Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 30

FORT RUCKER, Alabama — Because my last name started with an “S,” I was always at the end of the line throughout basic training and flight school. Soldiers whose family names started with “A’s” and “B’s” always got to go first.

The only time this rule was changed and I got to go first was when our flight school class received departure dates to fly to South Vietnam.

Most members of my class — WORWAC 66-21 — received orders allowing them to take a 2-week leave en route to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., where they would board government-contract airliners and fly to Southeast Asia.

Future wife, Renee, pinning aviator wings on me
after graduation from flight school.
WORWAC was an acronym for “Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Aviator Class.” The “66” was the year we were scheduled to graduate from flight school and “21” showed we were the 21st class of 1966. Things got screwed up a bit when the Army Aviation School shut down for a 2-week Christmas break, pushing our class’s graduation to January 1967, but no one considered changing the class number.

Those in our class with orders for Vietnam were divided into 3 groups and ordered to depart on 3 consecutive days. I would leave on the first day.

One of my classmates from South Dakota, Gary Scofield, and I drove to Sioux City, Iowa, and caught an airliner to San Francisco. We spent the night in the city before reporting at nearby Travis Air Force Base, where we boarded a plane for Vietnam.

As we lined up to board our flight, classmates departing on the next 2 days made a special trip to Travis so they could cheer us on. “See you in Vietnam!” “We’ll think of you tonight in San Francisco!” “You’re going to miss the party!” they jeered.

I figured, what the hell, I’d leave earlier, but I’d get back earlier. Each of us had orders for a 12-month tour of duty. Our DEROS — or Estimated Date of Return from Overseas — would be based on when we departed for Vietnam.

However, there would be a delay in our arrival in South Vietnam.

Our first stop after departing Travis was Honolulu, where the Braniff Airlines plane would refuel before continuing east. An hour after our flight departed Hawaii, the pilot announced over the intercom: “We don’t want to upset you, but we just lost our Number 4 engine. We’ll circle for 30 minutes, and then return to Honolulu for repairs.”

The passengers, mostly newly minted warrant officers from my flight school class, let out a cheer.

Back at Honolulu International Airport, we were ushered into the passenger lounge and told to wait for an announcement. After a couple of hours, our bags were brought to the lounge and an airline representative explained the engine would have to be repaired before we could continue on our journey. In the meantime, Braniff would give each passenger a book of coupons we would use to cover all our expenses.

 “Report back here at 0900 hours (9 a.m.) tomorrow and we’ll give you a status report,” the airline’s representative explained. “If you take a taxi, eat or check into a hotel, pay with one of the coupons in the book we are giving you.” It was like being handed a free checking account in one of the world’s resort cities.

I was tired, so I decided to play it low key. A shuttle took me to Fort DeRussy, where I rented a room in the Bachelor Officers Quarters. Half a year later, I would return to Fort DeRussy, which was the Hawaii R&R (Rest and Recuperation) site for soldiers serving in Vietnam.

Some of our classmates weren’t so low-key. Some checked into the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, 2 reportedly into the Honeymoon Suite. Others got into card games, paying their losses with the coupons.

For the next 3 days we would go to the airport, where we were told: “The engine’s not fixed yet,” and collect another day’s worth of coupons.

On the fourth day the Braniff representative reported World Airlines had been contracted to bring a plane to Hawaii the next morning and take us on to South Vietnam.

The World Airlines flight landed at Bien Hoa Air Base, 20 miles northeast of Saigon. We gathered in an open shed, awaiting our duffel bags and watching GIs board our plane to fly home. We then boarded blue Air Force buses, their open windows covered with heavy wire screens, and were driven to Long Binh Post about 3 miles from the airbase. We stopped at the 90th Replacement Battalion, a complex of dusty, wooden barracks, BOQs and offices.

On my way into the replacement battalion office, a classmate from one of the later flights Travis asked me: “Where have you guys been?” We heard that question a lot. The stopover gave us something we could rub in, particularly when we told them our time in Hawaii had counted as time in Vietnam.

The next day we lined up to show the orders we’d been given at flight school, assigning us to units throughout Vietnam. My orders assigned me to the 1st Air Cavalry Division at An Khe to the north. The 1st Cav had been highly touted by some of our flight school instructors. I was looking forward to the 1st Cav, until the 90th Replacement Battalion clerk examining my orders said, “Sir, your slot was filled, so you are being diverted to the 118th Assault Helicopter Company in Bien Hoa.”

Lonnie Schmidt, a classmate just ahead of me in line, also drew the 118th Assault Helicopter Company rather than the 1st Cav. We weren’t sure if our life had improved, until we arrived at the 118th.

An hour later, a Jeep pulled up to the 90th Replacement Battalion. The Specialist 4 driver asked for the pilots assigned to the 118th. Lonnie and I boarded for the ride to Cong Ly Street in downtown Bien Hoa City.

We couldn’t believe our eyes as the Jeep pulled into the courtyard of a large villa. The driver told us he would take us to the company Orderly Room at the airbase after we put our bags away and cleaned up. The billeting officer showed me to a room where I would spend my first couple of nights, before being assigned to one of the flight platoons. Each room had a European-style, high-reservoir toilet, a sink and a shower.

We put on clean, khaki uniforms, then met the Jeep driver, who drove us to Bien Hoa Airbase. The Orderly Room was a cross between a wooden shack and an Army GP Medium tent. Major Bill Bradner, the company executive officer, was waiting outside for us. After introducing himself, he invited Lonnie and me into his office.

“In case you have forgotten, when you meet the CO, march into his office, stop in front of him, salute, then report in,” Major Bradner instructed us. He obviously had dealt with newly minted warrant officers before. I was thankful for the briefing, which was a reminder of what we had learned in the Military Courtesy classes at basic and flight school.

