Monday, May 20, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 39

MINH THANH, Vietnam — The U.S. Army did a superb job of training helicopter pilots for combat in the Vietnam War.

Beginning with our first 4 months of flight training at the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter Training Center at Fort Wolters, Texas, we were being prepared to fly in combat in Southeast Asia. After 1 month of preflight training — a spit-and-polish period designed to weed out people who did not conform to the Army’s definition of an officer-aviator — we began flight instruction.

The first thing we learned was how to hover, followed by learning to take off and land a helicopter, make radio calls, monitor instruments, maintain proper engine and rotor rpm with a throttle mounted at the end of the collective pitch lever, solo, and cross-country navigation. Then we had to land and take off from pinnacles and out of confined areas surrounded by trees.

Early during flight training at Fort Wolters, students were told if they did not get along with their flight instructor, they could request a change. I couldn’t imagine that situation arising, until it confronted me.

My first instructor pilot was a civilian who worked for Southern Airways, which held a contract to teach us how to fly. Other instructor pilots — or IPs — were active duty military aviators, many of whom recently had returned from Vietnam.

At first I didn’t realize I had a personality conflict with my IP. Like the other student pilots, I was learning skills unrelated to anything I had ever done before. Someone once compared learning to fly a helicopter with riding a unicycle while juggling.

As flight training progressed, I began to pick up clues the IP and I weren’t bosom-buddies. After the expected stress of learning to hover, I began to pick up hints he might be aiming for me.

One day during an early instructional flight, the IP told me to make a descending turn to a particular compass heading. Everything seemed to click and our descent and heading worked perfectly. “That’s good,” the instructor told me. Not used to hearing compliments about my flying, I responded with a relieved, “It was pretty good.” His reply was brief and aimed at my jugular: “Quit bragging about yourself. You’ll screw up the next maneuver.”

Our cockpit conversations deteriorated from there. If I made a mistake during an instructed flight, the IP would yell: “Do that again and I’ll pink your ass.” This was a serious threat. When a student pilot made an unsatisfactory flight, the instructor would hand him a pink slip — the equivalent of an “F” grade. If a student received two pink slips he had to take a check ride, which determined if he would get kicked out of flight school.

My flight instructor’s threat came to pass and I was handed a pink slip several days later. I was sweating. One more pink slip and my flying time could be over. Several days later, the IP handed me the second pink slip. Before I could fly again I would have to take a check ride with a standardization pilot.

The appointed time and day arrived. I conducted a preflight inspection of the helicopter, knowing it could be the last time I would perform one. The standardization pilot knew I was nervous and tried to put me at ease. After taking off from the Main Heliport at Fort Wolters, I flew all the maneuvers the pilot asked.

Though I was on a make-or-break check ride I discovered flying with the standardization pilot was more relaxing than with my instructor pilot. After we landed, the check pilot filled out a form and turned to me. “Here it comes,” I thought.

“There’s nothing wrong with your flying,” he told me. “I don’t understand why you had to take a check ride.” I remained mum.

Each day, when my classmates and I were bused to the flightline, I hoped the red flag was flying. The flag meant weather conditions would not permit flying. The flag was never red.

Over the next 2 weeks, I received 2 more pink slips. Again, the standardization pilot told me my flying was up to snuff.

I wised up and asked for another instructor pilot. The next morning when I reported to the flightline, I was introduced to my new IP, an active duty chief warrant officer 2 recently back from a year’s tour of duty in South Vietnam.

For the first time since beginning flight school I began enjoying cockpit time. My grades soared, primarily because I could relax and concentrate on flying. There were no more pink slips or standardization rides throughout flight school. Instead of dreading flight instruction, I looked forward to it.

I was jumping all the hurdles as I finished up at Fort Wolters and moved on to instrument, formation, Huey transition, and tactical flying at Fort Rucker.

