by Roger Herman, Founder
Chapter 1 - The Evening News
So there I was at three feet AGL relaxing on the couch with a cold one in my San Diego hootch. The date was 29 April 1985. I was on terminal leave, having served 20 years on active duty. With my airline resumes having been sent out to anyone that might remotely consider hiring an over the hill 40 year old former Jarhead ’34 Dog Driver, I turned on the TV to see what crises were occurring in the world on this particular day. Half way through the news, it was mentioned that it was the ten year anniversary of the fall of Saigon. “Geez," I thought, “I wonder what had become of the pilots and aircrew that I had flown with in-country in HMM-361.”
There were some that I had casually stayed in touch with off and on over the years (a few in the local area). I made some calls to see what the others had been up to since we had flown together back in ’67/'68. The answers were a mix of occupations ranging from having stayed in for 20, gone into civilian flying, or having gotten into the financial business. One had returned to his roots in the Amish territory of Pennsylvania Dutch country (not to be confused with The “Arizona Territory" south of DaNang). He was now in the farming biz. Kinda made sense in a way, was it really a stretch to go from flying the ’34 to driving a horse drawn carriage? I mean, they were pretty much equal in the use of high tech equipment and had about the same horsepower. Yeah… not that big of a transition. But, God how we loved that aircraft, “The Dog.” It could do things no other helo could, especially in combat flying. Still my favorite aircraft all these years later!
Regarding the last guy, as the duty test pilot for the day in the spring of ‘67, he was forced to make an autorotation at Marble Mountain Air Facility during a maintenance check flight. A dual magneto failure necessitated the auto and he buried the landing pretty good into the Marston Matting. In fact he hit so hard that the main rotor blades dipped significantly on impact, somehow hitting around the cockpit area. He got clocked right in his helmet visor. He lived, but was MIA at the local NSA hospital facility for about a month after that. Upon his return to the squadron, his face still looked like it had been hit by a Mac truck. So, as only compassionate Marine squadronmates can do, we felt it our duty to give him a new nickname. From then on he was forever known as “The Hulk."
Back to the phone calls. A few beers into it and several war stories later, I was struck with a flash of Budweiser brilliance(?). So I says to the others, “Hey I got an idea. Why don’t we meet in Las Vegas next year for a three day stag weekend? I know someone who can fix us up at Bally’s for accommodations. We can get together to tell more war stories… and the first liar won’t stand a chance. Yeah, great idea said the others." And after all, it would just be a one time thing anyway. Right?
Chapter 2 - Vegas or Bust
1986 rolls around and eight of us (seven Dog Drivers and one Phrog Phlyer) were on our way to Sin City and perhaps a galaxy far, far away. It would be great to see ‘em again. The game plan… well there was no game plan exactly, come to think of it. But the idea was to get caught up on what each had been doing over the past 20 years or so. Making up this gaggle were myself, Ron “The Prince” Sabin, Dick “Rocky” Rochford, Mike “Tuna” Barksdale, Gary “Rat Eyes" Cunningham, “Thaaatch” Sigler, Ed “The Hulk” Rick and Dale Cors. At least that’s my best recollection, given that it was more than three decades ago. Also, the three days in Vegas involved a rather large amount of beer consumption. So even though the weather was CAVU to the moon that summer weekend, our intrepid “Nasal Radiators" were flying in IFR conditions for most of it.
We bunked at Bally’s Hotel on The Strip and took in the Don Rickles show at The Dunes. We told honest to God, true, no sh*t war stories, and laughed until tears flowed down our cheeks at the good times we remembered. We marveled at what we had gotten away with in combat flying, and lived to tell the tale. We were the lucky ones, we made it home.
Importantly, we took time out to remember our friends who hadn’t returned from Vietnam. We were celebrating their lives as well. We talked of them for hours as if they were still with us. Had the roles been reversed, they'd have done the same. It was obvious that Vietnam and a strong camaraderie had shaped the rest of our lives. We were, and always would be…
So, the three days came and went. A good time was had by all. We then packed up our B-4 bags and headed back home to The World once again. It had been a great weekend. It was a reminder that sometimes the best things in life are those that just kinda happen, no great expectations built in ahead of time.
After returning home and reflecting on the events of that weekend, I remember thinking what a terrific time I'd just spent with some lifelong friends. Perspective… Most civilians I had met since Vietnam were definitely in the “acquaintance” category now, if they hadn’t been before.
Apparently the others had as good a time as I did. They contacted other USMC/Vietnam helo pilots and told them about the Vegas caper. The next thing I knew, my phone started ringing at home, a lot. The conversations went something like this…
“Hey, Rog, The Prince told me to give you a call. Heard you guys had a blowout weekend in Vegas. So, where and when is the next reunion? How do we join this organization?"
My Answer – “Say whaaat? There is no next one. It was just a onetime thingy, and there’s no organization to join. Sorry ‘bout dat, G.I."
Their Response – “I don’t think you understand. We want in, and we’re going to do this the Marine Corps way… It was your idea, so you’re in charge. Get to work!"
My Answer (after many more calls and realizing that I was screwed) – “Chieu Hoi, I give up. Okay, I’ll do it. But if I gotta be in charge, it won’t be like other formal veterans groups. We’ll have casual, fun reunions every two years, not every year. And we may get to a point where we have to charge dues to keep this thing going." Oops, they liked the idea.
