2,709,918 Americans served in Vietnam. There are as many personal stories as those who served. Each had an experience within their tiny bubble, mostly unaware of what was happening outside their unit much less being aware of the politics and international maneuvering driving the war they were fighting (for that, read Max Hastings book, Vietnam: An Epic History of a Tragic War).
Today is National Vietnam Veterans Day (March 29th). It will mostly go unnoticed except by the Veterans themselves. I thought about some of my buddies in the context of the following story, an event that took place within a few hours in the lives of Huey helicopter pilots and crew members of B Troop 3/17 Calvary on a night in December 1970. It’s not so much a war story as a human story about regular guys serving their country and trying to do the right thing while hoping one day to return to their loved ones—the perennial story of soldiers in every war.
Like a shot in the dark, Jerome yelled through his mic: “Go back! Go back! Got one, got one. Turn around, turn around! Quick, quick, quick.” It was a mix of excitement, glee, and fear in his voice, which was more, I couldn’t tell. Jerome was one of our Huey door gunners who normally rode right side gunnery position behind one of the two M60 machine guns mounted at each door of the aircraft. Tonight, he was manning the large post-mounted, “see-in-the-dark” starlight scope on our specially-equipped Huey. I yanked the big Huey around and with rotor blades popping like rapid shotgun blasts in the tight turn, I struggled to keep a visual on the glints of starlight on the meandering river on this very dark night. I straightened the aircraft after the turn, Jerome switched his position from the starlight scope to the big, three-foot diameter spotlight and quickly found the target, a Viet Cong sampan loaded with troops and supplies just off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Just as muzzle flashes were seen on the sampan from shots directed at us, absolute chaos ensued. Yelling over the intercom was drowned out by the screaming M-134 six-barreled rotary machine gun directly behind my seat firing at a rate of 4,000 rounds per minute. Albert, the aircraft crew chief who always doubled as left door gunner had pulled the trigger for a ten-second blast of about 600 rounds of 7.62 mm directed at the target.
Two hours prior: “Hey Randy, Flight Ops is sending me out on a last-minute Firefly Mission, you wanna come along and be my copilot?” I asked, knowing he would say yes. Randy was a Chief Warrant Officer (CW2) and one of the best pilots in our unit. One wouldn’t have predicted his skill in the cockpit given his shabby appearance, down-home, aw-shucks demeanor, and southern drawl. He was religious, funny, forthright, kind, and played folk and love songs on his guitar. Randy, Keith, and I arrived in Vietnam within a week or two of each other. Randy and I were Huey pilots and Keith flew the Cobra gunship. These two guys would become my good friends for the duration of our one-year tour and for decades that followed the war.
Randy grew up in Amarillo TX in a conservative Baptist household. Just before leaving the States for Vietnam he married his high-school sweetheart, Amy. They were both 23. Virtually every day I would hear Randy crow with excitement: “Hey Jim, I just got a letter from Amy!” “Wow, that’s great Randy, but I am really surprised given that you get one every day,” I said, with sarcasm and poorly hidden envy in my voice. My girlfriend of three years and I were engaged. Early on I would get lovely, regular, once-a-week letters, but now, eight months into my one-year tour that letter writing rate slowed to sporadic, maybe every other week. And her tone was different: She was clearly “losing that loving feeling.” I was worried. “Hey Jim,” Randy called out with a big sh*t eating grin on his face. “Listen to what Amy wrote!” “That’s OK Randy,” I demurred. “Don’t read the “good” parts, just tell me how she is doing.”
All of our pilots already had a full day flying when this Firefly Mission was suddenly announced by Flight Ops. Not only was Randy my friend and a great pilot, but he didn’t drink alcohol. Aside from a bit tired from a full day, I knew he would be ready to go later that night. “Sure, Jim. I’ll be your copilot; I’ll keep you out of trouble tonight,” He said, tongue in cheek. “Besides, what else is there to do in Vietnam on Christmas Eve.” “Thanks, Randy,” I replied. “Keith will fly cover.”
The Firefly Mission was designed for night warfare and was especially dangerous because it was conducted on dark nights at nap-of-the-earth altitudes. This was a two-ship mission with a specially equipped Huey and a Cobra gunship covering overhead. A unit’s most experienced pilots were given the challenge and were expected to be up to it. I was the acting Lift Platoon (Hueys) leader (acting because a Captain who outranked me was grounded after a pilot-error accident) and the Huey instructor pilot for the Troop, so I was often assigned to “special missions.” Then it was up to me to pick a volunteer crew from my platoon of pilots and crewmen. Different units configured their Firefly aircraft in various ways; our Huey had an early version night vision scope mounted above a large spotlight, which was next to a post-mounted M134 Minigun. A 50-caliber machine gun was mounted in the opposite door, but it was only used on “heavy” targets because its recoil would loosen rivets in the aircraft fuselage.