Later, after arriving at our combat units in South Vietnam, flight training continued. During our first 30-45 days in-country, new Peter Pilots flew with aircraft commanders who had experience in the area of operations and had developed the skills needed to fly overloaded and land in tricky areas.

By the time a helicopter pilot had been flying combat missions for three months, he was comfortable in about any situation he could face. The helicopter became an extension of his body. His depth perception became so highly tuned, he knew exactly where the main rotor blade tips were slicing through the air. He could sense the correct engine and rotor rpm.

When the shooting began, most helicopter pilots felt they had some control over their environment. Lift pilots flying troops into a landing zone during a combat assault could steer through enemy tracers that marked a fraction of rounds being fired at them by the enemy. We learned not to flinch, as that might cause you to collide with another Huey in formation. All helicopter pilots were familiar with the often-repeated saying: “A mid-air can ruin your whole day.”

I remember this was put to a test late one afternoon when the Thunderbirds were told to make “one more assault.” During the pilots’ briefing in the field before the assault, we were told a .50-caliber machine gun had been seen near the landing zone.

Sure enough, it found us. During final approach, the .50 began shooting from the LZ, straight up our formation. I had heard tracers from a .50 looked as big as basketballs. They looked a lot larger to me.

Holding a tight formation, our flight of Hueys was flying directly in the line of fire. A tracer looked like it was heading straight toward you and would come through the windshield. Then, just before it hit you in the face, the tracer would arc up and over your aircraft. It was an odd sensation. Fortunately, none of the aircraft were hit.

Where I really felt vulnerable was on the ground.

One week in late October 1967, some members of our lift platoon were assigned to carry Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol — or LRRP — soldiers into remote LZs at night. The soldiers we dropped off then would travel in small groups through enemy territory to gather intelligence.

Minh Thanh Special Forces Camp
About a week later, we would pick these “Roadrunner” crews up at night. This involved flying over a designated area, looking for a dim light from the ground. We flew with our external lights off, so it was important to keep track of other Hueys flying in the area.

When one of the LRRP teams signaled its position, a helicopter would make an approach to the team, pick up the soldiers and fly them back to base for debriefing.

On the final night of the mission, we cranked up our Hueys and flew to the pickup locations. I recall seeing a dim light flashing at us from the ground. As we made our approach to the light, I remembered hoping the person holding it was one of our guys and he had selected a clearing large enough for our main rotor blades.

The pickup went without a hitch. A major problem began later, after we had landed the helicopter and shut down the engine.

Skull outside camp
That week we had been operating from a clearing in a rubber plantation at Minh Thanh. There was a Special Forces compound ringed with barbed wire and a deep ditch in the same clearing. The helicopter crews were quartered outside the camp.

On our return from the pickup, we landed our Hueys. Within minutes of engine shutdown, the clearing erupted into battle. The Viet Cong apparently had timed their attack to begin just after we shut down the helicopter engines, when they could not be restarted.

I pulled my .38-caliber revolver from its holster and ran to a shallow depression in the ground. The sound of the attack was now a loud roar; so many rounds were being fired on both sides I could not distinguish individual shots. The nearby camp was using mortars to shoot parachute flares into the sky to illuminate the clearing.

Cambodian mercenaries each placed a golden Buddha talisman worn around his neck between his teeth and charged toward the treeline, rifle in hand. The roar continued unabated.

I was out of my element, so I looked around to see what other helicopter crewmembers were doing. My gaze came to rest on the tent behind me. Sitting on a cot under a canvas wall that had been rolled up for ventilation was one of our pilots, Major Donald Van Pietersom. In his hand, he held a San Miguel beer.

Cambodian mercenaries charge trees.
I looked down at the revolver I was holding, then back at Van Pietersom. “What are you going to do with that thing?” he shouted at me. I looked at the revolver again, and then put it back in the holster. I stepped out of the foxhole, walked to the tent, and sat down next to Van Pietersom on the cot. He handed me a beer.

