp covering the bunker, it ran across the rope used to attach the tarp to the palm tree, and then ran up the palm tree to the very top. I was startled at first, but soon realized that it might be that elusive monkey everyone had been talking about. I grabbed the shotgun and climbed off of the bunker and pointed it at the top of the tree. I waited a few minutes to see if what I now thought was a monkey would come back down the tree, but nothing happened. I took aim and squeezed off one round shredding the palm tree leaves with number 10-buck shot.
In just a moment I heard a low thud out in the wire in front of the bunker. I assumed it was the monkey. I didn’t think much more about the monkey the rest of the night, but when the sun came up the next morning I decided to take a look at what I had shot the evening before. To my surprise, it wasn’t a monkey; it was a mongoose. I wasn’t real happy about it being a mongoose, due to the fact that they kept the snake population in check. The villagers wouldn’t take kindly to me killing it and if Sergeant Jackson found out he wouldn’t either. I decided to tell Sergeant Jackson before someone else beat me to the punch. At first he was really ticked at me for shooting the mongoose until I explained why I had done the dirty little deed. He didn’t like monkeys any better than I did. He told me to go back to the bunker and bury the mongoose before anyone from the village found out about it. I did, and that was the end of the mongoose story.

The elusive monkey was never caught and continued to harass the on edge guards until we left Two Bits for the North in January of 68.

Guard duty could be miserable if you let it be. If it was raining while I was on the sleep cycle, I could sleep as long as my face was covered with my combat helmet and my feet covered with a poncho, the rest of me could be soaking wet and it didn’t matter.

My biggest fear was that someone on duty would fall asleep and let the enemy sneak up on us. Several times I awoke to find the person on guard duty asleep at the wheel.

On one occasion after arriving at our new LZ Camp Evans, I was scheduled to pull guard with a few soldiers from another troop. The parameter around the LZ was not totally secured, we only had a few strains of wire and nothing but claymore mines to protect our front. It was very important for the guards to stay alert at all times and make sure nothing came through the wire. The three other guards and I were sleeping on top of the sandbagged bunker during our off duty time. I woke up and the guard was nowhere to be found, I woke one of the other soldiers and asked him to take over while I proceeded to look for the idiot who walked off from his duty. Within a few minutes I located him, he had actually left the bunker and was visiting with a friend at the Command Post ‘CP’ three hundred feet away while the rest of us off duty guards were sleeping in the open on top of the bunker. Fortunately nothing happened that night, but it was nerve racking at best. We never reported any incidents of sleeping to the officer of the guard, preferring to handle the situation ourselves. Most offenders decided it wasn’t in their best interest to do it again.

One night while pulling guard on the main bunker a small black and white dog wandered up to the gate and crawled under the fence. I’m sure he wasn’t much older that six months and he looked very healthy. We decide it might be a good idea if we adopted the little guy due to the fact that the Vietnamese would eat most anything that walked on four legs. When we finished our guard duty the next morning the little guy followed us up to the hooch area and made himself right at home. It wasn’t long before he was a common fixture around camp. At first we just called him dog, but in a few days we decided he needed a name if he was going to stick around. We all got together and came up with the name OD. OD stood for “Olive Drab,” the color of almost everything the army owned. OD never suffered from lack of attention and of course, food. Everyone around camp kept him fat and happy. He would make his rounds sleeping in a different tent or hooch every night and he never left the safety of the LZ.

A few months later when it came time to move north to Dong Ha the Colonel decide OD had to stay behind. We were all pissed about his decision, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. So, on the morning of our departure, poor old OD with his tail wagging was standing on the flight line looking sad and abandoned as our helicopters lifted up and off LZ Two Bits for the last time. I took one last look to the rear just as OD ran back to the tent area and disappeared behind a pile of old brown sand bags.

I didn’t know much about drugs when I entered the army, we didn’t have them in the little town of Chowchilla. My very first encounter with marijuana was while walking through the village. Old men would be smoking these large cigar shaped brown roll your own reefers. The smell was different than the cigarette smell I was used to back home. I guess I was so naive and out of touch with my surroundings that I was blind to what was going on right in front of my nose. One evening while returning from my cold shower, one of my pilots asked me to come into the officer’s hooch. Our pilots were not known for smoking weed and partying, however on this occasion a few of them invited me and another Crew Chief into their underground hooch for a small pot party. I was surprised that the pilots would be smoking grass right in the middle of Two Bits, I had heard a rumor about the blue platoon infantryman smoking some while on guard duty, but not the pilots. At the time I didn’t know of any of the Crew Chiefs smoking pot. Within a few days, all of the Crew Chiefs and door gunners were summoned to the flight leaders tent where he accused us all of using pot and endangering the combat missions. He said he knew his pilots weren’t smoking pot, but the rumor was we were. How funny! We just stood there and took the crap without saying a thing about his pot-smoking pilots.

It really wasn’t any big deal anyway, before my tour was over most everyone had smoked a joint or two. I never did see heavy drug use in Charlie Troop; we just didn’t have extra time on our hands to get into much trouble. I never did smoke another reefer until a day or so before I departed Vietnam. I was tasked with such a high degree of responsibility crewing an attack helicopter and knowing that three other souls were counting on me for their lives, I had to stay alert at all times. Partying was out of the question.

It was the policy of the Charlie Troop Commander that no Vietnamese Civilians were allowed on North Two Bits without escort. Other
non-combat unites throughout Vietnam used civilians to do labor intense duties such as Kitchen Police, (KP), grounds cleaning, housekeeping and other duties assigned. It was just too risky to have civilians roaming around our flight line, however the commander did make one exception to the rule. The last month or so before heading north we adopted a small 12 year old boy from Bong Son, I’m not sure if he had living parents, he seemed to be somewhat of a loner. I don’t remember how he managed to win the commanders heart, but somehow he did. When we moved north he wanted to go with us, the commander agreed and he was on the first helicopter out. We hadn’t been gone more than half a day when the little boy began crying and asking to return to his village. He was placed on the next helicopter heading south and returned to his village before dark the same day. He was never seen again.
One Saturday afternoon while on stand-down the pilots challenged the enlisted men to a touch football game on the flight line. Since my arrival I had noticed small piles of dirt that had not been covered with oil all across the oil-soaked LZ. The little Vietnamese boy who we had adopted was watching from the sideline as we lined up and began passing and running the football back and forth across the flight line. He seemed to be enjoying our game so we invited him to join the team and help defeat the pilots. Barefooted, he ran out toward our huddle, but about half way to us he stepped on a pile of dirt. He stopped and started hopping around on one leg while crying and holding his other foot off of the ground. We thought he had stepped on a sticker or something injuring his foot, but on questioning him we learned that he was upset because he had stepped on a grave marked by the pile of dirt. We didn’t know, but right in the middle of the flight line was a graveyard. The village chief had agreed to let the 1/9 use the hilltop, but the graves had to be marked so they could be rebuilt after we moved on. The commander who knew about the agreement was long gone and he didn’t pass on the information to the new commander.

I guess the little boy told his friends and they told the village chief about the incident because the chief complained to the commander and we had to remark all of the gravesites. From then on there were no more football games played on the flight line. It must have been something the boy had learned from his religion about stepping on or touching someone’s grave. That’s why the boy was so upset.

It didn’t take long before tent living at Two Bits became irritating and uncomfortable. It was difficult to have the quiet privacy needed to concentrate or rest with so many other people living in the same area. I decided it was time to start looking for materials to build my own hooch. I started with gathering wood from the ammo dump. Wooden rocket boxes and small ammunitions crates were just what I needed for the roof framing, bunk and flooring of the hooch. Using sand bags I would be able to build safe protective walls. My problem was finding roofing material that would protect me from the monsoon rains that seemed to last for months.

During one login flight into Phu Cat air force base I noticed a new barracks was being constructed. I talked with a few air force dudes about trading for some of their building supplies. The air force soldiers for the most part were not involved in combat; they didn’t even carry weapons for protection opting to use army guard units to protect the large air force base.

When I explained to the soldiers that I was a helicopter Crew Chief on an attack helicopter they became excited and wanted to see the helicopter. I escorted four of them to the landing area where my helicopter was parked. They were all over the thing; they couldn’t believe anyone would be crazy enough to set in the open door with no other protection. As they checked out the helicopter they seemed to be extra excited about the armament on the helicopter. The only hand grenades they had ever seen were in basic training. I don’t think they had ever seen the 2.75 rockets hanging off the left and right side of my gunship. I decided to take advantage of their excitement and make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. I began by asking if they would like to trade some roofing materials for a few rockets and a hand grenade or two. I didn’t know what they were going to do with the ordnance, but I didn’t really care. All I wanted was the roofing material. I ended up with one roll of tar paper, a box of nails and one large piece of foam rubber for my new bunk bed. They ended up with two rockets, four hand grenades and one Willy Pete. “Mission accomplished.”

I asked my door gunner to join me in the construction and become my hooch mate. He accepted and we got started. Within a few days we had a nice little two-room hooch with a weatherproof roof and a wooden floor. In the front portion we constructed a desk for writing letters and a compartment for stowing our combat gear. In the rear were two beds made of wooden rocket boxes with lids that opened for clothes storage

Two additional rocket boxes were used for window openings. We had one light bulb placed in the front section of the hooch over the desk; by removing a piece of wood the light would shine into the bedroom section if needed. The new hooch would be home sweet home for the next four months.

It was nice having our own little hooch, privacy was out of the question in the large tents and there was always someone going through my personal stash of C-rats and care packages from home. I remember having to dash from the tent on a hot mission leaving behind on my bunk a cake my mother had lovingly provided for me. Upon on my return I found only the package and a few crumbs. Not even a note saying thank you. Our new hooch was a little like a home away from home and there’s no place like home.

When we would fly out into the jungle we would often see wild animals such as elephants, wild bore, alligators, large monkeys or chimps, and of course old black water buffalo. During a routine combat recon mission, one of our new Crew Chiefs, Gary Evans, was looking through a three-layer canopy of jungle when a Bengal Tiger ran out of the tree line into a small meadow. The pilot turned the helicopter and dove toward the running tiger as Evans opened up with his machine gun. The tiger didn’t have a chance as the tracer rounds hit their mark and the tiger fell to the ground. There weren’t many tigers seen in Vietnam due to the fact that they lived out in the jungle far away from human activity. With probable enemy in the area it was taking a big chance, but the pilot decided to land and strap the tiger to the skids and bring it back to Two Bits. I wasn’t on that mission, but landing for a dead tiger was not something I would have recommended for survival in enemy held territory. After returning to LZ Two Bits with the tiger, it was placed in the back of a 2 ½ ton truck and parked next to our camp area so that pictures could be taken and tales could be told.

The Village Chief informed us that the tiger was respected and worshiped by the Vietnamese and that they were not happy about the one we laid out in our LZ. We really didn’t know what to do with the thing so we decided to skin it, salt the skin down, pack it in a metal container and send it to San Francisco to have it cured. The Village Chief decided it would be all right if we gave the meat to the local villagers for food. I don’t know what happened to the respect and worship part of the program. A cowboy from New Mexico, Eric Hayes would skin the tiger. He had worked as a cowboy on a New Mexico ranch most of his adult life and had skinned many cows in the past. I think the entire tiger thing was jinxed because the following incidents took place after the tiger was killed: The Crew Chief who killed the tiger was killed himself about four months later while at Dong Ha; the person who skinned the tiger, Eric Hayes was paralyzed and lost one eye in a helicopter crash while on a combat mission in July of 1968; and the person who took the tiger pictures received a serious knee wound while flying on my helicopter in January of 1968.

On other occasions we might spot an elephant running under the jungle canopy or a large ape sticking his head through the top of a large towering tree. Snakes were something we would often see, we would spot them sunning on a rock along the riverbed or swimming across a stream. Wild bore seem to be everywhere in the jungle, we would surprise a group of bore and they would scatter for the hills. We did like to use them for target practice when nothing else was going on. Besides, it took away some of Charlie’s food supply. We were instructed never to eat wild bore due to their feeding on dead bodies. We didn’t argue!

One of our Blue Platoon soldiers had a pet monkey tied up outside of his tent and when anyone walked too close to the tent it could be life threatening. That monkey had murder on its mind. I don’t think it even liked its owner. I did feel sorry for the thing. Everyone in the camp constantly teased it. One time two troopers grabbed it by booth hands and feet and stretched it over a bar-b-q grill pretending to cook it alive; others would throw rocks or kick dust in its face as they passed by. I can’t remember what happened to the monkey after leaving Two Bits, but I supposed it was released back into the wild like OD. Monkeys seem to pop up now and again around camp.

While at Camp Evans someone caught a spider monkey and released it in our tent. It made itself right at home stealing and eating everything in sight. One late afternoon I decided I needed a nap. It was hot and humid and I was finding it difficult to go to sleep. I didn’t get along well with the monkey. I’d tried to make friends with the little shit, but he wouldn’t have any of it. Just as I closed my eyes the monkey jumped down from the sand bags onto my bed and snuggled up to me like a long lost friend. I was surprised that he was being so nice. I lay very still and patted him on the head, thinking he was going to take a nap with me. Next thing I knew, I felt something warm and wet running down my side. I jumped up as the monkey dashed away for its life. The little shit had pissed all over me. I know that monkey knew just what he was doing; he was paying me back for all the harassment I had given him in the past.

After each mission both the door gunner and Crew Chief would clear their weapons by removing the ammo belt and sliding the operating rod handle to the rear of the while checking to see if a round remained in the chamber. This safety check had to be completed before the helicopter landed at Two Bits. One day while on final approach to Two Bits we were circling over Bong Son when I began clearing my gun.

