After The Basic School, I went to the Army Artillery and Missile school in Lawton Oklahoma for Artillery training. I arrived at Da Nang on April 7, 1966. I remember the date, because it was my mother’s birthday! I was assigned to E battery /2/12 as a forward observer (FO) and attached to “Hog” company (as we fondly called it) 2nd battalion, 9th marines, south of Da Nang.
Those were the days of frequent Coups in the Republic of South Vietnam. One occurred shortly after I arrived. An ARVN (Army of South Vietnam) Colonel wanted to take his unit to Da Nang to get himself a good position in the new government, so he abandoned his fortified position and took off for glory. The fort he left recoilless rifles, bouncing betty anti-personal mines, mortars, and M-79’s with plenty of ammo. F-4’s were sent to bomb it, trying too late, to deny Charlie access to all of those goodies.
April 15th, H/2/9, along with an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) team, and a section of mortars was sent down Highway 1 to pick up and/or blow the remaining ordnance. It was my first day in the field and I was as green and inexperienced a 2nd Lt. as they come. Trying to get up to speed as fast as possible I am sure I drove my experienced Sergeant crazy.
We settled in a dry rice patty for the night and he started digging a fox hole. I asked him if he thought one was needed and he told me he always dug one. I figured that if he thought it was prudent, then so did I. The next morning at 04:00 we started receiving those missing recoilless rifle rounds, mortars, and a lot more. Was I ever glad to have that foxhole. I could hear the recoilless rounds swishing by over my head.
Quoting from the After-Action Report (a tattered copy of which I still have): “At the beginning of attack the 81mm section commenced firing. One mortar fired 4 rounds before receiving a direct hit on the tube by a 57RR round. The 60mm mortar section received one 60 or 81mm mortar round in the gun pit. In the first 15 to 20 minutes of the attack 150 to 160 incoming 60 or 81mm mortar rounds were received, including 10 81mm WP (White Phosphorous) rounds. Upon commencement of artillery fire, the mortar and RR fire ceased. A total of 323 HE rounds and 72 illumination (artillery) rounds were fired. USMC casualties were 7 KIA and 37 WIA.
Near then end my tour one of the marines that had been there that night told me that he had seen artillery take out the VC mortar crew. I had been too busy trying to fit all of me in that fox hole while adjusting fire to notice that the incoming had been reduced to just small arms.
Here I was only nine days in country and wondering if I was going to make it for the next 12 months. We picked up those Bouncing Betties, the hard way, for the next few months. Between booby traps, snipers, and an occasional mortaring we lost a hell of a lot of good people.
By the fall the 9th Marines were so beat up that we were moved up to Phu Bai, as airbase security to “have a break”. In 1966 2/9 was so depleted that we had 2nd LT’s for company commanders and sergeant E-5″s as platoon leaders.
For the first time since I arrived in country, I actually slept in a hootch (South East Asia Hut). It rained for over 30 days nonstop. Algae was growing on the ground between the huts. We started receiving Mustang 2Nd Lt’s as platoon commanders. I guess they couldn’t turn them out fast enough back in Quantico.
We would send our dirty clothes out for washing by the locals. They could only dry them in their huts with a fire going. They would come back damp and smelling of smoke. I decided that my sweaty, reasonably dry fatigues were preferable to damp smoky ones, so my laundry was only done if it was really muddy.
One does not normally equate cold weather with Viet Nam. At Fort Sill I stood in 13 inches of snow calling in artillery at night. When I lay in the rain on a hill with the wind blowing I shivered just as much as I had in Oklahoma. One thing I’ll never forget was the smell of the burning toilet pots. In the rear area, whoever was on the Gunny’s screw-up list would get the job of burning the half 55-gallon drums under each “seat” in the outhouse, with diesel fuel. It never seemed to fail, that if I was entering or leaving the area, the wind would shift and we would drive through the smoke in an open jeep!
In early 1967 I was back in my artillery battery for a few days after they had just moved to a new position. Someone mentioned that most of the Marines were volunteering to fill sandbags for the gun emplacements. Volunteering was unusual so a couple of us went down to the area where they were working which was just outside of the battery itself. A few were filling sandbags. Most were standing in line, waiting their turn to transact with an enterprising young lady who was practicing the world’s oldest profession behind a large bush. Marines would come out from behind the bush and get back on line for a repeat performance. The battery commander didn’t see the humor and shut down the young entrepreneur’s profitable business.
