by E. G. Southworth
Gettysburg Class of 1964
You will absorb this 1967 prospect of the 1955-1975 Republic of Vietnam (RVN) era from the same temporal distance that my Gettysburg class of 1964 did back to World War One (WWI) or that graduates then, did back to our Civil War. With apologies to unmentioned others who served, my complete deference to the ground combatants supported, and acronyms so numerous that they are explained in an attached glossary, opinion is minimized in favor of reporting my Marine H-34 helicopter experiences. For any of you left with a taste for more things helicopter and Vietnam, popasmoke.com is an in-depth, albeit salty, resource.
Although our College Union Building (CUB) commemorates 14 Gettysburg family member and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists over 58,000 American lives lost, these capture only part of the RVN era. It was a time which also included widespread opposition to the war and civil disobedience at home, the draft which spawned a large emigration of eligibles to Canada, and civil rights groups which marched their way out of our 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, Jim Crow, separate-but-equal years, through the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education finding that Plessy was unconstitutional, and into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone smoked, PX cigarettes cost $1.10 a carton, the post-depression savings ethic morphed into sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll overspending, and Elvis was king.
Historiography of this prospect is an internet, cruise book, and flight log refreshed product of my own first-hand recollection, and accounts are based on thoughts and things that happened to me, to others identified by name, or to those anonymously and collectively pseudonymed, John-Boy. This account contains the artificiality of knowing more about things now than when they happened, a softened transcription of the all-male language which used F*** for all parts of speech, and the unintended first-person-point-of-view implication that I was the sharpest arrow in the quiver. There is also the certainty that parts of this prospect will elicit grins from some of you and groans from others, because you ultimately own what is written and consume it with whatever you bring to the table. Should length or detail distract, the CliffsNotes guide is that I dodged the draft by becoming a Marine Corps helicopter pilot in Vietnam, loved it, and lived to grow up and share some of my experiences with you.
Dad graduated from Cornell, Phi Beta Kappa, worked as a marketing and farm economist for the US Department of Agriculture, taught at Penn State University, and is written up in WHO’S WHO. Mom was a Wellesley graduate who stayed home by choice and prepared three meals a day. Together, they raised four sons. My 1960 State College [PA] Area High School social studies teacher, Louise Tarman gave me an alumna steer to Gettysburg College where I became a member of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE, aka Tau Kappa Everybody), thrived amongst a diverse and talented fraternal mix of individuals, enjoyed a ton of inter-fraternity competitive successes, lettered in baseball, and dedicated most of my matriculation to a celebration of intramural sports and youth. I minored in math under Dr. Arms, majored in psychology under Dr. Mudd, and joyously failed to mature. In May of 1964, I opened a letter from Bellefonte, PA which conveyed the graduation amendment of my 2-S draft deferment to 1-A and the requirement for a physical. Walking away from the mailboxes in the Student Union Building (SUB), it did not take much of my C+ average mindset to conclude that unless I did something, something would be done to me. Before exiting what is now the College Union Building (CUB), crossing what was then Stine Lake, and passing the still Lutheran College Chapel towards 223 Carlisle Street which used to be the TKE House, I applied for jobs with the two employers recruiting on opposite sides of the SUB’s Bullet Hole grill. I responded to a powerful poster of a flight-helmeted Marine Corps pilot in an F-4 Phantom jet and signed up with the Peace Corps. After a short period of dual screenings and physicals, I received a telegram from Sargent Shriver accepting and sending me to Liberia for two years. If I had not raised my right hand and been sworn into the Marine Corp three days earlier, I would have gone to Africa. I have since realized that I followed Yogi Berra’s axiom: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” A later-grasped corollary was that life’s forks require but are not usually accompanied by wisdom or decision-making expertise. That said and without regret, I have remained grateful to my parents for installing my compass, to Gettysburg College for educating me, and to the Marine Corps for giving me direction.
What thought I gave to war was under the presumption that it was a necessary answer to a national problem, little different from that of a bully on the play yard who remains unmoved by reason and ruining everyone else’s second grade. In either case, solving the problem with force is its own righteous reward, with glory and sacrifice attendant only in the retelling, but war requires public financial and popular support, elders harnessing younger folks to fight, and stages of training which bridge the leap from milkshakes to C-rations (C-rats).
After my last summer job on Martha’s Vineyard Island, MA, I stood in line two of three at Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, VA while a guy in uniform barked his way through an alphabetic roll-call. Through a third of his list, he got “Here Sir” responses, but then he accentuated a painful pause with a no less authoritative,
“A to Z, George-type.”
“Here Sir,” responded Officer Candidate George Hadzewycz. Roll-call was followed by a guided walk, picking up boots, utilities (working/field uniforms), towels, and toilet articles, and then another smaller group-gaggle escorted by SSgt Bradford to B-Company, 2nd Platoon barracks where I literally ran into G. H. Fors. I ignorantly stepped on his bottom bunk as a platform for reaching mine above, Gary shoved me, I got into his face, and, to my seriously outmanned good fortune, our nose-to-nose chat was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Gary’s Puyallup [WA] high school goal was to fly F-4s for the Marine Corps, and he traveled the extremely unlikely serial enlisted forks from Washington State University to top honors at boot camp, Infantry Training, Advanced Infantry Training, recognition as a Meritorious NCO, selection to OCS, and the bunk below mine. A. J. Squared-away had a big lead in all things Marine, but the college kid (Joe-shit-the-ragman) matched him on hill-trail runs and was soon able to field-strip and reassemble an M-14 rifle in the dark. We both qualified as the building block for all Marine tactical structures, a rifleman dedicated to accomplishing any combat mission ordered, but Gary shot expert and patronized me without pity for earning the toilet-seat (that’s what it looks like) badge of marksman. Both of us could run three miles in combat gear and in under 18 minutes (Bob Brulette routinely ran 15-flat), but I was one of 10 Officer Candidates in the battalion who could do the obstacle course in under a minute (Bob O’Kennon did it regularly in 50 seconds), and Gary wasn’t. My position well behind Gary’s mastery of Marine Corps etiquette regarding communication and respect for rank was clearly evidenced when I responded to a bunk inspection question from SSgt Bradford with
“Yeah…” There was no overt recognition of my gaff, but I felt the groan of a soundless 48-man squad-bay and the later sympathy in Gary’s guarded glance when I was called to the office. After my ritualistic knock (pounding the pine) and SSgt Bradford’s
“Enter,” he added the dreaded, “—and close the door behind you.” I came to attention about three feet in front of his desk with
“Reporting as ordered, Staff Sergeant.” He stood up from his chair, walked slowly around, and planted himself between the desk and me with
“I would appreciate it if you would make a move, so I can beat the shit out of you.” A fly on the wall reported that I did not appear threatened or piss my pants, but eye-balled the top of SSgt Bradford’s forehead. All I could think of was his many-times repeated mantra, “It’s not when you die but how you die.” I watched as the candidate calmly ignored the SSgt’s request and asked that he make this a training event by saying what it was about. He knew that I knew that he knew that I knew that this was about
“Yeah,” and I could feel his glare through my C+ brain-housing-group and out the back of my skull, but he paused and disengaged with,
“Dismissed.” I made an about-face and departed, leaving the door open behind me, knowing that I had somehow dodged a bullet. Gary just shook his head in disbelief, the subject vanished,
“Yeah” left my vocabulary, and the 1960s version of we-don’t-promise-you-a rose-garden training continued. Schooled in various other rifleman, fire-team, and squad tactics, Gary and I were tops in our platoon in pugil-stick fighting (simulating bayonet combat), he was a bulldog, I a cat, and we were unbeaten without facing each other. It was not obvious until the last week of OCS that the various platoon instructors had been grooming and betting on individuals to be matched up during field competition between Companies A and B. About twenty candidates from each company lined up on opposite sides of the field, helmeted and awaiting our turns with the pugil-stick, a wooden staff, padded at both ends, and about the length of an M-14 with fixed bayonet. The rules were simple. Fight and stop on single blasts from an instructor/referee’s whistle, and, occasionally, three blasts brought on two more combatants to help send a message to anyone deemed not fighting well. Lupori (I do not remember his first name) was arguably the best pugil-stick fighter in both companies, he had played football for a big school out west, was powerful, fast, and started out in line across from Gary, who stood next to and one match ahead of me. Then the instructors on both sides of the field began to move combatants around the match between Gary and Lupori, which appeared preordained. The rest of us busily recalculated who we would face, until Gary leveled a last-second substitute, leaving me facing Lupori, and the whistle blew. Adrenalin took over, and everything seemed to flow in slow-motion. I faked a low horizontal butt stroke towards his left knee and hit him in the face with a frontal thrust that snapped his head back. Clearly a kill. There was no whistle, and Lupori was pissed. He advanced and muscled horizontal thrusts at my head with one end of the pugil-stick and then the other. I retreated, blocked the first few cuffs, then ducked down pretending to run, planted one end of my stick on the ground and directed a less convincing strike with the other to his groin with only the force of his own advance, and still no whistle. He did not knock me down, but I saw stars from a flurry of partially and then unblocked blows, the whistle blew, and I retook my place in line, staring straight ahead, flushed with the rage of public humiliation. Gary risked censure with a backhand slap to my hip, and SSgt Bradford got in my face with a long genuine smile and formed the words without a sound, “Good fight.”
“Yeah.” I didn’t say it, but I knew that SSgt Bradford had transcended praising the good and punishing the bad with real leadership that got both of us beyond the closed-door incident. I have felt as bonded with Marines many times since, but never more.
Gary could close a deal before I was done investigating it, but we complemented and pushed each other from my rebirth as a Marine Corps rifleman to our commissioning as Second Lieutenants, 3rd and 4th in the Battalion, me and he, respectively.
We went on to beach houses and flight training in Pensacola, FL.
Five of us lived at 1215 Ariola and a like number with Steve Rhoederer and Gary Porter, two houses east. I imagine that Gulf Coast bachelor-life today would be as filled with memories as it must have been for the first Naval Aviators whose surnames are now preceded by Naval Air Station (NAS), and I know that my mid-1960s group survived hangovers from the Tiki and Dirty Joes on the beach, Trader John’s and the Hotel San Carlos, down town, and forays west to Mobile and New Orleans and east to Panama City and Tallahassee. This generation’s aviators may still feel occasional aftershocks in the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood from the seismic performance of the Ike and Tina Turner Review that swallowed Ron Zappardino, Ron Council (The Media Meteor, MARCAD, fellow TKE – Gettysburg class of 1963, and later H-34 pilot), and me on the Abe’s 506 Club dance floor, early in the morning, one night in 1965.
Basic Flight training involved soloing the T-34 at NAS Saufley, and advanced aerobatics, formation, navigation, and instrument training in T-28s at NAS Whiting. I remember marveling that I was given a 1525 horsepower airplane to play with and recall two significant events. A miscommunication-caused mid-air collision in the landing pattern one afternoon killed three pilots and saw a fourth survive a flaming low altitude bail-out, make a parachute landing, and drop out of the flight training program at his own request (DOR).
“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous.
But to an even greater degree than the sea,
it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”
Captain A. G. Lamplugh
British Aviation Insurance Group
London, circa 1930
A second event exposed the cavernous learning experience between pre-flight and aviation competence. There must have been twenty of us getting briefed before one would go first on the T-28 night-navigation training flight. All of us had maps and worked out knee-board charts of times and compass headings between flight-planned waypoints, mostly well-lighted towns along a circuit beginning and ending at NAS Whiting. It was a beautifully clear, visual flight rules (VFR), summer night, and we were briefed to make individual takeoffs, join up in trail around a lighted water tower, and depart separately at five-minute intervals. I faked indifference to being appointed first, took off, established a wide circle around the light, watched as the others joined me, and was on the verge of relaxing when the instructor/chase pilot filled the airwaves with profanity and pejorative heading instructions. I had led our circling flight around the light of a freight train heading for Pensacola, and barely got my heart beating back beneath my flight suit by the time I departed from the real water tower on the first leg. The visual cues defining all the waypoints hopelessly blended in with too many others, I remained unsure of where I was, and simply turned to my knee-board chart headings at the planned times until I miraculously ended up back at Whiting Field. To my relief, my feared failure of this syllabus event was only a serious de-brief ribbing, we all passed, and it was a couple of weeks later at the Officer’s Club (O’club, aka club) before, first one and then others, admitted to staying lost and just following the aircraft ahead of them. We all experienced the aviating reality that the two most important instruments in the cockpit were the compass and the clock.