As I pulled the operating handle to the rear and removed my ammo belt the handle slipped out of my hand and slammed forward. I watched as a tracer round fired and disappeared into the busy village of Bong Son. I really felt bad about the gun discharging and hoped the tracer didn’t hit anyone below. I wasn’t the only one who made that mistake; most of the Crew Chiefs and door gunners had done the same thing in the past. On one occasion Beekman waited until he had landed at Two Bits before clearing his weapon. He rested the barrel of his gun on his boot and pushed the operating handle forward, accidentally firing a tracer round between his big toe and the one next to it. The wound was superficial, only removing the skin from both toes. Luckily it passed through his boot without major damage. At first the commander thought that Beekman had shot himself on purpose to get out of flying, but all of his buddies knew it was just an accident. Beekman was one of the finest Crew Chiefs assigned to C troop.

After a few days of healing Beekman was back in the saddle again. In December of 2008 I was informed that within a few years after returning from Vietnam, Beekman passed away. Reason unknown.

The small two man tents located at the LZ were held up by one single pole placed in the middle of the tent. Nails were usually driven into the pole so that pistol belts and other equipment could be hung up out of the way. Late one evening several of us were playing cards at my hooch when we heard a weapon began to discharge one round at a time. It sounded like the following: “pop-pop pop-pop”. The sound was coming from Foley’s tent. Ten or fifteen rounds were discharged before the firing stopped. When the dust cleared we all ran to the tent, carefully opened the tent flap and looked in, Foley was standing on his bunk shaking and pointing at his M-16 that by now was laying on the dirt floor. Walking into his tent, he had hung the M-16 on a nail by the trigger housing causing it to begin firing. It didn’t stop firing until the M-16 fell off of the nail.

I was always amazed at how few incidents occurred during my tour. When you give teenagers weapons without supervision you are bound to have problems. During my tour of duty I only heard of one man being shot by another person over some crazy comment that was made while playing poker. A few soldiers were accidentally killed or injured by the helicopter weapons systems while parked on the flight line.

Our first mission the next morning was back out into the Binh Dinh valley and this time we were ready for anything. We inserted our Blues into the village in a much better location with more cover. While the platoon searched the village our helicopter circled around looking for anyone trying to escape. Our orders were to make anyone leaving the village turn around and go back. No one was to escape questioning by our blues. To do this we had to fire warning shots toward the villagers as they walked away from the village, I didn’t like shooting anywhere near the villagers, I was afraid that my rounds might skip or ricochet off of the wet ground and injure or worse, kill a civilian. I did have to fire a few bursts, but I put the rounds far in front of the women and children trying to escape the village. They didn’t seem to care and continued to walk away as fast as possible. I for one was happy to see them leave. A few suspected VC were captured and questioned by one of our Vietnamese scouts. The scouts used a few techniques we were not allowed to implement to extract information from suspected enemy. Like hanging the suspected VC upside down while hitting him on the bottoms of his feet with a bamboo cane and sometimes they would hold their heads back and poor water up their nose. Our Blues had never used those sorts of interrogation techniques, but they did turn a blind eye when the ARVN’s used them. It didn’t take long before the VC was singing like a bird. The interrogation method might seem cruel and unusual punishment, but it did save lives and was useful in obtaining important information. It was evident that most of the Viet Cong had escaped up the mountain under cover of darkness the evening before. Our Blues followed their trail until negotiating the terrain became too difficult and too dangerous to continue. The mountain was so steep that our helicopters could not safely protect the Blues in case of an ambush, and any quick extraction was impossible. During the next few weeks units from the 1st Calvary captured several enemy documents showing a buildup of enemy activity around a village called An Hoa just southwest of Bong Son along the South China Sea. Reported sightings of Viet Cong movement around the area was leading our command to believe that something big was about to happen.

It was around the 1st of October when an American infantry unit was ambushed while on a reconnaissance mission near a small village west of highway 1 near the An Hoa Lake. As we flew through the pass and into the An Hoa Valley, I could see smoke rising up from the firefight that was raging below. Our infantry was pinned down in a rice paddy west of Hwy 1. They were receiving enemy fire from a well-covered trench line separated by two dried up rice paddies about 600 meters to their front. Across the two open fields and just in front of our ground troops was an M113 personal carrier engulfed in fire.

Secondary explosions were ripping apart the rear portion of the carrier and flames were shooting out the open commander’s hatch. Hanging over the side of the troop carrier was the lifeless body of a South Vietnamese ARVN soldier. As we circled the battlefield we received a call from a first Lieutenant in charge of a pinned-down platoon. His platoon had taken several casualties and he needed a dust off (Medical Evacuation) immediately. I could tell from the Lieutenant’s voice that his unit was in pretty bad shape and in dire need of the dust off and air cover. He gave us his best estimation of where a VC sniper was located and asked if we could lay a line of fire down a covered trench line to eliminate the sniper. The pilot radioed the Lieutenant and told him to pop a smoke grenade to mark his platoon’s most forward position and told the Lt to have his troops keep their heads down as we prepared to make a gun run on the trench line. Circling over the infantry’s position, I could see the red smoke drifting up from the rice paddy approximately 100 feet from the covered trench.

As the door gunner and I leaned out our doors preparing for the attack, the pilot turned the helicopter and began a fast nose down dive. I could see the trench light up with white and gray smoke as our rockets exploded on contact while our tracers filled the trench with lead and fire. Finishing the first attack, we began to climb out of the dive and set up for another run when the pilot made a terrible mistake. He began turning the helicopter around too close to the trench line leaving the side profile of our gunship open to enemy fire. The helicopter seemed to stop in mid air just before turning downward for another run. Charlie must have had a good bead on us with our side exposed because an AK47 round came through the open right side door just missing my gunner’s head, blasting a large hole in the door panel to my front causing a big flash and throwing hot magnesium all over the place. I yelled out that we were taking hits as the pilot nosed the helicopter over to escape the danger zone. I wasn’t sure if I’d been hit or not due to the magnesium splattering all over the front of my chest protector, but after checking myself out and deciding I was all right, I informed the pilot that my gunner and I were uninjured and prepared for the next gun run at the trench line.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be that Viet Cong soldier or any other soldier inside that trench on the next gun run. The pilot armed our mini guns, turned the nose of our gunship toward the trench, and with three thousand rounds per minute poring out of each mini gun covered the trench line leaving nothing but death and destruction.

Circling over the carnage, it looked like someone had used a large shredder and removed all vegetation down to the soil. This last gun run eliminated any enemy threat to the ground troops from their front and gave the pinned down platoon time to regroup, call in their dust off and continue their sweep of the area clearing out any VC that may have survived our attack.

Across Hwy 1 to the west, North Vietnamese regulars were now attacking an ARVN company in full force. As the radio crackled and the ground commander screamed for air support we approached at an altitude of about 50 feet flying straight into the ongoing firefight. We could see the tree line encircling the village where the NVA were dug in. Tracers were skipping across the rice paddies and mortar rounds were exploding causing smoke to fill the air. As we approached the village we received a call from the American ARVN Advisor requesting us to land at his location marked by smoke and pickup an ARVN Captain who would show us where the enemy Command Post (CP) was located in the village. The pilot agreed and when the smoke appeared my pilot called back the color and the Advisor acknowledged.

The area chosen for landing was a hot LZ. Enemy fire was skipping across the open field randomly as we made our final approach. I began to return fire and commanded my gunner to do the same. As we touched down in the dry rice paddy our rotor wash caused the grass and debris to fill the air. Squinting my eyes I could see a skinny looking fellow run up to my side of the helicopter. At first I thought he might be the enemy so I quickly leveled my gun at him just in case, but lowered it just as quick when I recognized him as an ARVN. I began to hear popping sounds as AK47 fire targeted our gunship. The pilot pulled pitch and nosed the helicopter over, gaining transitional lift while climbing out of the LZ as fast as possible. We continued to fire our door guns until we were safely away from the hot LZ. Our new passenger seemed to be a little confused as we searched for the enemy command center. The Captain was talking with his ground commander on a hand held radio as he looked out the door trying to orientate himself. As we circled the far side of the village I noticed two individuals looking out of a hole in the ground, they were dressed as NVA in khaki fatigues and pith helmets. I punched my mic key and told the pilot to break left toward where I had observed the enemy. As we passed over the underground opening the pilot came to a hover and I tossed out a CS gas grenade. The grenade bounced once outside the opening and then rolled into the darkness. The pilot pulled up on the collective and we moved slightly to the right of the opening as the CS gas and smoke boiled out of the hole. We were taking a real chance hovering more than just a few seconds in that area due to enemy fire, so as the pilot turned and started moving away, one NVA soldier came running out of the smoke filled opening.

I opened fire with my door gun and he fell within a few feet of the hole. I then moved my gun toward the opening where the smoke was still boiling out and filled the hole with tracers. By this time we had stayed in a hover much too long, so the pilot turned the helicopter and quickly moved out of the danger area. Returning later we discovered another NVA soldier slumped over in the opening of the underground entrance.

Flying in an attack helicopter must have been a new experience for the ARVN Captain; he was looking very pale when we spotted an NVA soldier swimming across the river south of the occupied village. The pilot turned the helicopter toward the soldier and I opened up with my door gun and the soldier disappeared beneath the water only to reappear again floating lifelessly in the fast-moving current. Seeing the NVA soldier die was all the ARVN Captain could take; he fell to his knees and started vomiting out the door. The problem was that the rotor wash was bringing his vomit back into the helicopter and covering all of us with the wet stench. The pilot decided at that point he needed to be returned to his unit as soon as possible. The firefight continued until late in the day as our gunships attacked the hedgerows and leveled many of the hooches with covering fire while mortars and artillery pummeled the area.
As darkness fell the enemy disappeared out of the village and back into the jungle. The ARVN unit had been pinned down most of the day and as enemy fire relaxed due to the American support, the ARVN unit was able to move in and secure a major portion of the village. During a final search of the village, several more enemy bodies were located in covered bunkers that my gunship had located and fired upon during the battle.

Around dark we received a call from the ARVN commander requesting that we transport three of their KIA to the ARVN base camp several miles away. The pilot decided that we should do the right thing and transport the three KIAs just to keep the ARVN on our side. As we hovered into an open area within the village, six ARVN soldiers carrying three of their dead in dark green ponchos ran up to my side of the helicopter and one by one slid the dead soldiers onto the gunship. One of the KIA was laying at my feet looking straight at me; dirt filled his eyes and blood seeped from his nose and ears. Looking at him, I couldn’t help but wonder how old he was and if he had a family or was a single soldier like me. The other two ARVN soldiers were laying side by side in front of my gunner. They seemed so peaceful, almost like they were sleeping there on the floor. After all three men were loaded, the pilot pulled pitch and headed for the ARVN compound as fast as that old Huey would take us. We could see a group of ARVN soldiers standing near a well-marked landing zone as we circled the ARVN camp and made our final approach, sitting the helicopter down on a large, white cross painted on the ground. Two ARVN soldiers ran up to my door and grabbed the dead soldier laying in front of me and pulled him out of the helicopter by holding him under the arms as they carried him away.

Two other ARVN soldiers grabbed the feet of one of the other two individuals and pulled him out of the helicopter letting his head smash against the steel PSP. I couldn’t believe how they were treating their dead.

Watching as the third set of soldiers approached my door to remove the last KIA, I grabbed the first ARVN by his extended arm and pulled him aside, I didn’t let go until his helper arrived, I made both of them carefully remove their dead buddy’s body by holding both ends.

Foley’s Private War

It was a Sunday and a no fly day for Charlie Troop. Most of the enlisted men were headed down into the village for an afternoon of drinking beer and visiting with the local women. Foley and I decided to stop at the first watering hole we came to. Outside the gate at the road intersection heading toward Bong Son stood an old woman with a mouth full of Beetle Nut stained teeth and dark red lipstick. Her teeth were so stained that at first I thought sh e had no teeth at all, but looking closer I could see that they were covered with black tar from the use of Beetle Nut. Beetle Nut is an organic drug used as a narcotic. Older Vietnamese people used the nut for pain relief. The old woman pointed to her stash of cold beer so we decided to slip under her shade and cool off. As we sat talking a young boy about twelve years old began asking me if I’d like to have the crystal on my watch cleaned and polished. The boy used cigarette ash and a leaf off of some type of bush located in the area to polish the scratches out of watch Crystals. I’d had it done before with no problem, but this time the boy disappeared and didn’t bring my watch back. I decided to canvas the area and see if I could locate the little thief.

As I approached a group of boys standing under the shade of a small tree I could see the little thief trying to hide behind his buddies. He tried to run, but I caught him by the arm and asked for my watch back. He acted like he couldn’t understand what I was saying, so I removed my steel helmet and bopped him on the head with it. I didn’t know at the time that hitting the kid on the head was not a good idea; the Vietnamese believe that their spirit lives in their heads and touching or hitting them on the head was taboo. He broke away running and crying. I didn’t chase him, thinking the watch was probably history anyway. Returning to the lean-to, I ordered another cold beer and sat down grumbling about the little shit stealing my watch.

It wasn’t long before an MP jeep rolled up with the kid, his mother and several brothers and sisters hanging all over the back of the jeep. The MP jumped from the jeep and ordering me to come with him to the main MP station in down town Bong Son. Without question I loaded into the back with the crying and screaming family. As the driver made a quick U-turn and headed for the MP station I looked back over my shoulder to see Foley sitting in his lawn chair laughing and drinking while waiving goodbye to me. What a friend. Riding down the road toward the MP station the old lady kept talking loud and pointing her finger at me. She was speaking in Vietnamese and I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. The interpreter explained to me that she was filing a complaint because I had hit her son on the head. He didn’t know about the watch at the time and she probably didn’t either.