In October, we were sent to the DMZ, to follow an NVA path that was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Somebody thought that if we marched a battalion of Marines down the trial in the rainy season, we would make it unusable for the NVA? We followed it and accomplished the following: got lost, had a Mortar round drop on us, possibly our own H&I fire (3KIA and a dozen or so WIA, including me) and gave trench foot to 60% of the battalion. The brass didn’t appreciate that 60% of 2/9 was walking around in shower shoes letting the sores on their feet heal. They relieved the battalion commander, who was a good leader and replaced him with one that wasn’t. The new fellow was Gung Ho and didn’t seem to care that the old hands were worn out from the constant sniping and mines so he volunteered us for more exciting locales.
One afternoon we were loaded up in trucks and hauled to a spot to start a night march. A company of Marines had got into a bad one. Postioned on a hill top they were calling in artillery on themselves to keep from being overrun by the NVA. We marched all night and arrived at their location the next morning. The NVA had pulled back before we arrived. I have never seen as bad a scene as we walked into that morning. Those guys had been through Hell. We respected our fallen fellow marines and covered them up with ponchos as soon as things quieted down. These fellows were just sitting in their fox holes with terrified stares “into the abyss” with their fellow dead marines lying next to them. I have never seen people so shattered, so numb.
After a few more near misses, but no hits, I departed in May, 1967. I spent 13 months and one week in-country because things were so hectic in those days that my departure was delayed.
A doctor who served at the Med Station in Phu Bai at this time, wrote a book (Journal of a Plague Year: 12, 20, & 5 by John A. Parrish) describing what life was like around there. He describes when, in November 1967 they brought in the bodies of a Marine General and his pilots who were killed in a helicopter crash. The copilot was Captain Thomas Anthony Carter, Tulane NROTC Class of 1965, my roommate and best friend.
I had received orders to Parris Island as a company commander. During my tour in VN, I had put in for flight training, so my orders were changed and I went to NAS Pensacola. I started flight school in June and received my wings as a helicopter pilot in May 1968. While in flight school, (according to Navy Times) I became one of only six 23-year old Captains in the USMC at that time.
When I got to MCAS New River, NC, I ran into some buddies from flight school who informed me that a CH53 Squadron was forming up to go to Viet Nam next summer. I reported to personnel and reminded them that due to the current rule of two years between VN tours, my schedule would fit nicely with HMH361’s, so I lucked into the heavy haulers. At New River, I flew as much as possible, taking numerous cross-country flights from NYC to Key West to New Orleans to build my flight hours. I made aircraft commander.
During my first cross country flight as an aircraft commander we had a mechanical problem and set down along the NC coast line to check it out. While the crew chief was busy, I walked over to a sign that said it was the site of the Wright Brothers first flight!
We departed New River, NC, ferrying the birds across country to San Diego. We didn’t get much sleep the night before we departed, because we stayed up to watch the moon landing live on TV. It was a fantastic five- day experience. The birds were loaded on a ship and shipped to VN while most of us flew over via commercial charter (no movies, no beer, no room).
THE SECOND TOUR
As soon as we arrived in country, the word came down that HNH462, which was at Phu Bai, was rotating to Okinawa (troop drawdown started) and HMH361 was to take their place. We were asked who wanted to stay with HMH361, who wanted to go to Okinawa for their tour, and who wanted to go to HMH463 which was based at Marble Mountain across the river from Da Nang. I volunteered for and was sent to Marble Mountain.
I logged over 800 hours in the Ch53A and the CH53D. What a fantastic aircraft to fly. It was big with Gross Weight over 42,000 pounds, 88 feet from forward rotor tip to tail rotor tip, but very maneuverable, great for IFR (Instrument Flight Rules). Basically a dream to fly. We hauled tons of cargo mostly in sling loads or 42 seated Marines. Standing room only we would take 50 or so at a time.
We had to keep records of how many personnel and how much cargo we hauled. Once we were moving some civilians to a safe area and the crew chief was counting heads as they walked up the cargo ramp. He said he lost count at 120, not including their chickens. I think it might have been a loose chicken that caused him to lose count.
