Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 23

CAU SONG BE, Vietnam — Lieutenant Albert “Al” Croteau was one of those resourceful, no B.S. officers who have made the U.S. military so efficient during wartime.

On May 14, 1967, he would fly into combat 5 times voluntarily, as doorgunner aboard one of two UH-1D “Huey” helicopters that would rescue more than 100 South Vietnamese soldiers and a U.S. Army Special Forces advisor under fire by a large enemy military force.

Though his official Army job was commander of a communications detachment at Bien Hoa Air Base, Al was no stranger to combat. The night before the May 14 rescue, he had approached Warrant Officer pilot Jack Swickard about flying as gunner aboard his Huey.

Al’s ancestors were French Canadians who arrived in the United States generations earlier to work in the wool mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The French Canadians, largely from Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, began arriving in Lawrence in the 1850s to escape cold farm life to the north.

“I don’t know what year they came from Canada,” Al said. “I can go back to my great-great-grandfather. They moved into the Lawrence area and worked in the Lawrence mills.”

Al’s grandmother, Noel Martineau, arrived in Lawrence around 1890 and found work as a “mill girl.” She had 7 brothers and sisters.

Al’s father, Albert Croteau, also came from a line of French Canadians who had moved into the Northeastern United States.

“His father came from Canada, also, and moved into a town called Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where he had a shoe factory,” Al said. There, Eugene Croteau, manufactured shoes for U.S. soldiers during World War I.

Al was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, when his father was in the Army.

“My father was in the Army during World War II, but he never left the States,” Al said.
“He went in at a very young age, 16 or 17. His last duty tour was Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he was a cook. He was a sergeant, in charge of a mess hall.”

Al’s interest in the military started when he was 8 years old. “We used to play soldier all the time. That was at a time when all the war movies were out. John Wayne was popular. ‘Pork Chop Hill,’ all the leftover Second World War movies and the Korean War movies were running at that time,” he said. “That’s when I decided I was going to go into the military.”

At the time, his family lived in Malden, Massachusetts, outside of Boston.

“I can actually remember playing soldier games with my brother and a couple of friends. I can remember deciding ‘I’d like to do this,’” Al recalled.

He started training with the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps — or ROTC — in his freshman year at Boston’s Northeastern University in 1961. At the time, he was studying chemical engineering.

“In the Engineering College, all engineers but chemical engineers went into the Army Engineering Corps. The chemical engineers ended up going into the Signal Corps,” Al said.

“Northeastern University was a branch school, so you ended up training in your branch,” he said. “Northeastern also had a different program — you didn’t go to ROTC summer camp until after you graduated. In most schools, you went to summer camp before you graduated. So at Northeastern, the day you graduated from summer camp, you were commissioned a second lieutenant.”

After graduation, Al moved to upstate New York, where he worked as an engineer for International Paper Company for about 3 months. He was called to active duty in October 1966.

His first active duty assignment was to the Signal Corps Branch School at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

“It was pretty comical because I already had 5 years of branch school. It was absolutely the same thing, which was tremendous because at that time they were calling up a lot of people and they had a lot of Signal Corps officers,” he said. “At branch school, it was so easy that I had a tremendous amount of excess time because I didn’t have to study anything.”

Al shortly after arriving in Vietnam.
He made the class graduation party his main focus. “I was put in charge of the party committee. This gave me run of the town and the post. I could do anything I wanted. All I had to say was, ‘I’m working on the party.’”

Al also tutored classmates who were having problems in branch school. “So, not only did I have the run of the post, I also had the favor of most of my classmates because I was helping them get through it. I had a very, very pleasant time at branch school. It was a lot of fun,” he said.

He graduated from branch school 6 weeks later, just before the Christmas 1966 holidays. “I didn’t want to make the commute back to Boston, so I decided I would stay on post at Fort Gordon.”

Al remembered how quiet it was at Fort Gordon during the Christmas holidays. With time on his hands, he struck up a friendship with some of the military dentists assigned to the post.

“I told them, I’m going to be here for the Christmas holidays’ and they asked, ‘What are you going to be doing?’ I said, ‘Basically nothing. I don’t have an assignment. I may need to have some dental work,’” said Al, who had hit the right chord.

“They asked, ‘Do you want to be a patient?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’

“So, for the 2 weeks I spent at Fort Gordon at Christmastime, I was in the dental chair every day. The Fort Gordon dentists replaced every filling in my mouth; they did any work that needed to be done.

“And 40 years later, I’m sitting in a dental chair and a guy looks at me and asked, ‘Where’d you get all your dental work done?’ And I said, ‘The U.S. Army.’ He said, ‘My God, this stuff is great.’ I said, ‘Well they had 2 weeks to work on me. No time limits and they were bored stiff.’”

Because Al had done so well in Signal Corps Branch School, the Army gave him a choice of advanced schools. “What was up and coming in the Army at that time was helicopters, so I said I would like to go into avionics,” he said.

At one time, Al thought about applying for helicopter flight training.