Chapter 3 - Maybe I Shoulda Changed My Number
For the next year or so the phone just kept ringing. The conversations were pretty much the same. “When’s the next reunion and how do we join up?” So, in keeping with the biennial reunion idea, plans began taking shape to return to Vegas for round two in 1988. It was definitely going to be a bigger goat rope than the first one in ’86, but just how much bigger who knew? The Bally’s Hotel staff liked us for some reason (we hadn’t broken anything yet, so I guess that was a plus). This reunion gaggle idea could be a lot of fun.
The summer of ’88 rolls around, so myself, “The Prince,” “Tuna” and a few other stragglers caravan off to “Lost Wages" from San Diego for another low pass. Other helo pilots came in from around the country to the tune of approximately 200. This time, as with the first get together in ’86, we met for a three day weekend. The war stories flowed again, and it seemed it was over before it was even on. Geez, we might have to do this again.
"Whiz" & "Louse" - Las Vegas '88 Reunion
"Ready Room" - Las Vegas '88 Reunion
Time to start getting organized. First order of business was what do we call ourselves. That was one of the easier things to figure out. We’ll adhere to the KISS principle in this and all follow on matters. We will call ourselves what we are… The USMC/Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Reunion. Let’s see, we’ll need some kind of logo. I had been in contact with another former Dog Driver who lived in the area, Ron Zappardino. He had also flown the aircraft for Air America. He showed me a ’34 “Smiley Face" caricature that they had used at the time on a T-shirt. The original idea had come from the wife of another Air America pilot, Bill Collier. Her name was Michelle. It looked like a good way to go, and with a few changes it could be made into a logo for our fledgling organization. “Zap" was happy to help out, and gave a thumbs up to the idea. And the '34 logo was born…
But what are the organization's rules? Gotta have some basic rules, and we have to keep the fun in it (top priority). As I continued to receive calls from more FNG’s about our new organization, now I had an answer for them as to what our rules were to join this outfit…
As for my OJT, I didn’t have a clue about hotel and catering contracts. I learned early on to read the fine print, more than once. Long story short, the hotels hold all the cards and have beaucoup lawyers. Several months out they lock you into a specific number of room nights, meals, etc. to guarantee they make their money. If we come up short, we then owe them mo’ money. Now, if they should happen to cancel on us it's no big deal for them. They will tie us up in lawsuits for years. Fast forward to years later when JD Barber was the prez, he saw the power of the hotels at the 2006 Ft. Worth Reunion on full display when many of them cancelled on us at the last minute…
John "JD" Barber with EG-11, his in-country aircraft
JD had been a ’46 crewchief with HMM-263. He ran the organization for several years, beginning in 2000, and did a superb job as it continued to grow. He epitomized what became known as the PopASmoke Spirit. After the Corps, he had a career as a firefighter and retired as a Lieutenant from the Quincy, MA department. He worked best under stress. He was going to need that attribute in Ft. Worth. With all the planning completed, it looked like everything was on track for another successful reunion. Things were going very smoothly, which meant only one thing. Something was about to go “Tango Uniform." And it did. All of a sudden JD had to scramble like a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest. He had to find hundreds of rooms for the attendees when some hotels cancelled at the last minute. He miraculously pulled it off. To celebrate the victory, the night before the reunion started, a bunch of us went over to JD's room at the Ft. Worth Hilton. As prez of the association he deserved a perk, especially given what he had just gone through. So, he was staying in the Presidential Suite. Now at first blush this sounded like a well deserved reward for him. Walking through the room, the walls were decorated with pictures of President John F. Kennedy. It was impressive. That is until we realized that it was in this very room that JFK had stayed on the night of November 21, 1963. That was the last night he was alive before being gunned down the next day in Dallas. And to make it even a little bit more eery, JD was also from the Boston area. God must have been a Marine, because he definitely had a gallows sense of humor.
Was someone trying to tell us something? Yeah, it was about to get worse. The next morning we walked over to the Ft. Worth Convention Center to pre-flight the reunion arrangements. The convention center was massive. In fact it was so large, they could actually accommodate a couple thousand Marines, and put up an airwall dividing the space in two. This allowed another event to take place simultaneously on the other side. Unbeknownst to us until then, there was in fact another activity taking place at the same time as our reunion. At first we had no idea what else was going on. We just knew that it was pretty noisy. And we thought we heard some jungle animal sounds. Then the wind changed, and it hit us. On the other side of the airwall was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Our entire reunion space was now filled with the unmistakable smell of elephant excrement. And so it would be for the next four days. We gasped for air and pressed on. Looking for anything on the positive side at this point, it was now clear that a scheduled tour to the Ft. Worth Stockyards was no longer a high priority item. We had already, literally, “Been to the Big City and Seen the Elephant." It is a pretty funny story now. Back then, well not so much. But we laughed it off at the time anyway. A good sense of humor was an unwritten Rule #3 to belong to this group.
Chapter 4 - We Might Be Onto Something Special Here
Well, back to 1990. The planning for the reunion was well underway. During this time I got a call from a former crewchief. He had heard about some pilots having a good time at reunions. He said the troops didn’t have a fun group like this and he’d like to attend. Wanted to see if he could come as a guest. Seeing my opening to create a little mischief, I told him there was no way. Then he wanted to know if a category could be created for say, an associate or auxiliary status. “Not a chance,” was my response. I could hear the wind come out of his sails, so it was time to come clean. I told him that not only was he and all former enlisted aircrew welcome to join-up with us once again, but that I was changing the name of the organization as we spoke. The enlisted would be members the same as the officers. “You can do it just like that?” “Yep, not a problem." My philosophy was that we were all together then, and we would all be back together again. And BTW, we’re on a first name basis here. So it’s back to Sin City in '90 for the Hat Trick. This time 400 showed up. Now we had the pilots and aircrew getting back together again, as it should be.