I married and Gary didn’t. He went on to jet training at NAS Meridian [MS] and I didn’t.
I began helicopter training at NAS Ellyson in the H-34 which has side-by-side pilot seats and is configured with dual left-hand throttle/collective and right-hand cyclic controls. Understanding the flight attitudes of all aircraft involves pitch (motion about an aircraft’s side-to-side axis), roll (motion about an aircraft’s fore-and-aft axis), and yaw (motion about an aircraft’s vertical axis. Helicopters are controlled and flown like all other aircraft, except that they are capable of maneuvering at airspeeds below which airplanes require ground-roll on a runway to produce lift for take-off and landing. Without getting technical, hovering, ground effect, translational lift, and autorotation set helicopter maneuvering apart from that of airplanes. Hovering is stationary or slow flight with reference to a fixed point. Hovering out of ground effect (HOGE) is flight, powered only by engine-driven collective pitch of the rotor blades. Ground effect is created by downwash from the main rotor system forming a supporting cushion of air which decreases the power required for operating close to the ground or hovering in ground effect (HIGE). Translational lift is generated when the main rotor system begins to act like the cambered surface of an airplane wing, at 10-15 knots of forward airspeed, producing additional aerodynamic lift and less engine power required. Autorotation is flying without engine power and controlling rates of descent, proportionally, by changing pitch attitudes and increasing (nose down) or decreasing (nose up) airspeeds. The effects of wind direction and speed on these regimens of flight and transitioning between them are enormous and add significant nuance to the Naval Aviation and Training Operations (NATOPS) manual answered question of how much weight can be lifted, flown, and landed during any operational mission event. Details are addressed in the glossary but learning to fly was like learning to type or ride a bike. I absorbed NATOPS, aerodynamic, weather, navigation, and system (engine, flight-control, electrical, fuel, hydraulic, and avionic) knowledge, practiced flight maneuvers, memorized operating procedures, and earned my naval aviator wings in June of 1966. Then it was on to Helicopter Medium Marine Squadron (HMM) – 162 at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River, NC for tactical training, beginning to type words instead of letters, flying with little thought of balance or pedaling, and qualifying as a helicopter 2nd pilot (H2P/copilot/left-seater).
If all this sounds like I was consumed by Quantico, Pensacola, and New River training without a life, it’s only because I’ve skipped over the routine post-college marriage, first child, and continued participation in sports. My next fork in the road produced goodbyes, motor-bikes with Roger Peterson, Ron Zappardino, and other Marines instead of motel rooms until morning in San Francisco, flights and card games through Honolulu, Wake, Guam, and Okinawa, betting on the Habu or Mongu in the Camp Smedley Butler O’Club, stories of steam-jobs-and-blow-baths off-base, aka in the vill, and alcohol. It was like descending on an instrument approach and breaking out of the clouds into visual conditions in November of 1966, when I stepped out of the Saturn Airlines Hercules aircraft, sibling of the Marine Corps C-130 transport, in Danang.
Leaving air-conditioning for the next 13 months, I wondered if I needed to duck to avoid getting shot and smothered the imponderable worry that I might panic in harm’s way. Squinting into bright heat and blowing dust between the Marble Mountains and the South China Sea and staring straight ahead, like a woman who will not let men know she’s interested, I descended the portable jetway to the tarmac. Peripheral travelers, fuelers, baggage handlers, and jeep-drivers mingled with a peaceful array of civilians in black-pajamas, businessmen in bright ties and light suits, and Marines in green soft-covers, tee-shirts, utility trousers, and jungle boots, some with side-arms, and none of them were ducking.
With little understanding of assignments within the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III-MAF) command structure, I was alone with my thoughts, individual permanent change of station (PCS) orders in a manila envelope, and a stuffed standard-issue sea bag. I strapped into a canvas passenger seat in the belly of an operational version of the same H-34 helicopter that I flew during training in Pensacola and qualification as an H2P in New River. I could see forward to the crew chief and port (left) gunner at their M-60 machine-gun stations and up to the heels of black flight boots on the raised flight deck below the ¾-inch steel plates under the helicopter aircraft commander’s (HAC’s) right and H2P’s left canvass seat cushions. The crew chief ranged aft on his gunner’s belt extension, checked seat belts locked, exchanged thumbs-up, and transmitted “Cabin ready” to the pilots over the hard-wired Internal Communications System (ICS). The pilot not flying (PNF) must have received Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radio clearance from ground control to taxi, because I felt lift, the struts from the main mounts extended, and the aircraft began to roll forward. Not privy to the tower clearance for takeoff, I absorbed the engine roar driving the rotor-blades well above the standard 2500 NATOPS rpm, felt liftoff, forward motion, shudder, and surge of efficiency passing through translational lift. An acid reflux wave of homesickness passed as the engine and blade noise quieted back to climb/cruise rpm. I sensed that navigating the complexity of command, control, and communication systems would require some time in country and watched our wingman join us in section formation, slightly starboard (right), aft, and above.
Our section headed east about half-way between the Marble Mountain Air Facility (MMAF) to the south and the Monkey Mountain radio and radar control facility to the north, the PNF handled UHF communications with Danang Tower, the Direct Air Support Center (DASC), and the Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC), called “Feet wet,” flying 500 feet above China Beach, out over the South China Sea, and radioed a “tailwheel locked and guns safe” reminder to the chase bird on the Frequency Modulated (FM) radio, and direction to the crew over the ICS. I saw water and must have dozed off, because I woke up with the crew chief’s left hand on my shoulder, a right thumb-up to my still-locked seat belt, and then a point to the port window. At 300 feet and a few hundred yards abeam, the carrier looked like a postage stamp as we slowed and descended in a left turn towards her enlarging island, amid-ship.
[“Cleared to land, spots four and five, altimeter 29.87, wind 130 @ 14Kts, Fox Corpen (compass heading of the ship) 120.”] I heard only engine and rotor noise and didn’t even see the two yellow-shirted Landing Signalmen Enlisted (LSEs) who individually hand-signaled both birds to decelerate in trail, align with the carrier deck edge, and side-sIip to nearly simultaneous landings, with three-point tie-down chains immediately applied. I followed the crew chief’s gesture towards the hatch (door) at the base of the flight deck operations island and trailed the guy ahead of me as support personnel were already folding rotor blades and tail-cones and towing the aircraft toward their elevator ride to the hanger deck below. Clutching my orders and hefting my sea bag, I tried to keep track of ladders (stairs) and hatches but settled on not caring that everyone knew I was lost, somehow checking in, finding quarters, the ready room, and the wardroom for chow. I bunked down that night, the least-experienced f***ing new guy (FNG), alone yet bonded with other aviation-specialized Marine riflemen, in HMM-362, aka Ugly Angels, aboard the LPH-2.
The USS Iwo Jima was under-way to US Naval Base Subic Bay in the Philippines for maintenance on her aviation refueling cells, creating down-time for squadron training with the Battalion Landing Team (BLT), and Rest and Relaxation (R&R) opportunities for the Special Landing Force (SLF) personnel aboard. My formal assimilation as an Ugly Angel began at the end of the morning all officer meeting (AOM) in the ready room with an introduction as an FNG, and all present sang me a hymn, “Hymn, hymn……., f*** hymn.” Then normal sizing up rituals between open acceptance and guarded acknowledgement proceeded around the core of a poker game with players being dealt in and out according to individual collateral duty requirements.
Captain G. E. (Beetle) Bailey was a designated post-maintenance inspection pilot (PIMP) involved in the quality-assurance (QA) procedure following an engine change. Dealt out and back in between trips up to the flight deck for start, runup, and hover tests, he left again for the final hour of slow time, circling the carrier within autorotational range of her flight deck. In less than half an hour, Beetle was back, wringing wet and sputtering profanity after being hoisted out of the South China Sea by the search and rescue (SAR) bird. Showered, in dry utilities, and back in the game, Beetle facilitated the informal pilot finding that it was spark, rather than air or fuel, stoppage that made the engine suddenly quit during takeoff. In an infrequent visit to the ready room, Maintenance Chief, MGySgt W. D. (Willie) Sproule conveyed that the magneto fastener had vibrated loose, and that it “will not happen again.” It was during ensuing discussions that I learned Gary Porter drowned in an H-46 incident off the Tripoli back in June.
The next few days enroute were filled with issue of flight gear, k-bar survival knife, and .38 revolver. Instructing, organizing, and interrupting all other shipboard activities were periodic public address system (One Main Circuit, aka 1MC) announcements, such as “Reveille. Reveille. Reveille. All hands heave out and trice up. Reveille.”, “Sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms—,” and “Taps. Taps. Out all white lights—.” Squadron activities centered around AOMs in the ready room, verbal jousting between Navy and Marine Officers, meals in the wardroom, and Philippine stewards who enthusiastically cleared away plates, if they were ignored for more than an instant, and cheerily replaced them with new ones just as quickly upon request. Other names and faces began to match up, but two personalities stood out. Mike Carley introduced himself as the bull lieutenant (kind of like a union shop foreman) and performed his talent for simulating a submarine dive horn (ooooooogah), and John-Boy related a couple of humorous personal stories about his family that I had just read in a wardroom copy of Reader’s Digest. Yogi would agree that there were never second chances to make the first impressions that came in overloads as we off-loaded the squadron to operate out of a conglomeration of NAS Cubi Point (1951), Subic Bay Naval Facility (1885), and the city of Olongapo (1750).
Morning and afternoon training flights focused on supporting BLT maneuvers, formation flying, unprepared surface landings, crew coordination, external lifting, and hoisting procedures. These left time for trips to the Binictian Country Club Golf Course and evening walks across the Shit River Bridge (that’s what it was called) for exciting brightly-colored Jeepney rides to other thrills in Olongapo. Visits to both the golf course and Olongapo involved more beer-drinking than anything else, but it was well-known that the out of bounds areas on the golf course were inhabited by aggressive monkeys and neurotoxic snakes (two-steppers), and that the town had thrived, since its 1898 Spanish-American War colonialization by the US, on jobs at the Naval facilities, demands of young servicemen, and supplies of even younger female residents looking for a wage or way out. Most of us enjoyed the show, some more so than others, except for John-Boy who made a show out of not taking part.
John-Boy had the collateral duty assignment of Squadron Assistant Legal Officer before I did. He had been tasked, beyond answering vendor letters of indebtedness from back home, with persuading a 20-year-old LCpl to reconsider his official request to marry a young lady from Olongapo. He admitted that this presumptive task took an alcohol-assisted turn which left him spending the night in the same bed with the LCpl, the young lady, and her older sister. I’m not sure what he reported to our Admin Officer, but he told me that I had not lived until I woke up with the sun already shining, one eye stuck shut, in bed with sisters and an enlisted Marine, a rooster crowing somewhere, a toddler in diapers running across a dirt floor, and no idea of where I was. I ran across the LCpl a decade later at Marine Air Reserve Training Detachment (MARTD) NAS New Orleans, then a GySgt with two kids and still married to the young lady from Olongapo. John-Boy’s story stayed in Olongapo, classified like a lot of other relationships on both sides of the Pacific Ocean which suffered from or thrived on separation to the rock’n’roll tune of nobody else’s business.
The uncomfortable heat and boredom of routine grew into weeks, with occasional administrative flights to the resort climes of Baguio and the huge Post Exchange (PX) at Clark Air Force Base where those of us without, purchased portable fans and tape-recorders. Thoughts of how things might go under-fire occasionally breached the hiatus, and the FNGs who had already gone through Escape and Evasion (E&E) training at Eglin AFB during Pensacola flight training, got another dose, beginning on Wednesday at noon and ending in time for Friday dinner. It was too short a time to starve, John-Boy smuggled candy bars into the jungle exercise, and the aboriginal instructors mentored their students into as much natural food as the group provided for mosquitos. A frequent spot for dinner involved a short trip along the bay’s edge to NAS Cubi Point where we rented barongs, decorative long-sleeved white shirts, which were required formal evening attire at the O’Club. The Cubi Point Bar was a gathering place for drinks, bonding, and war stories, many useful, most self-aggrandizing, and some out-right lies. It was occasionally wetted down with beer and abused, along with irrelevantly unrelated ooooooogah calls, as a simulated flight deck for alcohol fueled human-aircraft carrier-qualifications (carr-quals). Real carr-quals were accomplished when the Iwo Jima went to flight operations status at the dock for the benefit of otherwise combat qualified Ugly Angel FNGs, and we all logged six, day and three, night carrier landings. We enjoyed our H2P, left-seat, cross-cockpit visual contact with the LSEs and earned no censure from the standardization (stan) pilots who guided our progress from their right seats, with less obstructed visibility and their confidence from experience.
