July 1970, I reported to Helicopter Training Squadron 8 (HT8) as a Flight Instructor flying UH1D’s (Huey’s.) Learning to fly an aircraft a fraction the size of a CH-53, while simultaneously instructing the student in the lesson being taught was challenging at first. We had to learn to repeat the maneuver description as it was written in the Students’ Procures Handbook, as we did the procedures in the aircraft. Once I got comfortable with the Huey it was a breeze. I enjoyed it so much, I would have stayed there and instructed for the rest of my working days if I could have.
In 1969 Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi Coast and destroyed the area. I had flown over it on cross-country flights before going to Vietnam. When I flew over it in 1970 I couldn’t believe what was left after Camille. Only the cement foundations of the buildings near the beach were left and there was a small freighter still beached well out of the water, almost a year later.
The biggest gripe flight students had when I was going through flight school was instructors that yelled at their students when they messed up a procedure. It was always, “Hope you don’t have to fly with so & so, he’s a screamer.” I swore that I would never be a screamer as an instructor and kept my word the whole two plus years I instructed at Pensacola. I joked, cajoled, used sarcasm, used metaphors, but never yelled at a student. The only complaint that I ever got was from the best student that I had the pleasure of training. I would take a tuna fish salad sandwich to work and eat lunch on a training flight and then smoke a cigar afterwards. Well, I did this to the poor fellow while he under a hood practicing instrument flight. He said smelling the tuna fish and then the cigar to top of it almost made him sick. I apologized and told him he should have said something and I would have stopped. We could pick up commercial radio stations on one of the aircraft radios, so I would listen while the student was practicing his maneuvers. When the late-great Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobbie McGee” would come on, I would flip a switch so he could hear it as well and I would fly the aircraft while we enjoyed a fantastic song. Life was good.
The training squadron was set up in flights, which would have a Flight Leader and 5 or 6 instructors. Each instructor would have two students at a time. I was a Flight Leader the first year I was there. When asked to take a desk job, the second year, I opted to stay an instructor and stayed in my flight as such. When a class was nearing graduation we would order the students in our flight to have a party, usually on Pensacola beach, to celebrate. Good fun was had by one and all.
We would be required to take the students on cross-country flights. I had a fellow marine in my flight that was from Texas. Coors beer has always been my favorite but wasn’t sold east of Texas in those days. He would take a cross-country flight over there and load up his aircraft with cases of Lone Star beer for himself and several cases of Coors for me. When he landed back at the airfield late Sunday, I would drive out to the base and pick up my beer. I presumed he would give a case to the lineman that met the flight, because in two years we never heard any complaints about our interstate beer hauling. I not sure about legality of our little operation, but we must have broken a law or two in the process? I’m sure the Training Command wouldn’t have approved. We were lucky.
I had a brain fart that I would pursue a Master’s in Business Administration, while working as a flight instructor. It only took one semester at night, to remind me how much I disliked school. I stayed in Pensacola, instructing as long as they would let me. When they wanted to transfer me to Amphibious Warfare School, I resigned my commission, and was released from active duty in September 1972. I had spent 7 years and 4 months on active duty and could have stayed in for 20 and a pension, but I have never regretted that decision for one minute. I was an action junkie. As long as I was flying, I was happy. No way did I want to be a garrison marine sitting in an office pushing papers!
From October 1972 till January 1973, I flew CH-46’S in the reserves at NAS New Orleans, every chance I got. While I was in the reserve unit some dipstick went into the Howard Johnson’s Hotel downtown New Orleans and starting shooting at people in the pool from one of the upper level windows. The cops went nuts and managed to get up on the roof to start a sweep down floor by floor. I was watching it live via a TV news chopper overhead. The cops couldn’t get the steel roof door open so they backed up to shoot the door open. I said “they are going to hit themselves” and sure enough, when the opened fire a ricochet hit one of the officers in the leg. They had been watching too many TV cop shows! When the “Keystone Cops” went down, the shooter went up on the roof. Not only did the NOPD not have a SWAT Team; they didn’t have a helicopter at that time. They asked my reserve unit to fly them above the roof so they could shoot the bad actor. And shoot they did. When they buried that guy he probably rusted away. The TV film crew started to focus in on his body immediately after he was obliterated then suddenly zoomed back when they realized it wasn’t suitable for dinner-time TV. I don’t think using a military aircraft in this manner was legal. It goes against the Posse Comitatus Law that says the military can’t be used for law enforcement purposes in the USA unless the President approves it.
