Monday, April 29, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 37

TAY NINH, Vietnam — August 7, 1967, started quietly enough. That morning we were north of Saigon, flying a military courier from Bien Hoa Airbase to Tay Ninh City when my crew chief came on the intercom.

“Sir, there’s a helicopter in trouble. It’s going down!” Specialist 4 Charles “Skip” Lyons told me. I couldn’t see the other helicopter because it was behind me, so I asked the crew chief to direct me to the aircraft. Using Lyons’s directions, I put my Huey into a rapid descent from 2,000 feet.

Minutes later, as I made a sweeping right turn, I saw the other helicopter for the first time. It was about 100 feet ahead of me.

I began overtaking the other helicopter, which was a Huey like mine. I had closed to about 50 feet when the helicopter banked onto its side and dropped to the ground in a patch of grass about 10 feet tall. I saw one of the main rotor blades fly into the air and come back down. Then nothing. I had lost sight of the other helicopter. Not sure where the other Huey was in the grass, I landed so the nose of my Huey touched the wall of grass.

I didn’t dare risk hovering blindly through the grass without a firm sighting of the other aircraft. The grass was tall enough to get tangled in the tail rotor, which would have incapacitated our helicopter.

To my left was an open, dry rice paddy. In the distance, I could see a row of Viet Cong soldiers coming toward us, firing AK-47 assault rifles. Some were firing from hips level as they walked; others would stop, squeeze off several rounds, and then continue walking toward us. They were too far away to get off an effective shot.

Lyons jumped from our helicopter, an M-16 assault rifle in hand and wearing his flight helmet. Some 20 feet from our helicopter, his head jerked sharply to one side and he fell to the ground. I was certain an enemy round had struck him. But as I started to unbuckle my seat belt to drag him back to the helicopter, Lyons stood up. “I forgot to disconnect the damn intercom cord,” he said. He had run so fast that when he reached the end of the cord, the tightened line had pulled him off his feet.

As the Viet Cong came closer, their gunfire forced Lyons behind a rice paddy dike. We wouldn’t be able to remain exposed much longer. In the meantime, Lyons had taken up a defensive position.

I thought about leaving the aircraft to look for survivors, though I doubted there was enough time. I also thought about making a high hover through the grass. As I weighed the options, a pair of hands parted the grass directly in front of me. My heart came to a momentary halt. It restarted when I saw the hands belonged to the other helicopter’s aircraft commander, who had led his crew to us.

I waved the four crewmen aboard our aircraft and then told Lyons to board. With all on board, I hovered our helicopter backwards, away from the grass. I then did a fast hover forward and eased the helicopter over a stand of trees along a nearby riverbank. The trees now were between the Viet Cong and our helicopter. I gathered airspeed over the river, and then pulled the helicopter into a rapid, cyclic climb.

After reaching 1,000 feet, we circled back over the downed helicopter. I wanted to be certain no one had been left behind. I had not yet had time to visit with the aircraft commander or his crewmembers.

None of the downed crewmen appeared to be wounded or injured. However, I decided to fly them to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh to be checked out. I later learned they all were OK.

On the way to the hospital I asked the aircraft commander for his unit’s radio frequency so I could call his commanding officer. When I told the C.O. I had picked up the crew there were several seconds of silence. “Christ, I didn’t know they were down,” he told me.

It turned out the unit had made a combat assault into a landing zone where the enemy was massed in a live-fire exercise. Some of the helicopters had been shot down on approach, while others had been downed on departure. The helicopter we had followed to the ground was the only one that had gotten out of the LZ. However, it was badly shot up and didn’t get far.

From left, Lt. Ivar Siqveland, pilot; PFC William
Dalton, door gunner; WO1 Jack Swickard,
aircraft commander; and Spec. 4 Charles
Lyons, crew chief, after awards ceremony.
The next day I was told to take my crew to the main U.S. military base at Tay Ninh for an awards ceremony. After we landed, the crewmembers we had rescued rushed over to us and began shaking our hands and thanking us. They then escorted us to their battalion area.

A general pinned medals on us and other flight crews. That day I received a Distinguished Flying Cross and each of my crewmen got an Air Medal with “V” device for valor.

