Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 19

CHI LINH, Vietnam — Captain Larry Liss already had considerable combat experience when he and Warrant Officer Tom Baca landed at Chi Linh Special Forces Camp on May 14, 1967.

Before his transfer to the II Field Force (Vietnam) Flight Detachment a month earlier, Larry had served as deputy commander of a Pathfinder detachment. His detachment was responsible for marking landing zones before helicopter assaults were made in the largest U.S. combat operation of the Vietnam War.

Larry Liss with Vietnamese children
Larry was in the field with the Pathfinder detachment for two months during Operation Junction City, which began on February 22 and ended on May 14. In fact, Larry’s work on the operation began on February 20, two days before it was launched.

With Tom serving as command pilot of an unarmed UH-1D helicopter and Larry as copilot, their aircraft and another Huey would rescue more than 100 Civilian Irregular Defense Group soldiers stationed at Chi Linh Camp. Tom and Larry made a medical evacuation flight and then five rescue flights into an overgrown landing zone, using the main rotor blades of their helicopter to cut a way to the ground.

On two trips into the landing zone, Larry would climb out of the helicopter, under enemy small-arms fire, to help CIDG soldiers climb aboard the Huey faster.

Taking chances and overcoming odds ran in Larry’s family.

Years before, at the age of 6 years, Larry’s mother had run from the basement of their home into a city square in Kiev to rescue her grandfather from Bolshevik soldiers who were executing prominent residents of the city, then in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

“My mother would tell the story of when the soldiers came into Kiev where the square was, where their house was. They had a big house,” Larry said. “During the day they pulled out all the rich people, aristocracy-type people, intellectuals. There were about 500 people in the square, in the park, lined up and they started shooting people.

“My mother’s family was hiding in the basement. My mother saw her grandfather out there and she ran up the steps. Her family didn’t see her do it. The first they saw her was when she was running across the square,” he said. “She grabbed my grandfather around the waist and was screaming not to kill him. Soldiers hit him on the head with a rifle butt and then some people who were standing in the crowd pulled him away and down into the basement. That was the first signal they had to get out,” he said.

“Initially, my mother’s family, tracking back to the 1800s, was Dutch. Somehow, the smarter, more go-getters in the family wound up moving to Russia,” Larry said. The family had a major furrier business in Kiev before moving to the United States.

“My father’s family, as far back as we can track, was Russian,” he said. Both sides of his family were Russian Jews.

His mother’s relatives started arriving in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s.

“The family settled in at Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Boston. One particular uncle, between 1910 and 1925, brought 30 people over from Russia,” he said. “They were all relatives, including my mother, who came over in 1921.

“This uncle personally came to the border. They went from Kiev into Poland, and this uncle met my mother, who was 6 or 7, this little tag at the train station at the border. My mother wound up having diphtheria,” Larry said. “They were staying at The Grand Hotel in Warsaw. They actually quarantined the hotel because of her.”

When his mother left for the United States, all she had of value were diamonds, which were sewn into the lining of her clothing.

He said about the same time his mother arrived in the United States, “my father’s family also was getting out of Russia.”

As a small boy living in Philadelphia, Larry spoke Russian and Yiddish. “My mother forced me to speak English because she had learned to speak English.”

When Larry was was born in 1941, his family lived on the far edge of West Philadelphia. “It was all Jews; actually Jews who had money lived there. The row houses were twice as big as normal row houses. I lived in a high-rise, a 15-story high-rise.”


After World War II ended, Edward “Eddie” Liss partnered with another veteran too sell oil heaters to homeowners using coal to heat. “My dad started out in 1947 knocking on doors all around West Philadelphia and Winfield in South Philly. He knocked on doors and introduced himself, telling people he could work with them to convert from coal to oil and they wouldn’t have to worry about filling the coal bin, and there wouldn’t be any black dust in the house,” Larry said. “He ended up making a load of money. Ultimately, he had salesmen working for him.”

Larry remembered his father “did the oil heat thing for years. He moved out to the Mainline when I was 11 years old.” Eddie Liss then started working in the construction business. “He built a lot of houses, and he did a lot of extensions on houses; he also did extensions on factories.”

Larry said he remembered his father played golf every day when he was growing up. “His philosophy was he had a good thing going, he didn’t have to work every day, and he had more than enough money to take care of the family and put us through college. He kept saying he was not going to have a heart attack at 50. He died of cancer at 52. He got two more years out of it, but he lived a great life.”

Larry said his first military memory was just after World War II ended. “When I was 5 or 6 years old, one day all these men showed up in uniform. My uncle Sammy was there, he was in the Navy and he had his ribbons on. My uncle Sid was in the Army, he had all his ribbons on. They wore their uniforms for weeks.”


When Larry was 8 years old, misfortune struck. On Mother’s Day 1949, a laundry truck struck him as he darted into the street from between two parked cars. Larry had crossed the street to pick flowers for his mother and was returning to give them to her. Larry was in a coma for two months.

While he was hospitalized with the coma, some of his young relatives would visit him. “My cousins tell stories about putting mustaches and funny hats and wigs on me while I was in the hospital,” Larry said.

“When I came out of the coma, I couldn’t speak very well. When I look back on it now, I was like a walking zombie. They didn’t have CAT scans or MRIs or anything like that. They just had x-rays,” he said. “I had a major concussion. I was like a zombie for 2 or 3 years. So I was way behind everybody else. I had tutors. I didn’t really wake up until I was about 11.

“One day, everything was silent. Then there was this noise and I looked up and there was this woman’s face next to my face — I could see her eyes, her makeup and her red lipstick — screaming at me.