After arriving at the MP station and after the old lady calmed down I apologized for bopping the kid on the head with my helmet, but I still wanted my watch back. The old lady left the room with the boy and after a few minutes returned with the watch. She decided not to file a complaint and I had to walk all the way back to LZ North Two Bits.

It was late that evening when everyone except the on duty perimeter guards were ordered to report to an unscheduled meeting with our troop leader. All pilots and available crewmembers were present for the meeting when the sound of explosions and automatic weapons fire could be heard coming from the direction of Charlie Troops guard bunker. All enlisted crew members were immediately dispatched to the bunker while the pilots prepared to fly the helicopter off of the LZ to a safe location. I arrived at the bunker within a few minutes and observed Foley firing his M-16 into the darkness while another Crew Chief was dropping M79 grenade rounds across the front of the LZ. As Foley stood up to fire another burst in to the wire, the Crew Chief let go with an M79 grenade. It hit a palm tree not far from the bunker and exploded. One small fragment from the grenade penetrated Foley’s left leg just above his knee.

He dropped to the cover of the sand bagged bunker and yelled that he was hit. I immediately grabbed his pants and ripped them open at the wound area. He was bleeding some but it looked like the shrapnel had missed his artery. I grabbed one of the other crew-members and told him to escort Foley to the medical tent for treatment; I then picked up the machine-gun, positioned it on the sand bag bunker and began scanning the wire for any enemy movement. Because the tracer rounds and explosions seemed to be getting closer to our position, Red Mike decided it would be best for us to move under the bunker. By sitting on top we were exposed to both enemy fire and friendly fire. Securing all of our weapons we moved under the bunker for better protection. I was very uneasy about being under the bunker. Visibility was limited and we were crowded into a very small area. I stayed under the bunker most of the night, but I never used an underground bunker again, preferring to take my chances in the open. All around the LZ guards were firing their automatic weapons while the mortar platoon dropped rounds just outside the wire to our front. It wasn’t long before helicopters from other LZ’s were strafing the village separating our LZ from South Two Bits. Tracers were whizzing by from all directions. We held our fire and continued to observe our perimeter for any enemy movement. I figured at any time the enemy would be charging our front gate and probing the wire surrounding our bunker.

My biggest worry was that a lone VC would crawl up to our position and throw a satchel charge into our bunker, but as the evening progressed we observed no enemy movement from any direction around our bunker. As morning approached the gunfire decreased and everything became very quiet. At daylight our Blue platoon walked the perimeter of North Two Bits looking for any sign of the VC who had attacked Two Bits the evening before, none were found. No evidence of the supposed attacking force was found; in fact the villagers stated that no VC were in the area that night.

After investigating the incident, it was decided that someone had fired their weapon through the village into the South Two Bits perimeter and South Two Bits had returned fire thinking it was an enemy attack. Later I would find out that Foley was the culprit, he had accidently fired a burst from his M-60.

The back and forth tracer fire was what kept the supposed enemy attack going all night long. During the night a short mortar round caused the deaths of two US soldiers and shrapnel from a M-79 grenade launcher wounded one. No villagers were harmed in the fiasco.

Captured enemy documents were indicating a large build of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops in our area of operation; we were notified to be on the look out for any unusual movement through the area. After my first light flight on the morning of November the 10th, 1967 I decided to write a few letters home.

Just as I sat down to begin writing, my Co-Pilot Jr. Giddens ran into my hooch and told me to ready our gunship for take off, he said that several of our helicopters were attacking a large enemy force and that we were ordered to join the attack in progress.
Both pilots climbed into the helicopter and began the startup while my gunner and I finished securing our door guns and slipped on our bulletproof vests. We were all apprehensive about the mission ahead. I was shaking so hard I was glad the wind was blowing my uniform so no one could see me move.

Approaching the on going fire fight I could hear the voices of other pilots who were by now attacking the side of a mountain covered with three layer canopy jungle. As the first attack helicopter made its gun run on the mountainside, the pilot began to call out that they were under enemy fire and taking hits. As the run progressed, he announced that his windshield had been hit and his co-pilot had been injured by flying Plexiglas.

When we entered the valley, I could see two downed helicopters on the ground below, one was burning and the other one was lying on its side. Passing over the downed helicopters we circled the valley and waited for the order to start our attack. Looking toward the mountainside I could see another helicopter making a run on the enemy position. Rockets were exploding and tracers were filling the air when the pilot radioed that they were taking hits. I could hear his high-pitched, excited voice again when he called out that his Crew Chief had been wounded and he was headed for Medivac. When the damaged helicopter had cleared the area the Commander called for our helicopter to make the next gun run on the enemy position. We made a large sweeping circle over the valley and pointed the helicopter straight at the enemies’ location. As the pilot dropped the nose of our gunship and started the attack, off to my left, I could see one helicopter still burning in the valley below and what looked like friendly ground troops digging fox holes around the other downed bird. I keyed my mic and told my gunner to begin firing when he heard my gun begin to rattle off rounds and to not stop firing until I stopped.

Leaning out the door I could see the enemy tracer rounds filling the air like a swarm of hornets. Bullets were missing us by inches as the helicopter shook and I trembled. Both my door gunner and I began firing our guns while the pilot punched off rocket after rocket. I was waiting for a bullet to impact our helicopter at any time, but luck was with us that day and as we pulled up from the gun run we had taken no hits.
Turning away from the mountainside we flew over the valley and away from the enemy fire. Again the radio cracked and the Commander ordered us to make a second run on the enemy position. This time he wanted us to move further to the north and turn back across the ridgeline running south where known enemy positions were located.

Looking across the valley at the mountainside I had a strange feeling that this time the outcome of our gun run would be much different. For some unknown reason, I was now very calm and collected and ready for anything. As we set up for the attack, again the radio cracked and to our surprise the Commander ordered us to stop the gun run. He informed us that several jets were on site and ready to unload enough bombs to saturate the entire mountainside. I can truly say that I was relieved to be released from the deadly mission that day as we returned undamaged to LZ North Two Bits. Four others attack helicopter crews were not so lucky.

Most of our combat missions were uneventful. We flew many hours over three-layer canopy jungle searching for the enemy. There were times when we would circle a jungle-covered mountain and as we broke out into the open flat lands there would be a huge waterfall splashing into a blue pool of water that flowed into streams lined with beautiful trees and shrubs that zigzagged through elephant grass and across the open valley. It was during these missions that I was most impressed with Vietnam; the landscape was like a peaceful paradise with little to no human activity. Some times while flying I would daydream about living in a cabin by the waterfall or just being able to relax in the shade of one of the old trees lining the stream. I could even feel the breeze blowing across my face as I soaked my tired feet in the cool water. Then without warning the valley would disappear beneath the helicopter giving way to the heavy jungle as the crew and I strained to see any enemy activity below.

During a late afternoon mission while searching a mountain range south of Quan Phuong, the pilot noticed a large outcropping of rocks surrounded by high elephant grass and heavy ground cover jetting out from the mountainside. He decided to take a closer look at the area before heading back to refuel. As we circled the rocks I noticed something strange beneath one of the large outcroppings. The pilot made a circle bringing the helicopter to a hover in front and about 50 feet from the opening of the outcropping. I had been firing my gun in the area trying to flush out any enemy that might have been hiding, but none had appeared.

I dropped my guard for just a moment while I keyed the mic and relayed to the pilot what I could see under the large rock. The pilot was heavily engaged in hovering while the co-pilot was watching the instruments. My gunner was facing out toward the valley and couldn’t see under the outcropping. Our rotor blades were slapping the air and the rotor wash was pushing the elephant grass in all directions.

Just as I told the pilot that I could see a hammock and one AK 47 leaning against a rock, a Viet Cong soldier stood up from the elephant grass about 25 feet from the helicopter and began firing his AK 47 on semiautomatic. He seemed to be swaying with the swirling grass. I think the rocket attack had scrambled his brains some and he was having a hard time aiming his weapon. I’m sure there were others hiding in the grass and rocks surrounding the encampment but they were keeping their heads down and he was the only one doing the shooting.

I could hear a popping sound each time he fired, but I was concentrating so hard on returning fire I couldn’t see the weapon he was holding. Only his uniform and pith helmet were visible to me. I heard at least four or five rounds pop off as the pilot lowered the nose of the helicopter and began falling away from the enemy fire. As we moved away from the VC, I stepped out on the rocket pod and pulled the trigger on my door gun. The soldier fell back across a rock as his AK 47 slid to the ground. The pilot made several more gun runs on the outcropping, but no other enemy was found. Returning to LZ English to refuel, we laughed about how close the VC had been while firing at us and still missed. Little did we know just how close he had come to knocking our helicopter out of the sky. After landing for fuel and to reload ammo, I notice a hole in the helicopter about one inch from where I was sitting. I informed the pilot about the damage and he shut the helicopter down. Upon inspection it was found that the enemy round had penetrated the fuel cell, went through the transmission mount and had almost penetrated the transmission sump case where all of the main operating gears were located. The bullet had caused metal fragments to fly off of the inside of the sump case contaminating the transmission oil and gears. The extensive damage to the transmission sump case could have caused the main rotor shaft to cease. The helicopter would have crashed with little to no chance of crew survival. The helicopter had to be slung loaded out of LZ English to An Khe for a transmission and fuel cell replacement. I had to change my pants.

I wasn’t feeling real chipper about going back to An Khe to help with the replacement of my transmission and a new engine, but it was something I had to do as a Crew Chief. I would have rather stayed at Two Bits and flown as a door gunner on another helicopter while mine was being repaired, but there were no openings on any of the other helicopters so I had to go. It wasn’t too bad in the rear area. I had purchased a hooch from a short timer, so I had a place to sleep besides one of the old broken down barracks like I had to stay in when I first arrived. The hooches were separated into rooms divided by a wall.

Three or four crewmembers lived in each room, but most of the time there was only one or two soldiers in the rear at the same time. My job each day was to go to the flight line and work on my helicopter with the engine and transmission replacement team. I could only do my echelon of work, but it helped the team finish the job much quicker than if I wasn’t there at all. I finished all the maintenance I could do in the first three days, so I decided to paint my helicopter. I found a good brush and couple cans of OD green paint and started the project.

I was the talk of the flight line–no one had ever painted a helicopter before. Once in a while a tail boom would be painted or a repaired part would need touched up, but not the whole helicopter. I started with the tail boom and ended up painting the complete helicopter including the gray crew compartment, safety striping and decals. The helicopter looked like it had just come off the manufacturer’s floor.

Some how the word got back to Two Bits. The Colonel decided he wanted to fly the newly painted helicopter, so he reassigned my pilot and took over 051. Because the Colonel was now my pilot, I was removed from the guard and K.P. rosters and no longer had to pull any extra duty. With the exception on one more time, this would be the case throughout the rest of my time in Vietnam. I hadn’t counted on the benefit derived from my actions, but it was welcomed.

The day my helicopter was released from maintenance, I received word that Foley and WO1 Terry Clark were flying from Two Bits to LZ English to refuel when they had engine failure. When lifting off of Two Bits another pilot heard a loud grinding noise coming from the engine, but it was to late to notify Clark. Before he could get to a radio to warn Clark the engine failure had occurred. Clark auto rotated the helicopter into a dry rice paddy, but it was a hard landing. The helmet Clark was wearing was not his personal helmet. The back strap was loose and when the helicopter pitched forward it caused Clark’s head to wrench forward and then back, hard. The base of his skull slammed against the metal safety belt guide at the top of his seat, killing him instantly.

Foley received several compressed vertebras, but was out of the helicopter and trying to remove Clark when a helicopter carrying the Blue Platoon from Two Bits arrived. The Blues secured the helicopter and Foley was medically evacuated to Japan for several months to recover.

He would return from Japan in January of 1968. Upon his return there would be no extra helicopter for a Crew Chief in Charlie Troop. He would become my door gunner for the remainder of our flying days.

On some occasions the pilot would receive orders to fly the mail or transport goods to and from another base or because our LZ was possibly marked for a mortar or rocket attack and the helicopters needed to be out of harms way.

When the situation occurred the pilot and Crew Chief would fly the helicopter to Phu Cat Air Force base south of LZ North Two Bits. During the flights to the air base the pilot would let the Crew Chief get some stick time in. The pilot thought it was necessary for the CE to know how to fly the helicopter just in case the pilot and co-pilot became incapacitated. I got the opportunity to fly on many occasions during my tour. Because of the training I knew that I could fly from point A to Point B without too many problems and I figured I could land if necessary. I just couldn’t say what the helicopter would look like after I did the so-called landing. One day while flying to Phu Cat, My pilot Captain Stewart, received a call from our headquarters directing us to assist with an ongoing fire fight where US troops were pinned down. Captain Stewart told me to take over and fly the helicopter while he found the location on the map.

I was really nervous about the situation. I knew he’d do all of the flying after locating where the troops were positioned, but I was afraid that we might take hits and that maybe he might be injured or worse.

My usual relaxed demeanor was now very tense. I grasped the cyclic stick and began flying in the general direction of the battle. The pilot searched the map for the exact location. Reaching down to the instrument panel, he changed the radio frequency to the pinned down platoon leader’s frequency and informed him of our pending arrival. The platoon leader came back with “thanks but no thanks,” he stated that two other gunships had arrived on station to assist him and that all was well. With great relief I gave the stick back to my pilot for the continued trip to Phu Cat.

It made me feel good to know that Captain Stewart trusted me enough to let me fly the helicopter while he was involved in other activities. He could have passed the ball to another helicopter in the area and stayed on course to Phu Cat airbase, but instead he put his trust in me and chose to head for the firefight.