For days after the rescue, Lyons would ask me: “Did you see the look on the face of the courier when he thought I had been shot?”

Over the years I’ve wondered if it was simply luck when Lyons saw the helicopter going down. I don’t know how the Viet Cong soldiers could have missed us as they advanced firing their weapons. I also don’t know if I would have been able to help the other crew had any of them been trapped in their Huey or been wounded.

Fortunately, things fell into place for us very quickly, even though the rescue seemed to last a long time.

I know many other helicopter pilots who flew similar missions during the war. Some were awarded medals. Many others were never recognized.


I was fortunate most of the combat assaults I flew were during daytime. Sometimes we’d get up early and be in the air before sunrise, heading to a pickup point to load troops for a morning assault. When we started our approach into the landing zone there would be enough daylight to fly safely in formation.

In my helicopter company, night assaults were rare. That was fine with me because it was difficult to fly a tight formation in the dark. I guess if we had flown many night assaults, we’d have gotten used to it.

One of the most frightening combat assaults I remember flying was at night. Our mission was to carry soldiers from Bien Hoa Airbase to a landing zone near Xuan Loc, a town east of Saigon on Highway 1. Eight years later, Xuan Loc would be the site of the last major battle of the Vietnam War.

We took off with troops at dusk. Soon it was very dark. We flew formation by lining up on one another’s position lights. It was not much fun, but doable.

Then instructions came over the radio: “Turn off your position lights. Use instrument lights to hold your position in formation.” The flight commander did not want us to show the enemy our location.
Thunderbird assault helicopters lined up to
board troops for a combat assault.

Off went position lights throughout the formation. I eased my helicopter a little higher so I could see the red instrument lights in the cockpit of the Huey 45 degrees to my right and front. The copilot monitored our instruments.

It was so dark outside I couldn’t even make out the shape of the other helicopters in formation. All I could see were the damn red lights.

“Tell me just before we touch down,” I told my copilot. “Roger,” he replied.

Soon we began our descent. I had no sense of anything outside our helicopter but the red instrument lights I was following.

“We’re 5 meters from the ground,” the copilot said over the intercom. I flipped on the landing light in time to make a soft landing. Dust started churning up, but I could make out the ground. The soldiers leaped from the Hueys. Grass flew into view from the dark around us. No shots were fired. The pilots pulled pitch and we were flying out of the landing zone.

We returned to Bien Hoa in a loose formation with position lights on all the way.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 36

BU DOP, Vietnam — Crossbows made by the Montagnard people of Vietnam were a hot item for trading.

Pilots of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company had access to the crossbows because we frequently flew into Montagnard camps and settlements. Additionally, many of the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups soldiers we supported through U.S. Special Forces were Montagnards.

The French named the Montagnards —the indigenous mountain people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands — during the colonial occupation of Indochina.

Young Montagnard men at Bu Dop, Vietnam.
When we flew to a Montagnard camp, the locals knew they could get a dollar or two for a handmade crossbow and a couple of bolts. They were a good investment. When we landed back at Bien Hoa Airbase, we put out the word to the Air Force guys and they would be lined up to take the goods off our hands.

The crossbows were hot items because they were war souvenirs that were light to carry and the ammunition wouldn’t explode in a shipping container. It was a keepsake a GI could take home and show he had been in the thick of things during the war. A crossbow was an item of lust for many GIs who never served in the field, as well as some who had. They became a basic unit of commerce.

Personally, I didn’t get engaged in crossbow commerce, but other flight crews did. Stories were rife about how a crewmember had parlayed a crossbow into a case of steaks, which then were swapped for a window air conditioner.

I even heard tales about plywood cabins — or “hooches” — being financed through crossbow trades. These were in the more remote areas of Vietnam where pilots did not live in a nice villa like ours.

Another big appeal of the crossbows was they were fun to shoot.

The two pilots who lived across the hall from me brought Montagnard crossbows home one day. I remember walking into their room that night and seeing them sitting on the floor in their shorts and T-shirts, pointing crossbows toward one of the beds.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked Warrant Officer Ricky Mattern.

“Hunting rats,” Ricky said. “We’ve seen a big one under the bed.” The two pilots were sitting at 90-degree angles to one another so they could not hit each other with a flying bolt.

