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.


3 comments:

  1. I'm guessing your haircut was when the 118th was down town on Cong Le street prior to moving to the airbase after Tet. I too had some haircuts in the barbershop on the river end of Cong Le and my first time I was as nervous as you were. I had just checked in with Battalion after arriving in country as a 19 year old pilot and the S1 told me I needed a haircut since I was just off my 30 day leave between flight school and VN. Another officer from Bn went with me as he needed one too and I had the exact same reservations as you did, but I was unarmed as I hadn't even signed in to the 118th yet. I was even more nervous when the barber "cracked" my neck. Remember, they would turn your head as far as it would go to one side and then sharply turn it some more, yikes. Ah, old memories.

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    Replies
    1. Hi, Bob. It was the same shop, near the river end of Cong Ly Street, past the American Club on the corner. Some of the guys who flew with the Thunderbirds later told me the pilots moved to a compound on Bien Hoa Airbase after Tet 1968. When I was there, the compound housed civilian engineers. I left Vietnam immediately after Tet 1968. In October 2008, Al Croteau, Tom Baca and I tried to find the villa on Cong Ly Street. We couldn't. The street has been renamed and widened to a 4-lane thoroughfare. We found the fountain that was in the courtyard and the villa where Tom lived after transferring to the II Field Force flight detachment. A very nice hotel now is on the site of the Thunderbird villa.

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