After the battle had gone on for several minutes, I saw long, narrow flames moving through the sky above the clearing. Then I heard a loud, extended belch. Gunship-mounted mini-guns, firing up to 6,000 rounds per minute, began raking the edge of the clearing. Then rockets were fired into the treeline. Our gunships had returned. No one expected them back so soon from refueling.

Captain Jim Thorne, leader of the Bandit escort gunships that night, told me later he had expected the Viet Cong to attack us on the ground.

“After we returned about dusk, I advised the Special Forces captain of our plan and then took the fire team to Dau Tieng to refuel and rearm. The basic plan was to be airborne when the attack took place and have the Special Forces camp call us on the radio immediately when it began,” Jim said.

“We took on extra fuel, rearmed and managed to slide overloaded down the PSP — or perforated steel plank runway — far enough to get lift. We headed back toward the Special Forces camp so we would be no more than five minutes from Minh Thanh, where we could respond quickly when the attack began.

Mini-gun tracers, helicopter exhaust visible
during attack on enemy assault at night.
“About the time we reached our loiter point we began to see the VC mortar tubes light up and friendly tracers responding to the incoming,” Jim said. “Our plan was to have the gunship armed with mini-guns fly a tight circle over the tree line around the camp with the guns fully depressed. This would keep the fire contained to the enemy in the tree line and not take a chance on having any friendly casualties. At the same time, I would take the hog and go after the mortars.”

A “hog” was a UH-1C Huey gunship armed exclusively with 48 rockets — 24 on each side.

Jim said, “Our plan seemed to work very well. As I recall, there were two mortars firing on the camp and they were taken out fairly quickly and the minis managed to dispatch the enemy ground troops shortly thereafter.”

Warrant Officer Jack Mullican recalled helping set up camp. On the second night the Viet Cong threw a grenade into the clearing. We thought, “What the heck is going on?” Mullican said he decided it was a test to see what the reaction would be.

“On the third night there was a lot more,” he said. However, it was on the fourth night the Viet Cong launched their most aggressive attack, Mullican said.

Though most of the helicopter crewmembers were not near their aircraft when the attack was launched, one crew chief remained on board his Huey, firing the M-60 machine gun until the barrel turned red from the heat.

Mullican recalled on the first day of the operation digging a hole about 5 feet deep in case the clearing was attacked. When the big attack began, Mullican said he “didn’t think about anything but getting my butt down there.”

However, when he leaped into the hole, he learned it contained more than 4 feet of water. “There was a creek nearby and the water table was pretty high,” he said.

After getting himself organized in the water-filled hole, additional shooting erupted. Another pilot, Warrant Officer Ricky Gay, “jumped into my hole behind me. When he did that I thought I had been shot or stabbed. He scared me to pieces.”

The following day, the pilots and crews of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company safely returned to Bien Hoa.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Minh Thanh Special Forces Camp photos taken by Jim Thorne. Night attack photos taken by Jack Swickard.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 38

VUNG TAU, Vietnam — Even during wartime I could see Vietnam was a beautiful place. It has everything to make it a first-class tourist destination. The beaches are gorgeous. There are mountains, jungles, vast wetlands, cities in beautiful settings, and a population of industrious, hospitable people.

In one of my first letters home after arriving in Bien Hoa in February 1967, I wrote that once the war ends, Vietnam could become a major tourist destination. And so it has.

During the war, one of the favorite in-country rest-and-relaxation centers was Vung Tau, south of Saigon. I remember flying a Thunderbird Hueys to Vung Tau one afternoon. After we landed, another flight crew flew the Huey back to Bien Hoa. We were taking the other crew’s place for the next three days. When our R&R was over, another Thunderbird crew would meet us with a helicopter to fly home.

Vung Tau, known to the French during colonial days as Cap Saint Jacques, had great beaches and restaurants. Typically, we would check into a hotel, sleep late, then head for one of the nearby beaches after breakfast. At the beach you could swim, sunbathe, and eat pineapples, which were placed on a stick and then skinned in a spiral pattern to remove the eyes.