Note: The guy was identified in the paper the next day. He wasn’t a Vietnam vet or they would have said so. In the 70’s and early 80’s every time some jackass would commit a terrible crime, the media would mention if the guy was a Vietnam Vet, like that explained his aberrant behavior, such was the hatred of the war and all of us that were involved. Am I bitter for the way we were treated? I suppose so.
Another pilot in the reserve squadron had been seconded to Air America, for two years while he was on active duty. I talked at length with him and got the address and phone number of their hiring office in Washington. The idea of going back overseas and seeing more of the world really appealed to me. I interviewed with them. After reviewing my flight experience, I was asked only one question: “Would I go down and pick up a fellow pilot that had been shot down in enemy territory?” I answered: “Of course.” I would certainly hope he would do the same, especially since some of the folks they were flying over didn’t take prisoners. I was hired and left the States on January 31, 1973 for Thailand. It was to be the beginning of a nearly 30-year span of working overseas, which lasted until December 2002.
As has been well documented by now, but was hush-hush then, Air America was owned by the CIA and supported local mercenaries fighting for the USA against the local communist guerrillas and NVA in Laos and Cambodia. It first started operating as Air Asia supporting the Nationalist Chinese against Mao and the Chinese communist, then later assisting the French in IndoChina against Ho Chi Minh and his merry bunch of revolutionaries. The helicopters shown evacuating the personnel off of the American Embassy roof when Saigon fell to the communists were Air America. When Vietnam collapsed in 1975 Air America was officially shutdown. Some the pilots ended up working for another CIA front spraying the dope crops in Central and South America with defoliants. (And the beat goes on….)
First I was based in Udorn, Thailand, about 30 miles from the Mekong River border with Laos, where Air America (AA) shared a Thai Air Force Base with the US Air Force. AT the time the USAF was running bombing missions in Laos and Cambodia, trying to prop up their governments against the NVA, Khmer Rouge (Cambodia) and the Pathit Lao (Laos).
Since I had flown the CH-53, they wanted me to fly another large heavy helicopter, the CH-47 Chinook. My first assignment was schooling on the CH47 for a week in Vientiane, Laos, the capital. Why ground school was held there is beyond me? We spent five days in Vientiane. The hotel we stayed in had the only elevator in the entire country.
Laos in one of the poorest, most backward, mountainous countries in the world. Laos practiced a slash and burn agriculture and since I flew there in the smoky season, I never saw much more than the ground below me. The only thing of interest while flying there was my one bullet hole. The CH47 is a tandem rotor helicopter: one set of blades in front and one set in back with a synchronizing shaft running the length of the cabin between the two gear boxes. Simply put, the purpose of this shaft is to keep the front blades out of the way of the back blades. If it failed the blades would mesh and disintegrate! The one hit I took with Air America was in Laos. A 12.7mm Chinese machine gun round hit us, just missing the synch shaft. Luck and $50 was with us that day, since AA paid out a bonus if your aircraft was hit.
AA had a club with a restaurant and pool area on the air base. Every Saturday night was Mongolian barbecue night. The cook would sweat over the grill as he cooked your combination. We all figured his sweat dripping on the grill gave it the original Thai flavor. I was told about this Thai gecko that the Americans called the FU lizard. It would make an unusual noise that sounded like “F**k You”. I thought the guy that told me was just pulling my leg. One night after eating supper, I was walking from the club out to the highway to catch a cab back to the hotel I was living in at the time. As I was passing a clump of bushes in a dark area, I heard clear as day: “F**k You, F**k You”, a pause then it was repeated once more.
