I was one of the 23 majors, 18 of us were on the Lt. Colonel's list, that joined the original company at Ft. Benning, GA. Before that I was assigned to the Sacramento Army Depot as Aviation Officer and Test Pilot for aircraft having major avionic work. It was a great assignment and I recall calling my career assignment head to see if! was going to be reassigned overseas. He told me "no, I was in a critical position" and then he wanted to know why I would ask such a
question. I told him that I was thinking about buying a new car but that every time I bought a
new car I was assigned overseas within months after purchase. Having been assured that I was "in place for at least two years", I bought the car. Two weeks after the purchase, with the new car smell making me smile every time I drove it, I watched President Kennedy announce to the world that he was sending a large number of helicopter companies to Vietnam.
After thinking about the President's comments, I told my wife that there weren't that many helicopter trained pilots and the Army was going to have trouble filling that commitment. Shortly after that conversation, my orders to Ft. Benning for three weeks training and further
deployment arrived. So much for career management's assurance that I would remain at
Sacramento for two more years. Here I go for my third wartime assignment.
Arriving at Ft. Benning was like old home week in that buddies from all over the world were pouring into the pipeline that led to Vietnam. It soon became apparent that if you were helicopter rated, you were immediately volunteered to join the adventure. I even saw a buddy who I flew with at the Heildeburg VIP Flight Detachment who seemed only to get assignments to VIP flight departments. I don't know where they turned that rock over to get to him, but here he was, just like the rest of us.
I was assigned to the 174th Assault Helicopter Company where I ran into many old friends. I was too late for the musical chairs of "who ' s got date of rank" for command consideration but at least my date of rank was high enough to be assigned as Squad Leader of the Sharks, our gun platoon.
Being assigned to the helicopter gun ships was a major wish. I had been in the original Experimental Armed Helicopter Company at Ft. Rucker and had enjoyed experimenting with any
type of weapons systems that we could scrounge or acquire through regular systems. Some of
these systems looked great, but one flight proved that slip stick figures aren't always correct. At least we lived through those "experiments in flight terror". For example, did you know that if you fire large enough 4.5 inch rockets, the helicopter will almost stop in mid-air and if you fire two 50 cal machine guns off a H -13, the bubble will crack after a four round burst! Thus I felt I had more experience shooting rockets and other weapons off helicopters than anyone else in our
company. Besides, being a gun ship pilot fit my personality just fine. I always figured that it would be great to be able to shoot back when someone shot at you. With a gun ship, if you're mad enough, you can get close enough to stick the barrel in their face and then fire. That was not a recommended fighting style, at least as far as continued longevity was concerned.
Bernie Cobb was the first Shark 6 with Dick Overhamm as my fellow, in this heavy ranked company we must assume the title of, 'Squad leader". I did not care as I was flying a gunship and that was important to me.
The training in UH-I's was enjoyable, if a bit boring at times. Dick and I spiced it up by practicing auto rotations to the top of an ammo bunker, as the concrete top made a nice place to practice spot landings. We were betting beers on who could land in their own skid tracks. As I remember it was a tie. Still fun. During our last night operation as a unit, typical of real combat, it was hurry up and wait, fly a mission, then come back and wait. After the initial rush, things slowed down. Some of the pilots took advantage of the wait periods by sleeping on the floor. One individual, whom shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, somehow found some white lilies and carefully placed them on the chest of a couple sleeping warriors. Upon waking, they displayed no sense of humor towards the macabre joker in our group.
We had finished training at Ft. Benning, but still had a wait to actually deploy. We were to leave out of Oakland, California, just over two hours from my home in Sacramento. Being a nice sort of fellow, I volunteered to go to Oakland and help arrange shipment of our supplies. Naturally this included some time at home in Sacramento with my family. I also asked to be assigned temporary duty as Assistant Supply Officer and with these orders in hand, proceeded to California to see what else I could scrounge.
Speaking of scrounging. Several of us had combat experience or experience in undeveloped countries and knew that life can be made much better with a little prior planning, particularly by rounding out our official table of equipment with extra items not found in or authorized for an Aviation Company. Several of us had already hit local salvage yards and other resources, legal and otherwise, for needed but not authorized supplies. For example, two car loads of us went to Warner Robins AFB, a major depot for the Air Force.
We found lots of goodies in the Warner Robins AFB salvage yard. For example, surplus radar covers made outstanding wash basins. Copper pipe and water faucets are like gold overseas. Shower heads, toilet seats, and assorted supplies were either picked up in the salvage yard or purchased at a local hardware store. I thought my WWII and Korean experience made me an expert in such matters, but Major's Marty Heuer and Dick Overhamm surpassed me in this regard. Captain Gene Teague was another of the chief scroungers, an extra duty that he excelled in performing.
Dick Smith, a Captain at the time, arranged with his dad to get us used refrigerators and water coolers. These turned out to be the single best item for after experiencing the heat and humidity of Vietnam all day, a cool drink was a bit of heaven. The only real mistake made in this regard was the purchase of used washing machines with old fashioned wringers. Being men, once in Vietnam, most overloaded the washers and the motors burnt out. Good idea, poor supervision. I'm not sure who's idea it was, I believe Dick Overhamm's, but some of the troops even built officer and enlisted toilets, designed in sections then set up and banded together with steel shipping bands so they would stand up. Such were the creative minds at work before we even got to our Vietnam home away from home.
Later, when I was working with the Oakland people arranging for sea shipment of all our supplies, the scrounging continued. A very kind lady, a GS 12, helped us by helping us find and then overlooking the addition of five additional conex containers to our shipment. The conex container is a large steel shipping box with two large doors. I figured that these could be kept in our area and I'm sure the maintenance or supply people found them very useful.
I spent some time at home and took advantage of my Assistant Supply Officer orders and my old contacts around Sacramento. I took lots of time visiting Mather and McClelland AFB's as well as my friends at the Sacramento Army Depot. I decided that two custom made shipping boxes would be needed and my buddies at the depot made them using my strange (to them) sizes, using heavy marine plywood, reinforced at the ends When broken down, the sides of the boxes just fit the floor of two GP medium tents and the end pieces made great awnings. No one should accuse me of p... poor prior planning. Now that I had the two big shipping boxes, I needed something to fill them up with. So, more scrounging.
I had worked with local people during toy drives and found children toys, bikes, and clothing. When I told them that I was on my way to Vietnam and wanted to take similar things to needy children in Vietnam, my phone started ringing off the hook. Soon I had more goodies than I had planned for, but knew I could use. Now I had a big start for filling one of the boxes. Visiting the signal depot's salvage yards, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Electrical power cable, telephone wire, field telephones and other electrical components. These were needed for the jewel of my contribution, a 100 KW generator that I found at McClelland AFB. It was salvage from the Thunderbird Demonstration Team. I had forgotten it's size and had to dig in my old records to find out it was a 100 KW. A big dude, as you could image. Certainly not normally assigned to a helicopter company. It took a 2 1/2 move it to Sacramento Depot where other friends checked it out, refurbished it as needed, painted it OD, put on a reasonable Army serial number, and then hauled the generator and all my other goodies down to the Oakland Depot for onward shipment on the USS Upshur. My goodies took two large tractor-trailer trucks and a trailer. I also purchased a salvage 16mm movie projector and a professional audio tape recorder for the 'out of my pocket' price of $30 for the projector and $25 for the tape recorder. Again, rebuilt to like new status by friendly people from the Depot. I also picked up 10 large audio tape, the 15" professional size, and spends many hours at home recording music which I hoped would be appreciated.