The organization’s logo was re-designed to reflect the new expanded member base. The word about our new group had spread rapidly. I received a call from the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA). It had been started by army helicopter pilots and its membership included pilots from all the services who had flown in Vietnam. In reality, however, their members were mostly former army pilots. They wanted to know if we would like to meld into their organization. They didn’t include enlisted aircrew. That was a deal breaker for me. See ’ya.
Around this time it was the beginning of computers for home usage, but no Internet or cellphones yet. My comm gear consisted of a landline and a fax machine. It seemed pretty advanced at the time. Looking back now, we were just a few steps above “Two Tin Cans and a String.” With the rapidly increasing numbers of folks joining-up, we needed to figure out a way to stay in touch. It was time to start writing a newsletter. So, with my “high tech” little box shaped Apple computer, that had a whopping 1 megabyte of memory, I pounded out the first one.
But there was a little problem. I was having a hard time coming up with just the right name for the newsletter. I probably went through about a dozen ideas. Didn’t really like any of them. Then I stumbled on to what was to become not only the name of the newsletter, but would eventually become a common reference to the organization itself. It was kind of like a secret handshake, if you had to ask what it meant, you weren’t there. The name… Pop A Smoke.
There was another advantage to it. The recently updated name of the group had gotten lengthy, the USMC/Vietnam Helicopter Pilots and Aircrew Reunion. Even for those honchoing things, sometimes we couldn’t keep the name straight. Other name changes for our group would occur as time went on. So it was only natural that PopASmoke (now condensed to one word) would be the easy way for people to refer to the organization. And the name has stuck for all these years.
Chapter 5 - Hovering Out of Ground Effect
Next, it was time to form the group into a non-profit. Not being a lawyer, and with my time consumed by other projects, I opted to hire a local attorney to take care of registering us with the California Secretary of State. Earlier, with the assistance of Harvey Bell, we had written the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws. We would be a 501©19 not-for-profit organization. It was for veterans only.
After several weeks, I had heard nothing from the the Secretary of State or the attorney as to our status. I called the lawyer repeatedly with no response. It was now clear that he had absconded with our $1,800, having never done anything to register us. I was really “High and to the Right.” No one was going to scam a group of Vietnam vets. Now it was personal! I would find him, get the money back, learn how to do the incorporation myself… and I hadn’t ruled out inflicting some bodily harm on this guy. I contacted the San Diego County and CA State Bar Associations. I rolled in hot, guns on full auto. I learned as much as I could about the law and I went after him. It was time consuming and there was a minefield of hoops to jump through. It took a year and a half to complete the mission. But it was all well worth it… I got him. At the San Diego County Bar hearing he showed up late before the judge, and looked like he had been on an all night bender. He didn’t have anything to support his side of the case. I had kept everything, and presented lots of documentation. The judge found in our favor, and the attorney wrote a check back to the organization for the full amount. He had really ticked me off. So, I went after him at the state level next. The result, he was disbarred from ever practicing law again in California. It was a confirmed kill.
“Leaving Las Vegas" – With the ’92 Reunion plans already beginning to take shape, and the group continuing its rapid growth, it was time to start holding these musters in different parts of the country. So, after some “Snoop and Poop Recon" it was decided to hold the next one in Washington, D.C. The reunion was going to be a big one. I signed a contract with the Crystal City Gateway Marriott and guaranteed that 800 attendees would show. As it turned out, about a thousand made it. Fortunately, I had made enough extra copies of the first Reunion Directory to cover everyone. The reunions now included wives and other relatives of the members. It was still a three day get together at this point. Also, by this time, more volunteers were offering to jump in to help. Jim “Latts” Lattimer stepped up, as well as others such as Mike “Pogue" Leahy and Norm “Frenchy" La Fountaine. And I never would have been able to pull any of this off without the help from my wife and “Donut Dolly OIC," Madeline.
From the outset, the concept was to have relatively few members do all the organizing and heavy lifting for the reunion planning and also take care of the T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, etc. I wanted the majority of attendees to be able to just show up and have a good time. Although I didn’t give it much thought then, I believe that one of the main reasons for the success of this whole reunion idea was that we were giving ourselves the welcome home that we never got upon our return. In D.C. we had a former Vietnam POW speak to us one night. A couple of bagpipers showed up and played for us. We went to the Evening Parade at 8th and I and were introduced as a group to the rest of the civilian crowd in attendance. We were also invited over to the Commandant's reception afterwards. Things were going way too smoothly. And that could mean only one thing… “Murphy" was waiting in the wings.
You see there was this one little event that occurred at the hotel. Someone (actually a number of us) decided it would really be a neat idea to do CarQuals on the dining room tables after dinner. What could possibly go wrong? So we rearranged the tables and soaped them down. Now with the landing pattern established, it was “Roger Ball," some “Okay 3 Wires," a number of ramp strikes, plus a few go-arounds… and we kept on coming. To the untrained civilian eye, these carrier approaches were probably mistaken for Kamikaze attacks by the dining room waitresses and busboys. I departed the pattern around midnight and headed back to my room feeling good about all the fun everyone was having. Others stayed and continued to “Hit the Boat" into the wee hours of the morning. And then the phone call came. Hotel management contacted me in my room at 0300 to inform me that a group of helo pilots had extended their CarQuals into our upstairs lounge area. They had broken a $2,500 glass table in the process, and I was personally on the hook for it. So the next night I explained to the group prior to dinner what had occurred. I was sweatin’ bullets. And I wasn’t above begging. So, in desperation we passed the hat. Not only did we collect enough to pay off the hotel folks, but were able to put some extra MPC in the kitty for the next reunion. Whew! The way these guys didn't hesitate to bail us (me) out, told me everything I really already knew. This was a very special group of Vietnam Combat Marines. Together Then, Together Again. To quote “Buz” Shantry aka “The Chaplain’s Assistant”… Life Is All About Dancing On The Edge.
