Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 25

CAU SONG BE, Vietnam — Warrant Officer Ken Dolan had been in Vietnam only 6 weeks when he flew as copilot on a Huey that joined another U.S. Army UH-1D helicopter in rescuing more than 100 soldiers from an ambush.

Ken Dolan beside Thunderbird
Huey in South Vietnam.
Ken had joined the 118th Assault Helicopter Company in Bien Hoa around April 1, 1967. On May 14, he was flying right seat in a Huey that made 5 trips into a remote landing zone, cutting its way to the ground with its main rotor blades.

During each trip into the LZ, Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army soldiers were shooting South Vietnamese CIDG troops after they had boarded the helicopters to leave.

Before joining the Army, Ken had flown only once, taking a round-trip flight from New York to Tampa, Florida, to pick up blueprints for his employer.

Ken and his brother began working in their teens to help support their family.

Their mother had moved to the United States from Scotland about 1918 as a teen-ager herself.

Mona Treasurer, 18, was from a large Scottish family. “Her older sister came over first and was doing domestic work for a wealthy family in New York,” Ken said. “She wrote my mother and said she had a job for her. So she came over.”

He said his mother worked several years for the family, then moved back to Scotland. “She never talked about it, but there was no real future back in Scotland because it was depression time,” Ken said. “She came back to the United States and went to work in Greenwich, Connecticut, for another wealthy family.”

There “she fell in love with the chauffeur,” Ken said. Thomas Francis Dolan was second generation Scots-Irish from New York City. “They met, fell in love, and got married.”

Ken’s father worked as a chauffeur while his mother stayed home to raise a family. Ken’s brother, Thomas Christopher Dolan, was born in 1943. Ken was born in 3 years later.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Ken’s father enlisted in the Army and was sent to Hawaii as a radio operator.

“He evidently fell in love with Hawaii because a year or two after I was born, he took off and went back, never to be seen again,” Ken said. “So my mother raised my brother and me by herself.”

Ken said his mother had “gotten into the hotel business in New York at the time. She was working in the laundry room, initially, and then she worked in housekeeping. She later worked up to a supervisor in the hotel industry in New York. Welfare worked out a lot in the early years when we were very young.”

Ken said when he and his brother “were old enough to fend for ourselves, she started working again; she found jobs and eventually worked her way up in the hotel industry in New York. We lived on 33rd Street and 1st Avenue in a very Italian neighborhood. The homes were brownstone, with families living in 2- or 3-room apartments.”

When Ken was 11 or 12 years old, the city condemned apartments and houses in their neighborhood to make room for a Bellevue Hospital expansion. “They needed a full city block to build condominiums for their doctors and residents. We ended up on the Lower Eastside. My formative years were spent on the Lower Eastside, Sixth Street and Avenue D. At the time it was a very, very rough neighborhood. It was downtown New York,” he said.

After the move, Ken received encouragement from a school official. “I had a very good relationship with the assistant principal at the junior high school. He encouraged me to take tests for the competitive high schools in New York. I passed those exams and went to Brooklyn Technical High School. The City of New York had six competitive high schools. Back then Brooklyn Tech had 6,000 students, all guys.

“In the meantime, my brother had graduated from high school and he was kind of the father figure. He moved us out of the Lower Eastside, over to a nice, quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn.” Ken commuted to high school each day on the elevated railway — or “L.”

“We were still not wealthy, by any means. My brother was working in a management-training program at Woolworth’s,” Ken recalled. His mother was working at the New York Hilton Hotel.

Ken graduated from high school with a structural design degree, which was a prerequisite for civil engineering. “I had enough grades to get into college, but I didn’t have any money. I realized I was going to have to work before I could go to college.”

He found work as a structural designer for a year and a half after high school with Charles Cohn and Sons, a small shop that did steel design. “Most of what we did was for the steel structure of buildings all over the world and all over the United States. We did the layout for the beams and the columns, and the whole structural steel that goes into the buildings.”

Then Ken received a military draft notice, but he wanted to enter the Army as a volunteer. “I went down and took my physical and they gave me my 1A. I was ready. I was expecting that letter from the President any day, so I went down and talked to an Army recruiter and he told me about the Warrant Officer Flying Program. I enlisted,” he said.

Ken in Army flight school.
Ken entered the Army in February 1966. It was a good time for a career change. “I had been having second thoughts about staying in structural design. It wasn’t that exciting. So I decided to go to flight school.”

He had been on one commercial flight in his life. “Flight school sounded like something unique and exciting. The only time I had ever flown before was when I showed up for work one morning and the boss came out and said, ‘Ken, I need you to go to Florida. I got tickets for you and we’ve got some plans, blueprints, down in Tampa that we need you to pick up.’ He lent me his car and sent me to the airport. I flew down to Tampa first class.”

Ken was thinking ahead and planning to use the GI Bill for his education.

He had attended Queen’s College in the evening while working in structural design, but work kept him busy during the day and he would go out with his buddies on Friday and Saturday nights. He recalled working 12 hours a day while attending college at night. “It didn’t ring any bells. I wasn’t excited about it, so when the draft time came around, it was something different to do,” he said.

Ken began basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in February 1966.

To get to Fort Polk, Ken flew from New York City to Atlanta, and then boarded a DC-3 twin-engine propeller plane for the flight to Alexandria, Louisiana. He remembers being put up for the night in a “fleabag hotel.” The next day he rode a bus to Fort Polk.

“It went from bad to worse. They ran you around in circles. I guess we sat there for three days. We were trying to figure out what was going to happen next. All they did was feed you. Then, all of a sudden, all hell broke loose from the drill instructors,” Ken recalled. Basic training had begun.

After completing basic training, Ken traveled to Fort Wolters, an Army post at Mineral Wells, Texas, some 45 miles west of Fort Worth.

“Checking in at Fort Wolters wasn’t that traumatic. They threw a bunch of information at you and gave you a pile of books. ‘This is what your uniform has to look like.’ Then, finally, they assigned you a room,” he said. “There was a lot of walking. Then it got pretty hectic when the TAC officers and TAC NCOs got into our faces.”

Ken sitting in Huey cockpit at Bien Hoa.
Ken described himself as an “average” student during flight training at Fort Wolters. “I had never touched the controls of an airplane before, so it was a challenge. I had to really buckle down. The actual flying part was a real challenge.”

He said his “first traumatic experience was solo. I didn’t want the guy to get out of the cockpit,” Ken joked. “I wanted him to stay right where he was. Once I got over the fear of being on my own in the aircraft, it was like a catharsis. After that, I was fine.”

By coincidence, the officer in charge of Ken’s training company at Fort Wolters was Dewey Shelton, who Ken later would work for in aircraft maintenance at the 118th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam. Shelton was a captain when he took command of the maintenance detachment.

One day, Shelton told Ken: “Come work for me.” Ken extended his tour in Vietnam for 6 months and became a maintenance officer.

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