“Then it was, ‘Larry Liss, you’re always looking out the window. I’m tired of this! Go to the principal’s office now!’ She pulled me up by my collar and pushed me. I walked out of the classroom and I was walking around the halls. I swear to God, I had no idea where I was.

“Then I saw daylight and I walked toward the doors and opened them. All I know is, I sat on the steps. I remember sitting there and looking at cars for the first time. Trees for the first time. It was spring. Grass. Clouds. People talking, walking. I could hear footsteps. I was like a stranger in a strange land. I felt like an alien,” he said.

“My parents came, and my mother and father were crying. I remember my father hugging me, and asking me if I was OK. Then my mother crying and saying, ‘Thank God!’”

Larry said, “Years later they told me I was quiet and walked around like a zombie. But I attended school and got picked on. I don’t remember anything for three years. I was totally blank until the moment that teacher was yelling at me. And, you know, if that teacher had not yelled at me, who knows how long I would have been like that.”


Larry received tutoring and attended summer school. “I guess parts of your brain develop, while other parts shut down. When I took my college boards, I maxed the literature part of it and bombed on the math part,” he said. “I think I got a 299 and 800 in literature. You get 200 points from putting your name on a piece of paper.

“So, if you put the two scores together, it was still like 1,000 or 1,100, and you needed 1,200-1,400 to get into a good school, so I got turned down by every school except for Pennsylvania Military College and Swarthmore, of all places, which is really highly regarded academic university. They wanted to take me because I was a really interesting character. I was like a savant in some areas. They wanted to put me on probation,” Larry said.

A friend, “a guy named Lenny Ellenstein, who had been flunking out in college, went to Pennsylvania Military College and wound up getting all ‘A’s.’ He said, ‘Look, you’ve got to come visit this place because it’s great.’

“So I went to Pennsylvania Military College on Mother’s Day 1958, when I was a senior in high school. They had a big parade. I got hooked. It was like 2,200 cadets. They had horse cavalry and they had the infantry, and the drums were playing and the band was playing. The corps of cadets was behind the stadium, all lined up, and I was watching these guys and they blew me away. Some of them were my age and I was still blown away,” he remembered.

“Then I got in the stands and they marched out onto the field. That was the day they gave awards to certain people or promotions and stuff. It had been cloudy and the sunlight was hitting the sabers, and the horses were there, and I said: ‘I got to do this.’ So I told my father, ‘Look, I’ve got to go to this school because I’ll flunk out of college. If I go to any college, I’ll flunk out and I don’t want to do that.’

“My father said, ‘OK.’”

Larry remembered coming home for the first time during his plebe year at Pennsylvania Military College. “I was in my uniform, and my mother fainted. She just collapsed into a heap. She was scared to death.”

Cadet Larry Liss
Larry loved life at the military college and was a distinguished military graduate. “I was like a fish in water. The plebe year was kind of rough, but I went into the Pershing Rifles drill team. We became the national champions in 1961, ’62 and ’63. As a plebe, I was part of Pershing Rifles, which was 36 brothers out of a cadet corps of 2,200, so it was a very elite group.”

Nevertheless, his first year was rough. In addition to keeping up with his academic studies, Larry arose every morning like at 4:30 to drill with the Pershing Rifles.

Because the college was a cavalry school, most of the graduates went into Armor Branch. Larry was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Regular Army upon graduation in June 1963. His first active duty assignment was attending the Armor Branch Basic Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

After Armor school, I was assigned to the 2nd of the 9th Cavalry in Germany, on the Czech border, up against the Russian Special Forces (Spetznaz),” Larry said. He served as an armored cavalry platoon leader. “I used to race around in what was called a 114. I had a Jeep, a tank, and a 114, which was like the command track vehicle, about half the size of an armored personnel carrier. It had a .50-caliber machine gun on it. It was a cool little vehicle; it had a ’70 Chevy Corvette engine in it. We raced all over Germany in that thing.”

His first exposure to the Vietnam War occurred during this time. Larry was part of a study to determine how effective tracked vehicles would perform in the combat area. He remembered traveling to South Vietnam for 6-8 weeks at a time on TDY — or temporary duty.

“I was rotated in and out. I lived in Munich, so I would do the Czech-German border, come back, then rotate to Vietnam, then rotate back out, then go back to the Czech border,” where he mainly performed scouting missions.

Larry Liss in Vietnam jungle fatigues
In December 1965, he volunteered for helicopter flight training. Larry recalled visiting with Army helicopter pilot along the Czech border on a cold and snowy winter day that year. The pilot was in the warm cockpit of a UH-1 Huey, drinking a cup of coffee.

Larry said the pilot told him, “Look at you. You’re freezing your ass off. You ought to apply for helicopter flight school.” Later, at the Officers Club, Larry saw a sign encouraging young officers to apply for flight training. He applied and was accepted.

Within weeks, he arrived at the Army’s Primary Helicopter Training Center at Fort Wolters, Texas. Larry remembered checking into the bachelor officers’ quarters — or BOQ — around Christmas 1965.

After four months of primary helicopter training at Fort Wolters, an Army post outside of Mineral Wells, Larry and his classmates were sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama, the Army Aviation Center. There, at Mother Rucker, the student pilots were taught to fly with cockpit instruments, transitioned from small training helicopters to the Huey, learned gunnery and formation flying, then spent time in the field learning escape and evasion.

Larry graduated from flight school in the fall of 1966. Within 30 days, he was in South Vietnam.

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