One evening just after dark the command center received word that a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) was pinned down on the side of a mountain south of Two Bits. My helicopter was dispatched to the area to cover the LRRP as they tried to break contact with the enemy. Upon arriving at the LRRP position, we could hear the LRRP leader screaming on the radio for help. As we circled the dark three-layer canopy jungle below, we could hear and see hand grenades exploding while tracers skipped randomly across the jungle floor. We couldn’t tell the difference between where the enemy was and where our friendly recon patrol was. The LRRP leader was screaming that they were going to all be killed and needed help immediately.

The pilot Captain Stewart, decided to lay down a line of fire where we thought the enemy might be, but the chance of hitting our own troops was high. Stewart radioed the LRRP leader and told him to have his men put their heads down and prepare for our covering fire. The Captain turned the helicopter around and slowly moved up the mountainside skimming the treetops with our landing skids. The door gunner and I prepared to open up with our door guns as soon as Captain Stewart gave the command. I couldn’t see anything below the dark jungle except a flash now and again and a few tracers coming up toward our helicopter. I said a quick prayer, hoping that our machine-gun fire would not hit our own troops.

The helicopter came to a quick hover as the Captain gave the command to fire. I began sweeping the area with 600 rounds per minute, as did my door gunner. The red tracers lit up the jungle floor ricocheting in all directions as we moved our covering fire down the mountainside toward where we thought the enemy was advancing on the patrol. As our firing continued I could see and hear explosions all around the jungle floor beneath our gunship. We must have been in the right location because the enemy fire stopped. The NVA may have decided to withdraw knowing that we were now a larger force and intent on saving our pinned down LRRP’s by any means. This gave the LRRP’s time to move up the mountain and away from the enemy fire. While we were keeping the enemy busy our Blue Platoon was being inserted on the top of the mountain about 500 meters from the LRRP position. The platoon then began the long walk down the dark dangerous mountainside toward the on going fire fight. We continued to cover the area with our machine-gun fire still not knowing for sure where our friendly troops were. It wasn’t long before the Blue platoon leader called to inform us that he was in contact with the LRRP leader and they were moving up toward the extraction area.

The North Vietnamese Unit broke contact and faded back into the jungle from where they had come. Later that evening we were informed that several of the patrol members had been killed and several had been wounded before our arrival on station, but that the carnage had stopped when we began to return fire from above. The patrol would have been wiped out if our gunships and Blue platoon had not helped to extract those boys that evening. At his debriefing the patrol leader stated that in the early afternoon he had observed a small platoon sized unit of NVA moving across the valley below heading south to north. Usually the Long Range Recon patrol would only observe and report the activity, but on this day the patrol leader decided to break radio silence and call for an artillery strike on the moving NVA unit.

The NVA must have figured that the person calling in the artillery and adjust fire was located on the mountainside above their location. After dark the enemy advanced up the mountain until they made contact with the LRR Patrol. Upon our arrival the enemy broke off the contact and disappeared into the surrounding jungle taking their dead and wounded with them. No other enemy activity was observed the following morning when we returned to the same location, however there were two dead NVA soldiers lying on a dirt road at the base of the mountain below where the fire fight had raged the night before. Sometimes the enemy would leave their dead for the local villagers to bury, but whenever possible they would carry them away as they moved out of the area.

On one occasion while flying over the An Hoa Lake searching for enemy remaining in the area from a heavy fire fight the night before, I saw what looked like someone laying in the water by the shore of the lake. I called the pilot and asked him to turn around and make another pass so I could take another look. As we passed over the shoreline I could see three enemy soldiers lying side by side in the water below. The pilot brought the helicopter to a hover and softly touched the skids on the wet mud about 20 feet from where the bodies lay.

I broke off about thirty rounds, un-hooked my gun and with gun and ammo in hand, jumped from the helicopter and ran over to check out the bodies. I could see that there were two NVA bodies and one VC body. Their hands were tied together with a nylon rope. It looked as though their comrades had tried to pull their bodies with them as they attempted to escape. All three soldiers were lying on their backs. I ran back to the chopper and grabbed my main rotor tie down hook and used it to pull the soldiers closer to the bank so I could search their pocket for any maps or important documents. They had none, so I un-hooked their NVA belt buckles and removed them for souvenirs. The buckles were made of gray metal and stamped with a big star. I jumped back on the helicopter and the pilot turned east and headed for LZ Two Bits leaving the three lifeless bodies floating in the lake below.

A few weeks had passed since the last reported enemy movement around the An Hoa lake area. As a precaution we were flying around the lake to make sure no new enemy bunkers had appeared along the shoreline. We were also looking for any enemy activity in and around the An Hoa village that separated the lake from the South China Sea. The day was hot and the water on the lake was shining like glass as we made our final turn, heading across the lake toward highway 1 and LZ Two Bits. I was staring out the door not expecting to see anything when I noticed an empty sand pan rocking up and down in a reed covered area by what looked like a small 10 foot by 10 foot island. I informed the pilot about what I had observed and he rolled the helicopter to the left and returned to the area. We could see the boat still bobbing up and down as if someone had just jumped out of it. The pilot brought the helicopter to a hover just over the reeds. Looking out the door I could see a person hiding under the water as the rotor wash parted the reeds. I pulled the trigger on my gun putting tracers all around his body. He didn’t move at all. The pilot brought the helicopter up and circled around not wanting to hover to long in any one place. As the helicopter began its second hover the reeds split apart and his hair showed once more. Again I fired warning shots all around him, but he didn’t move. By this time we figured that he must have been breathing through a reed or he would have had to come up for air.

As we approached him for the last time the pilot gave the command to kill him. When the reeds parted I aimed my gun at his head and started to pull the trigger, at that moment he stood up out of the water with his hands up. He climbed onto the island and stood shaking with his hands on his head. I broke off about 30 rounds of ammunition and unhooked my gun and jumped out of the helicopter onto the island to search the captive soldier. When my feet hit the island, it was like jumping on a floating mattress. I would go down and he would go up. I could hardly keep my balance. I don’t know who was more afraid, him or me. I looked over my shoulder and the pilot was holding his 38-caliber pistol out the helicopter window covering the soldier while the copilot hovered the helicopter.

The island I was standing on was actually thick intertwined floating reeds and mud. I finally regained my balance and motioned for the soldier to take off his shirt, which he did immediately. I approached him and searched his lower half before escorting him into the hovering craft. I placed the suspected Viet Cong soldier between my door gunner and me on the bench seat, and then hooked my machine-gun back in position while keeping an eye on the now very nervous captive. It was interesting how I was feeling at the time, a few minutes earlier I was ready to take his life without a second thought, but now that he was no longer a threat I felt compassion for him. Of course if he had reached for any of the hand grenades stashed in the wooden boxes sitting directly in front of him he would have wished he’d been born with wings. After his interrogation it was determined that the young soldier was a tax collector for the Viet Cong. His job was to collect rice and other food items to support the Viet Cong.

PHASE SIX

R&R (Rest and Relaxation

 

I had always wanted to go to Australia. I checked the list and there it was, an opening for Australia. I quickly signed my name in the slot and mentally started preparing for the vacation of a lifetime. I was really excited about going to Australia–rumor was that the girls would meet the GI’s at the airport. I was ready to see a round-eyed girl for a change and experience the famous Australian outback. Within a few days of signing up for the trip to Australia, I was informed that I was knocked off the list by a ranking Crew Chief in another unit. I was really pissed about losing my first choice, but my second pick was Thailand and I’d heard good things about it as well. I had just started getting mentally prepared for the trip to Thailand when I was informed that the Crew Chief that had bumped me off the list had been killed and I was back on the list to Australia. I wouldn’t have any of it; I wasn’t going to take a dead man’s place. So it was going to be Thailand, not Australia.
A few weeks later I was boarding a jet headed for Thailand. I was very excited about seeing a new country and relaxing for seven days without the stress of Vietnam. After landing in Bangkok we were escorted to a small classroom away from the main terminal for our in country briefing.

We were all restless and ready to get on with our vacation, but before we could start we had to learn a little about the laws and rules of Thailand. One thing that sticks in my mind was that we were never to hold hands or show any type of public affection with any female even if it was our own wife. It was a crazy rule since the country was wide open with legal prostitution. We were warned about the crazy drivers, they really didn’t have many rules of the road. At intersections it was every man for himself when push came to shove while changing lanes.

My room was at the Siam hotel not far from what was called the strip in the ‘60s. Dance clubs lined the street for blocks and were filled with Thai girls and GIs from Vietnam. The first thing I had to do was find a clothing shop; I didn’t have civilian clothing and needed something fast, so the first shop I found was about a block from the Siam. I purchased one pair of paints, one shirt and a pair of shoes.
I figured I’d be back later for more, but for the time being the new clothes would get me started. After checking back with the hotel, I found out that if I hung my clothes on the door each night before turning in, they would be washed and ready for me to wear the next morning. That meant that the one pair of pants and one shirt would be enough to last the seven days in Bangkok. What a deal! I hired a car and driver for six days at $11.00 per day. The driver slept in the basement of the hotel and was on call 24-7. I’d call down to him and when I arrived at the front door the car was waiting with doors open. It felt like I was a millionaire. I never opened a door for myself the entire time I was in Thailand. The first full day in country, I hired a guide to take me around Bangkok to see the local sites.

I was very interested in the Buddhist Temples; I had heard that they were beautiful. I wasn’t disappointed, they were even more beautiful than I had expected. I’m sure the Temples weren’t made of gold, but they did look as though they were. The surrounding grounds of each temple displayed many statues located within beautiful decorated courtyards paved with stone. At one temple, I saw a man holding a large Anaconda snake. He was placing the snake around the necks of GI’s and taking their picture. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get in on the action, so I had my picture taken as well. I was very happy when the snake was removed from my neck.

The beer in Thailand had a high alcohol content. It came in quarts only–just one quart would give you a fairly good buzz, two or more would make you forget all about Vietnam. I would get up in the morning and start drinking beer and I’d drink it all day. I think I stayed high the whole seven days. On the third day, I decided I’d like to take in a movie. To Sir With Love and Bonnie and Clyde were playing at the English speaking theater. The two movies were very popular at that time both in the States and in Thailand. I hadn’t expected to be able to see an American movie so far from home. The only difference in Thailand theaters was everyone had to stand while the national anthem was played and a picture of the King was displayed on the screen.

I suppose drinking all that beer is why I don’t remember much about Bangkok; but I do remember going to a place called Timland. It was somewhat like Knotts Berry Farm in Los Angeles. The first thing I saw when I entered the grounds was a pink water buffalo plowing a rice paddy. I guessed it was an albino from the look of it. Either the buffalo was really pink or I was very intoxicated. The latter may have been true.

Walking through the grounds I noticed a large open concrete pit with Cobra snakes crawling all around the bottom. As I walked over to get a closer look a door opened and a man in a white overcoat stepped right in the middle of the snakes. He walked back and forth as the snakes hissed and coiled with their flat heads ready to strike. It didn’t seem to faze him at all; he calmly bent over and grabbed one around the neck and held it up so all of us could see. He continued to walk between the snakes for the better part of half an hour, before disappearing through an open door. I could hear loud cheers and excited voices coming from a building across the way, so I strolled over to see what was going on. Inside was a boxing ring where two young men were kickboxing. This was new for me; kickboxing hadn’t been introduced into the United States yet and it was strange watching the two men kick, spin, slap and punch during two-minute rounds. It didn’t seem like the men were serious about the match. It must have been mostly for show. After watching for a few minutes I walked down the street to a small round shaped wooden building. I passed through the front door into a small room where rooster fighting was in progress. In the middle was a small ring surrounded by sloped seating filled with men waving money and rooting for their favorite rooster. Feathers were flying and men were cheering as the roosters jumped and kicked trying to defeat their opponent. Knives were not strapped on the fighting rooster’s spurs, as they were in the States, making them less likely to be injured. When a rooster was defeated it would just lie down and quit fighting.

The next day I had the opportunity to leave the city and drive through the countryside. The farmland was identical to Vietnam. There were many fields of rice and some vegetables and the mountainsides were covered in jungle. I visited a Monk Temple in a small Thai Village ten or so miles outside of the city. My driver told me about a popular place where many of the local people liked to swim. It had a high waterfall with pools for swimming. We arrived at the waterfall and he was right about the locals. The place was full of people swimming and climbing on the rocks beneath the waterfall. Everyone seemed to be having fun. I was the only round-eyed person in sight, but it didn’t seem to matter. Not one person even glanced my way. I walked around for a while taking in the sites when I noticed a man selling some sort of meat on a stick. It looked good and I was hungry. I thought it was chicken and of course, it did taste like chicken. My driver informed me that it was fire-roasted turtle. It was a good lunch. Too soon it was time to return to the war and Bangkok was only a memory.

PHASE SEVEN

Back To Vietnam

While I was still in training at Ft Rucker Alabama I had the unfortunate opportunity to meet up with a staff sergeant who was a complete asshole. He was not liked by any of my classmates. The main problem was that most of the students were like me and new in the army. There weren’t many higher ranked individuals enrolled in our class. This guy really pulled rank on us all.

It seemed like every time we met up there was a problem of some kind. We were all glad to see graduation and the hope of never running into the jerk again.

It was Christmas day 1967 when a Willys Jeep pulled onto North Two Bits just before midday. We had stood down for the holiday; only emergency flights were authorized so most everyone was preparing for Christmas dinner. Virgen, Beekman, and me were reclining in lawn chairs outside my hooch when we noticed our new visitors. Two men in fatigues were riding in the front seat of the jeep and in the back was old Santa. We thought it was really neat that someone would think of doing something like that in a place like this. All was well and good until old Santa decided he needed a cigarette; he pulled a lighter from his pocket and held it to the cigarette as his beard exploded in flames. He was jumping and grabbing the beard trying to pull it off his face. The cigarette and lighter went flying through the air, as did his flaming beard and red Santa hat. We felt sorry for the guy until we noticed old Santa was that jackass of a staff sergeant from Fort Rucker Alabama. We decided then and there that it couldn’t have happened to a better guy. We laughed and laughed until his jeep disappeared out of the front gate and down the dirt road heading toward Bong Son. It’s a fact, what goes around comes around.