I enjoyed lunch on the veranda of the Grand Hotel, where we stayed. A waiter in a formal, white jacket brought our food. I ordered prawns, which were so large they looked like small lobsters. Cut into pieces and dipped in butter, they were out of this world.

When I returned to Vietnam in October 2008 for filming of the Windfall Films television documentary, we took a Russian hydrofoil from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau. I suggested we have lunch at the Grand Hotel. However, when we arrived at the hotel, we had fewer than 2 hours before the hydrofoil departed on our return trip to Ho Chi Minh City. In addition, we were crowding the hotel dining room’s lunch hours. Therefore, the kitchen prepared a quick, rice-and-fish lunch for us.

That night in Ho Chi Minh City we found a great seafood restaurant near our hotel. Stuart Dunn, the documentary’s cameraman, and I split an order of prawns in chile sauce, on top of the meal we already had eaten. It’s difficult to find food any better than you can eat in Vietnam.


While on R&R during the Vietnam War, Captain Larry Liss recalled a unique encounter with an enemy soldier at Vung Tau.

“During a ground assignment, I was cut off from my Pathfinder team and broke into a small opening in the jungle,” Larry said. “A North Vietnam Army captain came into the opening at the same time. We looked at each other and took the chance of lowering our rifles. We both backed off into the jungle.

“A month later, I met him on the beach in Vung Tau. We had drinks that night and laughed a lot. We left the bar after curfew and were stopped by a U.S. patrol wanting to know why we were out after curfew. I apologized and said I lost track of time. They asked where I was staying. Then they asked the NVA captain and, before he could answer, I said he was with me. The patrol left because of a fight in the street.”

Larry recalled he and the NVA officer “saluted each other and went our own ways. I learned that the guy on the other side was, in some way, my brother in arms and we had a lot in common.”


Warrant Officer Tom Baca’s memories of R&R were focused out of country.
 “I had two R&R’s on my first tour in Vietnam. My first one was to Hawaii in October 1966. I remember getting off of the plane and watching many of the servicemen being greeted by their wives and children. It was very emotional to watch,” Tom remembered.
“Since I did not have a wife or a girlfriend at the time, I got to the Ilikai Hotel as quickly as I could so I could sleep. I arrived in my room, looked out the window and saw a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. That was my favorite pizza, so I went down and had a large pizza and 3 beers.

“Most of my 6 days were spent doing stateside things. I went to the movies, ate steaks, etc.,” Tom said.

“Now, my second R&R was more interesting. I got it in March of 1967. I went to Bangkok. During my first 9 months I had been nearly killed several times. Being raised Catholic, I had always been a good little altar boy. But I was damned if I was going to die a damn virgin. I struggled with what I should do about it and finally decided that I was a mammal as well as an altar boy,” he said.

“I got back to Vietnam with a smile on my face. My penance was 2 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Marys! Military chaplains are great,” Tom said.


As Tom knew on his first R&R, returning home was on the mind of most U.S. servicemen during the war.

When a GI inched toward the end of his 12-month Vietnam tour, you could tell he was focusing on home.

When each of us left for Vietnam, we were given a DEROS — which stood for “Date of Estimated Return from Overseas.” Once a GI was within 3 months of his DEROS, his unofficial status changed to: “Short.” He was never far from his “short-timer’s calendar,” a pornographic drawing divided into 365 squares. Each square was darkened by pencil daily.

You could tell immediately when a GI was nearing the end of his tour. When he passed an officer, he would salute shout out the greeting: “Short, Sir!”

The focus on “short” drove some of the senior NCO’s crazy. Many thought it was detrimental to morale.

I remember being in the 118th Assault Helicopter Company orderly room one morning when the company first sergeant dropped by to visit with Major Bill Bradner, the executive officer.

“Sir, look what I found on one of the men,” the first sergeant said, handing a partially completed short-timer’s calendar to the X.O.

Bradner looked at the calendar, then opened his desk drawer, pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to the sergeant. “It looks like mine,” said Bradner, who had been coloring each passing day.