When the Iwo Jima’s refueling-tank maintenance was completed in late-December, on-loading activities towards returning to operational status and rejoining the SLF demonstrated the complexity of the round-the-clock Embarkation Officer responsibility for administrative loading of stores and equipment to enable in-transit access and tactical off-loading. Getting an 11,000-ton helicopter aircraft carrier underway with provisions, parts of three helicopter squadrons, and a BLT aboard was an impressive naval event with sailors in white uniforms lining both deck edges, leaving relationships of all sorts waving at the dock. Amidst formality and comically, a serviceman boarded from a last-minute and expensively-contracted Olongapo water taxi, up the underway ladder, sheepishly saluted the Ensign (American Flag, flown astern) crossed the deck in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and disappeared through the hatch at the base of the island superstructure, presumably on his way to the brig for missing movement. We were underway for Vung Tau, in the southernmost IV-corps area of South Vietnam, tasked with a joint SLF and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) search and destroy mission against a reportedly large North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) presence in the Mekong Delta, Operation Deckhouse Five.
Although the operation itself was a lesson in bad or leaked intelligence, and my baptism under fire remained on hold, the planning and execution process was a timely addition to my on-the-job (OJT) understanding of where squadron pilots fit in the big picture. World War Two (WWII) occupation by Japan, French forces thereafter, and ongoing international meddling guaranteed that Vietnamese residents of the Southeast Asian Peninsula lived a lifetime of conflict and switching allegiance to whatever local force seemed likely to allow the current season’s rice harvest. In the win-lose perception of domino-theory Chinese Communist expansion at the expense of good-guy democratic capitalism, Vietnamese geography involved its northern border with China, the South China Sea along its eastern and southern shores, and its Cambodian-Laotian boundary to the west. The 1954 post-French-colonial Geneva-conceived demilitarized zone (DMZ) ran 70 miles west, along the Ben Hai River, to the Laotian border from the coastal confluence of the east-west 17th parallel and north-south Highway 1, just north of Dong Ha. It divided Vietnam into north and south geographical components, denied Ho Chi Minh’s communist rule over one Vietnam, split his victorious Viet Minh freedom fighting forces into what became the NVA and a southern VC insurgency, and served as the northern boundary of I-Corps, aka eye-corps, Marine operating area, atop the other II-, III-, and IV-Corps military regions of South Vietnam. With Air Force assets to the west in Thailand, Navy carrier-based aircraft in the South China Sea, and Marine Corps F-4s at Chu Lai and Da Nang, US-backed ARVN operations in South Vietnam enjoyed the strategic benefit of air supremacy. The Chinese and NVA supported the VC insurgency from the Ho Chi Minh trail, east of the Mekong River in Laos and Cambodia, and both sides settled into small-unit engagements, using military-reported body-count and media-shaped public opinion for how things were going. Resident and interloper humanities were lost in the fog of war, and personalities on both sides vanished into cartoonish characterizations of bad-guys and good, gooks and whatever they called us. Global economics feasted and inflated on a two-decade doubling of US public debt ($281 to $577 billion), roughly half of which has been attributed to RVN spending deficits.
The two-week media coverage of Operation Deckhouse Five was not kind, but a mission was assigned, an operations order was composed, coordinated, briefed, and executed. Combat unit integrity was maintained within helicopter lift capabilities, and strike force personnel and equipment were flown from ship to shore “feet dry” along map-overlaid approach lanes, inserted into planned landing zones (LZs), and supported there. Much of the flying involved two-section divisions which facilitated tactical approaches to near simultaneous four-aircraft landings and minimal time on the ground. Takeoffs were made to quickly join in formation and fly out over retirement lanes to “feet wet” over the coast. Recovery aboard ship usually involved radar vectors from CATCC into an elliptical right-hand-turns 500-foot delta-pattern on the starboard side of the ship, crossing the bow on PriFly (tower) command into a similar left-hand-turns 300-foot charlie-pattern on the port side of the ship, and clearance to land. At the height of no enemy contact, a negligent discharge of a grenade in the belly of a returning H-34 took the lives of several Marines, including our pay clerk, Cpl John Mooney, who had volunteered to get out of the office and fly as gunner. The aircraft was repaired, but for weeks, definition of its persistent smell remained somewhere between the poetically understated, “of death,” and the unnecessarily graphic “of burnt powder, blood, bone fragments and teeth.” From different places between these descriptive extremes, everyone simply moved on. Extraction operations back to the ship went smoothly, and the Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration, and Coordinating instructions (SMEAC) briefings of Quantico OCS training became real experience on a much larger scale.
With SLF operational experience and readiness for more, the Iwo Jima headed back north for I-Corps which stretched over 200 miles at about 50-mile intervals from Duc Pho, north past Chu Lai, Da Nang, and Phu Bai to Dong Ha, seven miles south of the DMZ. Enroute and well past midnight, someone commandeered a 1MC control station and woke the entire ship with “Sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms. All aft, move forward. All forward, move aft. All amidships, stand f***ing by.” John-Boy was high on the list of suspects, but a likely unwillingness to address whose control station watch had been breached prevented formal accusation, and the squadron offloaded to operate out of Ky Ha, just north of the F-4 base at Chu Lai.
I don’t recall being able to see either the village of Ky Ha to the west or the South China Sea to the east from the club atop the high ground within the Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR), but it was close to both. Darkness, alcohol, and focusing inside the bar were the probable causes, but it was where we gathered to celebrate coming ashore and losing our sea legs in the middle of January 1967. When I got there, our Flight Surgeon, Newt Wakeman, was stitching up (sans anesthesia, other than alcoholus-internalus) the momentarily ugliest of angels who had stuck his hand in the ceiling-fan while announcing something important enough to stand on the bar. For most pilots, our daily routine was built around cheeseburgers and alcohol at the club, down-the-hill for a pollution-free gazillion-star gaze above piss-tube [field urinal] relief and sleep in one of the hootches (barracks), continuing below the showers and outhouses (shitters) to the mess-hall, ready room, and flight line in the morning, and back up to the club after a day of flying and collateral duties.
Trumping all else were the requirements for water, food, and sanitation. At the bottom of these infrastructures and any other conceivable pecking order were shitbirds who very likely did not choose their roles of burning excrement in 55-gallon-drum-halves from beneath 4-holer outhouses. Fueling the process with 115/145 aviation gas (avgas) disguised some of the smell by creating more of a different kind, adding black smoke, and ending up with an olfactory version of seeing what happens after stirring an ant hill with a stick.
Beyond the concerns of infrastructure were the demands of aircraft maintenance and nightly TAOR perimeter guard duty which routinely competed for more man-hours than were available without cancelling sleep. Maintenance Chief, MGySgt Sproule and Administrative Chief, SgtMaj Pemberton managed these respective functions and chatted on the subject in guarded privacy behind the maintenance shed on at least one occasion. Pilots and flight crews got to sleep all night, except for the occasional mortar and rocket attacks which would bring sand-bagged bunkers into play. Because the bunkers collected rainwater, trash, and sometimes rats, many of us didn’t respond immediately to the reactive but otherwise useless cries of, “Incoming,” following the explosions, and waited for the few who were wound tight enough to go through the screen siding of the hootch to be the first to find what might already be there. Some just stayed in their racks, reasoning that the round that got them wouldn’t be heard, ergo, the sound of an explosion was either outgoing or proof of an incoming miss. As Marine Corps property, we were formally obligated to protect ourselves but careful not to put senior Captains and above (Heavies) in the mutually unwanted position of having to enforce the use of bunkers. Never voiced between ranks or officially through the bull lieutenant, this was one of a few situations where looks communicated up the pecking order with “What are you going to do? Make me a helicopter pilot? Send me to Vietnam?” and “F*** you, buddy, I’m just a reserve (FUBIJAR).” These non-verbal looks solved many issues before they became problems and, using the same Yogi-ism that got me into the Marine Corps, many of us took the fork which minimized our chances of needing the 21-shot rat-bite (rabies) prophylaxis by avoiding bunkers or politely not being first-in. Fast northward to Dong Ha where this same reaction prevailed even when calls of “Incoming” preceded the explosions and allowed time to reach a bunker. Harassment and interdiction (H&I) artillery rounds were frequently but usually inaccurately launched from just north of the DMZ, around dinner time. The muffled sounds of explosive projectiles which were already over half a minute on their way, “Fffffmpf—fffffmpf-fffffmpf——-fffffmpf,” would send some of the mess-hall diners scurrying for the bunkers. Many of the rest would follow in orderly fashion, and a significant remainder would just keep eating. Why these artillery installations were never engaged was just one of the enigmas left to a level above our pay grades. Fast southward back to Ky Ha, and within the scope of the mathematical conclusion that sleeping two extra hours per day would shorten a tour in country by a month, John-Boy was often observed on a spare cot in a cool bunker during a hot afternoon.
After a month or so, I added a couple of daily correspondence-course lesson-plans without disrupting the rest of my caloric and alcoholic regimen, but I didn’t have to wait that long to find out how I would react in harm’s way. My aha moment came at the bottom of I-Corps, near Duc Pho, in the middle of a burning vill, sitting fourteen feet above the ground, on the ¾-inch steel plate, in the copilot’s seat, with my holstered side-arm rotated to cover my crotch. The chattering roar of both M-60s dominated a sensory overload of smoke, muzzle flashes, tracer rounds, folks scurrying about outside, and plexi-glass flying in the cockpit, all in a fly-on-the-wall present awareness with no future or past. Without cover and nothing to do about it, I felt relief in the trained comfort of focusing on the mission, being part of the crew that was loading medevacs aboard, and privately celebrating the discovery that I wasn’t going to panic. M. L. Morris was the HAC, pumping adrenalin and waiting for as long as it took to hear “Cabin ready” from the crew chief on the ICS, twisting the throttle to instantaneous super-charged maximum power, hearing as much as seeing 2800 rpm on the gauge, feeling it all the way up our legs, controlling it with small vertical moves of the collective, and putting treetops between us and the vill. The normal administrative award of single mission-credit for an after-action report (AAR) of landing in an unsecure zone was doubled, because we had taken fire, but never recorded was that I apparently sat on a couple of pieces of plexiglass for the rest of the mission. We were already two beers into the club when discovery turned to debate over whether a few specks of blood were the result of an FNG mini-menstruation or being shot in the ass with a bb gun and then to disparaging recommendations as to who I might see about stealing a purple heart.
This kind of ribbing was gladly borne, but as a matter of routine, the mockery disappeared a couple days later when the newest FNG, from Klondike, the VMO-6 UH-1E (huey) squadron at Ky Ha, walked into the club with a bandaged right ear and an experienced Major who had taken him out on his first hop in country. The Major related that the anticipated milk-run, wasn’t, and that they took fire departing an LZ. A round came through the cockpit window, expended most of its energy bouncing off the rotor brake, came almost to rest passing through the FNG’s flight helmet, and barely drew blood. To the Major’s genuine concern of, “Bill, Bill, are you ok?” MARCAD Miles had calmly keyed the ICS button on his cyclic with,
“I’m sorry, Sir. I can’t hear you. I’ve got a bullet in my ear.” I believe this comedic response earned Bill Miles the world record for least amount of time spent as an FNG, ever. This kind of humor was a day-to-day part of everything we did, especially when it involved important consequences, real or imagined.