Once we were in Vietnam, we found that we could get films but not a movie projector from special services in Vietnam and they indicated it would be 6 or more months before we got one. My 16mm movie projector really was needed. The company was able to enjoy movies at night. When the Army finally caught up with my rank and transferred me out of the company, I did not have the heart to take the projector with me. I can only assume that it is being used by the VC today.
I cannot remember the major from our company that I worked with at Oakland to arrange the shipment of our supplies via sea other than he was a great guy and a hard worker. Still it was all finished and I rested at home waiting to depart on the aircraft carrier with my gun ship buddies. I remember that Dick Overhamm, Gene Teague, some other officers and Specialist Fourth Class Ted Saunders and Lloyd E. Goff and some others enlisted from the 174th were all assigned to go over on the carrier and then prepare and fly off our aircraft in Vietnam. I don't remember if Dale Wylie was onboard or not. Dale was a quiet but outstanding member of our gun crew and a heck of a great shooter, but more on that later. Ted Saunders and Lloyd Goff stand out in my mind because of our activities on the ship and association later in country. Other officers and men from the 175th Assault Helicopter Company were also on board. I believe there were a total of 30 men involved, 15 from each of the two companies. Actually a small number of people for the size of the ship.
About this time, Cliff Walker, a very good friend from my Heidelberg days and one of the best helicopter pilot I have ever known, came to stay with Mary and I in Sacramento during the last two days before shipping out. Cliff did not go through training with the 174th at Fort Benning, but was assigned to us and would fly guns with us in Vietnam until the company was busted up to change our DEROS (date of expected return from overseas). More on the effects of that later as well. The day finally came and Mary drove Cliff and I to Oakland to join the crew at the aircraft carrier, USS Point Cruz.
This I believed was to be our last of several previous "goodbyes". I must admit that each "goodbye" was getting harder and harder for each of us to take. Cliff and I, with some help from our buddies, carried my "goodies" on board and Mary and I were standing on the dock just to be close to each other. The carrier made a strange sound and lots of black smoke and steam came out of the stack. No knowing any different, Mary and I ignored the sound until we were told that the ship would not be leaving the dock as it had "blown a stack ". Later I found that the boiler has malfunctioned. I thought it was better that it happened now instead of miles and miles at sea. We were told that we would leave first thing in the morning. What a let down. Here we were, ready to finally get under way for our Vietnam tour, and the stupid ship's boiler blows!
I thought about it and decided that I had all the "goodbyes" I could stand and I believed Mary felt the same. We discussed the situation and both agreed that Mary would go home and we would stay at the ship. So I got my last "goodbye kiss" and Mary drove off to a lonely year's separation.
The ship was fixed and we did sail the next morning, much later than anticipated, but still we were moving. At least for a short distance.
Perhaps I should add that the baby carrier had been in moth balls and had been rushed into service using a civilian crew. Perhaps rushed a bit too much as we either were approaching or had just passed the Golden Gate bridge when the boiler blew again. The Captain dropped anchor right on the spot, directly in the shipping lane and, worse yet, apparently right on top of the major telephone cable crossing the bay. Talk about being disgusted. Here we were on our way and after two breakdowns, had not even left the San Francisco area.
Signal lights flashed from shore, a helicopter started buzzing the ship and a Coast Guard ship came up along side. Lots of fun to watch, but we were mainly concerned about losing even more time sitting in the middle of the Bay, directly in the shipping lane, while the crew repaired the boiler. Time passed, the boiler was patched together and the anchor was raised and the engines began to turn. Finally, maybe we were on our way.....
Again...... more lights from shore and lots of action around the ship. The unlucky Captain has indeed dropped his anchor directly on the telephone cable and when the anchor was raised, the cable was cut. I don't know how many million people lost their phone lines and no doubt the military department faced a large repair bill. I remember thinking that it was a good thing that the ship Captain was a civilian because a military man would have his career short circuited right on the spot, or at least shortly later. For some reason I could not find it in my heart to be concerned about "their" problems. We faced our own and that took my primary interest. Our trip to Vietnam now seemed to be finally underway.
The only US Navy crew on board was a ensign and a clerk. As we saw the situation, their job was to run the ship and get us to Vietnam. They did not seem to care too much about what we did during our stay. There were the usual rules, but being typical Army Aviators and crew, we did what we felt was necessary and, for all practical purposes, about had the run of the ship.
The civilian Captain of the ship, best remain unnamed, was not liked by his civilian crew or by us for that matter. He was rarely seen but his orders were passed out by his subordinates. All his orders that involved us were very restrictive. For example, that large flat wooden flight deck seemed a great place to sleep at night. You know, under the full stars and with a cool breeze blowing over the deck, it was a nice place to rest, sleep or dream. Shortly after we found this great place to sleep, the Captain placed it off limits because he was afraid that one of us would walk off the side and be lost. Well, that was possible as there were no rails and no lights that counted. Still it was a major setback, becoming increasing annoying since the ship was not air conditioned and it was hot below decks.
Dick came in one evening and told me grab a pillow and follow him. Dick had found that the surgery or operating room was air conditioned and the steel operating tables became our bunks for all the nights that followed. There were no medical staff on board, other than a pill pusher, so it did not seem likely that the operating room would be needed. Of course we had to quietly go there each night and leave the next morning, but it was worth the inconvenience as the closer we got to Vietnam, the hotter the interior of the ship became.
Other than making friends with the crew, checking out all the "goodies" that they had on board, and passing time, the trip was nothing special. Finally it was time to prepare helicopters for flight. Some of the choppers were loaded on the deck since there was not room below decks. These helicopters were covered in a white sprayed on plastic material designed to protect the copters from salt spray. That was fine and ok, except it was a real problem to get off
We arrived at Vung Tau instead of Qui Nhon, RVN. Others have written about the "fun" we had preparing the planes for departure and the mixup in orders that changed our destination so I won't add much other than to say it was lots of work, but highly enjoyable flying on and off the carrier. At least it was a major change from the previous several weeks. Other than being difficult to sleep when the MP's dropped hand grenades off the side of the ship to discourage sabotage, it was ok. I will say that those grenades sure made the hull of that steel boat ring. Our brave ship Captain was about to lose it during that stay. I have never seen a more nervous man in all my life in command of a naval ship, or anything else for that matter. One high spot, strange to speak of now back in the land of milk and honey and round door knobs, but after ferrying the helicopter to land, Dick Overhamm led us to a nice hotel in Vung Tau where we enjoyed cold beers. The heat and humidity of Vietnam made those beers taste like pure gold nectar.