Once we were asked to pick up a bull dozer that had been pickled on the side of a hill by an Army Flying Crane (CH-54). He said he had just refueled and couldn’t handle it. I tried to be professional and not be too disparaging over the radio as we picked the dozer up and set it down on the hill top where it was needed.
The CH53 rotor wash can reach 120 mph. When we would come into a hover to pick a sling load in the wet season, the loaders would brace themselves against the rotor wash, leaning into it but often sliding backwards across the wet metal matting. It looked pretty comical to the aircrews, though I doubt they thought it was very funny.
During the rainy season we landed a An Hoa, a small air field south of Da Nang, to drop off someone. There was a Marine Huey parked on the metal matting with the rotor blade tied down. As we came into a hover near the Huey, it slid sideways off the matting and into a small ditch. No damage was done to the Huey, but I would have loved to see the pilot’s face when he came back and found his bird with the left skid in a ditch.
Several months later we are sitting on the deck at the same airfield, when the tower calls and says they are under rocket attack. We lifted off and attempted to beat feet out of there as fast as we could. With my luck, I headed off to the west, which happened to be the same direction they are walking the rockets. They were exploding around and in front of us. Before I did a wing-over and changed direction a larger than finger-size piece of shrapnel from one rocket came through the side of the pilot’s compartment and bounced off my calf. Lucky for me it was spent when it hit or I probably would have lost my leg. I still have the piece to remind me how lucky I was.
One day we were to fly a Donut Dolly (USO volunteer? Red Cross ?) out to a forward position. We had a jump seat between the pilot’s so I asked her if she wanted to come up and sit between us (so we could visit with the first American women we had seen in many months). As an enticement, I told her she would be safer up front with us because we flew faster than the other helicopter types and if we took hits it was usually in the aft half of the aircraft (which was true). Well, sure enough we took a hit on that flight, right up through the center of the aircraft deck. If she had remained in her previous seat, she wouldn’t have gotten hit, but probably would have needed a change of underwear. She was still a little shook up, but thanked me bringing her forward.
We were a part of MAG16 at Marble Mountain Air Facility. The Marines were on the beach side of the field and the Army was on the other side. We had an officer’s club adjacent to the chow hall, right across the road from the beach, which was fenced off for security purposes. It was handy. Eat supper, walk into the O Club, and start drinking. We had bands from the Philippines and Australia and the crowds were rowdy to say the least. We would sing and dance and throw beer on each other. When we would hear that the Army O Club was going to have a show we would go over and do our thing.
The Army guys looked at us as if we were crazy. They acted like they were at a church social, instead of in a war zone. It may have been because they flew Otters from one airfield to another and our guys flew night medevacs into hot zones.
The O Club urinals consisted of the tubes that the gunship rockets came in, sunk in the beach sand in front of the club. One night after visiting said facility I stepped up on the porch in front of the O Club and noticed movement off to my right in the shadows. It turned out to be the biggest rat I had ever seen. It was the size of an average house cat. The rat starting running right at me so I kicked and stomped it to death with my steel-toed aviator boots and took it into the club to show everyone. I knew every one would think I was exaggerating my conquest without the physical proof.
We lived in Quonset huts. These were divided into four rooms with 3 men to room, a bunk bed and a single bed. Two of us were in HMH463 and our patch had a flying horse on it and the other pilot was in the “Purple Foxes”. In 1969, we got some paint and painted the door to our hut, blue with a white flying horse, a purple fox, and our names and ranks. When I worked for Air America, I flew over our old hut. It was 1974, and the hut was still painted the same. A Vietnamese family was living in it so I guess they liked our art.
We had this really impressive bunker next to our Quonset hut. It was made of sandbags and looked as if it could have stood a direct hit from a mortar. The only time it was ever used was to sunbath on top of it. One night we woke to the sound of incoming rockets. With shrapnel pinging off of our roof we all hit the deck. No one was going to go outside and to get in the bunker in that situation.
The roommate who was in the top bunk dove onto the deck in his underwear. USMC underwear was notorious for the open fly, which had allowed a certain body part to fallout and be scraped on the concrete, as he hit the deck. Tongue in cheek, we told him he deserved a Purple Heart, but he said no way was he going to explain that for the rest of his life.
One day we got a call for an Emergency Resupply Flight in some dicey weather. We took off, picked up the sling load, and as we were setting it down on the mountain-top forward base, the crew chief says “Hey Skipper, do you know what we are slinging? It’s toilet paper!” I guess that would constitute an emergency.