Life, as we knew it, began with the Marine Air Group (MAG) assignment of missions, aka fragmentary operations orders (FRAGs), to the squadron. One day was like another with the Squadron Maintenance/Supply Department (S-4) providing aircraft, Operations (S-3) scheduling pilots to fly them, Intelligence (S-2) briefing pilots on the enemy and friendly situations, and Admin (S-1) keeping records. Although short-timers might have a calendar (usually a bikini-clad, color-in-the-numbers portrait) to keep track of days left in country, days of the week didn’t matter but could be tracked or reconstructed by awareness of how many since the last malaria pill (Sunday) or fish meal (Friday). What mattered, from the President of the United States down through squadron support of ground units to the individual Marine rifleman, was accomplishment of the mission, but what got reported was a media glorification of war, exciting news about good guys and bad, and a bias for economic and political correctness.
There should be a Yogi-ism about the power of the press to overlook problems while reporting the excitement of mission accomplishments. This was certainly evident concerning replacement of H-34 with H-46 helicopters which suffered structural disasters and M-14 with M-16 rifles which experienced numerous battlefield failures. When Steve Rhoederer bought the farm, he radioed, “I can’t control this f***ing thing,” during his H-46 inflight breakup which took the lives of everyone aboard, and I personally saw the rage and tears of medevacs whose M-16s had malfunctioned. These initial and fatal problems of more capable replacements were quickly corrected but smothered with more than deserved positive press, at the expense of the long and reliable legacies of the M-14 and H-34. At one point, the entire fleet of H-46s was grounded, and some of their under-employed pilots were temporarily reassigned as copilots to H-34 squadrons which flew overtime to cover the resultant lost lift support. It was about this time that Bill Kellenberger rightly pronounced the H-34 to be the best crew-served weapon in the Marine Corps inventory.
The excitement factor also shaped formal medal recognition of the man-machine expertise involved in accomplishing the various helicopter missions in support of the ground unit personnel (grunts). Unlike the universal Vietnam Memorial recognition of service involving the unimpeachable forfeit of growing older, medals were event-related awards recognizing everything from just being somewhere to individual excellence. Along with awards recognizing the more than three million uniformed Americans who could have been assigned in harm’s way and served honorably during 1967, acknowledging the half a million assigned in RVN, and honoring exceptional individual performance was the Air Medal. At one award for every 20 missions flown, the Air Medal was a journeyman’s measure of combat involvement, and huey gunship pilot, Mike Bartley, aka Black Bart, arguably topped this helicopter pilot tape with single-tour awards of 50 Air Medals (1,000 missions). Whether higher decorations were a function of individuals driving events or events defining individuals, there was a wide range of merit involved in various awards of the same medal. While getting killed, wounded, or bullet holes in an aircraft were certainly worthy of notice, the causes of these outcomes formed a rainbow of voluntary and calculated excellence at one end, through self-preservation in the middle, to idiocy at the other. Sometimes the two ends got confused with the excitement in the middle, but Harvey Bell cut through all recognition with, “The best medal is a live man’s smile.”
There should have been a medal, or at least a Yogi-ism, for not landing in the middle of a fire-fight when hiding behind trees would accomplish the mission, but this kind of situational awareness was routinely practiced by the better pilots. The occasional FNG club-talk criticism of a HAC who
“…always exposed my side of the aircraft to the direct fire—” would be kindly mentored by
“Would you rather learn from a HAC who doesn’t?” Representing none of this dialogue, John-Boy was a poster child for the few HACs known as screamers who routinely did all the radio communicating, took control of the aircraft away from H2Ps in tight situations with
“I’ve got it,” talked about it as if he had saved the world from itself, and made it sound like coming back to base with bullet holes was a good thing. Captain Bob Sheehan was a recognized opposite, a great pilot, and a mentor to junior copilots. I have no idea of how decorated he may have been by the time he went home, but he had a knack for avoiding bullet holes in situations where others didn’t, he rarely raised his voice except in laughter, and he had the experience and confidence to split the flying evenly with his H2Ps regardless of the situation. I remember one rough flying day when I lost sight of the LZ in our own rotor-wash of dust, yawing left in a landing attitude flare, with
“you’ve got it,” Bob flying through the dust with his right-side visibility, passing control back to me with,
“you’ve got it,” me adding power, forward cyclic, right rudder, and landing as if one of us had done it all. Later in that enemy-contact-filled day, while we were not getting shot and others were, I tried to hide the fact that my knees were shaking from adrenalin-rush, fear, or whatever, and Bob slapped me on the shoulder, smiling and pointing to his own trembling knees.
As other senior pilots rotated home, H2Ps moved up to HAC, and HACs qualified as stan pilots, PIMPs, section, division, and flight leaders. We operated as Ugly Angels at Ky Ha, out of Phu Bai, in detachments at Duc Pho, Quang Ngai, Tam Ky, Quang Tri, Dong HA, and Khe Sahn, aboard the LPHs Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Princeton, Valley Forge, and Tripoli, and frequently visited the Hospital Ships Sanctuary and Repose.
We lived within an environment of GENERAL rules and realities and supported the grunts with Ugly Angel missions of MEDICAL EVACUATION (MEDEVAC), RESUPPLY, RECONNAISSANCE (RECON), STRIKE, and COMMAND & CONTROL (C&C).
Ky Ha Pilot life cycled down from the club, to sleep, to the flight line, and back up again. The flight line maintenance shack was the hub of the largest Ugly Angel employer, maintaining and servicing about 24 H-34s for scheduling by operations and flying by twice that many pilots. Maintenance had a dedicated shop, manned by military occupational specialty (MOS) qualified Marine Riflemen who worked on every system in Egor Sikorsky’s H-34. All work accomplished was checked by QA personnel, and the status of each aircraft was tracked on yellow-sheet forms. The yellow-sheet documented crew chief certification, pilot pre-flight inspection, and HAC acceptance of an aircraft ready for flight. The post-flight status of the aircraft for maintenance and servicing was documented by yellow-sheet write-ups of problems (if any) and signature of the HAC. By specific protocol, gripes were worked and signed off, ground or flight tests were performed as required, and a new yellow-sheet was created. When gripes were recurring or somehow averse to remedy, MGySgt Sproule would provide a standard trouble-shooting list of ground and/or flight tests for a PIMP to perform. In the few cases which remained confounded, he would sit in the belly of the aircraft during the testing, diagnose the problem himself, and write up its definition and solution with a dedicated following looking over his shoulder.
While maintenance usually worked late, the operations ready room hootch on the flight line remained open for business 24/7. It was the hub of scheduling, assignments, briefings, and AOMs, and offered game-based additions to socializing at the club. Poker, bridge, and ace-deuce (backgammon) games never interfered with taking-care-of-business, but they overlapped and outed an array of player skills and personalities. I always liked poker but thinking that a quarter was a significant bet kept me away from the big money pots that delighted John-Boy and others. Of little interest then but educational now was the transactional ease of currency exchanges which went into pots containing US dollars, pesos from the Philippines, RVN piastres (some with an Ugly Angel, Taoist demon watermark), and Military Payment Certificates (MPCs) which looked like monopoly money. Although I flunked Professor Krum’s Econ 102 class at Gettysburg and wasn’t even exposed to monetary theory and finance until graduate school in the early-70s, ready room poker pots empirically evidenced fiat (paper) money viability over our still-legislated US gold and silver currency.
Aside from bimonthly MPC allowances for sundries, cigarettes, and booze, pay took a backseat home in allotments for flying months of routine, weeks of priority, and days of emergency missions. We augmented our crew with a Navy Corpsman when wounded-in-action (WIA) personnel were involved and added Huey gunship support on missions with known or likely hostile fire. Leaving tower frequency after takeoff, we would check in with, “Landshark-Alpha [DASC callsign], this is Clip-Clop [Ugly Angel callsign] #-#, requesting save-a-planes.” DASC would respond with
“Roger,” then give us fire and impact coordinates plus maximum trajectories of naval gunfire and artillery along our assigned mission-route and instruct us to “Squawk [transmit an IFF (identification-friend-or-foe) mission/status control code] ####.” Responding
“WILCO,” we would dial in #### on our transponder (radio identification/control instrument). Under the concept of big-sky-little-bullet, and with infrequent exceptions, flying at 2500 feet was below save-a-planes and above accurate small-arms-fire. Like a buddy-system for safety when swimming, we always flew in two-aircraft sections, only for emergencies at night, and never when adding a helicopter would just make things worse. Above all (and Yogi would have loved this one), it is never a good idea to ask an aircraft to do something it can’t, even when automatic weapons fire demands it. Descending into an LZ from 2500 feet was always a situational-awareness mini-SMEAC game of maximizing the good factors, minimizing the bad, and staying prepared for the ugly. Positive identification of the FRAG’d LZ was initially accomplished by grunt FM radio description of the LZ location in terms of its relative position on the dial of a clock where 12 o’clock was the nose of the aircraft, like
“I’m at your 10 o’clock.” Then we’d call
“Roger, Pop a smoke.” The grunts would activate a smoke grenade which established location and wind, we’d call its color, and get radio verification from the LZ. We would always minimize our time below 2500 feet, try to use terrain to mask known or potential enemy fields of fire, autorotate into the LZ, and maximize power out. The grunts were glad to have us visit, but as anxious to see us gone as we were, because although helicopters provided welcome support, they drew attention and enemy fire. Another squadron’s example of this was when George Hadzewycz and the crew chief survived the crash of their H-34 which was hit in a hover by a mortar round and destroyed in a fireball, somewhere near Camp Carroll, just south of the DMZ. A reductio ad absurdum, aside, was that George’s White Russian heritage had delayed the top-secret security clearance required for all pilots, and he was barred from attending intelligence briefings, including those about missions he flew. He was routinely tasked with starting the aircraft while the HAC got briefed, teased about what the mission was, and good-naturedly, sometimes not, remained an FNG until his early trip home.
The bookends of individual 13-month pilot tours were a begrudging faith that somehow missions on any given day fit into a righteous plan from above our paygrades and a permanently unconditional contract to take care of each other. The books in the middle were a lot about the unspoken yet universally presumed invincibility of youth, and the self-induced comfort of focusing on mission accomplishment to the exclusion of unthinkable alternatives. The negative proof of these is akin to the primal yet impersonal enjoyment of contact sports, with injury unimagined or happening to others. I remember Spencer, aka Penny, Roberts’s at the club after a small-arms fragment had ricocheted and produced a tiny puncture which blackened his entire right shoulder earlier that day. He had seen Charlie (universal for NVA, VC, or gook) aim the weapon at him, but disbelief was still palpable in his shocked comprehension of, “He tried to kill me.” Another book was about our prejudice that Heavies did paperwork and got medals while we junior super-pilots accomplished all the flying missions and competed amongst ourselves to see who could lift the most. To a melody beyond written description, we would regularly bond at the club, with the tacit disregard of our seniors, singing:
“Oh Ky Ha, oh Ky Ha’s a hell of a place,
The organization’s a f***ing disgrace,
There’s Captains and Majors and Light Colonels too,
Their hands in their pockets with nothing to do.
They walk on the runway, they scream, and they shout,
About many things they know nothing about,
For all they accomplish they might as well be,
Shoveling shit in the South China Sea.
Blow it out your ass,
Better days are coming by and by,
You’ll wonder where the yellow went,
When the h-bomb hits the Orient,
Nuke ‘em, nuke ‘em, nuke ‘em,
Ho Chi Minh suuuuuuuuuchs.”
I cannot credit an author, but this anthem spanned individual tours of duty, was amended for use by squadrons in Danang, Phu Bai, and Dong Ha and endures today. Dissonance in its presentation was always trumped by a spirit and intensity which could only be applauded by my TKE roommate and 1967 RVN grunt Marine Officer, Jim Meyers, who was mercifully able to muzzle atonal mouthers under his direction of our Gettysburg College, inter-fraternity choral successes.
