Monday, December 17, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 22

FORT WOLTERS, Texas — When Tom Baca checked in for flight training at Fort Wolters, Texas, he was assigned to a room in the Warrant Officer Candidates (WOC) barracks.

With the room came a lifelong friend, roommate Sterling Essenmacher.

Sterling, a police officer in Whittier, Calif., had been drafted into the military in February 1964. Like many of the other warrant officer candidates, he had taken his Army basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. But Sterling got to flight school by a less direct route than many of his classmates.

After basic, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for training to be a medic. From there, he was assigned to the 563rd Medic Clearing Company at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“That’s when I found out from another friend that the Army had a program to fly,” Sterling said. “I’ve always been an aviation nut, with an interest in airplanes. I only had a year and a half left in the Army, but I wanted to fly.”

He applied for flight training. “It took me 5-6 months to get my appointment to flight school, going through all the physicals and the flight tests.”

Before helicopter flight training began, each candidate had to successfully complete one month of Preflight, a time when physical and mental stress was inflicted on the would-be pilots. Army Aviation wanted helicopter pilots who would remain levelheaded under stress and work as a team. During Preflight, tactical officers —veteran combat helicopter pilots, themselves — looked for misfits.

Sterling and cameraman Stuart Dunn in 2008.
When the candidates signed in at Fort Wolters, they were promoted to E-5 sergeant for pay purposes. As warrant officer candidates, their status within the Army was considered one rank below an E-1 enlistee.

Tom and Sterling were assigned to Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Aviation Class 66-3.

 “I remember the first 4 weeks in Preflight there was a lot harassment, but wisely, they let up as you got into flight training and ground school, and you got done with the leadership stuff,” Tom recalled. “There was still discipline and you had to make sure your lockers were squared away and on your beds they could bounce a nickel. I don’t really remember being unmercifully harassed a whole lot.

“I do remember having time to trade my old Volkswagen. I sold my old Volkswagen to a guy from Maine. I then went out and bought a new Dodge Dart. I remember this other candidate and I got into a fight,” Tom said. “It was the first weekend I had my new car and I gave it to Sterling to drive to the Texas State Fair in Dallas. I had a brand-new car sitting outside and he was the first one to drive it.”

Sterling remembered that when he and Tom arrived at Fort Wolters, the tactical staff was transitioning from a “strict OCS (Officer Candidate School) atmosphere to a college environment. This was just before the build-up of pilots training to fly helicopters in Vietnam.”

Even with easing up on some of the discipline, “We only had a 50 percent loss out of our company,” Sterling said.

While attending primary helicopter training at Fort Wolters, Sterling had placed a plastic model of a Huey on his desk. He and Tom received demerits from a tac officer because “I didn’t have the rotor blade tied down,” Sterling said. “If he hadn’t written me up for that, he would have written me up for not signing off on the model Huey’s log.”

“We didn’t get the weekend off for it,” Sterling added.

During flight training, each ride with an instructor was graded. On one of these, Tom received a pink slip — a failing grade.

“I had to take this check ride and there was a civilian check pilot nobody ever wanted to get. I’ve got to pass this ride or I’m going to get washed out. I see this guy walk out and I’m thinking, ‘God, don’t let that be him,’ because I’d heard stories about him,” Tom recalled. “This was right at the end of my training, before I was to go to Fort Rucker. But we went out and I gave him a good ride.”

After soloing in a helicopter, the student pilots were thrown by their classmates into the swimming pool at the Fort Wolters Officers Club. In later classes, the solo dunking was in water-filled ditches along the country roads. Eventually, the dunking was conducted in the swimming pool of the Holiday Inn at Mineral Wells.

After completing 4 months of primary flight training at Fort Wolters, the student pilots were assigned to the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Sterling continued on with Class 66-3, while Tom was held back a month because of a shortage of student pilot slots. He would graduate from Fort Rucker with Class 66-5.

Later, as newly minted warrant officer aviators, Sterling and Tom arrived in Vietnam about the same time. Tom, who had graduated from flight school on May 24, did not take leave before heading to Southeast Asia.

“I was in Vietnam on June 5. Including travel time, it was about 10 days after graduation,” Tom said.

Sterling said he “hit country about May 23.”


In Vietnam, Sterling was assigned to the 281st Assault Helicopter Company at Nha Trang. His unit was assigned to Special Forces, which “had operational control over us.”

He worked a lot with mountain teams in the Pleiku area. “I was only on three combat assaults the entire time I was in Vietnam,” Sterling said. “We were out in individual ships, working mountain camps, whatever Special Forces people needed us to do.”

He worked mainly with Special Forces B Teams in the northeast section of II Corps, far north of where Tom would be assigned.


Like many helicopter pilots, Tom had orders assigning him to the 1st Cavalry Division when he arrived in Vietnam.

Tom flew to Vietnam on an Air Force C-141 transport. He recalled thinking “there was an awful lot of dirt” when the airplane landed at Pleiku.