Many more would show up at the next reunion. And as always, front and center, was keeping the fun in this gaggle. But we had to quit breaking stuff. So, with the “D.C. Follies" now at our six, I figured it was time to adopt a mascot for the organization. I’d seen a sign in the pilot crew lounge at the airline I was flying for. It said the following…
LOST DOG… HAS ONLY THREE LEGS, BLIND IN HIS LEFT EYE, MISSING HIS RIGHT EAR, HAS A BROKEN TAIL, RECENTLY CASTRATED. ANSWERS TO THE NAME OF “LUCKY.”
Seemed like an appropriate mascot for an organization of USMC/Vietnam helo types who had been in combat together, seen more than their share of Sh*t Sandwiches, and returned home to tell the tale. Lucky would be a USMC bulldog. I contacted my best friend from high school who was an accomplished artist and novelist. Craig MacIntosh had served as an infantry officer in Vietnam. After he got out, he went to work for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He had also been illustrating the “Sally Forth” comic strip for 20+ years as well. If you haven't read any of his outstanding special ops and military history novels, I highly recommend them. They contain non-stop action. You can preview and order them at cjmacintosh.com. He will autograph the books if you request it.
So, I told Craig of the “Lost Dog" idea. I passed on some thoughts I had for the bulldog’s appearance. And being the talent that Craig was, it didn’t take long for him to develop the concept.
Meet Lucky The Dog…
Chapter 6 - Pensacola Beach Blanket Bingo
Our member numbers continued to grow. In fact they had gotten to the point that the selection of a venue was becoming more difficult. With a Scientific Wild Ass Guess (SWAG) estimating that our next reunion in ’94 would probably push close to 2,000 attendees, picking an area and a hotel that could handle all of us was a new challenge. We had always thought a locale should be decided based on good weather, having other things to do in the area, and be relatively easy to fly into. This offered attendees the ability to do some sightseeing and perhaps arrive early and stay late after the reunion. Additionally, the reunions were held in the summer or early fall for a number of reasons. Next stop… Pensacola Beach. We worked out a deal with the hotels wherein they would charge the reunion room rates for a few days prior to and after the official reunion dates. Now that we were bringing lots of people to town (and a lot of hotel and catering revenue) we had negotiating power that we hadn’t had before. It was also time to change things up a little. Some squadrons had been having their own separate reunions. We suggested the idea of combining their get togethers into the PopASmoke reunions. Many had served in different squadrons in-country so this would afford them the opportunity to see more old friends. It would also take most of the burden off of them to have to plan their own reunions. The idea caught on. So, it resulted in expanding our PopASmoke reunions into four days. The reunions would now start on Thursdays, and Friday night would be devoted to the squadrons getting together on their own for dinner and other activities. On Saturday and Sunday we would rendezvous back at the PopASmoke location and continue on with the rest of the reunion activities. The idea was a success, and it became the template for future reunions.
A lot of thought was put into the Pensacola planning idea. One of my biggest concerns was that the former enlisted aircrew and maintenance folks might not enjoy it as much as the pilots, since that was where the pilots went through flight training. A lot of the enlisted had gone through NAS Millington in the Memphis area for their advanced schooling. My concerns were quickly allayed, as the troops enjoyed Pensacola as much, if not more than the pilots. For the first time we would be putting up individual squadron hootches/tents and a stage on the pristine, sugar white sands of Pensacola Beach. And we would be staying at several hotels close by on the beach, not just one large hotel as at earlier gatherings. In ’94 they gave us some great room rates and the city welcomed us home. The Mayor (a former Marine F-4 driver) presented us with the keys to the city. We would have a big steak cookout Saturday night on the beach for everyone. And we would also have entertainment. We would visit the fantastic Naval Aviation Museum. We’d hold a special remembrance ceremony at the replica of the Vietnam Wall. Former Hollywood starlet and a big supporter of Vietnam veterans, Chris Noel of the Armed Forces Vietnam Network, would also attend. And last but not least, the pilots could visit their old hangouts on the beach and the world famous Trader Jon’s, where many a MARCAD spent a lot of hours while on liberty, parting with his money on beer and strippers.
With all of this detailed new outdoor planning, it was inconceivable that any big surprises could await us. I mean we had planned this down to a gnat’s ass. So, in September nearly 2,000 of us descended on Pensacola Beach. Wow, this was going to be great! The catering was set, the hootches, stage, four holers and volleyball courts were all in place. So we stormed the beach in true Marine Corps fashion. We were looking good! But our old “friend" Murphy was lurking once again. Let’s think about this; Pensacola Beach in September. Hmmm… Oh Crap! It was hurricane season (no wonder we had gotten such good hotel rates). And there was a big tropical storm making its way across the Gulf. It had us bore-sighted. Oh, Mommy!
Chapter 7 - Inadvertent IFR Conditions - We Go For Authenticity
Nearly 2,000 people were lined up in the hallways waiting to check in for the ’94 Pensacola reunion. The lines were way too long and it was taking the attendees forever to log in. Our position had been overrun… “Broken Arrow!” Note to self: The check-in problem had to be fixed for upcoming reunions. But that wasn’t my biggest concern at the moment. I was huddled in the bar with a number of others watching the weather on TV. A tropical storm was bearing down on us from the Gulf. All the hootches, tents, banners, port-a-potties, stage, chairs, volleyball courts, etc. could be in Milton before the day was over. Fasten your seatbelts.