I brushed it off. I had been living across the hall for several months and had never seen a rat in the villa. “Good luck,” I told them.

To my surprise, several days later Ricky told me he had bagged a large rat.

I began paying more attention to where I stepped when I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.

The guys across the hall became such avid rat-hunters you seldom saw them at the bar in the Officers Club. Each evening after dinner they would carry drinks back to their room, sit on the floor, and wait for their quarry.

The door to the room remained closed to keep the prey inside. Music from a reel-to-reel tape recorder would be playing pretty loud inside the room. When I heard the music, I never just barged into the room.

One day Ricky told me his new set of sand-weighted, Sansui floor speakers had arrived from Japan. He had not been able to find a set at the Bien Hoa Airbase PX, so Ricky had special ordered the speakers. That evening, he planned to bring the speakers online. I figured the music would be extra loud.

But I was surprised at how quiet the room was that night. The next morning, the two pilots told me Ricky had fired a crossbow bolt through one of the speakers, just as they had been wired up to play music.

Not long after that, I was in formation on the ground during a troop extraction. Ricky was in a Huey ahead of me in a staggered trail formation. As I prepared for takeoff, I saw one of the helicopters near the front of the formation get airborne, then drop immediately from view behind a row of nipa palm trees. The rest of the formation’s takeoff was aborted. Soldiers and crewmembers from nearby helicopters streamed toward the trees.

It turned out that Ricky’s Huey had lost lift just as it cleared the first row of trees on the nearside of a small river, then settled into the water and sank. Though Ricky and his crew survived the accident, several soldiers they were carrying drowned. Getting out of a submerged helicopter can be tricky. You don’t want to swim to the water’s surface too quickly because the main rotor blades can strike you. Even under water, it takes a while for the blades to lose their momentum.

Wreckage of Huey being flown by WO1 Ricky
Mattern and 1st Lt. James Ante.
Weeks later, on Sept. 3, 1967, Ricky, 3 members of his crew, and 3 passengers died during a freak accident at Di An near Saigon.

“The right cargo door came off on takeoff. The door hit the main rotors blades, causing mast bumping to occur. The tail boom and main rotor blades separated from the aircraft. It crashed and burned,” the Army accident summary says.

Ricky was the aircraft commander, First Lieutenant James Ante was pilot, Specialist 4 Ray Schold was crew chief, and Specialist 4 David Carroll was doorgunner. Among the passengers was Warrant Officer Lewis Gilder, who had caught a ride on the helicopter to visit a friend.

Over the years I remembered Ricky and Jim as very young when they died. Yet, Ricky was only 2 years younger than me, and Jim was 7 months older.


From time to time we would hear about crossbows used as weapons against helicopters.

The one I heard most frequently involved a U.S. Army Huey landing after running low on fuel. The story goes that when the crew chief walked to the side of the helicopter to begin refueling at a P&L (petroleum and lubrication) station, he saw a crossbow bolt had been shot into the bottom of the chopper, puncturing the fuel cell.

The most interesting story, though, was about a giant crossbow near a large, reclining Buddha statue. According to the story, the crossbow was permanently aimed up with a sharpened bolt roughly the size of a telephone pole. When this story was relayed, it carried the explicit warning not to fly low and slow while looking at statues in the jungle.

The location of the reclining Buddha statue and the giant crossbow was always a bit vague. I never met anyone who saw either.

The largest reclining Buddha statue in Vietnam was within flying range of our helicopters. It is the Thich-Ca-Nhap-Niet-Ban located on Ta Kou Mountain about 30 kilometers southeast of Phan Thiet. The 160-foot-long (49-meter-long) statue is near a mountaintop pagoda built in 1879.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 35

BIEN HOA, Vietnam — The 12 months I flew helicopters in the Vietnam War was a year packed with new experiences and new emotions.

There were the legendary moments of sheer terror following the lengthy hours of boredom. It also was a year I spent in the company of fellow helicopter pilots. These were the smartest, most irreverent, and selfless people I have ever been around. When I recall my year with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company it is hard to suppress a smile.

Some of the brighter memories occurred during combat missions, but others were part of everyday life in a war zone. One, in particular, involved my first haircut in Vietnam.