After reporting in with the commander, Major Joseph “Joe” Boggs, Lonnie and I began checking out organizational equipment. We each drew a ballistic flight helmet, a .45-caliber Colt automatic pistol, as well as several pairs of jungle fatigues and jungle boots with a steel plate in the sole to protect against Punji stakes.

We then were driven back to the 118th officers’ villa. I had some time on my hands, so I looked around. The villa was a nice place to live by any standard. It had 2 wings to one side, which housed the 1st and 2nd flight platoons; a row of upstairs rooms that were home to the Bandit gunship platoon; a dining room with a palm tree growing through the roof; and a very nice bar, named the Thunderbird Lounge.

Thunderbird unit patch
The company call sign and the lounge received their name from the Thunderbird Lounge in Las Vegas. When the 118th AHC was deploying to Vietnam in 1962 as the 33rd Transportation Company (Light Helicopter), several of the pilots visited Las Vegas. While having drinks at the Thunderbird Lounge, the pilots told the bartender they were heading off to fly helicopters in South Vietnam. Pretty soon, the pilots were handed matchbooks, bar napkins, swizzle sticks and glasses, all labeled “Thunderbird Lounge,” to take with them to Southeast Asia.

When the helicopter company arrived in South Vietnam and began setting up an officers club, what could be more natural than naming it after the lounge whose name was imprinted on the napkins and glasses? Once the club was dubbed the Thunderbird Lounge, the name “Thunderbird” became the 118th AHC’s call sign.

Lonnie and I were given temporary rooms in the villa until it was decided whether we would be assigned to the 1st Flight Platoon “Scorpions” or the 2nd Flight Platoon “Choppers.”


Both platoons flew UH-1D transport helicopters to ferry troops into landing zones on combat assaults, pull medical evacuations during combat operations, fly food and beer to the soldiers after they had secured a landing zone, and to resupply units around the III Corps area of South Vietnam on “pigs-and-rice” missions.

The UH-1D Hueys in these platoons were called “slicks” because they were armed only with a 7.62 mm machine gun on each side. The crew chief and a gunner manned the machine guns.

The “Bandit” gunship platoon flew UH-1C Hueys with wider rotor blades for additional lift. They needed a lot of lift for takeoffs because on each takeoff, gunships carried a full load of fuel, and boxes of machine gun rounds, rockets and grenades. The gunships rarely landed except to refuel and rearm. Frequently when they took off with a full fuel load, they needed a runway to bounce down until they had the airspeed to enter translational lift, the point at which a helicopter enters flight.


After changing into jungle fatigues and securing my duffel bag, I wandered over to the Officers Mess and joined. Members’ dues supported the mess. Because I was living in a villa and not in a tent or a bunker like many of my flight school classmates, I was given a cost of living allowance — known as COLA — to cover meals at the Officers Mess. The timing was good because it was almost time for dinner.

Lonnie and the company operations officer joined me at a table. The Thunderbirds employed a Chinese cook and 3 Vietnamese waitresses, who wore gray uniforms with white aprons. A mess steward made certain the kitchen refrigerators were full. Our mess steward did a superb job. When unpopular items such as calf liver would show up on the Army’s Master Menu, he would make a trip to the U.S. Military’s food commissary in Saigon to buy steaks or pork chops as replacements.

If we were planning a dinner party for officers, one of the slicks would fly to the resort and fishing city of Vung Tau at the mouth of the Saigon River and come back loaded with fresh lobster, prawns and other fish.

Halfway through dinner, the 2nd Platoon leader charged through the door, spotted the operations officer, and headed to our table. “We need a Peter Pilot to fly Firefly. Our other pilots are out of flying time for the month. Can we take one of the new guys?” he said, pointing to me. I stood up, waiting for the operations officer to give me the nod.

Waiting outside villa for ride to the flight line.
I am holding a map; Schmidt is at right.
After almost a minute, he replied: “He can’t fly until he has had his in-country orientation check ride.”

The platoon leader left as quickly as he had entered the Mess, looking for a copilot.

The Firefly mission involved a Huey slick flying over rivers during the dark of night, illuminating the rivers and their banks with a high-intensity searchlight mounted on one side of the helicopter. Beside the searchlight was a .50-caliber machine gun. While the slick would fly at 1,500 feet altitude, 1 Bandit gunship would fly very low just behind the area illuminated by the searchlight and the other would command the team from above the light ship at about 2,000 feet.

The gunships were on the prowl for hidden Viet Cong sampans used to ferry supplies under the cover of darkness. If the gunships needed extra firepower, a gunner aboard the slick would hose the enemy with the .50-caliber machine gun.

That night’s Firefly ended in tragedy for the crew. After refueling at Nha Be, then a petroleum tank farm owned by Royal Dutch Shell on the Saigon River, the slick took off over the river. At some point during the takeoff, the pilot apparently developed vertigo and flew the Huey into the water. The only survivor was the copilot, who was found by a Vietnamese fisherman. He was still in his cockpit seat, which had been ripped out of the cockpit by the force of the crash.

That night the 118th lost a pilot, a crew chief and a gunner. I’ve wondered since if I would have survived the crash as copilot. I suspect I would not have. Being brand new in my first flying assignment, I don’t think I would have been able to react to the situation with enough knowledge to survive the crash.

The accident drove home the fact that flying helicopters in combat could be a deadly business. The next day this lesson was strongly reinforced when I learned Michael Utter, one of my classmates had been killed during his first flight in Vietnam — his local orientation flight — when his Huey flew into power lines near Bien Hoa Airbase.

The immortality of youth was sliding away pretty quickly.

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