Al in jungle fatigues.
“When I was at Fort Gordon, one of my classmates wanted to borrow my dress blues, formal uniform. He told me, ‘I’ll tell you what. If you let me use your dress blues, I’ll take you up for a flight.’ I flew in a Bird Dog.

“That was the first time I was ever in an airplane. I was scared stiff. As long as he kept the airplane straight and level, I was happy. The minute he tried to turn or anything, I was petrified. I had never been so frightened in my whole life, but I knew it was something I wanted to do,” Al recalled.

However, he wore glasses, which disqualified him from attending flight school.

During the 6-week Avionics Advanced Course, Al’s commanding officer was a captain “who, for some reason, did not like me and had it in for me. When I went to the advanced course, I decided to be on the party committee again.”

Because Al was older than most of the other second lieutenants in the class, “I was more mature and not as frightened of people with higher rank. We would be told, ‘We’re going out to the field today, so you’ll have to go buy your meals at the mess hall.’ They’d buy these K Rations or C Rations. But I’d go to the supermarket and buy this great food. I’d go to the field and they would ask, ‘Why do you have the good stuff and we have this crap?’

“I’d say, ‘Why not?’ They didn’t say you had to buy it there, they just said you had to bring your own food because officers have to supply their own food. I used to do this sort of thing and, again, I was helping my classmates.

“Another time, the class was told, ‘We’re going to go out in the field for 3 days and we’re going to live in trucks.’ This is what the Signal Corps does.

“So I said, ‘I’m not staying overnight in the field.’ I was told, ‘Oh, yes you are.’ I replied, ‘Oh, no I’m not.’

“When we got out to the field, I went over to the person in charge and said, ‘I have to go back and work on the party committee.’ Then I was in a truck and out of there. I never stayed a day in the field. I always slept in a comfortable bed,” Al said.

“This sort of irritated the captain who was in charge of our class, but he couldn’t do anything. He was really irritated at me, but he couldn’t do anything because I was No. 1 in the class and I had this party committee. I always had a good reason. He didn’t like me because I was getting away with things all the time. I wasn’t doing any harm to anyone.

“He was out to get me. At the end of the course, we’re in a line for something. He walked up to me and started talking, and I did something wrong, something stupid. He came up and started chewing me out, and I said to him, ‘Guess what? I just put in a transfer from Korea to Vietnam. I’d like to go to Vietnam.’

“And he looked at me and said, ‘OK.’ And the next guy in line he gave 20 pushups. It was a punishment; he was supposed to punish me, but he gave the next guy in line the punishment. I just kept walking.”

Al initially had orders assigning him to South Korea. “I thought, ‘Korea’s cold, it’s wet and it’s damp, and there’s nothing going on in Korea. I don’t want to go to Korea. I’ll end up in some signal company, maybe not in avionics, but some place out in the hills.’

“I said, ‘I’d rather go someplace where it’s warm and where there’s a lot of activity,’ so I put in a transfer to go to Vietnam. And, of course, it was instantly approved because I’d graduated high in my class,” Al said.

“My orders were cut to go to a specific unit, the 198th Signal Detachment at the 118th Assault Helicopter Company. I was a replacement for the detachment’s commanding officer,” he recalled.
Al hamming it up at the officers villa.

Al was promoted to first lieutenant shortly after arriving in Vietnam.

His roommate was Dr. Louis “Lou” Lorton, the dentist attached to the Thunderbirds. “He was a great guy, a great humanitarian. I’d go on medical minivacs with him all the time. We’d go out on the minivacs and he’d have a drill that was pedal powered and I’d pedal for him or I’d assist him. When you’d go into the villages, he did so well with the Vietnamese people. I’d act as security for him, too.”

One night, when the Thunderbird villa on Cong Ly Street came under attack by the Viet Cong, Lorton awakened Croteau.

“I asked, ‘What’s going on?’ Lou told me we were under attack. Here’s Lou in a flak jacket, with grenades hanging from the flak jacket. I don’t know where the hell he got the grenades. He’s got an M-16 rifle. He’s got his helmet. He’s got a pistol.”

“I say, ‘Lou, where you going?’ and he said, ‘I’m going to defend the perimeter. Aren’t you coming?’

“I said, ‘No. No. Lou, I’m not trained, and there’s a unit out there that is trained and they work with each other. The only things we can do are shoot ourselves or shoot someone else, a friendly guy. I’m not going with you.’ He goes out to defend the perimeter.”

Al recalled that one day, Lorton wanted a telephone in his dental office moved.

“I got all these weird requests, where people needed a radio, a battery, or whatever. They’d always end up in my lap. So Lou sent me a request to have a telephone moved. He asked me, ‘Can I have a telephone moved?’ I said, ‘You have to submit the request in writing and it has to go through channels. So, when I got the request, I just walked into his office, picked up the phone and moved it to a different location on his desk.”

Al decided to see as much of Vietnam and the war as he could. His travels by Jeep and helicopter and his combat experiences instilled in him a great admiration for the country and the Vietnamese.

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