Around the same time as the Santa Clause incident a new looking unfamiliar helicopter arrived at Two Bits. I didn’t recognize the helicopter and decided to walk over to the pilot and introduce myself. To my surprise a tall man stepped out of the rear seating area and stuck his hand out to introduce himself to me. It was Charlton Heston the move actor. I didn’t know what to say, we talked a few minutes while waiting for the Colonel to arrive, but I was so nervous I had a hard time talking. Later I did get to show Mr. Heston my Gunship. He wanted to fly on it, but the commander said, no way. I do remember that Charlton Heston was a very personable and friendly individual, he was very interested in my #051 gunship and how we flew our missions. I always said that if he had flown with me, I’d be safe because Moses would have been my door gunner. I thanked him for his visit as he climbed aboard his waiting UH1H Helicopter ready for departure. As fast as he had arrived, he was gone.

Before Foley’s return to C Troop we received orders to move from North Two Bits to Dong Ha. Dong Ha was known as a Marine base. It was about five miles from the DMZ. We all packed our bags and loaded our helicopters for the trip north. We were ordered to keep the move a secret. No one was to mention the move in the village just in case the Viet Cong were listening. The night before the move several of us decided to go into the village after dark to have a few beers and celebrate leaving. We were under the impression that no one else would be there due to the hush hush about the move. I couldn’t believe my eyes, as we rounded the corner in the village the entire street was loaded with GIs drinking beer and visiting. There wasn’t a dink within twenty miles that didn’t know we were heading out the next day.

Throwing the last duffle bag into the helicopter, I turned and stared at what used to be my home for the past five months. My old hooch was sitting empty with the door open; smoke was drifting up from a pile of burned ammo boxes and sand bags marked where tents used to be. I wondered what the locals would do with the LZ after we left. Just as my helicopter lifted off the LZ heading north, I remembered that still hanging on the walls of my hooch were several North Vietnamese bloodstained ammo belts and a pair of Ho Chi Min sandals. A slight grin came on my face knowing that most likely a VC would be standing there in a few days looking at my war souvenirs.

We were off and flying, headed north to a different kind of war than we were used to. This new area was full of NVA; few VC if any would be patrolling the north. Hard core NVA would give us a run for our money. At the time Khe Sanh was heating up and the Marines were taking a lot of causalities. It was cold in January, the further north we got the colder it seemed to get. As the evening wore on it became very foggy and the commander located a refueling point and directed all of the helicopters to refuel and meet in an empty rice paddy off to the side of the refueling point. The pilots met with the Colonel and were directed to continue north hoping the fog would break before nightfall. After take off, our pilots brought each helicopter into a formation on the lead ship flown by the Colonel. As night approached the fog did not lift so the Colonel ordered our flight of four helicopters to land in the center of a valley, location unknown to our crew.

The helicopters were positioned in a circle about 50 meters apart. The crew from each helicopter had to dig a guard foxhole beside each helicopter and pull guard on a two-hour rotation all night long. We positioned our machine gun beside the hole and began our long night. The fog was very heavy and we were unable to see much more than 50 feet in any direction. The only good thing was that the enemy would not be able to see any better. It was so cold that the two guards off duty and sleeping were sharing a sleeping bag for the extra body warmth. Nothing happened that night and as the morning sun peeked over the mountain the fog began to burn away. We had a short time to heat a can of C-rations, repack our gear and get ready for the remainder of our flight to Dong Ha.

Circling our new home, I could see a large runway and many OD green tents and wooden buildings filling the huge space called Dong Ha. I was surprised at how big this LZ was. I couldn’t see from one end to the other. Two Bits was not much bigger than four city blocks–this place looked like Los Angles. I figured that because Dong Ha was so big that it must be much safer than Two Bits. It wouldn’t take long to find out how wrong I was. Within a few days we started receiving artillery fire from across the DMZ into Dong Ha. We called it Doctor Pepper Time. The artillery rounds would be fired at approximately ten, two and four o’clock every day. Most of the rounds were aimed at the runway several hundred meters from our camp, but now and again a long round would reach our area and do major damage. One morning before daybreak in January 1968 a H-13 helicopter sitting in a bunker outside the maintenance tent was hit and destroyed by one well-placed NVA artillery round. When the sun came up there were so many holes in the maintenance tent it looked like Swiss cheese. It wasn’t long before our fearless leaders began talking about moving south.

The landscaping in the northern jungle was spectacular; it was more beautiful than the Central Highlands around Bong Son. We flew many missions throughout the Dong Ha area, but found little sign of enemy movement. This was the period of time when the North Vietnamese were building up for the 1968 Tet Offensive.

On one mission we found several camouflaged hooches located under three-layer canopy jungle. Beside the hooch was a large foxhole and hanging from the trees above the foxholes were carved wooden airplanes. We figured the airplanes were used to train gunners how to aim at aircraft. On another mission that same day we located enemy trails hidden under the jungle cover, but no human activity. We called in an air strike to clear out the overhead cover. When the jets arrived they circled the mountain as my pilot gave them the location he wanted the bombs dropped. The day was hot and humid and the visibility was good. The jets turned and prepared to make their bomb runs. Before their approach we moved our helicopters out of the path of destruction, but tried to stay close enough to see any enemy movement that might take place during the attack.

Each jet came swooping in with a deafening roar as they released their bombs. When each pilot pulled his jet up out of the bomb run, I could see water pouring off of the wings in sheets; then came the huge fire ball and shortly after that the tremendous booming sound of the bombs exploding. I was sure not a soul could have survived the attack. After the attack the pilots circled their jets around the mountaintop to observe their handy work before leaving. My pilot thanked them for their support and after passing back and forth a few comments the jets roared off toward the south and their home base. When the smoke and dust had settled, we flew in for a quick observation of the strike area, observing body parts in some of the bomb craters. But again we saw no live enemy movement. We decided to leave the area for a while to give the NVA time to regroup, hoping to catch them in the open while they were moving out of the area. Later that afternoon we returned to the mountainside, the enemy must have regrouped immediately after the attack and departed the area before we returned. There were footprints crossing the bomb craters and disappearing into the undamaged jungle, but no live NVA.
The next day bright and early we were skimming across the valley a few miles from the mountain where we had observed the enemy footprints the day before. Just as we swooped up over a large elephant grass covered hilltop we ran straight into a company sized NVA unit moving across the hill in plain sight. They were dressed in light tan uniforms and wearing pith helmets. It was such a surprise that at first we didn’t know quite what to make of it. Flying as my door gunner that day was a 2nd Lieutenant FO (Forward Observer). His job was to call in artillery when necessary and act as my right hand observer and door gunner during the mission. This guy was so new his boots were still shiny.

When the pilot saw the enemy he made his first mistake by turning right instead of left. By turning right he put the Lieutenant facing the enemy and me facing the sky. The Lieutenant had never had to engage the enemy before and he froze. I began yelling through my mic for him to fire his gun, but he just stared down at the now prone enemy trying to hide in the cover of the tall elephant grass. The first few NVA disappeared into the jungle to their front and the last few retreated into the jungle to their rear, but the larger portion of the enemy force was now pinned down in the open.

After circling the hilltop the pilot finally decided to bring the helicopter over to the left positioning me facing the NVA below. I opened up with my gun while the pilot made a tight circle around the top of the hill. I could see most of the enemy just lying there in the open. They must have thought that the elephant grass was hiding their position, but from above they were prone, unmoving targets. As my tracers hit the first NVA his uniform turned dark with blood. As I continued to move my gun from one NVA to another, in each case their uniforms became stained with blood as well. One soldier jumped up and ran toward the jungle trying to escape the ongoing carnage. His shirt was bloody, but somehow he had found the strength to make a last chance effort to escape.

The one-sided firefight continued until my gun was out of ammunition and the FO’s gun was broken causing it to fire only one round at a time. We were deciding whether to leave the area when I spotted two NVA soldiers lying beside a fallen tree, head to toe. I grabbed my M16 and took aim. It was very difficult to aim the M16 due to the vibration of the helicopter and after a few rounds fired I decided it was a futile attempt. When the pilot turned the helicopter dropping the nose to gain lift and leave our hovering position, an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) came directly from the jungle toward my side of the helicopter. It seemed like it took forever to get to our helicopter, but in reality it was past us in a flash. The RPG went under our helicopter, just missing us by inches, and as it continued on its course it just missed our chase ship piloted by Steve DaCosta flying over his rotor blades and disappearing into the jungle. As a crew we took a vote and decided we’d done about all the damage we could do for one day. The pilot turned the helicopter toward Dong Ha and departed the area. We did return the following day and saw some enemy activity crossing a stream in a canyon far below the mountaintop, but we were unable to safely get into such a tight location. The Colonel decided to call for the Air Force jets again while we moved to another area of operation.

One day a friend, Jeff Libby, asked me if I would help him repair a malfunctioning rocket system on one of our attack helicopters. Mounted on each side of the helicopter was a seven-pod rocket launcher. Each rocket was approximately six-inches in diameter and about four feet long; it had a gray, eight-inch explosive warhead and fins on the rear for stabilization when fired.

The rocket had to fly about fifty feet before it would arm. On this day we were checking the electronic firing system. Behind each rocket was an electric probe. If it was turned toward the rocket, it was hot and would electrically fire the rocket when the trigger was pulled. To test the system, all probes were turned away from the rocket before pulling the trigger. Jeff was calling out the number on the pod as I pulled the trigger and advanced the firing cycle. Each time I’d pull the trigger, he would yell out the count, “1, 2, 3,” and so on. All of a sudden one rocket fired from the right pod. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. Smoke was everywhere and I was shocked and waiting for the big explosion. The fire from the propellant was hissing out like a flamethrower. The rocket stuck under a few sand bags about ten feet in front of our helicopter, but there was no explosion, it hadn’t gone far enough to arm. Thank God for that or I’d still be paying for the helicopter that was sitting beside the sand bags. I guess Jeff had overlooked one of the probes and when I hit the correct number it fired off. I don’t have to tell you how proud the Colonel was of us two fine experienced soldiers that day.

Dong Ha was a dirty place with blowing wind and lots of dust. Constant shelling by the North Vietnamese was nerve racking. I would always make sure I knew where the closest foxhole or bunker was located at all times so I wouldn’t have far to go when the rounds started coming in. One day I awoke to find that I was seeing double out of one eye. I didn’t know what the problem was but it wasn’t safe for me to be seeing double as a door gunner and observer. I checked in with the Troop medic and after checking me over he decided I needed to go to the rear area for an appointment with an eye specialist. Early the next morning I was at the Dong Ha main runway waiting for my airplane to arrive. There were many wounded soldiers laying on stretchers just outside the medical center also waiting for the same aircraft to transport them to the hospital in Da Nang.

Looking east I could see the Caribou making a fast approach to the runway, when its wheels touched down the North Vietnamese began their artillery attack directed at the airplane. The pilot made a fast approach to our location and immediately dropped the back ramp for loading. The medics and several passengers including me began moving the wounded into the airplane as the artillery shells continued to pound the runway. After all of us were on board, the pilot began to taxi toward the end of the runway for take off. By this time the artillery rounds were dangerously close. The pilot didn’t even stop to get clearance for take off. He just turned the Caribou, headed down the runway, applied full throttle and began a fast takeoff. We could see and hear the rounds hitting the runway as the wheels left the ground and the plane began to climb out of harm’s way. The flight to Da Nang was chaotic at best. Because of the fast takeoff, we had no time to put the stretchers in the stretcher holders. The wounded soldiers were lying all over the floor and we were on our knees holding their transfusing bottles while trying to comfort them.

I was very happy to see several medical transport buses waiting when the rear ramp was lowered at Da Nang. Within a few hours I was sitting in an eye doctor’s exam chair. My diagnosis was an ulcer on my right eye caused by the constant wind blowing in my face during flight. While I was there I ran into an old friend, Lester Harris, from my hometown, Chowchilla. We had a good visit and after a few days rest I was back in my Huey, happy to be flying again.

Little did I know that my flying days were about to come to an end. For several months I had been asked to help the troop armorer repair the weapons systems on our attack helicopters when I was not flying. I had become very proficient in the repair of mini guns, rocket launchers and machine-guns. In January of ‘68 we received our first two Cobra attack helicopters. These two helicopters were manned by two officers only; there was no room or need for a Crew Chief or door gunner. One morning in early February as I was just waking up and getting ready for the day’s mission, a trooper from the command center stuck his head through the front door of my hooch and informed me that the CO wanted to see me ASAP. I finished dressing and reported to the commander. I was taken aback by what he told me. He said that the troop armorer had left for the states on emergency leave and because of the short amount of time he had remaining in country, he would not be back. I was now to be the official Charlie Troop armorer. Just like that, my combat flying days were over. On one hand I hated the idea of not flying daily missions, but on the other hand it would be the first time since arriving in Vietnam that I would almost be assured of making it home alive. I guess I could have complained about the reassignment, but I doubt if it would have changed his mind. The Colonel didn’t want to lose me as his Crew Chief, but he had no other choice at the time.