We finally got to the waters just off Qui Nhon and started preparing and loading our helicopters for flight. Loading is an interesting word because not only did the helicopters get loaded with official gear but the troops had been active during the trip and had scrounged lots of things that really were needed. Rope, pipe, connections, canvas fire hoses, rubber hoses, cans and cans of Navy paint, chairs, and lots of 6X6 oak beams used in damage control to store up the ship, plus anything that was loose and thought to be useful. We had been informed that the carrier was going into dry dock for major overhaul as soon as it got back, so the ships crew were more than helpful in "sharing" their ship stores. Of course a few things helped that attitude along. 1) the ship's crew hated their captain and 2) perhaps the liquid supplies that some of our troops brought aboard were used, not as bribes, but as trading materials. You would be surprised at what a bottle of booze would bring at the end of the outward journey. Still we needed the supplies and they were used in good government service, so no major harm, no foul.
My gun ship was finally ready to go. I had loaded my extra goodies, the movie projector, the large tape recorder and box of tapes, extra speakers, etc., in the ship. Plus it had boxes and boxes of armament and other supplies. Then, just before I left, four or five of the heavy 6X6 oak beams were stuck into and onto my helicopter. Some were loaded through open doors with the beams sticking out each side. Others were lashed to the skids. No one dared suggest a weight and balance check. I figured that if I could hover it just a little, it would fly. Stupid me. Oh well, I figured I would find out what a combat load felt like.
I don't remember the lieutenant that flew off the ship with me. It had gotten dark, which I figured was a good thing as the Captain would not see what we were hauling off his ship. So I fired up the jet engine, checked everything carefully and then tried to hover. It would barely get up, then ease back down, it was, as expected, too heavy. It would have helped if I had been flying a "D" model slick instead of the "C" model gun ship. The "D" has a lot more lift for that type of work.
I was at the end of the deck, so I did a short running take off and off the end of the deck I went. Two things were very obvious to me immediately. Both took center stage and both really got my attention. (Note: that's a pilot's way of saying "look out, this could be trouble")
First off, it was pitch black outside. You could not see anything. It looked as if someone had painted all the windows with black paint. I meant..... pitch black! So I had to get on the instruments to fly. Second..... the helicopter was overloaded..... really overloaded.... big time! As I went off the end of the ship, I lost altitude in an effort to gain airspeed and was slowly headed for the sea just below the flight deck of the carrier. The term "feet wet" was used by aviators as the gained the ocean from the land. I thought it was possible that I might experience a new definition of that term and really get wet feet! Not a great idea and certainly not a good start to an overseas tour. I leveled off at approximately 5 feet above sea level. Since I could not see anything it did not matter as long as my feet did not get wet. Slowly the airspeed rose and I could climb. Airspeed? Well we never got above 60 knots on the airspeed indicator but that was all I needed to climb slowly and we finally got altitude sufficient to head for shore. My next problem was to find Lane Heliport, our new home.
I finally saw the lights of Qui Nhon and from that could take up a heading to home. After a much longer flight than anticipated, I saw the lights of the heliport and made it down for a landing. What a relief...... I think my co-pilot said only a few words shortly after the take off and non for the rest of the flight and they were "altitude...... air speed, altitude, airspeed, oh S...!" (not publishable).
The radio tower told me that flight operations had been canceled for the night and it was ok to park the ship on the runway where we had landed and they would move it in the morning. That was fine with me. The next day I heard that they had to unload it before it would hover. I was not surprised, those oak beams were really heavy.
Dick Overhamm met me at the airfield and told me that we would be bunking together. That was great with me. Dick and I had become good friends during training and the trip over. A friendship that would be increased during our time together. Dick led me up the dirt path to our tent. It had been set up by our company buddies that had arrived before us. The tent was set up on the side on a small mountain that had flat areas cut into the side of the mountain. Bare dirt on a bare mountain. The officers and men that arrived before us, found those tents piled on the ground and they had to set them up. The 161st AHC was situated on the left side of the mountain, as you face North and the mountain. They were set up in tents with wooden floors and side walls. The officers and men of the 161st were most helpful and believe me, the help was needed and appreciated.
Back to our tent. Dick and I had two GI cots, mosquito bars and netting. There was plenty of room for our gear, but little else. Still, it beat sleeping on the ground or under shelter halves. It took time for everyone to "fix up" their living quarters so they were more comfortable.
Still the tents were hot and the temperature in Vietnam has to be experienced to be appreciated. If that is an appropriate word for your initial impression of the heat and humidity.
We began in-country training. More training, but this was seen by all to be important and attention to details was paid by all. Experienced gun ship pilots from the 161st gave us the word on techniques and procedures followed in our zone. Other officers gave briefings and we enjoyed the flying and shooting that training included.
Just before we were certified and deemed qualified to fly in country combat missions, we had an emergency call. Our first combat mission, as a company, involved primarily the gun ships and one slick. A Special Forces Captain had been wounded while on a combat mission and needed air evacuation to the hospital. For some reason medical evacuation helicopters were not available, so we were given the mission. We briefed and off we went, the entire gun ship platoon and the single slick ship. A "slick" is our term for a helicopter armed only with two M-60 machine guns, held by the crew chief and a gunner.
It was getting late in the day when Bernie Cobb lead us to the site and made contact with an Air Force Forward Air Observer (FAC) fixed wing plane. We were informed that the Viet Cong had sprung a ambush and that only the American Captain was wounded. Our next problem was to find the troops on the ground.
We had the general coordinates but under the jungle it is difficult to spot troops. While we had radio contact with the troops on the ground, we were having a hard time finding them. I volunteered to fly low over the trees in a search pattern and have the ground radio talk me in to their location when I got close. That worked and we found the troops. The slick, piloted by a Captain, whom I believe was named "Buck" Griffin, landed, picked up the American officer and lifted off for the hospital.
While this was going on and we were providing overhead cover for the extraction, Bernie Cobb was talking to the Air Force FAC trying to get permission to make gun runs on the bad guys. The air force pilot, for reasons of his own, refused permission and more or less told us to mind our own business. Heck, I thought we were minding our own business and that we were all in the same war together. Oh well. Frustration City! Here we were, all fired up on our first combat sortie and it looked like all we were going to do was fly to a spot, do a lot of circling and then fly home. What a let down after all these months and months of waiting.
Then we had another request from the troops on the ground. It seemed that the Captain had the maps and they needed some more help. Bernie flew over them and gave them a heading for home. Then we heard that a relief force was being send from the Special Forces camp and would be joining up with them and would help them get home. The problem was that no one seemed to know where the relief column was and so, once more I volunteered to fly a search pattern, at tree top, till I located the relief troops and we could help guide the two groups together.