The Thai’s are Buddhists. One day as I was going to work we passed the body of a guy that had been standing by the road and got clipped by a big truck. They left him lying beside the road because they believe that when someone dies, you have to leave the body alone for a while to ensure the spirit has left. No, I don’t know the time limit.
Since Udorn was no-where near a tourist area none of the taxi drivers spoke any English. You had to learn a few Thai words real fast to direct the cab driver where you wanted to go. I picked up a little Thai, which enable me to get around town. I found Thai easier than Vietnamese because it isn’t tonal.
AA had an amazing maintenance set up. If a bird was shot down and unsalvageable every attempt was made to recover the data plate (similar to the VIN number on a car). They would then take that data plate to their rebuild facility in Taiwan and built another aircraft. That way the bird was not technically lost and didn’t have to be replaced. A Catch-22 that AA could get the money for all of an aircraft’s parts, but not another aircraft? This meant that the S-58T’s might be made out Aluminum (original) or magnesium (lighter weight, could carry more payload). The only problem was the magnesium birds burned quickly if set on fire, as a buddy of mine found out the hard way, when someone dropped a grenade in his aircraft, while they were sitting on the ground.
AA was run on seniority, like an airline, so when pilots were needed more in Vietnam than they were in Thailand, being one of the most junior, I was sent to Saigon. When I left Vietnam after my first tour in the marines, I figured I would never return. When I walked up the stairs to get on the flight out at the end of my second tour with the Marines, I turned around at the aircraft door and gave Vietnam the finger and said you’ve seen the last of this kid or words to that effect. Well, here I was back for a third time and as they say, the third time was the charm. I thoroughly enjoyed my “third tour.” I flew all over the parts of VN that the Saigon government controlled, Cambodia, and occasionally into the bad guy’s area in Vietnam. We flew missions for the US governmental agencies (State Department, USAID, etc.) still operating in country. We also flew in birds painted for the International Committee for Control and Supervision (ICCS).
The ICCS was set up to monitor things after the peace treaty was signed in Paris, “ending the war”. The original ICCS members were Indonesia, Canada, Poland, and Hungry. Canada lasted 3 months, saying it was a farce (which it was), and pulled out, so Iran replaced them. It was obvious that the Poles and Hungarians were not military by the way they wore their uniforms and carried themselves. We figured they were intelligence types, maybe even some were Russians. One of our crew chiefs had a tape of bird calls he liked to play. He noticed that one of the Commies got real interested in it and kept asking to borrow the tape. He expressed so much interest in it, we thought he might think it was some kind of coded message. The crew chief finally let him borrow it and copy it.
The commies had to report in by radio, three times a day, back to their headquarters in Saigon. They would do it right before mealtime. We asked them if they had to get permission to eat. They thought we were serious and answered seriously. We never could find their sense of humor, if they had one. Most of the commies had a young Vietnamese woman that they carried around with them. They said these ladies were their “radio operators.” One day some them and their “radio operators“ got in Huey for a trip somewhere. Since it was hot on the deck, one of the arrogate commies argued with the crew chief to leave the sliding doors open in flight. Since we flew at 10,000 feet it could be quite cool in the rainy season. The doors were left open; we flew through a rain shower, and slewed the aircraft so the rain flew in on comrade “know-it-all”. On the return trip he was happy to keep the doors shut.
There would be an attack in some village and the ICCS was supposed to go there check it out and make a report. Of course, the two communist members of the committee would never find fault with the NVA. Since there were an equal number of votes nothing was ever settled, unless it was the southerners that were up to no good. Sometimes we would fly a representative member from each country to a meeting in the communist held areas. That was always interesting since one of our birds had been shot down with a missile, when they strayed off the assigned course. As a result we always flew at 10,000 feet to stay out of the range of their antiaircraft missiles.
Top: I was sunbathing while the Southerners and Northerners traded prisoners. Middle: An ICCS Huey in the Mekong Delta. Bottom: Buddha watching over Nha Trang (a beautiful place to vacation with fantastic seafood.)