We were at the mercy of Mother Nature and there wasn’t much that could be done except to offer up a few prayers for this storm to change course. Funny how so many “got religion" that day… in the bar. And since we were in the pub, well drinking was a definite option also, even though it was not yet noon. But, as the song title says… It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere. For the next few hours, with eyes glued to the TV, the storm kept coming at us. We got a group of volunteers together to help batten down the hatches as much as possible, and waited it out. It would eventually turn out to be a near miss, but the wind did blow like hell, the rain came down by the bucketfuls and no sun would be seen for the next four days. It was quite the adventure to be holding our first reunion in the “Sunshine State.”
Saturday night was the big steak cookout on the beach. As it started The Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne, was playing on a big movie screen on stage. Jim Hatch (’34 Dog Driver and very accomplished singer) had already played his guitar and sang a set of USMC/Vietnam songs that he had written. The weather had eased up a little. Maybe we can pull this off after all. Yeah right.. After most had gotten their entrees, they were lined up along the south facing walkway behind the Best Western hotel getting the rest of their food and drinks. And then our posit took a direct hit. The skies opened up. The wind blew sideways directly into everyone standing in line, sand blasting their steaks in hand. There was no place to hide. I re-positioned myself on the second floor balcony of a nearby hotel and looked down on what was going on. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. People were being pummeled by upwards of 50 kt winds and looking like drowned rats. My heart sank. Boy, did I ever screw this up. The attendees had flown in from all over the country, and spent good money only to take an endless barrage of Mother Nature’s incoming. Can’t remember ever having felt so low.
I guess my body language said it all, as I observed what was going on. I then felt a tap on the shoulder. It was one of my good friends and one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. Now get this irony, given the conditions. It was Dennis “Drippy” Weathers. Drippy turned to me and said something along the lines of, “Duke, you look like you just lost your best friend.” I think my response was something like, “I can’t tell you how badly I feel, I really dropped the ball on this one.”
And then, as only Drippy could say it (we had also nicknamed him “Foghorn Leghorn” after the southern politician cartoon character, because of his sometimes stammering southern drawl), he said the last thing I expected to hear.
“I say, I say, you don’t seem to get it. Take a closer look at the expressions on the people’s faces below. They’re all smiling. They are having the time of their life. The weather, it don’t mean nuthin’. They are all back together again. That’s what really counts. In fact, some of them wanted me to tell you that you’re a genius." “Huh, I’m a what??"
“Yeah,” he says. “They are in awe of how you were able to plan this out so well that the monsoon blew in right on schedule… just like 'Nam.” The weight of the world had just been lifted off of my shoulders. I would live to fight another day. In fact, before the reunion was over and the gale winds were still blowing, I was already being asked when and where the next reunion would be?
GOOD GRIEF, THERE'S DEFINITELY SOMETHING NOT QUITE RIGHT WITH THESE PEOPLE … My kind of folks.
Regarding the question on the next reunion location, I would have to give that one some serious thought. I knew one thing for sure, it would be somewhere indoors, with no hurricanes or sand. After returning home, and conferring with the Board, we reached a decision for ‘96. “Hello, Bally’s? We’d like to return to Las Vegas, except this time we’re bringing 2,000 Marines instead of the original eight as we did back in ’86.” Their reply… “When can you get here? We want you back, we ruv you, G.I.” So the reunion planning began. The 1996 PopASmoke reunion would turn out to my personal favorite, and I think that of many others as well. Put the “Elvi’s” on standby, and hide the women and children. The troop insert will be taking place again in Sin City in two years.
Chapter 8 - America’s Greatest Generation… And Its Sons
It had become very apparent we really had a special group of great people making up our organization. Our in-country squadron commanding officers and other senior O’s and enlisted were WWII and Korean vets. Most of the rest of us were young enough to be their sons. We looked up to them, and they showed us the way. Many of our own fathers had also served in those same conflicts.
The PopASmoke membership had now expanded to also include corpsmen, mechs, armorers, and flight surgeons. Our original Rule #1 of the bylaws was in full effect – YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO SPELL “H-34.” It was said jokingly, but conveyed a much deeper sentiment… lifelong friendships that had been formed amongst all of us who had served together in Vietnam. It was who we were and would always be. That warrior ethos and camaraderie born in combat had defined us for the rest of our lives. This was the PopASmoke Spirit. Pity those who never served.
As mentioned earlier, we were all on a first name basis. Whether you had been a PFC or were still on active duty and wearing stars on your shoulders, there was no distinction. In fact, there was a certain Lieutenant General who attended the reunions and when addressed as “Sir,” would let you know immediately that’s not how we do it here at PopASmoke. He was one of us, a squadron pilot back in Vietnam, and a helluva nice guy. He was now the Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation at HQMC. It was still difficult for some to call him by his first name so his nickname, “Assassin," worked just fine.