So here I am, putting around in a search pattern, a frustrated gun pilot, but still trying to do my job and especially to help the ground troops. We were all getting frustrated because all of us were getting close to running on fumes. Anytime now our red caution "Low Fuel" lights would be coming on and it would be time to head home. Meanwhile, I'm still at tree top, continuing my search. I found the relief column and it seemed to be headed in the right direction. I continued back towards the other group at low level to see if I could help link them up.
About half way back to the other troops, I heard popping sounds. At first I thought that a seat belt was loose and was banging on the door. I looked back at my crew chief, who was on his second tour in Vietnam, and his right hand was moving rapidly between his M-60 machine gun and a red smoke grenade on his chest. I asked him on the intercom if we were being shot at and he said "YES!". I told him to mark the location with smoke and call out the location of the bad guys from the smoke and then shoot!. He popped a red smoke grenade, threw it and told me that it was on target.
I got on the radio and told everyone that I was being shot at, had marked the target with red smoke and that they were cleared in hot and shoot at the smoke and expand fire from there! It did not dawn on me that I was taking authority that was not mine to give, but I got no complaints.
While I was pulling up in a maxim rate climb to get away from the hostile fire, plus get altitude so I could turn around and do a little shooting of my own, I looked over my left shoulder and could see the red smoke spreading up and out from the jungle, almost directly under me. As I looked, the area immediately turned into red hot fire of the explosions of all the other gun ships that were unloading all the heavy ammunition that they had. Very impressive! The smoke started jumping up and down from the force of the explosions and I began to become concerned about my tail feathers getting singed. This was almost as bad as my night instrument take off from the carrier. I know that we all were getting low on fuel and frustrated, but they could have waited a few seconds for me to get a little more clearance from the bad guys. Maybe they thought they were helping protect me. Well, it worked because I did not receive addition fire from that point. I doubt that there was anyone left to shoot at me, or if there were, they were far to busy ducking and hiding to think about me.
I finally got some altitude, rolled in on the target and dumped a load of high explosives of my own., Now it was really time to head home for "fuel caution lights" were on in all of our aircraft. This ended our first combat mission of the war. Some beginning! At least we evacuated a wounded man, helped troops on the ground and most probably prevented another ambush.
I hate to admit it but it kinda reminded me of the Keystone Cops in the early black and white films. Except, I sure would have hated to have been on the ground receiving all the incoming fire that was dumped on the shooter or shooters in a those few seconds.
It also reminds me of a story of a Viet Cong lieutenant that had been captured just after being shot up by gun ships. A translator said that the lieutenant kept saying over and over the American equivalent of, "If I told them once, I told them a thousand times, don't ever shoot at that kind of helicopter". Sounds like a good story, surely one that those fellows we shot up, had there been survivors, would have agreed with.
Just as we were ready to fight as a unit, our company was busted up. The problem was having a complete unit rotate back to the states after their year tour. The solution was to replace about 50% of the company with personnel from other units to split up the DEROS dates. Plus some of our more senior majors were getting promotions to Lt. Colonel and, while it was bad enough to have so many majors in a company, normally authorized only one, having Lt. Colonel's in a company just would not do. I would like to comment that we were loaded with high rank and experience that could lead to discontent, the opposite was true. Every man in the company worked to one purpose, to get the job done. That says a lot about the men and the Army they all serve..
A batch of officers and men were sent to units all over Vietnam while their replacements came in. It was difficult since we had trained as a unit and had grown strong ties with lot of men, but it happened.
Bernie Cobb made Lt. Colonel and was shipped out. I was next in line as senior major in the guns, so became the second Shark 6, the radio call sign of the gun ship commander. I would miss Bernie because he was one of the really good guys and a great officer. Cliff Walker, my good friend from Heidelberg days was another to go and I hated to see Cliff go because he was a great gun ship pilot. Transferring in from the 161st gun ship platoon was Captain Gary Loban, and Lieutenant Bill White, both experienced gun ship pilots. Later on Bill White would be my co-pilot throughout the remainder of my tour with the 174th and Gary Loban often flew my wing and gave me outstanding protection and support. My attitude towards combat is a bit aggressive as I had learned that if you are shooting and advancing, your enemy has more trouble accurately sighting on you. Bill, and especially Gary would serve to keep me out of trouble as their in country experience was invaluable.
A note about security. The two companies were supported by Infantry troops who stood guard. The second night I was in Vietnam, Robert Stuart, our commanding officer, called me in and with a big smile assigned me as Officer of the Day with primary duty of security for the compound. No big deal, and the day progressed. That night, about an hour after dark, I took the Infantry Platoon Sergeant and made a quiet inspection of the outer guard positions. There I found three of the guards, in three adjoining outpost positions, sound asleep while on duty. I picked up their rifles and handed them to the Sergeant. After inspecting the rest of the positions, I had the Sergeant relieve the three men and replace them with individuals who were cautioned to stay awake. I reported the incident the following morning. For some reason, I was never assigned as Officer of the Day again. I also did not sleep as well at night following that incident. Security, to our surprise, really did not become a problem as the Korean Divisions, which we supported, considered our unit as one of their own and being within the Korean zone sure worked to our benefit. The Korean's made it know that it was not wise to mortar or invade any units within their area. The VC soon learned that the Koreans meant what they said. To my knowledge Lane Heliport was never mortared and we did not have armed intruders in our camp.
Shortly after my guard inspection event, I was sleeping in my tent when I became aware of a shape standing near me in the darkness of the tent. I realized with a sick feeling that I had no weapon of any kind that I could reach and that, if this was a "Charlie", I was about to die in my bed. A major disgrace in my way of thinking. As you might image, seconds stretch out to feel like long minutes in a situation of this nature. Long seconds of being angry at myself, at concern over my bunkmate, Dick Overhamm, but mainly anger for not having a weapon at hand in a combat zone. I sure knew better.
Just as I was about to yell and wake Dick, the shadowy figure raised his hands above his head and ..... yawned. It was Dick! Boy, talk about relief. The remaining disgust at myself for not having some type of weapon at hand increased. I felt like a fool, but I told Dick about my scare, which gave him a big laugh and he still teases me to this day. From that moment on, I always had a hand gun under my bedding, right at hand level on one side and a flashlight at hand level on the other. I believe Dick started doing the same thing. I slept much better after that experience.
DEROS reassignment hit our company hard. Robert Stuart, our initial commanding officer, another buddy from Germany and Fort Rucker, left to become the Deputy Airfield Commander at Vung Tau. Melvin Tate went to a Caribou company, Raymond Kangas was assigned to the 14th Aviation Btn. Henry Rust was assigned to the 17th Aviation Group. James Shrader, our Operations Officer, went over to command the 161st AHC, our next door neighbor and Walter Payne assumed command of the company. Ted Stuart, who commanded the 452nd Signal attached to the 174th was transferred to the 125th AHC and another Heidelberg buddy, Major James Knerr took his place. Al Sarnecki went to the 52nd Battalion but a short time later became the liaison officer to the ROK Capital Division. Al and I would join up later about the same time I got transferred. These officers and several more of the senior majors were moved around the country. Personnel moves slowed down and we began our work as a Assault Helicopter Company.