The sergeant visibly deflated in front of us.

Bill Bradner was a very practical officer and military commander who always maintained his sense of humor.

Officers’ clubs seemed to have standardized rules. For instance, over the bar in each club you usually would see a sign stating: “Officers will not be served if wearing T-shirts”

Outside the Thunderbird Lounge was another standard sort of sign: “Officers are forbidden to carry firearms in the club”

One afternoon Bill and I returned to the villa and decided to drop into the club before changing out of the uniforms in which we had been flying. We were carrying our Army issue .38-caliber revolvers.

Major Bill Bradner with a beer in the
Thunderbird Lounge.
Bill stopped, looked at the sign banning firearms in the club. Then he reached into a pocket and pulled out a black, grease pencil. With swipe of the pencil, Bill crossed out “carry” and substituted “fire.” Now the sign read: “Officers are forbidden to fire firearms in the club”

We entered the club armed, but in compliance with the sign. The sign about T-shirts also had its downside in the Thunderbird Lounge.

One of the younger warrant officer pilots became irritated when a young woman PX clerk developed a crush on him. The woman was a “third-country national,” a citizen of another Asian country who worked for a U.S. contractor.

She would show up at the officers’ club each evening after dinner with a friend and try to strike up a conversation with the pilot. If he went somewhere else in the club, the young woman would follow him and continue the conversation.

One evening the pilot showed up pantless. The woman PX clerk, looking only at his face, failed to notice the pilot was nude below the waist — until he drew it to her attention.

She gasped and left the club, never to return.

However, the pilot continued showing up in the club each night without trousers. No one said anything to him, thinking he soon would pass through the phase.

I remember having a drink with Bill Bradner at the bar one evening when the pilot sat next to him. Bill saw the pilot was wearing a T-shirt.

“Looks like drinks are on you,” Bill told the man.

“Why, Sir?” the younger man asked.

Bill pointed to the sign that stated T-shirts were not allowed. The pilot pulled off his T-shirt and dropped it to the floor.

Bill later told me, “I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known it was the only thing he was wearing.”

Several weeks later, one of the older chief warrant officers had a heart-to-heart talk with the young pilot, who by then had progressed to showing up at the club each evening buck-naked.


The bar in the Thunderbird Lounge was operated very efficiently by two Vietnamese employees: Duc, the bartender, and Miss Mai, who helped out as barmaid.

You could never stump Duc on a drink. He knew how to mix any concoction from any country.

Duc, who commuted daily between Bien Hoa and his home in Saigon each day, also was the go-to guy if you needed film developed. You’d give your film canister to Duc while having a drink at the bar, and he would have prints ready for you within 2 days.

Most of the pilots regarded Duc more as a friend than an employee. His friendship apparently was not lost on the Viet Cong. During the Tet Offensive in early 1968, Duc spent his nights in Thunderbird Lounge. On the first night of the Tet Offensive, Duc learned a squad of Viet Cong was waiting for him to return home. He found out just in time to avoid the squad.

Miss Mai was always delightful to be around. When I think of cheerful people I have known, her smile and laughter come to mind, more than 40 years later.

One evening I asked her about a large glass jar full of pickled eggs on a shelf behind the bar. “Here, try one,” Miss Mai said, reaching for the jar. My lifelong dislike for eggs served me well. “No, thanks, Miss Mai, I don’t like eggs.”

She told me I would like these. That aroused my suspicions.

I had lived in the Philippine Islands as a child, so I knew about baluts, partially developed ducklings inside a fertilized egg. I thought the Vietnamese might have a version.

“Balut” did not register with Miss Mai. I described the delicacy. She smiled, but would not acknowledge this was what the glass jar contained. This convinced me they were akin to baluts.

After that, whenever I sat at the bar, Miss Mai would ask if I wanted an egg from the jar. I toyed with the idea a couple of times, but I never had downed enough drinks to succumb.