Medevac missions were the backbone of Ugly Angel existence and always emergencies at night. I have no idea of how I could forget the sound of the red ready room bat-phone and remember my service number (091048) and the number of the TKE hall closet phone (Edgewood 4-5892), but I guess I have, so I’ll call it a ring. Given that routine and priority FRAGs had already been handled for the day or scheduled for the next, the bat-phone had a Pavlovian, adrenalin-producing ring after dark. The assigned night medevac crews were up from their fully dressed recline (sleep was difficult) on next-door cots before the end of the first (and usually, only) ring. It would send the HACs and a Navy Corpsman for an Operations Duty Officer (ODO) and MAG speaker-phone briefing while the H2Ps, crew chiefs, and gunners went out to start the already-pre-flighted aircraft. With religious deference to taking care of business, card players and readers escaping hootch lights-out would always offer things like “If you buy the farm, can I have that picture of your wife in your footlocker?” or “Not so fast, Jarhead. Where’s the $20 you owe me?” Comments, in kind, were expected when it was their turn for night medevac standby. Enroute, there was an eerie feeling that we were the only aircraft section flying on that side of the planet and radio communications with ground, tower, and the DASC were more like company than controllers, because everyone still awake was basically just listening to the only game in country. Lights were a no-no for the wingman left circling the LZ at 2500 feet and during the lead bird’s approach unless there just weren’t enough visual ques without them. More than the usual FM radio communications went on, because even though neither wind direction nor color of smoke could be seen well in the dark, lights magnified the daytime helicopter magnetism for enemy fire.
Paradoxically, there was one night when fog was so dense that the grunts lit up their own LZ. I knew I could get back if my copilot kept my wingman’s lights on the runway at Khe Sahn in sight, because I could see the glow of the LZ from there. Remaining aligned to see our chase bird’s lights, we headed 90 degrees left of our track and side-slipped towards the glow until it turned into individual fires at the four corners of the landing pad on Hill 861. With heavy rain reported at Phu Bai and no section SAR capability due to reduced visibility enroute, I had my wingman stay turned up on the ground at Khe Sahn, for moral and radio support until I switched over to the DASC, with an estimated time of arrival (ETA) for Phu Bai. The entire flight was instrument flight rules (IFR), aka, flying and navigating by flight instruments, and Phu Bai Approach Control obligingly reported the required 100-foot ceiling and quarter mile visibility required for starting a Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) to runway 27. Then the wind switched 180 degrees in a thunderstorm, and we were vectored around to the west end of the airport for an approach from the opposite direction, to runway 09. During a GCA, the controller sees the aircraft’s altitude and position on radar and provides radio communications in a continuous one-way flow of exacting “below,” “on,” or “above” and “right,” “on,” or “left” guidance of glideslope and track, respectively, down to legal minimums of 100 feet above the ground with a quarter of a mile visibility. With the automatic stabilization equipment (ASE) turned on and the PNF hands-on monitoring all flight controls, scanning instruments, looking outside, and handling the radios, the pilot flying (PF) could set the cyclic in a no-turn constant-airspeed position and control the rate of descent by blocking the collective with left knee pressure and making small left-handed engine-power changes with the throttle. He could also maintain the track to the runway by making small heading changes with the yaw-trim-knob located on the center console. Beyond NATOPS training, through club discussion, and clandestine practice, H-34 pilots operated with a shared confidence in their ability to fly this precision approach from either seat to an instrument-only tailwheel-touchdown on the runway (on the airport with a non-precision approach) without seeing anything outside the aircraft. The PF is procedurally and legally obligated to fly a missed approach procedure, if the PNF cannot see the runway environment at or above minimums, so our SMEAC briefed approach plan included the fuel-challenged reality that Da Nang and Chu Lai added no useful alternative to landing below minimums at Phu Bai, with plenty of fuel. I had my copilot flying the approach because of his left-seat access to the trim knob with his right hand, and me talking to Approach Control and making the landing with visual [or tailwheel-touchdown] reference. My copilot shot a near perfect stabilized approach and did well in resisting the almost knee-jerk reactions to look outside for the ground with every flash of lightening. We both took deep breaths when the controller called “minimums…….” At 70 feet on the radar altimeter, I saw and called the green runway
“threshold lights— Landing” on the UHF, took the controls with “I’ve got it” over the ICS, and touched down visually. I wish I didn’t have to report that I was still thinking about the original set-up for landing in the opposite direction and too disoriented to follow taxi instructions on the only runway at my home base, but my copilot talked me through it and we needed a FOLLOW ME truck to guide us to the medical pad in the near-zero visibility anyway. Mission accomplished, with no complaint from the medevac, two AAR’d secure-zone landings, and an invitation to explain why I chose to fly without a chase bird. In the morning, our Commanding Officer, LtCol Nick Kapetan, approved my decision, given the combination of emergency and weather, but pointed out that I had left the resupply detachment at Khe Sahn one aircraft short, because he would not send two more aircraft out to escort mine back and then fly home as a section.
Even in broad daylight, weather Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited (CAVU), and regardless of the severity of the wound or medical issue, medevacs were usually emergencies. Marines do not leave their own behind, and any injured, WIA, or killed-in-action (KIA) personnel reduced unit maneuverability and became an emergency when under fire. This was the case when we were radio-called off another mission to pick up a KIA from a unit under fire southwest of Chu Lai. The HAC, used terrain, made a smart low approach, and landed next to a rice paddy behind the cover of trees between us and the fighting. As we waited for our passenger to be loaded, I began to see muzzle flashes from a tree-line 300-400 yards out on my side of the aircraft, keyed the ICS with “We’re taking fire from 10 o’clock,” and then began to feel as much as hear sporadic spats like slaps of a wet washcloth on a tile shower wall. I transmitted “We’re taking hits,” as the gunner opened-up with his M-60. I felt the engine begin to run rough and saw the engine-driven auxiliary hydraulic system pressure gauge drop to zero, leaving only the rotor-transmission-driven primary hydraulic system powering the flight controls.
“Cabin ready” from the crew chief below produced max throttle with nowhere near normal power, but enough to get airborne and wheel away from our covering trees, through and then away from the now visible tracers rounds, downwind, with flight controls shuddering just like when we practiced auxiliary-hydraulic-power-off maneuvers in training. A better H2P would have been quicker to help on the gauges, as we climbed up above tree-level, but I took too long learning to break my hypnotic bond with the tracers outside before getting my scan back inside to the instruments and calling out
“2350,” as the HAC was already nursing the rotor rpm back towards 2500 and I transmitted the obvious, “We’ve got to land,” and he did, while I was still saying it, with no more inconvenience than scattering a bunch of Marines playing volleyball, less than a click (1,000 meters) away from the pickup LZ. We radioed our wingman to come get us and were ready to leave when he landed. Our crew chief removed the transponder and confirmed significant damage to three of the engine’s nine cylinders while a couple of the players helped our gunner stow our M-60s and ammo and gently laid our passenger out on the chase bird’s cabin deck. We strapped into passenger seats, except for our crew chief who sat, instead, on the KIA’s chest as if he were protecting a younger brother. A small patch of closely cropped red hair showed at the top of the body-bag, making one of this young Marine’s last rides personal on our way to dropping him off at the medical facility between Chu Lai and Ky Ha. Over the next few days, we got news of our aircraft being lifted but dropped from low altitude by an H-47 Chinook, then lifted and dropped from high altitude by an H-54 Sky Crane, and finally bombed by A-4 Sky Hawks to prevent enemy salvage.
Later that month, we were the chase bird circling at 2500 feet, and our leader was in virtually the same situation, with tree protection from the known action on the right and then fire coming from a distance on the left. This time, however, the tracers from the left were dwarfed by the slower-moving streak of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). It all seemed unreal, like some sort of a newspaper cartoon sequence in which one frame exploded the port clam-shell door of the engine compartment, another vomited the crew and a corpsman out into the rice paddy, a third had us loading the medevac and the crew of the lead bird between the protective trees on the right and a burning H-34 on the left, and a final frame showed us flying off into the sunset, leaving only four, six-foot ends of the downed bird’s main rotor-blades distinguishable in the rice paddy behind. This whole sequence took place in what seemed like two minutes, but was probably 15, we witnessed how fast the semi-monocoque construction of an H-34 fuselage can become a magnesium furnace (once started, it will actually burn underwater), and later realized that Tom Bottorff, the lead copilot, stayed at the medical facility, on his way home, missing part of his left foot.
Another medevac sequence began with my section getting diverted to pick up casualties from a unit ambushed and still pinned down between Ky Ha and Da Nang, west of Highway 1, and just north of Tam Ky. How my section ended up in a daisy chain with four other H-34s, on the same unit frequency, and operating in defilade to pick up medevacs behind the cover of a low hill was a routine mixture of experience, communication, and good fortune, then, and unexplainable, now. We started out carrying and radioing “Out with five” so the next aircraft would know to try lifting six passengers, and so on.
“Out with six” was accompanied by the scream of close-air support from the first of a pair of F-4 Phantom Jets laying roaring tumbling tracks of napalm flame and billowing black smoke which silhouetted the curvature of our protective hill and sucked the air around it. I remember a brief trance-like awe and wondering if Gary was a part of this, as
“Out with seven” touched down briefly after moving forward off its HIGE cushion, again as it accelerated through translational lift, and powered its way south to the medical pad in the Logistic Support Area (LSA) near Tam Ky.
“Out with eight” won the heavy lift of the day award when it staggered into the air after a series of comedic lumbering touchdowns and established seven as the optimum load. In less than an hour, unplanned and briefed-on-the-fly, about half of a company-sized unit was medevac’d out of an ambush. Shielded by the hill, F-4 close-air support, and suppressive fire from the ambushed Marines, none of the H-34s were damaged or took fire. Shutdown, refueled, and smoking a cigarette later in the LSA, I connected the dots on something that has stuck with me since. A young Marine with a bandaged left hand engaged me with emotional words of thanks and a reverence for helicopter pilot skill-and-daring that appeared to be headed for a hug, until I conveyed my own awe of anyone who could handle being a rifleman in a rice paddy. Yogi would be proud of our discovery that we are most comfortable doing what we are supposed to.
Resupply missions were the mainstay of routine and priority FRAG flying. C-rats, ammo, and mail were normally trucked or externally lifted on pallets into LSAs where they were broken down and sorted for further delivery out to LZs in the field by Ugly Angels. This was the mission that provided the best evidence for arguing (usually at the club afterwards) who could lift the most weight. We all carried flip-pads with HOGE and HIGE charts and an inclusive weight-list of the items that we might carry, either in the cabin or externally on an explosively detachable pendant that we referred to as a donkey-dick. The administrative and gaming atmosphere of resupply was pervasive and a perfect example of operations involving hours of boredom interrupted by sudden moments of excitement.
We supported the Marine Corps replacement of ARVN operations just north of Duc Pho with all sorts of missions during the first few months of 1967, but resupply was the core of our contribution. The MAG would routinely FRAG at least a division of H-34s 50 miles south to operate at the bottom of I-Corps out of an LSA at the base of the mountain, Nui Dang. Flight crews were directed to support various LZs during the day and then released back to Ky Ha before dark. The facility was equipped to sustain the aircraft and flight crews with access to C-rats, water bags, ammo pits, fuel bladders, and a one-holer (shitter), conveniently placed in the middle of everything and rarely used. The area had come under insurgent control well before the French defeat by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and was still honeycombed with interconnected tunnels of resistance. From this legacy came that of Shithouse Charlie who was probably a compilation of individuals who surfaced infrequently on the mountain, fired shots into the shitter, and disappeared. I can bear no witness to actual casualties or events, but the stories of relief-turned-panic in various public and hilarious stages of undress were entertaining and reduced use of the facility to a double-dog-dare. I made sure that I never had to go that badly.
Another challenge to our resupply process was that Charlie had FM radios, frequently jammed our unit LZ communications with “Ga die, ga die, goo tee mau, goo tee mau.” I have no idea of what these utterings meant, but they blocked use of the radio frequency, and sometimes English-speaking operatives (I remember one with an Australian accent) came on to confuse our identification of the LZ. I never heard of anyone actually getting tricked into landing in the wrong place, but there were a number of times when this, confusion, or perhaps friendly inter-unit competition for our resupply, resulted in same-colored smokes being popped in separate locations and having to switch to a briefed secondary radio frequency, one communicated by shackle-code of the day, or abort the mission. I was never in this situation, but did have to explain to an apparent FNG in the LZ that his transmission of
“You’re at my three o’clock” did not convey his location, unless I already knew where he was and which way he was facing. Fast forward to the realization that some of today’s Gettysburg Bullets may have never been exposed to the concept of communicating direction based on the numbered faces of clocks, now sans hands and digital, and you’ll understand my fear that the temporal distance of this whole prospect stretches the limits of interest and understanding. Fast backward to within a click of Nui Dang, and a single bullet took Mike Carley’s life sitting in an LZ which had been routinely resupplied for weeks. I flew the aircraft the following day with a new windshield but asked the HAC to write up a yellow-sheet gripe and get maintenance to cosmetically repair the small hole in the dashboard above the instrument panel, because my neck hurt from unconsciously avoiding its alignment with my front teeth. Without connection that I know of, it was soon after this event that we began to test and then regularly wear ceramic breast- and back-plates. They were hot (worn over our water survival vests) and heavy (17 pounds each), but just ask Smokey Norton how well they worked. He took a direct small-arms hit to his solar plexus, was back flying in a couple of days, and carried a slightly damaged bullet-bouncer home later, signed by everybody, before we went back to seeing who could lift the most.