Since we were not assigned to a regular US Army Division, our company supported a wide range of combat operations. We ran combat assaults for ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) units, American combat units and the Korean Divisions. I enjoyed working with the Korean troops and gained a significant appreciation for their valor and effectiveness. Those boys did not fool around. If there was an objective, it was taken and shame on anyone who got in their way. As I said, I enjoyed working with them. The gun ships were sent on individual two or three ship missions to several locations. As roving 'shooters' it was different and broke the routine, but it was often unpleasant and sometimes a bit too exciting. Living conditions varied from bare to worse. Occasionally ok.
Wartime experiences are unusual in that memories remain of funny events and, sometimes, events that are much less than funny. The funny events are best remembered. One time Dick Overhamm and I were given a job to support our re supply helicopters that were hauling supplies to one of the Korean areas. It seems that a river was the forward edge of the area and 'Charlie' was in place on the Northern side of the river and the Koreans were on the Southern side. The landing pad for the supply helicopter was by the edge of the river and now and then would take fire just as it was hovering to land. It is surprising that none were shot down or that none of our pilots were not killed or wounded. This, as you might image, did not suit the re supply pilots one bit and a solution was needed. We had sent gun ships up to fly with the supply ship before, but nothing had happened. 'Charlie' gunners apparently had the word "not to shoot at those kinds of helicopters!" Bernie Cobb came up with a great suggestion and volunteered to go to the site with a radio operator. He would remain on the ground while two gun ships would orbit, out of sight, but close in as possible, and the resupply helicopter would come in as normal. If shots were fired, Bernie should be able to spot the location of the gunners and call in the gun ships and direct fire from the ground. A great plan. The trap was set and we waited to spring it with two gun ships loaded for bear, or actually 'Charlie'. I was lead gun with Dick as second gun. Dale Wylie was either with Dick or myself, I don't remember. Dale normally flew with me in the early days and was a great gunner and co-pilot.
Here we were, flying in orbits, at about 2,000 to 3,000 feet, holding well back from the target area, but still having it in sight. It got a bit boring and spotting a nice fat cloud, I flew up to it and hovered in the cloud with just my nose sticking out. I called Dick on the radio and told him that I was "Snoopy, hiding in my tree, waiting for my prey to come by". Dick thought that was funny and so we played "hide in the cloud" to spend time. Finally Bernie called and told us the slick has taken fire and he knew the location. Dick and I both rolled in for a long dive towards the area while Bernie talked us into the location of the gunner. Bernie said, "Do you remember the two palm trees just across the river?" I answered "yes!" and Bernie said that the gunner was in a spider hole just under the left pal tree. By this time we were getting in range. My airspeed was just under the red line (maximum airspeed before potential breakup) and I checked my needle and ball to make sure it was centered so the rockets would fly straight, centered the base of the tree in my gun sight, and let go with two rockets. Dick was on my right side and started shooting about the same time. Boy what luck. The left of two rockets hit the base of the tree dead on. Still we poured fire on the target area until we passed by. Bernie called us off and said "good job, fellows!" Later we heard that we had caught several of the bad guys and the re supply ship did not receive fire from that location from that time on.
Some memories are not as enjoyable. I was leading a two ship formation with Gary Loban as my wing man and Bill White as my co-pilot gunner. Bill could make that 40mm talk. While heading back to home base, we got a call on the emergency channel from an US Air force F-4. He and a buddy were making bomb runs and his buddy got too low and was either shot down or his own bomb got him. In any event, we could see the crashed aircraft on the ground. It was in small pieces, but the Air force pilot thought he saw a parachute just before the plane exploded and asked that we check it. We flew over the location a couple of times and I decided that I had to get on the ground to check. If a chute did got a very low altitude, the pilot might be on the ground and hurt.
So I went in, grabbed my M-16 and told Bill and my gunners to stay with the ship. If there were hostile troops in the area and we took fire, I wanted them up in the air where they could shoot and support me. I ran over to the crash site and found the remains of the pilot, if you want to call frofty lung tissue as remains. It was oblivious that the pilot had not made it out of the cockpit and we could not stay on the ground long enough to pick up the remains. I ran back to the helicopter and motioned for Bill to take it up while I buckled in. I called the other F-4 and gave him the bad news. The FAC (USAR forward air controller) called and said he would arrange for a pickup of the remains later. Gary Loban gave me a talking too after we got back home and let me know that I had better let him know my intentions faster so he could cover me properly. Gary was right!
Another time, the our two ships were returning to Lane Heliport following a mission that primarily consisted of waiting. We were fully armed. A medical evacuation (EVAC) helicopter, who are not armed, called on the emergency (guard) frequency and asked if we would cover him while he did a pick up of American and ARVN troops wounded on the North side of the Phu Cat mountains. I agreed while wishing that we had two more gun ships. It takes about 4 ships flying in a race track formation to give good cover to the preceding helicopter after it makes a gun run. The front and sides of a gun ship has lots of fire power, but little to nothing in the rear. Our crew chief/gunner and gunner would often stand out on the skids, connected to the helicopter only by a safety strap, and fire behind us to help protect our tender behinds. Think about that for a minute. Stand outside on the skid, barely connected to the helicopter by a single strap, lean out while facing backwards, shooting your M-60 machine gun, making sure you don't shoot the tail of your own helicopter while the helicopter is in a maximum climb and most probably turning at the same time. Should beat any carnival ride in town! And to think, they pay you for doing that!
The EVAC ship landed and we started flying a short race track over the middle of the mountain to the South of the EVAC ship. We immediately came under fire and both our crew gunners and the EVAC ship on the ground told us that tracers were all around both of our ships. Talk about stirring up a hornets nest. All we could do was fire and circle back and fire some more. Meanwhile I was encouraging the EVAC ship to hurry up because we would not be able to maintain fire for much longer. To my relief I saw him lift off, only to hover over a tree line and land again. More wounded. More time for us in the hot spot.
We had to stay on station because the minute we left, all the guns would be aimed at the unarmed evacuation helicopter, sitting on the ground. I guess that since we were firing rockets, 40mm shells and M-60 machine guns at them, we got their attention. Boy did we have their attention. We could have done with a little less of their attention, but then that was our job.
I was on another run down the side of the mountain and we were out of rockets and 40mm shells. The door gunners still had ammo and that was it. We had taken hits before on previous runs including a round in my rocket pod, fortunately empty of rockets at the time. I was being to believe that it might be safer to be somewhere else.