Two weeks after joining the 118th Thunderbirds, I figured it was time to get a haircut. I asked my roommate, Warrant Officer Larry Belhumeur, where he got his hair cut. Larry told me there was a barbershop down the street from the gate to the Honour-Smith Compound where we lived. I questioned whether it was safe to go there.

Larry replied none of the other pilots had ever had a problem getting a haircut at the shop. He suggested I go with one of the other pilots, who also was about to walk to the barbershop. “Good idea,” I thought.

Several minutes later I met up with the other pilot. We walked out the gate and down the street. The other pilot wasn’t armed. I was, with a .45-caliber Colt automatic sidearm. I had heard stories in flight school of Viet Cong members lurking around corners, ready to spring on an unsuspecting American soldier. Besides, the barber would be armed with scissors and a straight razor.

The other pilot got a chair as soon as we entered the barbershop. While I waited for a chair, I watched my colleague close his eyes as the barber began trimming his hair. “Not a good move,” I thought. “You won’t catch me napping.”

When it was my turn to take a chair, I drew my .45 and held it in my right hand. The barber draped his sheet over me — and the pistol. He knew I was ready for anything.

As the haircut progressed, I started to relax a little. I did edge up a bit when the barber stropped his straight razor and shaved the back of my neck. He then walked around to my left side. “Uh, oh. What’s this?” I thought. He pointed to my arm and made a shaving motion with his hand. He wanted to shave my arm. “No,” I nodded.

Then the barber walked behind the chair and began fiddling with the back. I sat up, alert to what might occur next. The back of the chair dropped down on a hinge, leaving my back exposed. The barber pushed me forward and began massaging my neck and back. Next he massaged my arms, then my legs, and my feet.

It was the best haircut I had ever had. I paid the barber and began looking forward to my next visit.

Several weeks later I returned to the barbershop. This time I kept my .45 in its holster.

On my third trip, I didn’t carry a sidearm. That’s how I went to the barbershop each time throughout my tour — unarmed.


Combat assaults sometimes had their brighter side.

During my first months of flying in Vietnam, I was pretty casual about adjusting my seat in the cockpit. I was one of the shorter pilots, so the most comfortable flying position for me was having the seat raised as high and as far forward as it would go.

By far, the greatest difficulty I had with the seat was raising it after I had strapped in for flight. When flying, I wore a bulky flak jacket, a web belt with a .45-caliber Colt automatic pistol inside a leather holster, and a thick, ceramic chest protector. Usually, after preflighting the Huey, I would climb into my seat, strap in, then grab an adjustment lever near the floor and lift myself as I pulled up on the lever. A lever on the other side of the seat allowed me to drag the seat forward.

One day a combat assault made me rethink how I set up the seat.

Warrant Officer Jack Swickard in 1967.
The assaults that day were northeast of Saigon, not far from Bien Hoa Airbase. We would pick up several loads of soldiers, fly them into a landing zone, and then return to Bien Hoa to await the outcome of the assault.

When the missions were posted on the assignment board the night before, each aircraft commander was told his copilot would be a member of another assault helicopter company, which had just arrived in South Vietnam.

The 118th Assault Helicopter Company was assigned to begin training the new guys. Later some of these pilots would be infused into the Thunderbirds and other assault helicopter companies, while some veteran pilots from older units would be transferred to the new company.

When I arrived at the Birdcage, I met the major who would be my copilot for the day. We went through the preflight together, and then I hovered our Huey into a 10-ship formation for takeoff. The first part of the mission went well. That changed on our first trip into the landing zone.

The 10-helicopter flight was on course for the LZ, a rookie copilot flying in the lead aircraft. The flight almost overshot the LZ, so the aircraft commander in the lead Huey took the controls and began a steep, spiraling descent. My Huey was on the left side of the staggered trail formation. I was sitting in the left seat using the helicopter slightly ahead of me and to my right as a reference to fly a tight formation.

As the descending formation banked left, 3 things occurred about same time: Gunfire erupted from the Viet Cong soldiers on the ground, white tear gas drifted into our path, and my seat dropped loudly to the floor. Until this time, my new guy copilot had been along for the ride.