The Republic of Korea (ROK) Marines adopted the spirit of our resupply lifting competition at their own level, seeing who could get stacked the highest and carry away the most cases of C-rats from the aircraft. At about the size of and lighter than a case of beer, it was comical to see diminutive carriers staggering under stacks of C-rats nearly twice their height, jostling each other, and obviously enjoying some form of the game, “Thank you, Sir, may I have another?” This playfulness belied the reality of their fighting credentials which we saw early one morning when our resupply interrupted an openly gleeful tossing of lifeless VC bodies up onto a huge pile, evidencing what must have been their spectacularly unsuccessful attack the night before. They switched to competitive unloading of C-rats while we were there and were just as cheerfully back to piling up dead VC when we left with a head-bandaged medevac who refused assistance, walked unsteadily to our aircraft, and died enroute. I can’t prove that this taking-care-of-business ethos was causal, but I don’t remember ever taking fire in the area controlled by the ROK Marines between Quang Ngai and Chu Lai.
Control of LZs on top of Hills 861, 661, and 950 made the Khe Sahn TAOR a largely ignored and peaceful island just east of the MeKong River and the daily ebb and flow of bombing and repairing the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. We would operate a detachment of H-34s for a few days at a time and resupply these LZs from the runway at Khe Sahn. The individual lifting competition was put on hold by the increased importance of landing zone restrictions, and the game became a mathematical team effort to minimize the number of landings necessary to move a known total weight of supplies. Although NATOPS manual safety guidance would have loads HOGE-chart limited by the landing altitude of the LZ, we would load up heavier than the higher HIGE-chart allowance at the lower runway altitude and make over-loaded running takeoffs using translational lift to get airborne. Regardless of weight, upslope winds were huge enabling factors in the formula for landing safely, and their red-headed delinquent stepchildren, lee-slope downdrafts, were cold-blooded killers. Landing was a matter of staying high enough to avoid downdrafts and fast enough to remain in translational lift all the way to touchdown, ergo, maintaining enough altitude and airspeed to go around and try again if necessary. This procedure was particularly apt for Hill 950 which had a platform too small for accommodating all the landing gear of anything larger than an H-34. Somewhere between late October and early November of 1967, Khe Sahn lost its peaceful island facade on its way to becoming part of the infamous NVA/VC Tet Offensives in early 1968.
During my next to last detachment to Khe Sahn, we planned an M-60 familiarization firing (fam-fire) event for our FNG gunner following the last resupply. After a boringly meticulous safety briefing and before we could drop a knotted towel to circle as a target, we took fire just east of the runway, and he fam’d by returning it. I’m not sure how the mission-counters in the S-1 awards shop dealt with my AAR of taking fire from just outside the secure Khe Sahn TAOR, but eyebrows were raised at the club before my experience became commonplace.
As we were about to shut down after a day of resupply during my last detachment, we got a call to come in to brief for a pickup of the huey gun-ship pilots who had been on a TAOR sweep and discovered enemy activity in the form of a 50-caliber round through their engine. Going-ugly-early should be a Yogi-ism, but this modus operandi pre-dates even the Yankees and prompted me to get coordinates over the air, have my wingman airborne to relay any base radio communications, and hoist the good guys up through the trees, just like in training. What the bad guys could have done with more time will remain a mystery along with how Admin credited our reactive and successful mission, inside the secure TAOR, with no landing, and without taking fire.
With less mystery as to mission credit, Dave Keown garnered awardus maximus recognition for the H-34 lift of at least 1967, if not of the century, from the deck of the LPH-3. When he hooked up a pendant to a mighty-mite, his rotor-blades coned slightly, he lost turns (rotor rpm), and he set the little jeep back down after moving it forward less than three yards. The Okinawa’s Air Boss transmitted “Clip-Clop, is there a problem?” as Dave repeated the maneuver for an additional gain of five yards and responded
“Negative.” Gathering RPM and moving well into first-down yardage territory, he raised both the pitch and volume of the Air Boss’s broadcasted conviction that
“You’re going to have to pickle [drop the pendant],” and it became difficult to tell which end of the pendant was moving the other. The mighty-mite came briefly to rest at the edge of the deck, and amidst shrieks of “Pickle it, pickle it—,” the mighty-mite, donkey-dick, and H-34 swung out over the deck edge, vanished, and were replaced by a sea of ass-holes and elbows in different colored shirts that appeared from everywhere, gawking over the side. As Dave dove down through translational lift and maybe into some ground-effect above the water below, he left a football-field-length wake of rotor-wash before climbing out towards an LZ near Phu Bai and switching off the PriFly radio frequency with his wingman silently in trail. The Air Boss was livid, NATOPS justification of the event with flip-chart weight and HOGE-chart performance data didn’t help, and the Captain of the Okinawa banned Dave from his ship until later investigation revealed uncalculated weight from containers of fuel, ammo, and radio gear under the mighty-mite’s covering tarp. Cooler-headed negotiations must have taken place between the Heavies, because after spending the night at Marble Mountain, Dave’s aircraft returned as the chase bird, was landed by his H2P who was hot-seated (replaced without shutting the aircraft down) by a stan pilot (I think it was Bob Sheehan), and Dave got re-carr-qual’d. Dave didn’t have a lot to say, normally, and tendered only a pleased smile whenever the subject came up, much like John-Boy’s grins when he got back from a week of R&R in Sydney and kept repeating
“My kind of people.”
Strike missions usually involved days of formal planning, warning/operations orders, and briefings amongst the participating units, as described earlier in Deckhouse 5. An exception in the middle of August 1967 may have been our busiest flying day during my tour with the Ugly Angels. By nightfall we had just finished offloading the entire squadron from the USS Okinawa back to “Oh Ky Ha, oh Ky Ha’s a hell of a place—,” singing and swaying on still active sea legs at the club and celebrating so loudly that it was hard for the ODO to get everyone’s attention. When he did and passed the word that we had a 16-bird strike in the Finger Lakes region north of Phu Bai at dawn, he was disbelieved, even more loudly, and profanely. Fast forward to find us in the same setting 24 hours later, after a sobering, on-the-fly, SMEAC planned and executed, four-division launch in the dark from Ky Ha, briefing and refueling in Danang, staging at Phu Bai, insertion (along with the coordinated support of two other squadrons) of a reinforced company, and flight back to, “The organization’s a f***ing disgrace—”
At the other end of a strike is the extraction which could be anything from administrative, like the one at the end of Deckhouse-5, to awful, like when an ARVN unit had been surrounded by VC during what began as a company-size operation near Quang Ngai. Although HAC qualified, I was assigned as flight leader Major Jim Graham’s, copilot because of my map-sack. We all had one filled with the VFR charts necessary for piloting in I-Corps, but I had annotated mine with distance circles from tactical air navigation (TACAN) stations which gave me azimuth (track), Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) information, and the ability to navigate on instruments between known points of latitude and longitude. By the time we were briefed, airborne in a flight of two divisions, in light rain, ceilings of less than 1000 feet, and enroute to the LZ, close air support had dwindled to a pair of F-8 Crusader jets which were out of ordinance and low on fuel but suppressing enemy fire with threatening low passes. Trees surrounding the LZ and low visibility robbed us of concealment and cover and forced us into a slow, nearly vertical, eight-plane, same-way-same-day formation landing in a field of discarded equipment, but with only sporadic enemy small-arms fire. Our crew chiefs were immediately over-run by and had to physically direct (wrestle) the loading of a disorganized hoard of ARVNs which erupted from the circular tree line, done with the place, and with no thought of triage or prioritization on any basis. When we heard “Cabin ready,” everybody knew that nobody was checking seat belts, we all roared out, fully loaded, without hitting each other, and formed up in trail. None of us was able to avoid getting raked by small-arms and automatic weapons fire which flashed from the same surrounding trees that had spewed passengers, minutes before. After a short ride, landing, and shutting down on the runway at Quang Ngai, we assessed no pilot or crew casualties, and a little south of a hundred bullet holes for our metal-smiths to patch. We counted north of 75 passengers (some of them becoming KIAs and WIAs leaving the LZ), reasoned that there could be no friendlies left alive in the LZ, and concurred with our flight leader’s decision that the mission had been accomplished. The event was followed by about a week of administratively-requested participant-written testimonials in addition to the AARs and rumors of decorations as high as the Navy Cross, Silver Stars for section leaders, Distinguished Flying Crosses for HACs, and single-mission air medals for copilots, crew chiefs, and gunners. I don’t know if any medals were awarded and can only presume that everyone involved got double mission credit for taking fire in an unsecure LZ.
Reconnaissance missions involved inserting and extracting teams of 10 Marines (sometimes nine Marines and a dog) in order to gain information on enemy strengths and movements. Recon inserts routinely involved the daylight visibility and noise of helicopter operations, but their mission required stealth for gathered information to be useful and to offset the vulnerability of such a small unsupported unit in enemy territory. Recon extractions went rarely as planned and usually became emergencies when stealth was compromised by various entertaining events, but evolution of the helicopter support process was interesting theatre on its own. Six combat-equipped Marines in a confined LZ was a load with which the H-34 could land with ease, hover out of ground effect under most conditions, and take-off with a little power to spare. The VC quickly learned to exploit this two-aircraft requirement by attacking and trying to disable the second H-34, after half of the team’s fighting assets were extracted in the first. Even if the normally attached Huey gunship shed its fire-support role and went into a rescue mode, the numbers were not plausible for extracting the remaining five team members and four crew members from a downed second aircraft. Adding a third H-34 to the mix answered the numbers problem but still required the gunship out of its fire support role and did nothing to prevent the tactic of attacking the second. Before replacement of the H-34 with the H-46 (combat-equipped Marine capability of 10) solved this potential numbers conundrum, we experimented with various first aircraft loads and more than one aircraft in the LZ at once. Underlining my claim of never being the sharpest arrow in the quiver, and with no complication of enemy fire, I didn’t leave myself enough maneuvering room during one of these experiments, chopped down a small tree, and ripped my radio antenna loose in the brush. Operationally unimpaired but reduced to hand signal communications, my crew chief, Cpl Ransom, was even less amused than I by the looks we got taxiing back after landing at Phu Bai, making whistling noises with the damaged tip-caps on his rotor blades and trailing his antenna wire. This was unlike getting temporarily mocked as an FNG or occasionally encouraged by negative ribbing. This was an embarrassment made worse by the silent assessment of a bad day by friends who knew me and the pejorative, perhaps permanent, judgment of others in the court of first impressions who didn’t. Of course, this was the only time I laid eyes on my friend Jim Lattimer, the whole year we were in country together. Refueling his huey gunship in the fuel pits as I taxied by, He looked up, smiled, and breached radio discipline with “McSouth [my nickname].” I responded
“Latts,” and we spoke again two years later at my Dallas Arms Apartment in Denver as new hires for a commercial airline. I pleaded my-fault and no-contest to my CO, and he preserved my accident-free record with a finding of
“Direct result of enemy action.”
The silence of friends played out differently during recon extracts when occasionally whispered recon team radio communications conveyed a situational awareness beyond the words describing LZ and friendly/enemy conditions. The team wanted the H-34 ride out that we were there to provide but whispering that it was ok was a hard sell on both ends and a source of gallows humor for later retelling at the club. There is probably a comedic name for stories that are not funny until later, but whatever it is, emergency recon extracts were triggered by an array of events from lost mobility due to a sprain induced by carrying half a hiker’s own body-weight in supplies and equipment to all the complications of combat. Between these extremes were encounters with flora and fauna involving rashes, bites, and stings from various plants, insects, rodents, snakes, and even a tiger. There was one mission blown when a recon team busted a Vietnamese couple intimately locked in their own compromising situation, allowed them a mortified escape, and was forced to call for an extract (still an emergency, considering how fast even embarrassed tattlers could tell). My favorite story involved monkeys which began to follow a recon team in growing numbers and noise. With no thought of compromising stealth by firing a weapon and after making things worse by trying to wave them away, one Marine made the mistake of throwing a rock. Monkey see, monkey do, one threw a rock back, then another, and the team began to sustain injuries and had to call for an extract.