About then, I felt us being hit some more and a round came through the front wind screen, right by my face. I also heard a loud bang in the rear of the chopper and the sounds of my crewchief/gunner choking on a hot mike. I looked back and he was holding his throat and making choking sounds. Made me sick to think that one of my guys had been hit. I told the gunner to help him out and then called the EVAC chopper and told him to get with it as I had a wounded man on board and was taking hits. I had to make another run, this time with no one firing from my bird and the EVAC ship finally lifted off. I left that area with great relief. I was deciding to follow the EVAC ship to the hospital when my crewchief told me that he was ok. Boy what a relief. I really thought he had taken a round in his neck. What had actually happened was he had opened his mouth to yell that we were taking hits and swallowed small pieces of the plastic window that had been shot out. The round that came through my front window went up to hit the top of the helicopter and mess up the audio wiring. That's what made the crewchief's mike to be hot (on for talking). The same spent round had hit him on the flight helmet and knocked him back against the rear bulkhead, but he was ok. That was great news, but still I rushed back to Lane to get him checked out. To my regret I cannot remember the names of my crew chief or my gunner. Both were outstanding and we built a team of trust and dependence, typical of flight crews. I was lucky. I did not lose a single man or even have one wounded, other than that event and a small clip to the back of my neck on a later Phu Cat operation, my last with the 174th as a matter of fact.
Then there was the time I challenged a F-4 to air to air combat! Stupid of me, but I mad at the time. Actually scared and mad at the same time. We were on a major operation as a company. The landing area had been prepared with Naval gunfire, Army artillery, US Air force F-4's, and now it was our time to roll in, just in front of the slicks carrying the combat troops. Our hog, (a gun ship loaded with rockets that acted as aerial artillery) rolled in the center of the landing zone while I took my section on the left side of the LZ (landing zone) and Dick Overhamm took the other section on the right side. The hog would make only one pass but the rest of us would make race track circles on the left and right side of the LZ and continue to shoot as the slicks made their touch down. Later we would stand by to provide fire support of the troops on the ground. Anyway, I was on my initial gun run. I had just started firing and noticed a string of cute looking sparkles on the ground right under us and moving forward. In a split second I figured it out and jerked the chopper out of the path of a jet making a cannon run that was about to go right through me. Now that really got my attention. I became so mad that I called the jet on the emergency frequency (everyone listens in to that frequency as well as others) and I told him that he almost shot me down and if he wanted to come back down and try it again, I'd shoot him out of the sky. I rambled on for a few seconds in that vein then offered to meet him in the officers club at the bar at 8 PM that night. I was so mad I could spit nails. Never did meet that fellow. Oh yes, the rest of the combat assault went fine and the war goes on.....
Taking a minute out from "war stories", one of the new fellows, a Captain Jim Brewster, came in the from the 1st Cavalry and brought his pet ocelot. This large cat and I became friends and we each had a new play toy. Lots of time I would be taking a nap and he would curl up beside me or lay on my chest. The worse times was when he decided to clean my face. Now cats are supposed to have rough tongues, but boy oh boy. When he licked your face, your whole head would move. It felt like real rough sandpaper and was not altogether pleasant. We played together, and in that he was just like any regular cat, but it's favorite trick was to stalk me and then pounce! I would be walking down the tent row and see my friend stalking me from behind the tents. Sooner or later I knew that I would be hit from behind or on the side. The worse part of that game was you would then walk down the line of tents with a large cat attached to your leg. Claws and all going through your pants leg and often into my leg. While that was fun and took my mind off the war, being a gun pilot meant lots of duty away from home base and my 'buddy' was no longer there one time when I came home. Never did find out what happened. Guess he got DEROS'ed as well.
Living in tents was not the most enjoyable way to spend your off duty time and we were very lucky to have aggressive leaders who, having failed to get the Engineers to build us better facilities, did arrange to have supplies made available to us if we would build our own. Major Marty Heuer, an Engineer officer and commander of the service platoon, was given responsibility for this major effort. Marty considerable skills in a wide variety of areas, many of which became obvious in a short time. We all owe Marty our thanks and gratitude for his efforts in bettering our living conditions.
A planned construction project to build our facilities was made and construction began. Being a gun ship pilot meant being away lots of time, but during my time at home I gave my help, meager as it was, with great enthusiasm. I remember helping prepare and put up the frames of buildings, rafters, and the rest of the drill. As far as construction goes, I was a stranger in paradise. I knew so little about it that all I could be was a handy hand.... you know, essential to the operation such as "hold this", "hand me that", "nail this", "saw that and do it this way!".
I strongly remember hand sawing lots and lots of 2X4 lumber into the small wedges that we put on the sides of the building so 1X4 planks could be attached to serve as louvers. The buildings consisted of a frame and roof. A fine mesh wire was nailed to the outside of the frame to keep the multitude of bugs outside. The louvers were nailed to the outside to give some protection from the rain, but still to let maximum air to circulate. A large opening around waist height served as our windows. A solid wooden structure served to cover the windows during a rain.... at least that was the plan. I remember one afternoon during monsoon, when the winds and rain were so strong (a typhoon was in the area) that the inside of the hootch became a shower. The strong wind drove the rain horizontally and I stood beside my bed and took a bath.... soap and all, just for something to do.
(Check the picture of the commanders hootch to get a better idea of the construction). I sent a picture of me nailing tin on the roof of our shower home and Mary insisted that it was not me. I had lost lots of weight and had tanned quite dark in the Vietnam sun. The worse job I had was hand sawing a couple of those 6X6 oak beams that we had taken from the aircraft carrier. Now first of all, oak is hard, really hard. Combine that with the fact that these had cured since World War II, and here I am trying to hand saw through the wood. Had to sharpen the saw, saw till the sweat blinded me...... wipe sweat, sharpen saw, saw till I could not see, and repeat and repeat. It took days to saw through that durn thing. Still we needed them to install the nice shiny fuel tank as our water source for showers and shaving. Dick Overhamm had found this in one of his flight missions and arranged to have it picked up and brought to us. Once the fuel tank, it looks like a large missile or bomb, was installed on the beams and filled with water, the sun warmed the water and we had warm water for shaving and for showers. Just like home.... well almost. No, come to think of it, it was no way like home. Just better.
Once these buildings were finished, we all started living much better. Thanks to Marty Heuer, plus a lot of help from about everyone in the company at one time or another, the entire company's living status improved significantly.
Back to the war. The company was being sent in support of just about everyone it seemed and the guns were no exception. Two of us were sent to support the special forces camp at Khe Sanh, the first for anyone in our company. I especially remember my first trip up there. The camp is in the North West tip of South Vietnam and as such, is close to all the action from the North. Our job was to support SOG the Special Operations Group. This meant flying into Laos during the time that such flights were considered highly "sneaky". We were told that we could not carry our dog tags, no personal effects, and were even issued British Stein sub machine guns to replace our M-16's. Plus we were told that if we crashed in Laos, the United States would not acknowledge our existence. Now this was funny as it could be to me for here I was in a US Army gun ship with US Army painted on it's side. I continued to wear US jungle gear, so not having dog tags or personal items on me did not seem to be very important. But rules are rules, so that's the way we played it.