When my seat — weighed down with its ceramic armor, my chicken plate, plus my 135 pounds of weight — dropped to the floor it sounded like an explosion inside the cockpit. Making matters scarier for the copilot, the drop caused me to fall suddenly out of his peripheral vision. Making matters scarier for me, I lost visual contact with the Huey I had been watching to stay in formation. In our descending, steep turn I could be drifting into another helicopter.

“Take the controls! Take the controls!” I yelled to the major over the intercom. He hesitated in confusion. I continued screaming at him. He snapped alert and took the collective and the cyclic.

I grabbed the seat release near the floor and, with all the strength I could muster, I shot upward with the seat. It snapped into place. Now I could see the other Huey. I took back our helicopter’s flight controls and continued descending in tight formation. I could hear the enemy AK-47s, the machine guns on the 10 assault helicopters laying down fire. Our gunship escorts were firing rockets and grenades along the edge of the landing zone, while raking the enemy positions with machine gun fire.

Now rotor wash from the 10 Hueys was stirring up tear gas.

Flying formation required you to see other
helicopters in the formation.
On the ground, the major and I rapidly swapped the controls back and forth as we took turns wiping our eyes and trying to catch our breath. We continued trading off the controls as we climbed out of the LZ in formation. Around 400-500 feet the tear gas started to dissipate.

After his initial hesitancy when my seat dropped, the major had kept his composure. I never saw him again, but I long remembered the look of horror and confusion on his face when he thought he was alone in the cockpit on his first combat mission.

I learned a valuable lesson: Make certain the seat latches are locked in place before flying. From then on when I preflighted a Huey I would raise the seat all the way up and slide it all the way forward, shake it hard to check the lock, and then climb into the cockpit.


The pilots of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company were a practical group of people. A good example of this involved a Viet Cong soldier stationed on the island near Bien Hoa Airbase. Thunderbird and Bandit gunship helicopters returning from missions routinely overflew the island, formed by a split in the Dong Nai River.

Frequently, on approach to the Birdcage, we would hear a single shot. Fortunately, none of the helicopters was ever hit. A lone Viet Cong soldier on the island took one shot a day at a helicopter. The pilots nicknamed him “One-Shot Charlie.”

One of the first unwritten rules I learned after joining the Thunderbirds was not to return fire. The theory was that if “One-Shot” were killed or wounded, the Viet Cong might replace him with a soldier who had better aim.

Midway through my tour of duty, we quit hearing the lone, daily shot. I don’t know if “One-Shot” was transferred or a helicopter from another company fired back and hit him.


One of my favorite navigation aides was the ADF radio. ADF stood for automatic direction finder. If you needed directions to a place with an AM radio transmitter, you could dial in the station’s frequency and the ADF needle would point to it.

Jeep with driver, Huey crew of 4, and 5 other GIs.
We used the ADF to listen to Armed Forces Radio Saigon, operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. With the flip of a switch, we could pipe the radio station into the headsets built into our helmets.

Flying supplies, we could listen to the Top 40. Usually on combat missions, we would turn off the ADF to avoid audio overload in the cockpit. You had to stay focused on 2-way radio frequencies and the intercom when the action started.

However, in October 1967 while flying a combat assault, I left the ADF radio on too long. We shot our approach, taking fire while listening to an Armed Forces Radio newscast about 35,000 anti-war protesters demonstrating at the Pentagon.

I realized the protesters lived in a different universe than I inhabited.


My crew chief, Spec. 4 Charles “Skip” Lyons, was a fearless soldier. He also loved to play practical jokes.

One time, while flying at around 1,500 feet, there was a knock on my cockpit door. I turned and saw Lyons grinning through the door window.

Another time, while also flying about 1,500 feet, I heard a tapping near my feet. I looked down at the chin bubble and saw Lyons grinning back at me as he straddled the front of the skid.

I told him to remain inside the helicopter. I knew he would climb out on a skid during flight one time too many and fall to his death.

Years after the war, Lyons called me one evening. It was the only conversation I had with him after we flew in the war. During our brief telephone visit, he told me he had extended his Vietnam tour several times. In his last 6 months in combat, he said he developed an intense fear of falling from a helicopter.