One of my favorite things has always been to poke fun at authority, especially when they don’t have a sense of humor. I used to bring a lawn chair and sunbathe with a Playboy magazine while the ICCS members were parlaying with the communist forces. I would try to show the centerfold to the NVA soldiers and they would wave their hands in front of their face and back away, like I was trying to put a Hex on them. Needless to say, I got some strange looks from the NVA. We would do small things like that to harass and mess with their uptight little communist minds.
What is guilt? Guilt is the reason they put articles in “Playboy.” Dennis Miller
One trip I made was to An Loc. The NVA had tried to overrun it in 1972. They made a mistake and surrounded the town, leaving no way for the ARVN to withdraw. The ARVN put up a good fight and saved the town. There was a Russian tank that the NVA had driven into a large bomb crater and couldn’t get out of it. The tank was brand new and in pristine condition.
Occasionally I would fly over to Cambodia for the day. In August 1973, the US stopped bombing in Cambodia. We’re flying along, in the middle of the day, when all of a sudden a message came over the Guard (emergency) channel to stop all offensive operations. We sure had some strange ways of running a war. By that time Cambodia looked like the surface of the moon. We had dropped more bombs on Cambodia, supposedly a neutral country that neither the North Vietnamese nor the USA observed, than we did on Vietnam. There were bomb craters everywhere and all of the major roads had been cut by bulldozers, all the bridges destroyed, and the friendlies were hunkered down in the fortified towns and cities. The countryside belonged to the bad guys. Since no rice was being planted, we were feeding the country through USAID shipments that were flown in by contracted civilian American cargo planes. It was sort of like the Berlin AirLift.
I talked to a US army major at the airport in Phnom Penh in 1974. He told me the government forces were killing so many Khmer Rouge, that they couldn’t keep finding replacements. Tongue in cheek, I asked if he could see the light at the end of the tunnel and he replied, “Yes”, in all seriousness. I thought Deja Vu. Had he not learned anything from Vietnam?
The USA had agreed that there would only be so many Americans in Cambodia. As a result, if we brought someone over from Saigon to stay the night, we had to take someone back to Saigon. Sometimes that meant we had to land in a village in the middle of Khmer Rouge territory, to pick up the local company man and fly him to Saigon for the night. (As if anyone was counting Americans in the badlands! That’s our brilliant State Department for you!) We would fly over at 10,000 feet, then quickly spiral down over the village and land. We occasionally took fire when flying in and out of Cambodia, but suffered no hits, as we were too high. There’s nothing like flying along and watching tracers come up towards your aircraft, arcing and falling back to earth.
When we would have an ICCS flight up to Dong Ha (in the far northeast part of South Vietnam), we would fly up Highway 1. It was littered with dozens of the blown-up remains of tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces, left over from the last major offensive in 1972, trying to take Dong Ha Province. It looked like something from WWII.
When I was in Vietnam during the war, I never knew if when a villager was nice to me, it was genuine or out of fear. Living on the local economy in Saigon was great. The Vietnamese were friendly. Many appreciated the sacrifices Americans made to protect them from the Communists.
It was while living in Saigon that I met the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. My luck up to this point had been a lifesaver, literally. Now it was to prove life altering. She was beautiful, sexy, caring, and smart. I had no idea exactly how smart she was at first, but as the years have gone by, I am continually amazed at her insights. Her love of family and compassion for others knows no boundaries. She has kept me on the straight and narrow, tempering my wild streak, and making a wonderful life companion going on 5 decades. Marrying her was the best decision I ever made.
Living in Saigon was really great and very inexpensive. We would go out to eat at some fantastic restaurants, dance to great live entertainment, and have our clothes tailor-made. We lived in an apartment inside of a walled-in compound. So many refugees had moved into the city during the war (the population increased from 1 million to 3 million) that walls surrounded the homes with broken glass imbedded along the top.