“We all got offloaded from this C-141 and they had the troops waiting to get on. You know, they didn’t even shut down the engines.” As the C-141 taxied out to the runway with its load of homeward-bound soldiers, a C-130 transport landed.

Tom recalled, “They started calling names out. ‘The following people, step over here on the right or the left. Your orders have been changed.’ Well, the first one called was, ‘Baca, Tom.’ I thought, ‘I wonder where the hell they’re sending me? It’s better than this place.’

“I asked, ‘Where am I going?’ and was told, ‘You're going down to III Corps, to Bien Hoa Air Base.’ I said, ‘Thank you, God.’

“They flew us to Saigon in the C-130. When we got off, we were told to report to Hotel 3, and give the clerk our stuff. I think we were assigned to the 145th Aviation Battalion, not a company, so I went to the Hotel 3 office and reported in.

“I said, ‘I'm supposed to give you this.’ He picked up the phone and said, ‘Wait! Wait!’ Then he got on the radio and said, ‘Thunderbird so and so, hold on a second, will you?’ Then he told me, ‘You’re going where that helicopter’s going. Go out there with your stuff and get on that helicopter and he’ll take you where you need to go.’

“I asked the crew, ‘Where am I going?” and was told, ‘The 145th Aviation Battalion.’ I got on that helicopter. We flew to Bien Hoa and landed at the Birdcage. They came out and said, ‘Yea, you’re going to be flying with us.’

The Birdcage was the landing and maintenance area for the Thunderbirds of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company.

Tom recalled the flight to the Birdcage “was my first 118th ride. That’s how I ended up at Bien Hoa.”


Thunderbird patch
By being assigned to the Thunderbirds, Tom had hit pay dirt on his assignment in Vietnam. Pilots in the company lived in a villa on Cong Ly Street in downtown Bien Hoa. There was a Chinese cook who took pains to prepare an excellent menu, helicopters sometimes were dispatched to the coast to bring back fresh seafood, and the waitresses wore starched, gray uniforms. Each morning, a large platter of freshly made doughnuts was placed near the door so helicopter crews could enjoy a morning snack later at the flight line.

Two pilots occupied each room at the villa. Each room had a private bath with shower. Rooms on the first floor also had Dutch doors that opened onto walled patios where outdoor bars had been set up.

Each night after dinner, pilots would sit at their dining room tables and watch just-released movies or current U.S. television series being projected on a white wall. The favorite was the “Combat” TV series. The only routine distractions were the lizards that lived on the wall, eating insects that wandered or flew within range of their darting tongues.

Jack, Tom, Al Croteau at site of villa in 2008.
The bar in the Officers Club lounge was well stocked, though you were more likely to find a San Miguel beer than a Budweiser and a Myer’s rum than a Ron Bacardi. Duc the bartender was a good drink-mixer, daily traveling by bus between Bien Hoa and his home in Saigon. If you needed a roll of film developed, you gave it to Duc. He handed you photographs the next day.

The pilots, the flight surgeon, the dentist, and the communications detachment commander who lived in the villa were a congenial group. Parties sometimes ran into the early morning.

The 118th Assault Helicopter Company was a great place to be assigned as a pilot.


Tom’s first flight as a pilot with the Thunderbirds was on June 22, 1966. During the 6 months he was with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, Tom flew combat assaults and single-ship combat support missions.

Tom in cockpit of Thunderbird UH-1D.
“The 118th was a solid, proficient and well-led unit. The maintenance was superb and the crew chiefs and gunners were the soul of the unit, as far as I was concerned,” Tom said. “They worked long hours after we left the flight line. We all trusted each other. The pilots, both commissioned and warrants, were mission-driven and fearless.”

Tom served in the Thunderbirds until December 1966, when he was transferred to II Field Force Vietnam.

“Apparently, the IIFFV was about to lose all of its experienced pilots, so they asked III Corps to send some candidates’ names for selection. I understand they wanted pilots who had proven they could work independently and had intimate knowledge or the III Corps area,” he said. “I was selected. I was upset I had to leave the Thunderbirds and all of my friends, but I did as ordered.”

Tom said he flew more hours per day at the II Field Force “than any of us did in the Thunderbirds. I would log 5-8 hours a day, four or five days a week. I enjoyed flying at the 118th and at the Field Force Headquarters.”

On May 14, 1967, with just 12 days left before he completed his 1-year tour in Vietnam, Tom was assigned to fly the II Field Force chaplain to Special Forces camps as Bu Dop, Dong Xoai and Cau Song Be, which recently had been renamed Chi Linh.

“I had already flown about 4 hours that morning. I think we left for Bu Dop about 11:30 a.m.,” he said. “That day would be my highest-time day. I flew a total of 10.7 hours that day.”

Tom met his copilot for the first time when Captain Larry Liss walked up to the aircraft that morning.

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