Command and Control missions involved administrative things like movement of personnel, flyover inspections of terrain or deployed troops, and transport of politicians and celebrities into and out of performance locations. Time has erased the Lieutenant-level certainty that Heavies and short-timers got all the C&C assignments, but this belief helped us to reactively get through the unavoidably morbid end-of-tour thoughts of falling prey to the law of averages or running out of luck. We gained strength from the resolve to not be like John-Boy and others who creatively found other-than-flying things to do and seemed to be enabled by assignment of less than their fair share of missions in harm’s way, leaving more for the rest of us. “Thank you, Sir, may I have another,” “Bring it on,” and embracing whatever was dealt created an attitude which powered our end-of-tour flights into the comfort of doing what we were supposed to. My clearest recollection of a C&C mission was a FRAG to transport some troops from the LSA at Tam Ky to a nearby LZ and bring back a VC prisoner of war (POW). As the POW was being carried to the aircraft on a stretcher, my crew chief came up on the ICS with
“Sir, three o’clock,” and there he was, standing at attention at the edge of the clearing. I was still in the moment of recognizing SSgt Bradford as he snapped a salute and disappeared into the bush.
An exception to the normal milk-run nature of C&C missions, and arguably to that of the save-a-plane system itself, was an inflight explosion between Phu Bai and Quang Tri which took the lives of 3rd Marine Division Commander, MajGen Bruno Hochmuth and all aboard a Huey C&C bird just before I rotated out of country in November of 1967.
The passenger ride book-ends of my RVN tour, from Da Nang to the Iwo Jima and from Phu Bai to Da Nang, were C&C missions.
OUT OF COUNTRY
I lit up a Marlborough at a table next to the bar in the Stone Elephant, sending up a four-inch flame topped by a thin trail of black smoke. This was a dead giveaway that the Zippo lighter had a Marine Corps Emblem on it and had been filled during preflight from a petcock at the lowest point in an H-34 115/145 aviation fuel system. With all the likelihood of Bob Hope and Ann-Margret showing up together, Roger Peterson asked, “Are you a real dog-driver?”, and Gary Fors set three beers on the table. This is my lone excursion into Hollywood scripting, except for the truth about the Zippo, because I only remember seeing each of them somewhere in Da Nang sometime before my commercial flight out of country. Roger and I reminisced about the motor bikes in San Francisco on our way over and we agreed to play golf in Okinawa on our way home. Gary was about half way through his tour in country, the Operations Officer of his F-4 squadron, a junior Captain in a Major’s billet, and clearly living his dream.
I’ll leave you to guess what I felt as I sat in an air-conditioned Delta Air Lines window-seat and watched Da Nang disappear beneath the clouds, but Yogi’s “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” will do.
You can also guess that guilt comes along with making it home when others didn’t, but I have always considered it my good fortune to have gone through the normal middle-age realization that life is not forever, earlier than most and during my mid-20s. A month after I got out of country, Gary parachuted from his burning, ground-fire-crippled F-4 and has not been heard from since.
“It is not when you die, but how you die.”
SSgt Bradford – 1964
During the confusing late-1960s and early-1970s, sensationalist media covered every imaginable opinionated aspect of the RVN era, and John-Boy resurfaced, publicly testifying to personal knowledge of atrocities which I cannot confirm. The annual number of Americans who served on active duty from 1955 to 1975 and could have been assigned in RVN went from 2.9 to 2.1 million, ascending to and descending from a maximum of 3.5 million in 1968, and a maximum of 500 thousand served in country at any one time. During the two-decade RVN-era, 16 million Americans avoided the draft, 210 thousand were charged, four thousand were jailed, and about one million Americans in uniform were prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for going absent without leave (AWOL) and desertion. President Ford proclaimed a 1974 conditional amnesty for unindicted draft violators and President Carter issued a January 1977 pardon of those convicted. The stories behind these numbers and Canadian emigration should be told, someone needs to provide a grunt prospect, and Bruce Gordon, 1968 Gettysburg graduate, TKE, and past National President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), might be an excellent source for expanding the reporting on civil rights.
Roger and I didn’t play golf together until our first Pop-A-Smoke reunion in the summer of 1977, Gary’s status was officially changed from missing to deceased in 1980, and after NAS Cubi Point was closed in 1992, the Officer’s Club Bar was removed, shipped, and reinstalled as a celebrated centerpiece amidst other memorabilia in the restaurant of the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. Three wives, four kids, eight grandchildren, and no post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later, I am both lucky and proud to be able to share this 1967 prospect of a Marine H-34 Helicopter pilot with you. Not a day goes by when I am not grateful for the gift of life, and every time I stand for our National Anthem, I think of my lifelong friend who went out at the top of his game and my son, Gary, who can close a deal before I get done investigating it.
Yogi said that “The future ain’t what it used to be,” and in fifty years, the grandchildren of 2019 Gettysburg graduates will view the RVN era through the same temporal lens as my class of 1964 did our Civil War. I hope that the sound of this prospect will break through the noise of our fondness for glorifying heroes and war and be heard in the silence of the 14 names memorialized on Gettysburg’s JANET MORGAN RIGGS STUDENT CENTER, south CUB wall and that of the 58,000 on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.
|.38||Thirty-eight caliber Smith & Wesson, 6-shot pistol, loaded with five tracer-rounds, hammer down on the empty chamber, holstered and on a web-belt carrying extra tracer- and anti-personnel rounds. The weapon was primarily a signal and survival tool which was not worn in the shower but otherwise kept cleaned and close.
|1MC||One Main Circuit, a shipboard public address system|
|III-MAF||Third Marine Amphibious Force|
|ADF||Automatic Direction-Finding radio instrument navigational system which provides line of sight azimuth information|
|AAR||After-action report, source document for recording all squadron flight
|Air Supremacy||Complete airspace control without threat from enemy aviation assets (Air Superiority is airspace control by better aviation assets than the enemy|
|Airdale||Any non-grunt aviation support Marine|
|AOM||All officer meeting|
|Approach:||Precision: see GCA (lowest required ceiling and visibility requirements)
Non-precision: see ADF, TACAN, and VOR
Visual: Flown without reference to radio instruments – see VFR
|ARVN||Post-Geneva South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam|
|ASE||Automatic Stabilization Equipment which maintained control of: Pitch and roll by a release/hold button and a 360-degree position knob on the cyclic, and Yaw by a directional knob on the center console
|Autorotation||With coincident reduction of collective and forward cyclic pitch, engine power can be throttled back to idle (engine and rotor rpm needles split), airspeed maintained and then traded for a reduction in descent rate to a power-off landing. Skill and confidence are major factors in using this maneuver for the safest (with instantaneous maximum reciprocating power in reserve), and minimum time landing possible.|
|Avgas||115/145 octane, artificially colored purple, H-34 reciprocating engine fuel|
|Axes of aircraft motion||Pitch, roll, and yaw|
|Azimuth||Track or no-wind heading information|
|AWOL||Absent without leave|
|Billet||A personnel requirement, by rank and MOS, on a unit T/O|
|BLT||Battalion Landing Team infantry and supporting units|
|Bullet Hole||Snack bar and grill in the SUB|
|Buy the farm||Die in an aircraft crash, variously derived as far back as WWI paying the mortgage with government death benefits, reparations for crops damaged by an aircraft mishap, and purchase of a pilot’s cemetery plot|
|C-rats||C-rations were individual meals prepared for consumption in the field where A-ration (fresh) and B-ration (packaged-but-unprepared) foods were provided in field kitchens|
|Carr-qual||Actual landings aboard ship for currency qualifications or alcohol-fueled and simulated events of the same name, using a wetted-down bar or table-top|
|CATCC||Carrier Air Traffic Control Center controls all feet wet air operations (an over-simplified definition which includes numerous other coordinating facilities)|
|CAVU||Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited|
|Charlie||Generic name for NVA, VC, and gook personnel|
|Charlie-Pattern||300-foot altitude with left-turns flown along the port side of the ship|
|China Beach||US/Australian name for My Khe Beach, on the South China Sea, east of Da Nang|
|CliffsNotes||A commercial producer of topical study guides|
|Clip-Clop||Ugly angel callsign|
|Collective:||Dual flight-controls operated by the left hand/arm of each pilot, controlling:
Rotor blades: A vertically operating arm which changes the pitch-loading on all four main rotor blades, simultaneously, with no governor to prevent:
Over-speed: rotor rpm above 2800, from too little blade-loading for power commanded
Under-speed: rotor rpm below centrifugal force sufficiency to prevent loss of lift due to blade conning
Throttle: A twist-grip control of engine power, with no governor to prevent:
Over-speed: engine rpm above 2800 from too little blade-loading for power commanded
Over-boost: engine rpm too low for engine power commanded
|CUB||Gettysburg College Union Building successor to the SUB|
|Cyclic||A dual flight-control operated by the right hand/arm of each pilot, controlling
Aircraft pitch/roll: A horizontally operating arm which changes the pitch-loading on each of the four main roto blades, individually and through 360 degrees (creating relatively less blade-loading/lift in the direction of cyclic movement)
Microphone Button Control of UHF, FM, and ICS radio transmissions
External disconnect Control (when armed) for explosive disconnect of an external-load pendant
|Daisy chain||Individual aircraft circling in trail between pickup and a drop LZs and back again|
|DASC||Direct Air Support Center which controlled all feet dry air operations (simplified definition incorporating numerous other coordinating facilities) – Callsign Landshark Alpha|
|Defilade||A position shielded by natural or artificial obstacles from direct weapons fire|
|Division||A formation of two aircraft sections|
|Delta-Pattern||500-foot altitude with right-turns flown along the starboard side of the ship|
|DME||Distance Measuring Equipment|
|DMZ||1955-1975 east-west dividing line between North and South Vietnam|
|Donkey-dick||A pendant with an explosively detachable connection to the helicopter for carrying external cargo
|DOR||Drop on request, covered a wide range of reasons for discontinuing flight training, some of which were suggested/allowed by training board decisions|
|Ellyson||Situated northeast of Pensacola, FL, Ellyson Field grew from an auxiliary landing field in the 1940s to a Naval Air Station for helicopter training during the 1960s and 1970s
|Ensign||Underway display of the ship’s national flag, astern|
|ETA||Estimated Time of Arrival|
|F***||Really? If you don’t know this, you should ask your mommy|
|Feet Dry||All air operations over land|
|Feet Wet||All air operations over water|
|Flare||Raising the pitch attitude (nose up) of the aircraft to trade airspeed for a reduction in the rate of descent, usually during landing
|Flight||A formation of two or more aircraft divisions|
|FM||Frequency-Modulated (Fox Mike) radio for aircraft and deployed unit communications
|FNG||F***ing New Guy, so labeled until replaced by a newer person or event|
|Fox Corpen||Compass heading of a ship|
|FUBIJAR||F*** You Buddy I’m Just A Reserve|
|FRAGs||Fragmentary Operations Orders which contained the basic SMEAC elements for MAG assignment of daily Squadron support missions|
|GCA||Ground Controlled Approach – A verbal controller guided instrument approach to minimums of a 100-foot above the ground and ¼ of a mile visibility|
|Gook||Derogatory name for NVA, VC, or Charlie|