We had landed at the camp and the camp commander invited us into the chow tent for coffee. We had just sat down when the Captain told us "do not touch your weapons for any reason". Then he added "we have a slight problem". It turned out that the camp had not received any meat for far too long and the native troops were showing their displeasure by striking.
I looked up and the tent was surrounded by men who did not look happy and were all heavily armed. It did not look promising. I remembered seeing a water buffalo about 20 minutes south of the camp and suggested that we fly back and shoot some fresh meat. The whole area around the camp was considered a "free fire zone" which meant it was in hostile hands and you could fire on suspected targets without prior permission from local commanders. There was a Vietnamese crewed H-34 also there that support the "black" or secret missions of the camp. So my idea was that our gun ships could shoot up some meat and the cargo helicopter could pick the meat up and transport it back to camp.
The idea was gratefully accepted and off we went. I took a special forces sergeant with me, a really big man, who did not help my weight problem. The gun ships, especially mine since it had the 40mm grenade launcher on the nose as well as the rockets and crew, did not hover well in the high altitude and high humidity found in areas of Vietnam. Running takeoffs and landings were not uncommon. Anyway, off we went in search of fresh meat.
We did not find the water buffalo but did see two deer running along, so my door gunner picked them off very easily. It may not seem sporting to shoot deer with a machine gun, especially one with tracer rounds, but this was business, plus it was the only weapon we had that would not blow the deer into small pieces. We called the H-34 in to land and while waiting I saw that the tracers has started a grass fire around the deer. So I went in and tried to use my rotor downwash to blow the fire out or at least move it away from the deer.
It worked for a short time, but I got too far over the fire area and the heat of the fire, plus the high altitude and humidity, combined with my extra weight, caused me to lose rotor rpm and that caused us to start settling into the fire. Not good. Just think of the fuel in the belly and all that ammo!
I tried all my usual tricks, but nothing was working. Big problem. I didn't think that asking the massive Sergeant to step out into the fire to cut down on our weight would be a good solution, so I put the tips of the skids on the ground, in the fire, and tip toed out of the fire by moving from one tip to the other. It worked and we got in a safe zone where we could shut down. So ok, the deer took some heat and we had to wait till the fire burned away from the deer before we could pick them up. No more trying to put the fire out with my rotor blade down wash.
My previous experience with the Experimental Armed Helicopter Company at Fort Rucker included a short stint of commanding the Helicopter Square Dance Team. There I picked up show tricks as "Bozo The Clown" where you do all sorts of aerial tricks with the helicopter. These so called tricks, saved me this time.
Getting the meat back to camp solved the camp commanders immediate problem and we proceeded with the business at hand. Our job was to help place a young Captain and his native team into Laos where he would walk up and down the Ho Chi Minn trail and then call in special intelligence data as well as call in fire missions which we would fly, either alone, or together with heavy fighter/bomber aircraft.. This trail led down from North Vietnam, through jungle areas, mountains and rivers till it reached all the way to just West of Saigon and was the major supply route for the Viet Cong during the entire war.
I would like to add here that this Captain, and again I cannot remember his name, was considered special even in the Special Forces. He had made a name for himself doing long range patrols and other special intelligence gathering missions he had performed inside hostile territory for many years. He had worked with the British in Malaysia as well as other hot spots and was considered the top man in his very hazardous field. It was great working with such a professional. He prepared himself for two weeks prior to going "in jungle" by eating nothing but native food, not bathing or using any of the soaps or American items that would cause his body odor to be different from any native in the area. "Americans smell different", he told me because of the meat and other food we eat and because of soap, underarm deodorant, shaving lotion and other similar items most Americans use daily. He became native and lived off the land, primarily for survival. I respected him tremendously.
The Vietnamese Special Forces H-34, piloted by a Vietnamese Captain with the code name of Cowboy, flew the small group of men with the radios and supplies while our two gun ships provided protection. We dropped them off in Northern Laos where they would proceed to eventually walk back towards a spot just West of Khe Sanh where we would pick them up. In the meantime, we were given lots of targets in Laos where we did our thing..... shooting up the area and getting outstanding results since we were targeted for specific targets by our grounded friends.
This had gone on for about a week and one morning around 10AM we receive a call telling us that two or three companies of regular Viet Cong were located in a valley and should be targeted. We mounted up and flew over to the coordinates where we joined up with two Navy and two Air Force fighter/bombers that were also striking the valley. What had looked like a peaceful valley turned out to be a hot bed of activity, most of it aimed at us. Also there now seemed to be two full Regiments of regular VC troops or more, not the company sized units as believed. The Captain and his native troops were located on a small mountain just to the North of the valley where he had direct observation of the valley below. As we started hitting the valley, the VC tried to escape and far too many started up the side of the mountain towards our team. The bad thing about this was that the back side of the mountain was a sheer bluff, dropping down at least a thousand feet and the West and East sides were also too steep for easy escape. Our guys had a real problem. They were trapped on top the mountain with what looked like several hundreds of VC swarming up the side towards our guys.
Now our job changed into shooting down the side of the mountain to try to drive the VC back into the valley. This worked for a time until we would run out of ammo and then we'd have to scoot back to the camp for re arming. Normally you would shut down the helicopter, hook up a grounding stake before loading the rockets because a spark might cause the rocket to fire. If you are putting the rocket into the pod on the helicopter while it exploded, everyone had a problem. We did not have time for this safety practice.
We had worked out emergency re arming procedures and they worked. While we were flying back to base camp, a group there would grab rockets, machine gun ammo and 40mm ammo for me and rockets and machine gun ammo and rockets for my wingman. They would stand in a two V formation and we would each land in the middle of the V facing the closed end. Without us shutting down, the men would walk past my ship, each shoving a rocket into the pod while others handed machine gun and 40mm ammo to our crew. The other helicopter was loaded basically the same way. In less than three minutes we were reloaded and taking off to return to the fray.
It became painfully obvious that we would not be able to keep the VC off the top of the mountain. Plus we were getting a lot of stuff fired back at us. It seemed only a question of time before we lost a gun ship and then we would lose the entire ground party. Emergency evacuation was the only solution. I called the H-34 to come up and explained the situation to him. I knew that our gun ships could not carry the load of the extra troops and be able to take off. We needed the lift capability of the H-34. The H-34 pilot said he would not land in such a hot area. I told him that he would land or I would shoot him down. At the time I really meant it because we were in a world of hurt and there was no other solution. I also told the H-34 pilot that I would go in with him and hover between him and the enemy so I would protect him during his landing, ground time and take off. Not having much of a choice, the H-34 went in while I flew sideways during the last part of the landing and hovered in place shooting all the time. The second gun ship helped protect the two of us on the ground and the troops wasted no time piling on the H-34.
We got off safely and got up to a safe altitude to fly home and call it a day. I was kinda proud of myself since this had been a risky operation and I thought I had been calm and cool and a good stick. I had been chewing gum during this last part of the extraction and must have been chewing it a bit too hard because I felt something in the gum. Checking it I found that a filling had come out of one of my molars so I guess I was not as calm as I had believed.