For last few months of my tour I was transferred to H&S16 (Headquarters and Support) as the MAG NATOPS Officer (Marine Air Group Air Training and Operations Procedures). It was a great chance to fly with some of my buddies in other squadrons. I managed to fly in every kind of aircraft we had in the Group.
July 1970 I reported to Helicopter Training Squadron 8 (HT8) as a Flight Instructor in Huey’s. Learning to fly an aircraft a fraction the size of a CH53 while simultaneously instructing the student in the lesson being taught was challenging at first. Once I got comfortable with the Huey it was a breeze. I enjoyed it so much that I would had stayed there and instructed for the rest of my working days if I could have. I was released from active duty in September, 1972. From October 1972 till January 1973, I flew CH46’S in the reserves at NAS (Naval Air Station) New Orleans.
THE THIRD TOUR
On January 31, 1973 I went to work for Air America (AA). I was based in Udorn, Thailand, about 30 miles from the Mekong River border with Laos. AA shared a Thai Air Force Base with the US Air Force. The USAF were running bombing missions in Laos and Cambodia trying to prop up their governments against the NVA (North Vietnamese Army), Khmer Rouge and the Pathet Lao.
My first assignment was schooling on the CH47 in Vientiane, Laos. Why ground school was held there is beyond me. We spent five days in Vientiane where the hotel we stayed in had the only elevator in the entire country. Laos practiced a slash and burn agriculture practice and I flew there in the smoky season, never seeing much more than the ground below me.
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. This meant that the S-58T’s (Sikorsky H-34) might be made out Aluminum (original) or magnesium (lighter weight, could carry more pay load). Magnesium birds burned quickly if set on fire. A buddy of mine found this out the hard way. While sitting on the ground a grenade went off in his aircraft which quickly burned.
AA was run on seniority like an airline. So when pilots were needed more in Viet Nam than they were in Thailand, I was sent to Saigon. I flew all over the parts of VN that the Saigon government controlled, Cambodia, and occasionally into the bad guys area. We flew missions for Air America in aircraft painted in their colors. 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). Canada 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 wanting 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 three times a day back to their headquarters in Saigon, by radio. They would do it right before meal time so 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.
Each of the commies had a young Vietnamese girl that they carried around with them. They said they were their “radio operators.” One day they with their radio operators got in Huey for a trip. It was hot on the deck leading one of the arrogate commies to argue with the crew chief to leave the sliding doors open in flight. We flew at 10,000 feet where it could be quite cool in the rainy season. With the doors were left open we flew through a rain shower. We 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.
If there was an attack on a village 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 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 strayed off its assigned course and was shot down with a missile. I used to bring a lawn chair and sunbathe, reading a Playboy magazine while they were meeting. I would try to show them the centerfold 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 minds.
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’s to withdraw. Thus the ARVN had to put up a good fight and saved the town. A Russian tank remained that the NVA had driven into a large bomb crater where it was stuck. The tank was 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 message came over the Guard channel to stop all offensive operations. 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 win. 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.
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 Saigon for the night. (As if anyone was counting Americans in the badlands!)
When we would have an ICCS flight up to Dong Ha, we would fly up Highway 1. It was littered with dozens of blown-up remains of tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces all left over from the last offensive in 1972 which aimed to take Dong Ha Provence. It looked like something from WWII.
When I was in Viet Nam during the war, I never knew if when a villager was nice to me if 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.
Class: 1965 Degree: BS Chemical Engineering Service: USMC
Years of Service: 1965-1972 Years in Vietnam: 1966-67, 1969-70, 1973-74
Medals/ ribbons related to Vietnam service: Purple Heart; Air Medal: 2 Single-Mission Awards, 40 Strike/Flight Awards; Combat Action Ribbon; Presidential Unit Citation; Navy Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation; Vietnam Service Medal (5 Campaign Stars); Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Unit Citation; Vietnam Civil Actions with Palm Ribbon ; Vietnam Air Gallantry Cross Ribbon.
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 Viet Nam. The hand writing was on the wall, so in May, 1974, having spent nearly three and a half years in Viet Nam I took a job with Bell Helicopter International in Isfahan, Iran, teaching Iranian Army pilots.