|Ground effect||A downwash from the main rotor system forming a supporting cushion of air which decreases the power required for operating close to the ground or hovering
|Grunt||Any non-airdale, ground-pounder, Marine in support of the basic rifleman (MOS 0311)
|H&I||Harassment and Interdiction artillery firing which denies uncontested and safe use of a territory or facility
|H2P||Helicopter Second Pilot – Copilot – Left-seater|
|Habu||Neurotoxic snake – Two-stepper (When bitten, two steps, and you die)|
|HAC||Helicopter Aircraft Commander – First Pilot – Right-seater|
|Hatch||Door, aboard ship|
|Heavies||Senior Captains and above|
|HIGE||Hover In Ground Effect is created by downwash from the main rotor system forming a supporting cushion of air which decreases the power required for operating close to the ground
|HMM-362||Marine Medium Helicopter [squadron] – 362, aka Ugly Angels (Callsign Clip-Clop)
|HOGE||Hover Out of Ground Effect is lift powered only by engine-driven collective pitch of the rotor blades
|Hootch||A 12-cot, canvass-roofed, screen-sided (w/rollup canvas siding), 2x4 barracks with raised wooden flooring and electrical outlets for lights and fans
|Hydraulic Systems:||The H-34 has two independent 3000 psi hydraulic systems, either of which can control the operation of the rotor blade flight surfaces:
Primary is powered by the main rotor transmission, and the
Auxiliary is powered by the engine
|ICS||Internal Communications System for onboard crew radio communication|
|IFF||Transponder transmitted 4-digit Identification-Friend-or-Foe mission/status control code|
|IFR||Instrument Flight Rules – Navigating by flight instruments rather than visual piloting (VFR)
|John-Boy||A pseudonym for reporting events, while leaving identification of various personalities in Vietnam
|KIA||Killed in Action|
|Ky Ha||I-Corps Marine Helicopter airfield near Highway 1, between Tam Ky and Chu Lai|
|Stairs, aboard ship||Stairs,, aboard ship|
|Landshark Alpha||DASC callsign|
|LSE||Landing Signalman Enlisted (yellow-shirted) aircraft carrier personnel who hand-signal helicopter movements on deck
|LSA||Logistic Support Area|
|M-14||7.62 caliber semi-automatic rifle|
|M-16||5.56 caliber semi- and fully automatic capable rifle|
|M-60||7.62 caliber machine gun|
|MARCAD||Marine Cadet training which processed non-college graduates through a program combining both flight and officer training, ending with Naval Aviator Wings and a commission as a 2/Lt
|MARTD||Marine Air Reserve Training Detachment|
|MCAS||Marine Corps Air Station|
|Meridian||Basic jet training NAS in Meridian, MS|
|Meritorious NCO||A program recognizing enlisted excellence and providing a path to OCS|
|Mighty-Mite||American Motors built small Marine Corps jeep|
|MMAF||Marble Mountain Air Facility, east of Da Nang and used by the Marine Corps|
|Mongu||Mongoose – counter-punching carnivore that usually turns snakes into food|
|MOS||Military Occupational Specialty – Numbered job description|
|NAS||Naval Air Station|
|NATOPS manual||Naval Aviation Training Operations manual of standard and emergency procedures for a specific aircraft
|NVA||North Vietnamese Army, composed primarily of post-Geneva Viet Minh freedom fighters north of the DMZ|
|O’Club||Officer’s Club, aka club|
|Obstacle course||Kip over an eight-foot horizontal bar, rope-assisted climb to the top of a ten-foot wall, balanced run along parallel logs slanting back to the ground, three six-foot horizontal bars to be traversed (O’Kennon vaulted them), and a fifty-yard run to a 20-foot knotted (O’Kennon ignored them with six or seven hand-over-hand pulls) rope-climb
|OCS||Officer Candidate School|
|ODO||Operations Duty Officer|
|OJT||On the job training|
|PCS||Permanent Change of Station|
|Petcock||Spring-loaded drain valve for sampling avgas from an H-34 fuel system|
|Pickle||Activate the explosive charge to separate the external lift pendant (donkey-dick) from the aircraft
|Piss-tube||One of many screen-topped six-inch PVC pipe urinals openly angled into the
sandy soil at convenience locations in the all-male environment
|PIMP||Post-Maintenance Inspection Pilot|
|Pitch||Motion about an aircraft’s side-to-side axis, managed by cyclic control of the
main rotor – Also, the angle of individual rotor blades
|PNF||Pilot Not Flying|
|Pop-A-Smoke||A grass roots reunion organization of initially too few RVN era helo pilots and now too many past and present pilots, flight crew, and relatives
|Port||left, with forward reference|
|Pre-flight||Crew chief or pilot inspection to confirm both yellow-sheet and aircraft status|
|PriFly||Shipboard equivalent of a land-based aircraft control tower|
|PTSD||Post Traumatic Stress Disorder|
|Public debt||US borrowing due to spending in excess of income [arguably, $120b due to RVN]|
|PX||Post Exchange store|
|QA||Quality Assurance - Check before signing off maintenance as being completed|
|Qual||Qualification, usually involving a check-ride with a standardization pilot, for instrument, NATOPS, and carrier landing certification|
|R&R||Rest and relaxation - A week’s leave out of country to various locations, including Hawaii, Australia, Hong Kong, and others
|Radio discipline||Radio communicating was like a huge party-line on any one frequency, but any transmission or a stuck mike would prevent all others. Brevity ruled, and any non-operational talk was strictly forbidden
|Reductio ad absurdum||A logical construct which says that when a result is false, then so must any argument for it be
|Roger||Radio transmission for “I understand”|
|Roll||Motion about an aircraft’s fore-and-aft axis, managed by cyclic control of the main rotor|
|RPM||Rounds per minute
-Engine rpm (short needle on the rpm gauge) driven by the engine
-Rotor rpm (long needle on the rpm gauge) driven hydraulically during startup, splined to the engine during powered flight, and freewheeling during autorotation
(sans engine power and with needles split)
|Rudder pedals||anti-torque devices which control aircraft yaw with the tail rotor|
|RVN||Republic of Vietnam – Founded in 1955, after the Viet Minh defeat of the French at Dien Bein Phu (05/07/1954), and dissolved in 1975, after the fall of Saigon (04/20/1975)|
|SAR||Search and Rescue|
|Saufley||Situated Northwest of Pensacola, NAS Saufley provided training in the T-34|
|Sea legs||A temporary unstable feeling during the transition from shipboard movement afloat to solid land ashore
|Section||A formation composed of a lead and a chase aircraft|
|Semi-monocoque||Strength from the skin of an aircraft in addition to its underlying rib/limber structure
|Shackle-codes||Daily-rotated, secure words which contained 10 non-repeated letters, each of which associated with one of the numbers 0-9. This provided a means of safely communicating (“I shackle---”) radio frequencies or grid coordinates over the air. FOXYLADIES (I made it up so you don’t have to shoot me for leaking top-secret codes) would yield OYX dot S = 243.0
|Shitters||Outhouses with bench-seat holes over 55-gallon-drum-halves|
|Side-slip||Movement in a direction which is not the heading of the aircraft|
|SLF||Special Landing Force – A task force of Navy ships|
|SMEAC||Standard phases of an operation order for all missions – Situation, Mission, Execution, Administrative, and Coordinating instructions
|Squawk||Transmit a four-digit transponder IFF mission/status control code|
|Stan pilot||A standardization pilot, designated to give other pilots qualifying and periodic proficiency check rides to ensure NATOPS, flight, and instrument proficiency.|
|Starboard||Right, with forward reference|
|Stine Lake||Gettysburg early 1960s open area, east of the Eddie Plank Gymnasium, prone to flooding and joyously muddy athletic contests
|Structures:||Marine Corps Ranks:|
O-1 = Second Lieutenant (2/Lt),
O-2 = First Lieutenant (1/Lt),
O-3 = Captain
O-4 = Major,
O-5 = Lieutenant Colonel (LtCol),
O-6 = Colonel (Col),
O-7 = Brigadier General (BGen),
O-8 = Major General (MajGen),
O-9 = Lieutenant General (LtGen), and
O-10 = General
E-1 = Private (Pvt),
E-2 = Private First Class (PFC),
E-3 = Lance Corporal (LCpl),
E-4 = Corporal (Cpl),
E-5 = Sergeant (Sgt),
E-6 = Staff Sergeant (SSgt),
E-7 = Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt),
E-8 = Master Sergeant (MSgt) or First Sergeant (1stSgt), and
E-9 = Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt) or Sergeant Major (SgtMaj)
Squadron – 24 aircraft with Flight, ground, and support personnel and comparable to a ground battalion
Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) – several aircraft squadrons and comparable to a ground regiment,
Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) – several MAGs and comparable to a ground division
|A-4 McDonald Douglas Skyhawk, subsonic jet attack aircraft
C-130 Lockheed Hercules, 4-engine turboprop, military transport aircraft
F-4 – McDonell Douglas Phantom supersonic jet fighter-bomber
F-8 – Vought Crusader Jet Fighter
H-1 – aka UH-1E (Huey), Bell Iroquois utility helicopter, powered by a single turboshaft engine, with two-blade main and tail rotors
H-34 – UH-34D Sikorsky Seahorse, aka Dog, medium lift, utility helicopter, powered by an 1820-Wright-Cyclone, 1525 horsepower, turbo-charged reciprocating engine with 4-bladed main and anti-torque tail rotors
H-46 – Boeing Vertol Sea Knight, aka Phrog, medium lift helicopter, powered by twin turboshaft jet engines with tandem 3-bladed rotors
H-47 – Boeing Vertol Chinook is an Army heavier duty version of the Marine Corps H-46
H-53 – Sikorsky Sea Stallion, heavy lift cargo helicopter, powered by twin turboshaft jet engines with 6-bladed main and 4-bladed anti-torque tail rotors
H-54 – Sikorsky Sky Crane is an Army heavy lift helicopter
T-28 – North American Trojan, 1425 horsepower trainer
T-34 - Beechcraft Mentor, 220 horsepower trainer
|AH-17 - USS Sanctuary - hospital ship
AH-16 - USS Repose - hospital ship
LPH-2 - USS Iwo Jima - Landing Platform Helicopter
LPH-3 - USS Okinawa - Landing Platform Helicopter
LPH-5 - USS Princeton - Landing Platform Helicopter
LPH-8 - USS Valley Forge - Landing Platform Helicopter
LPH-10 – USS Tripoli – Landing Platform Helicopter
|SUB||Student Union Building predecessor of the CUB|
|T/O||Table of Organization – Listing of a unit’s required billets, by rank and MOS|
|Tailwheel||Locked in line with the aircraft’s fore and aft axis to prevent yaw on a runway or carrier deck and unlocked to allow it operationally. Forgetting to unlock for an unprepared surface landing or touching down locked in a side-slip on a runway or carrier surface could sheer the tail-wheel locking pin and have its’ remains presented by maintenance for the deserving pilot to wear around his neck
|TKE||Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity, formerly at 223 Carlisle Street, Gettysburg, PA|
|Tracers||Rounds of ammunition containing a chemical substance to mark their flight. Every 5th round in an M-60 machine-gun, 100-round, ammo belt was a tracer which could be visually walked into a target while giving away the position of the shooter
|Translational lift||At a combined wind and forward speed of 10-15 knots, the aircraft rotor system begins to act as an airfoil and produce lift in addition to that of the engine-driven collective pitch generated by the four, individual main-rotor blades
|Transponder||Radio instrument which continuously transmits (squawks) a 4-digit mission/status control code
|Two-steppers||Neuro-toxic snakes that reportedly have a bite which is lethal after two steps|
|UCMJ||Uniform Code of Military Justice|
|UHF||Ultra High Frequency radio for communications between / control of aircraft|
|USS||United States Ship (see Structures: Ship)|
|Utilities||Green cotton long-sleeve blouse and trouser working/field uniform|
|VC||Viet Cong, post-Geneva Viet Minh freedom fighters south of the DMZ, who became insurgents, backed by NVA and Chinese communists|
|VFR||Visual Flite Rules – Navigating by visual piloting techniques rather than cockpit instruments (IFR)
|VOR||Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni-Directional Range radio navigation instrument|
|Vill||Village or any populated off-base area|
|Wardroom||Officers’ dining room (mess) and lounge aboard ship|
|Whiting||Situated north of Milton, FL, NAS Whiting provided T-28 training|
|WIA||Wounded in Action|
|WILCO||Radio transmission for “I understand and will comply”|
|WWI||World War One – 07/28/1914-11/11/1918|
|WWII||World War Two – 09/01/1939-09/02/1945|
|Yaw||Motion about an aircraft’s vertical axis – Used to slow forward aircraft motion, quickly, by tail-rotor-produced unbalanced flight, left of the aircraft track (requiring additional power) or right (reducing power required).|
|Yellow-sheet||The source document for tracking an aircraft’s status, reporting its maintenance/servicing, and documenting responsibility for its operation