Another pilot and his Vietnamese wife had an extra bedroom on the third floor of their rented townhouse. They suggested we move in and save on rent, which we did. His wife was short, even for a Vietnamese so he called her Shorty, in English and in Vietnamese. Vietnamese is a tonal language, so with my tone deafness, you can’t imagine how bad I could screw it up. One morning I was downstairs when Shorty descended the stairs and I tried to say good morning Shorty in Vietnamese. She got a funny look, turned around and went upstairs. I heard her talking to my wife in Vietnamese. My wife asked me what I had said to Shorty, so I repeated it. My wife said that instead of ““Good morning, Shorty” I had said “ Good morning, Pussy!”
Once, when I was off the flight schedule for a week, my wife and I took a trip to Bangkok. We made a trip via over-night train up to Udorn. We took a taxi up to the Mekong River border with Laos. We paid a fellow with a boat to take us over to the Laotian side, where we got a taxi into Vientiane. At the time there was a cease-fire agreement between the government and the Pathit Lao. The Pathit Lao were in charge of security, so there were all these communists cops walking around the capitol, while we were walking around with no entry visas into the country! We didn’t have any problem, but in hind site it was bit of a foolish way to visit. Actually, it was nuts!
I bought a small Honda. The car came with a .38 revolver under the front seat. I carried it around under the seat the whole time I owned the car and handed it off to the next owner. The car was not much bigger than a refrigerator and had a 500cc engine. When I wore my flight boots to work, I would have trouble hitting the right pedal, they so small and close together. The company offered to help me register it, but it would cost me about $40 for bribes. I refused and it took 11 months for the registration to go through! During this 11-month period, twice a cop stopped me. When he asked for my license and registration I would give him a 1000 piaster bank note (a little less than $2) as a bribe. One time the guy made the bill disappear so fast, it was like watching a magician. I told my wife I wanted to give him another one just to see the magic again, but she shut me down. You might know, once I got the registration transferred into my name; I didn’t get stopped again. I didn’t disparage the cops for taking bribes since they only made $16 a month. Living in Saigon was cheap, but no way could a cop feed his family on $16 a month. When the oil crisis hit in the fall of 1973, the company let us buy gas on base, instead of sitting in the gas lines in town. They wanted to make sure we got to work on time.
One day, when I flying out of Danang, we were going to lunch when we passed the site of a motor cycle accident. They had removed the bike and rider, but left a flip-flop and the cyclist’s brain, along with a bit of his hair. I then made the comment that I hoped we weren’t having spaghetti for lunch and everyone in the minivan groaned. I have always been what you would call politically incorrect. I’m afraid that two combat tours tend to make one’s sense of humor a bit macabre at times.
When I was doing a five-day stint up at Danang, my wife caught a company flight up from Saigon. She thought the AA pilot was drunk. Sometimes one of the pilots would put water in a vodka bottle and pretend to be drinking it while flying the wives around, just to rock their boat. Nearly fifty years later she still isn’t completely convinced he wasn’t drunk. When it was time for me to return to Saigon, they needed a helicopter returned for maintenance so I flew it back. She flew with me back to Saigon. Nearly all of the flight was along the coast so we flew over Phan Thiet. The main industry there was making Nuoc Mam (fish sauce), the primary condiment in the Vietnamese diet. We flew over the city at 10,000 feet and we could smell the Nuoc Mam. That’s some powerful stuff. I guess the local townsfolk were probably so used to it, they didn’t notice it anymore. My wife was always giving me grief for mentioning that I was tired after flying all day. She said all I did was sit in a helicopter and fly around. How hard can that be? It took nearly 7 hours, with two refueling stops to reach Saigon. Seven hours wearing a flight helmet in the heat and vibration wore her out and she never said another word to me about being tired after a day of flying.
Before each daily flight or 5-day rotation up country, we were given an intelligence briefing. As the months went by, the red areas (bad guys) were increasing as the NVA kept pushing further and further into South Vietnam. The handwriting was on the wall, so in May 1974, having spent a total of nearly three and a half years in Vietnam, I took a job with Bell Helicopter International in Isfahan, Iran, as a helicopter flight instructor, teaching Iranian Army pilots. (Which was like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree!)