We were now bringing in big time money to the hotels, catering and other associated businesses. We were getting support from the local Marine Corps I & I detachments and Marine Corps League organizations. It's a good thing we had cleaned up our act… well as best we could anyway. And that brings us to the ’96 Las Vegas Reunion. One of our members, Scotty Roberts, owned a T-28 and made a low flyby over the Thursday afternoon get together at the pool. I hired a local banner tow aircraft, and it made several passes up and down The Strip. The banner read: WELCOME HOME, MARINES. Bally’s let us use their largest ballroom for our Saturday night dinner that consisted of approximately 2,100 members, wives and other guests. It was decorated with a number of our own special banners inside. One of the favorites…
Our after dinner show started with “Father” J.P. Donoghue giving his opening “blessing.” It brought the house down (you really had to be there). HMM-263's Mike Clausen came up on stage and was recognized for his heroic actions for which he received the Medal of Honor. Next, the corpsmen were invited up on stage for special recognition. After a long standing ovation for them, in true Corps tradition, it was now time to ambush the “Squids.” A recording of the Village People singing In The Navy blared throughout the ballroom. It didn’t take long for Doc Jones, Doc Eagles and Doc Proutey to start dancing onstage for the crowd. Jones was dressed in a flight suit, jungle boots and cover. And he outdid himself with some noteworthy dance moves. The crowd ate it up. There was a lot more to come. Personally, I had flown many medevacs with Tom Eagles. So, I re-introduced him to the crowd and recognized him (and am sure embarrassed him) for what he had done and who he was… The most humble and bravest man I had ever known. Tommy had served in Vietnam for over seven years! He exemplified the FMF corpsmen. They had saved so many lives.
That ceremony was followed by a wedding on stage. I had gotten wind that Joe Tomlinson and his fiance, Diana, were going to get married in one of the Vegas chapels in the basement at Bally’s that weekend. Couldn’t let it happen that way, not on our watch. We secretly located a lady pastor, brought Joe and Diana up on stage (much to their surprise), and they took their vows in front of a couple thousand of their closest friends. Military tradition dictates that the newlyweds then depart under a gauntlet of overhead crossed swords. Hmmm… didn’t have any swords available. Time to improvise, adapt and overcome. Joe’s old squadron, VMO-2, formed an arch offstage holding up crossed dinner butter knives, through which the couple exited. Ooorah!
And the saga continued… Bally’s also let us use the entire pool and cabana area for an outside private party. Chris Noel was there emceeing the events. Doc Jones gave a very inspired emotional talk remembering those that couldn’t be saved. It was a very moving time for all, serving as a reminder as one of the main reasons we hold these reunions. “Rocky" Graziano got hold of the microphone (we were a captive audience), and finished things off at the podium as he sang the Marines' Hymn. We would never forget our friends who were killed in action.
There were showgirls on site all decked out in their “Feather Boa Utilities.” I had hired a John Wayne and an Elvis impersonator. Elvis, especially, was terrific. And the wives were thrilled! He was mobbed by the ladies, and The King stayed at the party much longer than he had originally planned. All the food was superb. And those piles of shrimp… they just kept coming and coming, had to be a couple of divisions of them. They overran our position. In fact, it got to the point where even Marines couldn’t finish them all off. We had to start giving the little fellers away to the hotel security staff and others. Yeah, we had definitely upgraded from the days of “Ham and Muthas.”
As dusk fell, VMO-2, in true Deadlock tradition, was the first squadron to roll in hot… right into the pool, fully clothed. They were led by Joe Healy, Jim Lattimer and Charlie Maddocks. The rest of the squadron followed, as the sixties rock and roll music played on. They were quickly followed by many from the other squadrons. The civilians who were riding by on the overhead monorail, observing the festivities below, couldn’t believe what they were seeing. In fact, after exiting the tram, a number of them came down to get a closer look at this Happy Hour Extraordinaire'. There were some who tried to gain entrance into the party. JD “Chocks” Barber and Buz “The Beach Weasel” Shantry volunteered to guard the entrance and keep the civilians at bay. Just watching them in action was a show unto itself, as they turned away the potential intruders. Apparently these two had received battlefield promotions, ‘cuz there was a whole lot of authority on display. The civilians never stood a chance. As long as we kept JD and Buz supplied with martinis and shrimp, they continued to stand guard. And as the homeless cardboard sign reads, they indeed… WORKED FOR FOOD.
Somehow we had put four reunions together in Sin City, and didn't have to post bail for anyone with the Las Vegas Metro Police Dept. Best not push our luck with a fifth attempt. Time to git while the gittin' was good. It wasn’t long before we started planning for the next outing in '98, somewhere else in the lower 48. After some well thought out pros and cons for a future location, we “Mensa Member Geniuses" leading this formation, came to a rock solid decision (evidently, short term memory loss had stricken all of us). “Hey, let’s go back to Pensacola. We could have some Vietnam era helos fly in and also set up another Marble Mountain beach setting as in ’94. That squadron hootch idea on the beach was really swell. Surely, the weather would cooperate this time. I mean we couldn’t get monsoon'd twice in a row could we?"
“No, not a chance, and don't call me Shirley!”
Chapter 9 - Monsoon Memories
Thursday, 17 Sept 1998 – Approximately 2,200 Marines stormed Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island. We were back for a second amphibious assault on the same ground that we had taken four years earlier. We didn’t need no stinkin' weather forecast, we already knew the drill. No need to pack your sunscreen, ‘cuz it’ll probably be overcast and rain most of the time. It did, and we didn’t care.