After landing back at the camp, I received the an unusual "thank you".
The captain ran up, grabbed me, gave me a hug, said thanks and kissed me. There was no question about his sexual preferences. This was not sexual.... not a bit. This was an highly emotional "thank you" from a warrior. As I said, the best reward I ever received. While we were put in for the Silver Star for that mission, paper work was slow in that area, or any area for that matter.
One last story about Khe Sanh. While there are lots of stories, this one involved my almost getting killed by weather. We had been shooting up a valley of VC and as common, found that once we started shooting the whole world seemed to start shooting back. I guess it was only fair. They shot at us and we shot at them. After all, that's what a war is all about. Anyway, we had a low ceiling of clouds that day keeping us at a much lower altitude than was safe. After a couple runs, I suggested that we had best get out of there while we could and my wingman agreed. Since we would have to fly back through valleys that now were highly visible with sparkling lights, a decoration not associated with Christmas or any holiday that I know, I decided that climbing up into the clouds would be much safer. My wingman, helicopter instrument rated, agreed immediately and we headed upwards towards safety.
I told my wingman (my bad memory does not come up with a name) to climb to 4,000 feet and take a heading that would take him a bit South of me and when he intercepted the radio beacon out of Hue Phu Bai he could start letting down to no lower than 800 feet and he should be clear of clouds. I would climb to 4,500 feet and head a bit more Easterly. This would give us separation in the air, a good thing because I've been told that a mid-air collision can ruin your whole day.
Once I intercepted the radio beacon, I headed South and was about to start letting down when we flew into a thunderstorm. Not good at all. Worse was the fact that my large artificial horizon was inoperative. That 40mm gun shot 500 grenades a minutes, a great weapon, but it shook the helicopter up a lot while firing. The artificial horizon is a critical instrument that lets you know if you are wings level and the good side is on top. The small turn and bank instrument works somewhat to the same purpose, but is unusable in turbulence. We were in turbulence, much more turbulence that I had ever experienced in a helicopter. I had to fly using the co-pilots smaller artificial horizon, located on the left instrument panel across the cabin from me. Not a good solution but the only one available.
Now a thunderstorm is something that all pilots in all types of planes avoid. A thunderstorm is avoided for a good reason. Too many times a plane is spit out of a thunderstorm in very small pieces. Since none of us had parachutes, I had no choice but fly the plane and somehow get us out of trouble.
We bounced around in severe turbulence with up drafts that kicked us up to over 6,000 feet or dropped us like an express elevator to around 1,500 feet. All I was trying to do was fly slow and keep the shiny side up and the dirty side down. Fly level in other words. I did not fight the altitude or the heading, I just fought to stay alive. And believe me, for the very first time in my life I was scared while I was at the controls. If we had parachutes, I swear I would have seriously thought about telling everyone to bail out. The situation was not good. This went on for what seemed to be a lifetime. At least I was still alive to fight it.
Finally the thunderstorm spit us out, luckily in one piece, and we made it back ok. I do believe I aged several years in those minutes. I might add that at that time I did not have a helicopter instrument ticket and my co-pilot was not instrument rated and could not help. I did have a fixed wing special instrument ticket and had lots of hours flying in the' soup'. I had worked on getting a helicopter instrument rating in Germany and Cliff Walker had given me lots of instruction, including a zero zero (cannot see the ground until you land because the clouds go down to the ground) landing at Frankfort in a H-34. By the way, that zero-zero landing was essential, not practice. I practiced flying blind in the helicopter often, as it was a skill that could save your butt some day. This day it saved not only my butt, but also my fellow three crew members. That was an experience that I don’t ever want to repeat.
Enough war stories. Everyone that flew in Vietnam has lots of stories, many top mine in many ways. For example, while at Khe Sanh, Dick Overhamm flying Aircraft Commander with Dale Wylie as pilot were able to shoot out a cable crossing a river. The VC used the cable to cross over their supplies. A F AC asked for help and said that Air Force planes had tried to knock out that cable for a long time. Dale hit the cable midstream with the 40mm and that took care of that! We were Army Aviators, doing our job the best way we knew how.
I almost got to stay with the 174th, but it was not to be. I had become the Executive Officer and moved out of the "Major's Hootch" into the commanders hootch. More private and nicer in some
ways. Then I became the commanding officer for a few weeks before I got orders to Nha Trang. A real sad day for me. I hated to leave the company and all the friends that remained there, but duty is duty. Major Bill Dalrymple and I changed places. He became the official third commanding officer of the 174th. I like to remember, that for a short time at least, I had this honor.
One last mission with the 174th. We did a combat assault with the Korean division just North of the
Phu Cat's. This was a major combined operation and I did not want to miss it. Everything worked fine except that on one firing pass, my ship was hit and I had my neck clipped by a hot tracer. No biggie, but it sure got my attention. After the mission, I landed back at Lane and moved to Nha Trang and my new job. I enjoyed just over six months with the 174th and would not trade a minute of it.
Well, maybe just a few, but the associations there will stay in my memories the rest of my life.
The gunship crew, including Majors Bernie Cobb and Dick Overhamm, Captains Jack Westlake, Gene Teague and Gary Loban, Lieutenants Dale Wylie, Jim Brewster, Bill White and CWO P.T. Yowell, will always be special to me, as were the other men in the gun platoon. Others in the company, such as Marty Heuer for his outstanding work in keeping the planes flying while doing tons of hands on building of our facilities, plus his organization of the "High Priced Help", a singing group that give all of us many hours of entertainment. Thanks to Major Marty Heuer and Scat McNatt, Captains Chinch Wollerton and Jack Westlake, who made "The High priced Help" a singing group known throughout Vietnam, and later the U.S. Army. To all officers and men of this unit, my special thanks for helping make my tour in Vietnam with the 174th enjoyable as well as endurable.
I rotated to become an Assistant Aviation Officer for the three star general commanding I Force V, with coverage of the entire central part of Vietnam. There I joined Al Sarnecki, a great guy who
ended up doing the major work of assigning aircraft assets throughout our area and giving most of the daily briefings for the generaL Al was in the original group at Fort Benning. Another one of our special group of major's and men from the original crew. Winners all!
Our quarters at Nha Trang was a four bedroom villa. Walls around the villa for protection. Private guard on the gate. A personal cook whose many relatives kept us clean and well fed. After my initial experiences in a tent, this was living high. We even had an air conditioner! From a hot bare spot on a mountain to a air conditioned villa. Such is war.
We would work long hours in the office, drive home to our villa and continue working there. I once said that "give me a long phone cord and I'll go home to Sacramento and do my work from there" Of course that did not happen. Al and I did not miss our tent living, but we did miss our friends.
But my service at Nha Trang and my continued career in the service until 1973, would be another story and another day.
Again, you can see Bob's 174th AvnCo Photos by clicking here.