The day after I stopped flying, my co-pilot Jr. Giddins was killed on a mission west of Dong Ha. The information I received was that the commander hovered over a spider hole in a heavy firefight and a lone NVA soldier fired his AK-47 through the helicopter chin bubble. The bullet struck Giddins protective vest and glanced off, hitting him in the jugular vein, the FO flying as door gunner that day pulled the safety pin and dropped Giddins seat to the rear and tried to stop the bleeding, but Giddins was dead within seconds. I suspect that the new Crew Chief was not experienced enough to see the impending danger. Within two weeks, the same Crew Chief was wounded in the leg and sent home for good. I would fly one more combat mission in an attack helicopter before leaving Vietnam.
On another occasion C Troop was invited to visit the Marines at their enlisted beer hall at the west end of Dong Ha. This was unusual at best because the Army and Marines didn’t get along very well. We loaded into a duce and a half and headed for the beer hall looking forward to a fun evening swapping war stories with the Marines. The evening started out well. It looked like we were all going to get along, but as the evening got on, the soldiers got drunker and drunker.

Even their mascot monkey got soused. Finally the time for closing arrived and we started moving out of the hall toward the waiting truck. Someone decided it was time to mouth off something nasty about the marines and the fight was on.

We finally made it into the duce and a half, alive but bleeding. As the driver started pulling away a marine picked up a large rock and hurled at the open bed hitting one of our soldiers in the head. It knocked him unconscious where he stayed for quite some time. Needless to say that was our last invitation to join the marines for an evening out.

It wasn’t always peace and goodwill between soldiers. Most disagreements with one another were settled peacefully, but on occasion things would spiral out of control. Combat seems to make soldiers more like brothers than friends, and in the army just like civilian life sometimes clicks form within certain groups. When new replacements arrived they weren’t always befriended immediately. The thinking was that if you didn’t make friends with the new guys you didn’t have to grieve if they were killed. It seemed as though new replacements were more apt to be killed within the first few months. If they could make it through that time period then it was smooth sailing until their last few days.

Late in my tour, a new aircraft inspector arrived in our unit. He was not new to Vietnam, transferring from another unit in country. This guy was not well liked; he was less than a qualified inspector and really didn’t know his job. I didn’t care for the guy and tried to stay away from him at all cost. One afternoon while eating dinner under our parachute, the guy walked up to where I was sitting and starting complaining about something I had said to him earlier concerning one of his less than accurate inspections. I can’t remember what I said, but he didn’t like it. I must have pissed him off because he pulled the operating rod handle back on his M-16 and chambered a round. He was about to point the weapon at me when I heard a loud click. Standing close by was one of my friends who had closed his sawed off shotgun and pointed it at the inspector. He said, “Go ahead and raise that M-16, shit head.” I thought the guy was going to pass out; he turned white as he eased the M-16 back down to his side and immediately left the area. I have no doubt that my friend would have used the shotgun if necessary. I also think the inspector might have used the M-16 on me if it hadn’t been for the shotgun.

On another occasion, my mouth and too many beers got me into a little trouble. It was February of 1968 and I was working in Da Nang. One evening after a long day repairing weapons systems on our Cobras I was looking forward to an evening of relaxation and enjoyment. A trooper named Larry Marrick and I decided to go to the enlisted club for a few beers and some rock and roll music. The club décor was like a Hawaii setting with a grass roof and thatch siding with tables made of bamboo. We slipped through the door and chose a nice table facing the bay where we could see the jets as they departed toward the US. Playing on the stereo was “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.”

I guess nostalgia got to us, because we drank more than we should have while reminiscing about home and what we were missing. Before we noticed, it was closing time. I don’t remember much about what happened next, but I guess we were fairly loud mouthed and woke some big dude up. He confronted us just outside our tent. I can remember thinking “I could smack this guy before he even knew it.” Of course it was the beer talking, not reality. Next thing I remember I woke up the next morning with a rope burn across my head. The guy must have finally had enough and put me to bed with a right hook. This unfriendly gesture caused my body to fly through the tent scraping my face on the tie down rope on the way to the ground. I never did like a loud mouth drunk and I guess that guy didn’t ether. He didn’t win my heart and mind!

The artillery attacks were just too damaging for C Troop to remain at Dong Ha. The Troop was ordered to relocate south to a new Landing Zone called Camp Evans. As before, we loaded all of our equipment into the helicopters, jeeps and trucks for the move south to our new LZ.

All of the artillery attacks stopped due to the distance, however rocket and mortar attacks took their place. Rumor was that the NVA had brought their tanks south and were using them to attack landing zones west of Camp Evans.

Since arriving at Camp Evans we had not put in place our permanent perimeter defensive positions. We had bunkers and claymore mines in place, but not much wire for perimeter protection. The first morning after arriving the fog was heavy and visibility was limited. I had just crawled out of my bunk when the mortar and rocket attack began. I could hear the rounds exploding all around the encampment, the Cyrene was blaring and shrapnel was flying everywhere shredding tents and banging against our metal buildings. Everyone in my tent grabbed their weapons and took up a defensive position behind the sandbags surrounding our tent. The explosions were terrifying. We couldn’t see anything and it sounded like the NVA had us pinpointed. All of a sudden we heard tanks coming across the LZ. They sounded like they were coming straight toward our position. We thought that the tanks were NVA and all we had were a couple of machineguns, our Colt 45’s, four M-16s and a few hand grenades. To our relief when the tanks appeared they were friendly and moving to reinforce our lightly protected perimeter. I’m sure there was no atheist in our tent that morning.

Before long the attack was over and we were cleaning up the troop area, we now could see just how close the mortar rounds and rockets had come to doing real damage. We all were very lucky because there were no direct hits on our tents or important equipment. We did have a few new ventilation holes in our Mess Tent and CP. I’m positive the heavy fog at Evans that morning helped save lives by blocking the view of the VC as they tried to adjust fire.

Before daylight on January 29th 1968, I was summonsed to the troop commander’s tent. He needed some parts for our troop generator and all of the helicopters were busy. He told me to take the maintenance jeep and two other troopers of my choice and drive to Hue Phu Bi to pick up the parts. It was important that we return the same day as the parts were needed to keep the generators and radios operating. I grabbed a couple of our new guys and mounted a machine-gun on the jeep. It was just starting to warm up as we left the gate and turned south onto highway 1 heading toward Hue. All three of us were somewhat nervous as we bounced down the unpaved dirt road.

There was some American traffic on the road that day, but it was few and far between. We did see a few ARVN troopers guarding bridges and we passed a convoy or two. We kept a good lookout and a finger on the trigger the entire way into Hue. Once we had arrived in the city we began to feel more at ease. There were lots of people roaming around, shops were open, and the people seemed to be very busy. We passed the old Shell gas station not far from the university grounds and then turned south through a local housing area. The houses reminded me of houses I’d seen in old Mexico, they were white and pink adobe with tile roofs and mud fences surrounding them. Lots of shrubs filled the side yards and tall green trees lined the streets. We enjoyed driving around Hue looking at the pretty girls as they walked back and forth on the streets of the city. Crossing the bridge separating the old city from the new, the Citadel stood out like a Roman Castle. The walls seemed to run for miles all around the out-buildings encircling the entire old city, it seemed so peaceful and beautiful with mostly Vietnamese civilians walking around the park along the Perfume River. Before we knew it, it was time to head across the bridge to the air base, pick up the parts and get back to Evans before dark. Securing the parts we returned down highway 1 to Camp Evans without incident.

I awoke on the morning of January 30, 1968 just as I had done every day since my arrival in Vietnam. This day however would be different than any of the rest. The day seemed to go by fast; I had a few weapons systems to repair. Finishing early I had time to work on a machine-gun or two before dinner. I met a couple of my buddies and we headed up to the mess tent for the evening meal. As we sat under the parachute eating our dinner we talked about how little time we had left and what we would be doing this time next year. It had been quiet all day; not even the helicopter crews had been very busy. After dark I drank a few beers while relaxing on my bunk. Then, without warning in the distance I could hear rockets and mortars hitting Evans. This time the blasts continued for a long time, when all of a sudden I heard a huge blast, I rolled off of my bunk and peeked out from under the side of the tent. It looked like daylight outside. Then there was an even bigger blast that lit up the sky and I could see the tents falling as the concussion came toward my tent. When it hit, the tent came tumbling down and the sand bags fell over. Tet 1968 had begun. The first rockets hit our ammunitions dump and all of the stored ammo, fuel and food supplies went up in flames. The explosions were so huge that the shock waves knocked over tents and bent helicopter tail booms. Shrapnel from the ammo dump was flying everywhere disabling many helicopters and causing some casualties.

Foley and I didn’t want to crawl into an underground bunker so we sat out the night in an 8ft x 8ft steel storage building called a Connex. Both of us kept our weapons at the ready, we figured that the NVA would try to overrun our LZ if possible and we didn’t want to get caught without some way to fight off the attackers. We could hear the shrapnel whizzing through the air as it passed over our heads and sometimes hit the top of our hut. It was a long night with little to no sleep. When morning came the rocket attack was over and the cleanup had begun. There were quite a few casualties on the LZ, most occurred from secondary explosions while the ammo dump went up in flames. No VC or NVA had penetrated the perimeter and our LZ was secure.

We received word that Hue was under attack by the NVA and local VC. It would be the heaviest fighting so far in Vietnam and it would last for several weeks. Many Vietnamese civilians would suffer death from the NVA and VC during the siege. It would take the army and marines together to rid Hue of the well-fortified enemy. The entire city, including the Citadel had been saturated with units of the NVA and VC, But in the end most would loose their lives to the U.S. Marine Corp and Cavalry units who worked together to defeat them in battle.

PHASE EIGHT

Camp Evans

Little did I know that my flying days were about to come to an end. For several months I had been asked to help the troop armorer repair the weapons systems on our attack helicopters when I was not flying. I had become very proficient in the repair of mini guns, rocket launchers and machine-guns. In January of ‘68 we received our first two Cobra attack helicopters. These two helicopters were manned by two officers only; there was no room or need for a Crew Chief or door gunner. One morning in early February as I was just waking up and getting ready for the day’s mission, a trooper from the command center stuck his head through the front door of my hooch and informed me that the CO wanted to see me ASAP. I finished dressing and reported to the commander. I was taken aback by what he told me. He said that the troop armorer had left for the states on emergency leave and because of the short amount of time he had remaining in country, he would not be back. I was now to be the official Charlie Troop armorer. Just like that, my combat flying days were over. On one hand I hated the idea of not flying daily missions, but on the other hand it would be the first time since arriving in Vietnam that I would almost be assured of making it home alive. I guess I could have complained about the reassignment, but I doubt if it would have changed his mind. The Colonel didn’t want to lose me as his Crew Chief, but he had no other choice at the time.

The day after I stopped flying, my co-pilot Jr. Giddins was killed on a mission west of Dong Ha. The information I received was that the commander hovered over a spider hole in a heavy firefight and a lone NVA soldier fired his AK-47 through the helicopter chin bubble. The bullet struck Giddins protective vest and glanced off, hitting him in the jugular vein, the FO flying as door gunner that day pulled the safety pin and dropped Giddins seat to the rear and tried to stop the bleeding, but Giddins was dead within seconds. I suspect that the new Crew Chief was not experienced enough to see the impending danger. Within two weeks, the same Crew Chief was wounded in the leg and sent home for good. I would fly one more combat mission in an attack helicopter before leaving Vietnam.
On another occasion C Troop was invited to visit the Marines at their enlisted beer hall at the west end of Dong Ha. This was unusual at best because the Army and Marines didn’t get along very well. We loaded into a duce and a half and headed for the beer hall looking forward to a fun evening swapping war stories with the Marines. The evening started out well. It looked like we were all going to get along, but as the evening got on, the soldiers got drunker and drunker.

Even their mascot monkey got soused. Finally the time for closing arrived and we started moving out of the hall toward the waiting truck. Someone decided it was time to mouth off something nasty about the marines and the fight was on.

We finally made it into the duce and a half, alive but bleeding. As the driver started pulling away a marine picked up a large rock and hurled at the open bed hitting one of our soldiers in the head. It knocked him unconscious where he stayed for quite some time. Needless to say that was our last invitation to join the marines for an evening out.

It wasn’t always peace and goodwill between soldiers. Most disagreements with one another were settled peacefully, but on occasion things would spiral out of control. Combat seems to make soldiers more like brothers than friends, and in the army just like civilian life sometimes clicks form within certain groups. When new replacements arrived they weren’t always befriended immediately. The thinking was that if you didn’t make friends with the new guys you didn’t have to grieve if they were killed. It seemed as though new replacements were more apt to be killed within the first few months. If they could make it through that time period then it was smooth sailing until their last few days.

Late in my tour, a new aircraft inspector arrived in our unit. He was not new to Vietnam, transferring from another unit in country. This guy was not well liked; he was less than a qualified inspector and really didn’t know his job. I didn’t care for the guy and tried to stay away from him at all cost. One afternoon while eating dinner under our parachute, the guy walked up to where I was sitting and starting complaining about something I had said to him earlier concerning one of his less than accurate inspections. I can’t remember what I said, but he didn’t like it. I must have pissed him off because he pulled the operating rod handle back on his M-16 and chambered a round. He was about to point the weapon at me when I heard a loud click. Standing close by was one of my friends who had closed his sawed off shotgun and pointed it at the inspector. He said, “Go ahead and raise that M-16, shit head.” I thought the guy was going to pass out; he turned white as he eased the M-16 back down to his side and immediately left the area. I have no doubt that my friend would have used the shotgun if necessary. I also think the inspector might have used the M-16 on me if it hadn’t been for the shotgun.

On another occasion, my mouth and too many beers got me into a little trouble. It was February of 1968 and I was working in Da Nang. One evening after a long day repairing weapons systems on our Cobras I was looking forward to an evening of relaxation and enjoyment. A trooper named Larry Marrick and I decided to go to the enlisted club for a few beers and some rock and roll music. The club décor was like a Hawaii setting with a grass roof and thatch siding with tables made of bamboo. We slipped through the door and chose a nice table facing the bay where we could see the jets as they departed toward the US. Playing on the stereo was “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.”