Cars with numerous out of state license plates filled the parking lots. They all had PopASmoke and Marine Corps stickers on the bumpers and rear windows. It was time to peg out our “fun meters” once again. And we did, even documented it with lots of pictures and home movies. The four day event played out pretty much as it had in ’94. We held our Board meeting at a nearby restaurant across the street from the hotels. For some strange reason everyone had a craving for wings and beer. So, coincidentally we ended up in Hooters. It was so close by, was the rationale. One of the agenda items for the meeting was once again tweaking the name of the organization to something a little shorter and to the point. After a few pitchers of beer, the combined brilliance of the Board members started kicking in. You want short and simple, we got your short and simple right here… How about we call ourselves HOOTERCOPTERS? Yeah, great idea! Well on second thought, maybe not. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
We voted on a new, more acceptable name. From now on (that is, until it gets changed again) we would officially be known as the USMC/Vietnam Helicopter Association. Although as we all knew, PopASmoke by any other name was still PopASmoke.
Some big things had been happening to our group over the years… The Discovery Channel had contacted us and wanted to do a documentary about Marine helicopter operations in Vietnam. We agreed to the idea, and learned that it would not only contain in-country video of our ops, but also some one on one interviews with those who had been there. We’d be able to include '98 reunion footage of the squadrons’ beach hootch activities in the film as well. We didn’t know what the name of the documentary would be, who would narrate it, or when and where it would be shown. Several months later we were informed that it would soon appear on the Discovery Wings Channel, as well as some other military/history television stations. The name that they came up with for the film was Vietnam’s Helicopter Heroes.
“Huh, you talkin' to me?" Oh what the heck, as the Marine Corps recruiting ad had said, “It’s Hard To Be Humble When You’re The Finest.”
Johnny Cash had recorded a song in ’94 called “Drive On.” It was about those who had served in Vietnam, and the reception they had received upon returning home. The song had scored a direct hit in the 10 ring for us. Harvey Bell, who was related to Johnny Cash, had arranged for the “Man in Black" to call into our reunion and talk to us at a specified time. As we all gathered it was announced to the crowd what was about to take place. There was a lot of skepticism from those in the audience. Most thought that we were setting them up for a prank. That is until the phone patch came through from Nashville. All doubt was erased after hearing Cash's first words in that distinctive voice. He had always supported those who fought in Vietnam, and proceeded to relay those feelings to all.
At the ’98 reunion, we had a number of Vietnam era helos fly in. A restored H-34 (a project honcho'd by Al Weiss and a lot of volunteers) stole the show as it flew over Pensacola’s Vietnam Wall, where we had all gathered. The patriotic singing group, The Bridge Builders, performed for us. They were led by Carl Jones, a Vietnam Marine veteran. The group cut a special CD album just for our organization. It contained a number of original songs that were right on the mark. The songs “Ugly Angel,” and “Corpsman Up” were especially meaningful.
Several of the members had written books about their experiences in Vietnam. To name just a few… Ron Winter wrote “Masters of the Art,” Harvey Bell – “1369,” Bob Stoffey – “Cleared Hot,” LtGen Robert Keller – “Three Wars…..One Marine.” And probably the most well known of all was “Bonnie-Sue,” written by Marion Sturkey. “Sturk” had been a ’46 pilot and flown with HMM-265. The book title was the squadron’s in-country callsign. It was a great recounting of facts that read as if it were a novel. Sturk followed with several more books dealing with subject matter about the Marine Corps and military & civilian aviation. They were all excellent, and written by a great guy.
I had also become aware of another book written by a Marine grunt, Michael Norman, who had served in Vietnam. The book’s title was These Good Men. It was outstanding. One particular passage in it really caught my attention. I was so impressed, that I contacted Michael and asked if he would mind if our organization used it. It was so well written and expressed perfectly the lifelong bond that had been formed by us in Vietnam. He said that he would be honored. So, we adopted it. It was called…
Chapter 10 - Turning On Final, Lucky Looks Back
On a personal note, I decided I would step down as president of the Association at the end of '98, after the reunion. I'd had a run of a dozen years at the helm, and it was time for someone else to take the reins. Charlie “Mad Dog" Maddocks had already taken over the newsletter writing duties and he was doing a superb job. “Fast Eddy" Creamer had been especially helpful in making the newsletter a success as well for years, with his very humorous anecdotes and stories of our in-country adventures. Al Barbour agreed to take over as president in the interim until a permanent replacement “volunteered." Then it was JD's time at bat. Our membership had grown from just a few to now having located thousands who had served. Additionally, one of the unforeseen, wonderful things that had occurred along the way was hearing from the parents and other relatives of those friends of ours who had been killed in action. They wanted to know if there was a way to put them in touch with some of our members who had flown with their sons, brothers and fathers (sometimes on their last missions). We did that and they were able to gain firsthand insights into their loved ones' time in Vietnam. Prior to that, the only information they had received was what had been officially sent from HQMC during the war. They had now become a part of our PopASmoke family also, and some would begin attending the reunions.
It had been quite a 12 year ride. As noted, a lot had occurred. Totally unplanned, we took a couple of basic ideas, ensured that we would keep the fun in the organization, formed into a 501(c), kept the annual dues at just $35/yr and the rest fell into place. It was pretty much non-stop, handling the workload that came with the organization growing as quickly as it did. But it was indeed a Labor of Love. There were other, behind the scenes things, that happened along the way that shaped the history of how PopASmoke came to be. For those not familiar with them, they are noted below…
It couldn't have happened without those who volunteered their time to make it all come together. “The Sarge," Brian Baker, put his Chief of Police experience to work in Pensacola keeping party crashers out of our “Friendly Ville." People like Larry Zok and Tom Rodriguez volunteered often and put in lots of time helping the organization in many ways. They and others manned the PopASmoke venue at The Wall on Memorial Day during Rolling Thunder. “LZ" also did double duty as a member of the Board. People like Ben Cascio (“The One and Only One-Eyed Ugly") were always front and center to offer up whatever assistance might be needed. And some of the proof of his capers (along with myself and others) will forever be locked up in an unknown secure place. Although there is one piece of evidence that got away, a photo, showing a few of us “paying our respects" to HQMC at a D.C. reunion.