I guess nostalgia got to us, because we drank more than we should have while reminiscing about home and what we were missing. Before we noticed, it was closing time. I don’t remember much about what happened next, but I guess we were fairly loud mouthed and woke some big dude up. He confronted us just outside our tent. I can remember thinking “I could smack this guy before he even knew it.” Of course it was the beer talking, not reality. Next thing I remember I woke up the next morning with a rope burn across my head. The guy must have finally had enough and put me to bed with a right hook. This unfriendly gesture caused my body to fly through the tent scraping my face on the tie down rope on the way to the ground. I never did like a loud mouth drunk and I guess that guy didn’t ether. He didn’t win my heart and mind!

The artillery attacks were just too damaging for C Troop to remain at Dong Ha. The Troop was ordered to relocate south to a new Landing Zone called Camp Evans. As before, we loaded all of our equipment into the helicopters, jeeps and trucks for the move south to our new LZ.

All of the artillery attacks stopped due to the distance, however rocket and mortar attacks took their place. Rumor was that the NVA had brought their tanks south and were using them to attack landing zones west of Camp Evans.

Since arriving at Camp Evans we had not put in place our permanent perimeter defensive positions. We had bunkers and claymore mines in place, but not much wire for perimeter protection. The first morning after arriving the fog was heavy and visibility was limited. I had just crawled out of my bunk when the mortar and rocket attack began. I could hear the rounds exploding all around the encampment, the Cyrene was blaring and shrapnel was flying everywhere shredding tents and banging against our metal buildings. Everyone in my tent grabbed their weapons and took up a defensive position behind the sandbags surrounding our tent. The explosions were terrifying. We couldn’t see anything and it sounded like the NVA had us pinpointed. All of a sudden we heard tanks coming across the LZ. They sounded like they were coming straight toward our position. We thought that the tanks were NVA and all we had were a couple of machineguns, our Colt 45’s, four M-16s and a few hand grenades. To our relief when the tanks appeared they were friendly and moving to reinforce our lightly protected perimeter. I’m sure there was no atheist in our tent that morning.

Before long the attack was over and we were cleaning up the troop area, we now could see just how close the mortar rounds and rockets had come to doing real damage. We all were very lucky because there were no direct hits on our tents or important equipment. We did have a few new ventilation holes in our Mess Tent and CP. I’m positive the heavy fog at Evans that morning helped save lives by blocking the view of the VC as they tried to adjust fire.

Before daylight on January 29th 1968, I was summonsed to the troop commander’s tent. He needed some parts for our troop generator and all of the helicopters were busy. He told me to take the maintenance jeep and two other troopers of my choice and drive to Hue Phu Bi to pick up the parts. It was important that we return the same day as the parts were needed to keep the generators and radios operating. I grabbed a couple of our new guys and mounted a machine-gun on the jeep. It was just starting to warm up as we left the gate and turned south onto highway 1 heading toward Hue. All three of us were somewhat nervous as we bounced down the unpaved dirt road.

There was some American traffic on the road that day, but it was few and far between. We did see a few ARVN troopers guarding bridges and we passed a convoy or two. We kept a good lookout and a finger on the trigger the entire way into Hue. Once we had arrived in the city we began to feel more at ease. There were lots of people roaming around, shops were open, and the people seemed to be very busy. We passed the old Shell gas station not far from the university grounds and then turned south through a local housing area. The houses reminded me of houses I’d seen in old Mexico, they were white and pink adobe with tile roofs and mud fences surrounding them. Lots of shrubs filled the side yards and tall green trees lined the streets. We enjoyed driving around Hue looking at the pretty girls as they walked back and forth on the streets of the city. Crossing the bridge separating the old city from the new, the Citadel stood out like a Roman Castle. The walls seemed to run for miles all around the out-buildings encircling the entire old city, it seemed so peaceful and beautiful with mostly Vietnamese civilians walking around the park along the Perfume River. Before we knew it, it was time to head across the bridge to the air base, pick up the parts and get back to Evans before dark. Securing the parts we returned down highway 1 to Camp Evans without incident.

I awoke on the morning of January 30, 1968 just as I had done every day since my arrival in Vietnam. This day however would be different than any of the rest. The day seemed to go by fast; I had a few weapons systems to repair. Finishing early I had time to work on a machine-gun or two before dinner. I met a couple of my buddies and we headed up to the mess tent for the evening meal. As we sat under the parachute eating our dinner we talked about how little time we had left and what we would be doing this time next year. It had been quiet all day; not even the helicopter crews had been very busy. After dark I drank a few beers while relaxing on my bunk. Then, without warning in the distance I could hear rockets and mortars hitting Evans. This time the blasts continued for a long time, when all of a sudden I heard a huge blast, I rolled off of my bunk and peeked out from under the side of the tent. It looked like daylight outside. Then there was an even bigger blast that lit up the sky and I could see the tents falling as the concussion came toward my tent. When it hit, the tent came tumbling down and the sand bags fell over. Tet 1968 had begun. The first rockets hit our ammunitions dump and all of the stored ammo, fuel and food supplies went up in flames. The explosions were so huge that the shock waves knocked over tents and bent helicopter tail booms. Shrapnel from the ammo dump was flying everywhere disabling many helicopters and causing some casualties.

Foley and I didn’t want to crawl into an underground bunker so we sat out the night in an 8ft x 8ft steel storage building called a Connex. Both of us kept our weapons at the ready, we figured that the NVA would try to overrun our LZ if possible and we didn’t want to get caught without some way to fight off the attackers. We could hear the shrapnel whizzing through the air as it passed over our heads and sometimes hit the top of our hut. It was a long night with little to no sleep. When morning came the rocket attack was over and the cleanup had begun. There were quite a few casualties on the LZ, most occurred from secondary explosions while the ammo dump went up in flames. No VC or NVA had penetrated the perimeter and our LZ was secure.

We received word that Hue was under attack by the NVA and local VC. It would be the heaviest fighting so far in Vietnam and it would last for several weeks. Many Vietnamese civilians would suffer death from the NVA and VC during the siege. It would take the army and marines together to rid Hue of the well-fortified enemy. The entire city, including the Citadel had been saturated with units of the NVA and VC, But in the end most would loose their lives to the U.S. Marine Corp and Cavalry units who worked together to defeat them in battle.

On the evening of Jan 31st, I sat in my tent wondering how many NVA and VC had been watching as three troopers in a little green jeep putted up and down the streets of Hue two days before. I know military training has a lot to do with survival in combat, but I’m here to tell you that luck and God were with us on the 29th of January 1968.

Our new Cobra Helicopters had all arrived and I was chomping at the bit to fly in one. One day while working on the flight line a pilot was taking one to refuel and asked it I’d like to go along for the ride. He was new to the Cobra and was in training at the time, but since he was experienced on Huey Helicopters I felt comfortable flying with him. I climbed into the front seat and strapped in for the short flight to the refueling point.

It felt really good as the helicopter lifted off the pad and turned north leaving the flight line covered in blowing dust. We circled out over the open fields separating us from the South China Sea and Camp Evans. The pilot took us high and then swooped low over Hwy 1 before turning toward Camp Evans and the refueling point. We approached the landing pad to refuel at a low altitude and with a smooth approach the pilot brought the Cobra in to a soft landing. I jumped out and began refueling the ship while the pilot up dated his logbook. When the refueling was complete, I climbed aboard, strapped in and prepared for the return flight to our flight line. Again the pilot circled far outside the perimeter of Camp Evans climbing to about 5000 feet then turning toward Charlie Troops flight line. On our final approach we seemed to be going too fast. I began to think we were going to bury the Cobra straight into the deck. I grabbed both sides of the cockpit and drew my feet up toward my seat. The ground was coming up at an extremely fast rate as the pilot strained to pull the collective up and the cyclic back causing the helicopter to flare. I thought we’d had it, but at the last minute the helicopter seemed to flatten out and come to a hover just before touch down. The pilot didn’t say a word about his mistake as I thanked him and we departed ways. My first and last flight on a Cobra helicopter was more excitement than I had ever hoped for and I never accepted another invitation to fly in one again.

After becoming the full time troop armorer, daily life was much easier for me. I spent most of my time working on the new Cobra helicopters and the old UH1 Gunships. In March of ‘68 I was ordered to fly south to Bien Hoa to attend a Cobra Armament school. I knew that Wayne Watson was stationed in Phu Loi not far from Bien Hoa. When I arrived at Bien Hoa I checked in and then caught the first truck heading south to visit Wayne. It was a great visit; we hadn’t seen one another since Fort Rucker. While visiting with Wayne, we ran into Phillip Goodman an old classmate. After a long visit I had to return to Bien Hoa to start the class. About a week later I was heading into the PX when I noticed the back of a soldiers head that looked like an old friend, John Bebee. I tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned around it was John.

After returning from Bien Hoa, I was sent to Da Nang to work on several C Troop helicopters that were grounded for heavy maintenance. I packed my bags and climbed aboard the first flight out. I was still at the Da Nang maintenance facility working on a helicopter when I received word that an H13 helicopter had been dispatched to transport me back to LZ Evans so that I could go into the Ausha Valley where a heated battle was in progress.

I had just enough time to pack my gear and head for the flight line. I wasn’t there long before an H13 came hovering in, landing in the Charlie Troop parking area. I ran to the choppers location and introduced myself to the new pilot. The pilot told me his orders were to fly out over the South China Sea north. This would keep us out of range from any enemy small arms fire. Then he was to cut across the land due west to Camp Evans at treetop level with an air speed of around 65 knots. It was late in the afternoon by the time we pulled pitch for take off. The flight time back to Evans should have been about 45 minutes. As we hovered over to the takeoff area the pilot called the tower and requested permission to depart. The controller returned his call with an OK for take off and told us to have a safe flight. As we turned north I could see a large white hospital ship in Da Nang bay, its red cross glowing in the sun. For a moment I wondered about the soldiers who were wounded and in that ship. Looking across the bay I could see a few small watercraft moving slowly back and forth carrying men and supplies. As we flew along the shoreline heading toward Camp Evans I could feel the cool air from the sea flowing through the H13; it was nice just skirting along the water sightseeing.

I had only 50 days before my tour of duty in Vietnam would be over. I was thinking about how nice it was going to be, just relaxing under that old cottonwood tree in the backyard of my house while enjoying an ice-cold beer.

Looking to my right I could see the sun’s reflection beaming off the water and to my left a few wooden fishing boats resting on the beach just outside a small village. Not far past the village we observed two individuals standing just outside the tree line; they were holding long rifles. When they saw our helicopter they moved back into the tree line and disappeared. I couldn’t believe what happened next. The greenhorn pilot turned the helicopter to the left and flew straight at where the VC had been standing. The only weapons we had were two side arms–mine was a .45 Cal pistol and the pilot was carrying a .38. The pilot made a slow turn over the area where the two men had been standing, but by then they were long gone. My mic was not working so I had to yell at my pilot for him to hear me. I pointed back toward the sea and said, “let’s get out of here.” He didn’t listen to me and continued to fly across the jungle toward where he thought Camp Evans would be. It was now getting late and I knew before long it would be dark and we would be in deep shit. The pilot continued to fly northwest toward a large mountain range. I had flown many hours in the area around Camp Evans, but this landscape was unfamiliar to me.

As I looked out the door to my right, I noticed an old wooden tower in an abandoned LZ. I had never seen this place before. We crossed over a river at an altitude of about 50 feet heading due north. The terrain was starting to change; there were lots of bomb craters all around and the elephant grass was very thick. It was almost dark when all of a sudden we started receiving small arms and AK 47 automatic fire coming from the left side of the helicopter. The pilot fell over toward me and for a moment the helicopter seemed to be out of control, but at the last moment the pilot pulled the cyclic stick back to gain altitude and move away from the danger. By this time I’d just about had enough. I didn’t care about the pilot outranking me; I was the experienced person onboard and this time he was going to listen to me no matter what. I tapped him on the shoulder and motioned for him to turn south. I must have looked serious because he immediately turned the helicopter south and started calling for help. No one answered his mayday call as he repeated it over and over. Far off to the south I could see a fire burning. It was lighting up the sky. I pointed toward the fire and the greenhorn pilot headed in that direction. After about ten minutes of flying we passed over the fire; it was a fishing boat burning in a large river. We could see some lights just off to our left and about two miles to the east. With our fuel almost gone and full darkness upon us, we finally found a friendly LZ to put down in. After landing, two men in a jeep pulled up. I jumped out of the helicopter and ran to where they were waiting.

I asked the driver where we were and he stated, “Dong Ha.” “Dong Ha,” I repeated back to him. “Are you kidding,” I asked? “No, it’s Dong Ha,” the driver repeated. I told him we were from Camp Evans and had gotten lost trying to return from Da Nang. Our calls for help had not been answered. I told him we were almost out of fuel and needed to contact our unit. The driver got on his radio and had his command center contact Charlie Troop at Camp Evans. We were instructed to fuel and wait for an escort to arrive and escort us back to Camp Evans. Within an hour a Cobra helicopter was leading our little H13 back to safety and a warm bunk. Remember, Dong Ha is only 5 miles south of the DMZ and North Vietnam. I estimate that we were somewhere close to 10+ miles north of Dong Ha and well into North Vietnam territory when we received the enemy fire. If we had been shot down at that moment, we would most likely be listed as missing in action today. If the North Vietnamese had not fired at us, there is no telling where we would have ended up when our fuel was expended.