In the beginning, “The Prince," “Tuna," Dale and my wife, Madeline, helped fold and stuff envelopes for the quarterly newsletters that would stack up on the kitchen counter every three months. We licked a lot of envelopes and stamps during those early years. Bert Zwaagstra donated $1,000 to the association when we were operating on a shoestring. Mike Leahy, with his masterful literary and artistic abilities, also contributed a lot of time essentially re-writing a book about our group and its members that was published in 1996 by a professional publishing company. Unfortunately, the company had come up well short of our expectations in their final draft. Mike made it right with hundreds of hours of editing. BTW, Mike had been one of the first Marine helicopter pilots in the Korean war, went to Vietnam as a Marine combat artist, and also manned the M-60’s when needed on various missions. He was someone of exceptional abilities. His artwork can still be seen and purchased at thehootch.com. You owe it to yourself to check it out.
Hot Recon Team Extract
At the 2000 San Diego reunion, Jim Moriarty flew out his recently restored H-34 “Dog.” Needless to say, it was a big hit. Since I think the statute of limitations has run out, I can now 'fess up to the following… On the Friday morning of the reunion, I had arranged with ATC and Lindbergh tower to fly a modified approach in the “Dog” to Runway 27. We were sequenced between the inbound airliners. I had informed the tower that I would be breaking off the approach at the numbers and departing northwest at low level. Things went exactly as planned, and I was able to fly a low pass over the MCRD parade grounds just when the graduation was ending. As everyone looked up, and saw the green Vietnam helo, M-60s hanging out the sides, and the Wright-Cyclone 1820 engine roaring its distinctive sound, they probably thought it was an approved maneuver as part of the closing ceremonies. It wasn't.
MCRD Flyover. Pictured: "Bytes" Beddoe. Photo: Dan Hottle
One of the other reunion events that we had arranged was to have a ceremony at the MCAS Miramar flightline. We also had a special guest. It was Tab Hunter. He spoke to the reunion attendees and explained his personal connection to Vietnam and those Marine helo crews that served there. His brother had been a corpsman with us. Unfortunately he was killed at Marble Mountain one night during a VC satchel charge attack. He was in one of the medevac standby helos on the line when a charge was thrown in.
On a happier note, many of the wives talked with and had their pictures taken with Tab Hunter in front of the ’34. There was a lot of reminiscing about the old days, and he was happy to oblige everyone. He was the real deal, and a very nice man. He had his picture taken with a number of the wives.
Madeline Herman, Tab Hunter, and the “Dog”
Of the many members’ ideas along the way, there was one in particular I really liked. As soon as I saw it, I knew we had struck gold. And with a little tweaking, it would make a nice Vietnam veteran’s bumper sticker. I had a couple thousand made up, and sent them out to the members. The idea caught on immediately. The stickers were appearing on rear bumpers throughout the country. One of them even ended up on display in a bar in Hanoi. Gotta love it when a plan comes together.
PAYBACK'S A MUTHA!
There was another idea that I had been thinking about for awhile, back around the '97 timeframe. It involved a new high tech way of communicating with computers on something called the Internet. So, in December of that year I was searching the web for some ideas and came across a site called “The Marine GuestBook.” This was what I had been looking for. It was extremely well done and the webmaster was a former Marine. His name was Wally Beddoe. He’d been in the Corps from 1981-1985, serving in the AirWing at MCAS Tustin.
Convinced that a website for the organization would probably be a good thing to have, I contacted Wally via email and gave him a short brief on our organization. I asked if he knew how we could get started with a website. We talked on the phone for the first time shortly after that. I was living in California and he was in Connecticut (we wouldn’t actually meet each other until several months later).
Wally didn’t hesitate and volunteered to put the site together for us. And he wouldn’t take any money to do this! He asked what I had in mind for the look of the site. After kicking around some ideas, we began building it. We’d talk back and forth often. During this period of time, the site was not online, but there was a web address that we used to look at it as changes were made. Little did I know the site would eventually record millions of hits. As 1998 rolled around, the PopASmoke.com domain name went hot… online to the world. The rest is history, as they say. Wally also began attending our reunions. He was now one of us. A nickname was needed for him. Wally “Bytes" Beddoe seemed appropriate. He is still the webmaster today and continues to improve on what is already perfection. I’ve heard from many over the years about the site. And the comments have always been the same. What he built is considered to be the best veterans website on the Internet. Wally is definitely the heart of PopASmoke!
So that’s the story of how it all began and grew throughout the early years. Later, after JD's time as president ended, Bruce Colbert ran the organization until another member “volunteered" to honcho things. “Slick" Katz took over as president next. Other new members, like John “Psycho" Ruffini, would join-up and contribute significantly to the organization and carry on the PopASmoke Spirit. And another aspect of that pilot and aircrew spirit could also be summed up with a great line from Harvey's book… THE BEST MEDAL IS A LIVE MAN'S SMILE.
In closing, there is something that very few are aware of. It happened way back in 1988. One of our early members was John Roots. At the time, he was working in Washington D.C. He called me and asked if I would like to receive a letter of recognition on behalf of the organization. It would reflect what the Marine helicopter pilots and aircrews did in Vietnam. I was very appreciative, and of course the answer was “Yes.” Not long thereafter I received the following letter.
IT'S FOR EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU…
WELCOME HOME and SEMPER FIDELIS…