It seemed like new WO’s and 2nd Lt’s had a hard time assimilating into Charlie Troop. We always had issues when it came to getting along with these new officers. Most of the enlisted men were very experienced soldiers and knew how to stay alive. The new officers, most of which were 90 day wonders and inexperienced peter pilots thought that because they we officers and we were enlisted that they automatically know more about how to survive than the experience person. In most cases we enlisted men would have the last laugh.

The Air Cav was different than most other types of army units. Because of our helicopter crews we had about the same number of officers and enlisted working together to complete the mission. We didn’t pay much attention to the non-flying Headquarts Platoon and cooks in Charlie Troop, they were staffed more like regular army units with a few officers and lots of enlisted.

A new Second Lieutenant arrived in Charlie Troop. His new assignment was FO (Forward Observer) and door gunner in Red Platoon. Of course the Lieutenant arrived with an attitude. He thought he knew it all and no enlisted man was going to tell him anything. After returning from his first mission flying as a door gunner, he ordered one of our enlisted door gunners to clean his machine-gun. The rule was that everyone cleans his own weapon. The gunner tried to reason with the new lieutenant, but to no avail. He demanded that it be cleaned before the next mission.

That was the Lt’s first big mistake, the first thing all new officers needed to learn was to never mess with an old salt door gunner. His daily life circled around death and destruction, he really didn’t care what a 2nd LT wanted or needed. That one thousand your stare on his face wasn’t from sitting around the LZ playing cards while joken and smoken.

I can still hear the gunner to this day. He was really pissed off. He came into the hooch area cussing and grumbling. We all were fairly upset over the order. We figured if the lieutenant got away with having someone else clean his weapon, then the other officers might demand the same. We decided there was only one way to handle the situation. We told the gunner to take the gun to the water buffalo (wheeled water container) and wash it off with water. He was not to use lubricants or oil on the gun. He followed our instructions and the next morning when the Lieutenant arrived for his next mission his gun was clean, but rusty brown. He never asked anyone to clean it again.

At times we would run into a non-commissioned officer that for some reason liked taking advantage of lower ranked individuals. When this situation occurred the enlisted men would come together as a group and support whoever the person was that was being abused. In some cases we would retaliate by throwing a gas grenade into the offenders tent or hooch late at night. The grenade wouldn’t hurt anyone but it did make everyone clear the area until the gas had dissipated.

After arriving at Camp Evans we received a new platoon sergeant that thought he should have complete control over our supplies. He was close to retirement and needed to be someplace away from combat troops, but for some reason the army decided to assign him to our Air Cav Unit. His ability to lead was terrible, he made decisions that sometimes placed the unit in danger. One morning he decided that we all should fall into formation for a morning police call. Standing in a group was just what Mr. VC wanted us to do. He could place a well aimed rocket or mortar round right in the middle of our formation and wipe out most of the troopers. After complaints to the commander the formation was canceled.
At least once a month, Charlie Troop would receive a large package form the United States, I don’t know who was sponsoring the package, but it arrived every month on schedule. The package was called a SP package, the contents included writing paper, pencils, tobacco products, and other items that made our daily lives much easier. The platoon Sergeant always handed out the items to his troopers before taking any for himself, but this new NCO decided that after receiving the SP package he would take several cartons for himself and only give us two or three packs each. We would run out of cigarettes days before the next shipment. We spoke with him about the problem, but he didn’t listen. It was time to act. We found an old WW2 powder-filled CS gas grenade at the ammo dump and decided it would be a good idea to put a note in the pull ring telling the sergeant to stop hording the cigarettes or the next time he wouldn’t get the note or the pin. We tossed it into his tent. This action scared him so bad that he decided to do the right thing and be fair to us all. I guess he fell off the wagon soon after I left country because I received a letter from one of my buddies telling me that someone had place a claymore mine under his bunk and ran the wire across the ground so that he would see it as he returned from breakfast the next morning. He found the wire leading to the claymore and after reporting the incident to the CO he was immediately transferred to another unit for his own safety. No one ever found out who placed the claymore in his tent.

We also had a new supply sergeant who got very nervous when incoming mortar or rocket rounds exploded anywhere close to our camp. He would run for the bunker and we would run to his supply tent. During the times he was in the bunker several of us would grab a few new packs of underwear, socks and sometimes a set of fatigues. Everyone wondered how only a few of us always seemed to have new clean fatigues. The supply sergeant never found out why he was always short on inventory. Long after one such attack we found the guy hiding under his bunk crying like a baby. This guy was an E-6, but he had never been in combat and was scared to death. As I recall, he only had a few years left to retire. Too bad he didn’t retire before he got to Vietnam.

In June of 1968 I was given the opportunity to go on a one day R and R to the South China Sea north east of Camp Evans. This day off was something new for our unit and each day three to four soldiers were flown to the beach for a day of swimming and relaxation. On this day it would be me, Foley, and Beekman. Charlie Troop supply gave us a packed lunch and one case of beer. It was a great get away, after arriving at the beach we headed straight for the water. I noticed that there were lots of jellyfishes all around me while I was swimming so I decided I’d rather just hang out on the beach and take in some sun and a few lukewarm PBR beers. I staked down my shelter half for protection from the burning hot sun, grabbed a beer and crawled under the shelter half and sipped away. I must have fallen asleep because when I awoke my legs had been sticking out in the sun. Both legs from the knee down were bright red and very painful.

Upon returning to Evans that evening I tried to sooth the pain by putting cool cloths on the burned area to no avail. By morning my legs were solid blisters. It’s against military regulations to get sunburned, so I had to hide the injury from my commander to save my stripes.

I couldn’t stand the pain of wearing pants, so I couldn’t even go to the mess tent to eat. My buddies covered for me for several days while I lay in bed with a fan blowing on my badly burned legs. One evening after dark I limped up to the shower and washed up. While I was gently washing my legs a huge blister formed on my shin about the size of two closed fists.

It scared the heck out of me, but by the time I got back to my bunk the blister had broken and the final healing had began. The pain was still bad when I bumped my legs or rubbed them on a rough surface. The next evening Foley had been drinking and was about three sheets in the wind when he came stumbling into my tent area. He wasn’t making much sense so I asked him to go bother someone else. He bent down and slapped me on the leg and the fight was on. We tore down sand bags, turned over shelves and broke one tape recorder as we wrestled and punched one another up and down the tent isle for some where close to 30 minutes. Everyone knew that we were very close friends so no one watching that evening took sides. I’m sure they were amazed at both of us while we were doing mortal combat. We finally gave up and hugged one another before hitting the sack. That crazy incident didn’t affect our friendship in the least; we were still just as close as we had been since the day we met. I can’t remember ever speaking to Foley about that night ever again.

During the last month of my tour of duty I was sent into the Ausha Valley to repair and maintain the operation of the weapons systems on our Cobra gunships, North Vietnamese Army units were well established in the valley and the Cavalry was trying to eliminate their presents. The Cav was loosing helicopter every day as the battle ragged on. By this time the NVA were experts at shooting down helicopters and they were doing it in large numbers.

In the middle of the valley was an old runway used in the French Indo China war. The valley was covered in elephant grass and trees; the mountains were three layer canopy jungle. Many of our helicopters had been shot down or damaged during the operation and we had endured a high causality rate. Many of the weapons systems were jamming and malfunctioning and the rockets were misfiring.

The flight crews were unable to correct the problem due to lack of knowledge on the systems. When I arrived, there were already several Cobras grounded due to the problems. I immediately got to work on the first Cobra with the assistance of the copilot. We pulled the mini gun from its mounting and laid it on the open ammunition storage door. I told the pilot to hang on to the gun as I attempted to remove the safety cover and un-jam the weapon.

The Mini-Gun will fire without electricity if turned by hand like a Gatling Gun. As I softly moved the barrel back and forth to loosen the jammed round, the pilot accidentally let his hand slip and the barrel turned one click and fired the round. I was straddling the gun when it discharged, the round passed through my fatigues between my legs and in doing so, took off several layers of skin along with causing the powder to imbed in my left inside thy like a tattoo. It was just a flesh wound, but it hurt like hell. I grabbed my paints and ripped them open where the bullet had entered fearing that my family jewels were in jeopardy. All seemed to be in the correct place. I was shaken but still continued to work like nothing had happened. Charlie troopers were counting on me to get those helicopters back in the air as fast as possible. One by one I was able to repair each Cobra. The battle lasted for several weeks; we captured enemy trucks, weapons and uniforms. Most of the equipment was new and still in crates. We finally finished the operation and moved out of the valley, however within the next month the Air Cavalry was back in the valley doing the same thing again.The main reason for securing that area was to stop the traffic down the Hoe Chi Min Trail through Laos. The problem was that the NVA would move back into Laos to regroup before beginning another infiltration into the Ashau.

 

It was August 1, 1968 and I had one week to go before my tour of duty was complete. For some unknown reason Foley and I started talking about staying in Vietnam for six more months and returning to Red Platoon. My replacement was on duty and I was no longer needed as the weapons repair person. We strolled up to Red Mikes tent and asked for extension forms and by evening we had completed the forms and returned them to Red Mike for final approval. The next day, we were sitting in a gunship preparing to go on a combat mission. I flew out first as door gunner on a UH1C gunship, I wasn’t sure where we were headed on the mission so I just sat quietly and listened to the pilots as they discussed the mission. Before I knew it we were in one of the hottest firefights I had encountered since arriving in Vietnam. Tracers were flying everywhere and helicopters were swarming all around. I finally saw the light and decided if I ever got out of this mission alive I was going to tear up the extension and get out of this crazy war while I still had my skin.

I was hoping to get back to Camp Evans before Foley replaced our flight on station, but as we were landing he was taking off in another helicopter. I waited on the flight line and listened to the radio of the ongoing firefight. It wasn’t long before I heard the call sign of Foleys helicopter and the pilot saying that they were taking hits. I was sure Foley would never make it back to base. I waited nervously until I could see his helicopter approaching the landing pad. As soon as they touched down I ran up to see if he was OK.

He was fine, but his gunship was riddled with bullet holes. Several rounds had penetrated the crew compartment floor, one coming up in between the pilot and copilot and two through the floor beside Foley. We removed a floor panel to inspect the control arm tube that operated the servos, one of the control arms had been cut half into by an AK-47 round and was barley attached. Only a small section of the tube was still holding. If the tube had been severed the helicopter would have crashed. I helped Foley complete his post flight inspection of the helicopter. After talking some about the events of the day, we both decided sticking around was not an option and headed for the CP where we found and tore up our extension paperwork. It was going home time.

PHASE NINE

Going Home

On August 8th 1968 I boarded a civilian jet headed for home. Vietnam would become just a memory. As I boarded the jet that would deliver me from evil, I collapsed in the first empty seat I could find. The stewardesses were from Japan and very nice. Before taxiing away for takeoff they passed out white wet towels to each returning soldier. It was funny to see the towels after we had finished wiping our faces with them. We had all bathed the evening before, but by looking at the now brown towels you’d never know it. The Vietnam dirt was ground into our skin like dye and it would take more than just a clean white towel to remove the stain from our bodies and longer to remove the stain from our memories. While waiting for the jetliner to taxi out for take off, I sat quietly wondering how many of the men on board had been on the flight with me when I arrived in Vietnam. I wondered how many had left early in body bags and how many were evacuated with wounds. It was a shame that so many young men had to perish in the jungles of South East Asia.

In a way I felt a little guilty leaving Vietnam without a scratch. At the time I didn’t realize that no soldier left Vietnam without the scars of war etched in their minds and I was no exception. All of us sat quietly as the pilot pushed the throttle forward and the jet began to roll down the runway. As the wheels left the ground and the jet turned toward home we all gave a low cheer and clapped our hands. Our first stop was Japan to refuel and to pick up our round eyed American stewardesses, whom we were all happy to see. The Pilot thanked us for our service as he positioned the jet for takeoff. We stopped in Guam for refueling and again in Hawaii before heading across the Pacific Ocean toward Seattle, Washington.

PHASE TEN

Back Home

It was an uneventful flight to the Seattle International Airport. The pilot’s voice came across the intercom telling us that he was on final approach into Seattle. Everyone became very quiet as the jetliner made a slight right hand turn and lined up for touch down. You could have heard a pin drop as the lights along the runway got closer and closer. When the wheels touched the tarmac a loud roar began to fill the passenger compartment; it wasn’t anything like when we lifted off the runway in Vietnam. It was true excitement.

We were home and very happy to be there. It wouldn’t be long before our balloon would be burst due to the protesters and soldier haters some of us would encounter during our stateside travels. Many returning soldiers were finished with their military duty, but I would be continuing on to another assignment after a well-deserved leave.

After arriving at Fort Lewis we were directed to a building where we would receive new uniforms, shoes and of course our Vietnam Service ribbons. Our bags had to be emptied and the contents inspected just in case someone decided to bring back an RPG or some other of weapon. We would then be served a nice steak dinner before heading back to the Seattle airport and our flight home.

I decided to call my folks to let them know I was safe and back on American soil before eating. I found a phone booth and made the call. I guess I lost track of time because by the time I finished talking dinner was over and I missed the steak. I didn’t care about the steak anyway; I was so glad to be back I would have gone home hungry and in my skivvies if necessary. San Francisco was my final stop where my folks would meet me and drive me back to good old Chowchilla. I had a few reservations about the San Francisco airport. I had heard about the protesters spitting on soldiers as they returned, but when I arrived the airport was void of protesters and I was able to depart the terminal without incident. I was home at last…

Mike Askew had added several photos to the end of his story. However, I could not transfer them to here because they were HTML format. I don’t have a picture of Beekman however I do have a photo of Foley so I will attach it here. Mike if you will scan a photo of Beekman I will add it as well.

foley-t

 

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