The aircraft running lights that could be seen from the ground were taped opaque while the ones on top could be seen by the covering Cobra gunship overhead. The mission was run on the darkest nights so the aircraft could not be seen. It could be heard very loudly, of course, but when the enemy shot at the sound they invariably shot behind the moving aircraft, not accounting for its forward motion, except for an occasional round in the tail boom. The dark night was good for avoiding ground fire, but difficult for flying low-level. Twisting and turning over a target in the dark of night when the crew bobbed the spotlight around was a surefire inducement of vertigo, loss of spatial awareness and directional control in three-dimensional space. In other words, about to crash. A pre-flight briefing between pilots always included a clear understanding that the copilot keeps his eyes off the target and all of his faculties concentrated on the aircraft position relative to the earth, and, if necessary, take control of the aircraft before the pilot with target fixation and vertigo flew it into the ground.
“Good evening, Sir. She’s all ready to go,” Albert said as Randy and I approached the aircraft. Albert was an Iowa farm boy, skinny with carefully cut and combed, blond hair. Even in Vietnam where military protocols were pretty lax, Albert was always formal. Very friendly, but serious and proper. “The name’s Albert,” he would say when his crew chief buddies called him Al. Albert loved his Huey. A crew chief was assigned to a specific aircraft and was responsible for its condition and maintenance. It was the crew chief who was allowed to name his aircraft if he cared to and paint nose art or insignia on the doors. Pilots had no “ownership” of aircraft and seldom flew the same one on successive days. On this night as I performed a cursory pre-flight with my flashlight, I knew I was flying the best aircraft with the best crew chief in my platoon.
The fourth member of the crew, Jerome, the door gunner, was also highly skilled and could be trusted once he was in the aircraft. Jerome was a handsome, gregarious, young, black man who was always finding his way with certain Vietnamese “ladies.” His amorous activities were technically against the rules, as was smoking pot, but he always showed up and was good at his job. Although one time he wanted the day off. He pointed to his crotch and said: “I feel really bad, sir.” “You play, you pay,” I said. “Let’s go fly. We have a war to win. Have the medic give you a shot tonight after we get back.” This night, Jerome was ready. He loved the Firefly Mission.
It was called the Cambodian Incursion. In late April, 1970, about the time I arrived in country, President Richard Nixon directed U.S. Forces to cross the Vietnam/Cambodian border to destroy COSVN, the North Vietnamese Regional Headquarters, and to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main route running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia supplying the Viet Cong in the South. The southernmost branch of the Trail ended near the Prek Kampong Spean River which is part of the border between the two countries. Supplies that first moved overland were transferred to sampans, small boats piloted by two persons. Any Sampan moving down the river in the dark of night on the border was assumed to be an enemy target.
After a ten-second burst the screaming M134 Minigun fell silent. “I think you got ’em Albert,” Jerome yelled in his intercom mic. “Don’t know if I hit ‘em but that sampan is full of holes,” Albert calmly replied. “There’s another one,” Jerome screamed without pressing his mic button. “Turn, turn. Come around, come around,” he yelled over the sound of the engine and rotors as he tried to hold the spotlight on the target. I banked the Huey hard left. The rotor blades went pop, pop, pop, pop in the tight turn. The few bits of twinkle from the stars reflecting from the river were my only visual reference. As I passed over the river the landscape went dark. There was only Jerome’s spotlight bobbing on the ground as he tried to re-find his target. There were no lights, no fires, no moonlight to provide a visual reference on the ground. Suddenly Randy jerked the flight controls from my hands and the aircraft lurched! “Damnit, Randy!!! You could have warned me,” I yelled. “I almost peed my pants.” “You mean warn you as we went crashing through the trees? “he said, with a tone of exasperation. “Everything OK down there? That was Keith from his lofty perch above us. “Your lights blinked out for a couple of seconds; you must have been doing some fancy maneuvers.” I had forgotten Keith was up there flying wide circles in his Cobra. “All OK,” I replied. “Randy decided it was his turn to fly and wasn’t polite enough to ask.”
This little incident almost went unnoticed by Jerome who was still yelling and searching the riverbank with his ever-oscillating searchlight. I quickly regained my composure, retook the controls, and flew back up the river as Jerome directed. “They were both right there in that crook. They must be on the riverbank under the overhanging trees, turn around again, slow down, and Albert shoot into the light on the river’s edge when I say,” Jerome commanded. I could feel a slight pressure from Randy’s hands on the right-seat controls as I made the turn with my eyes on the river. I knew Randy had one eye on the flight instruments and the other on the “straight and level” avoiding Jerome’s bouncing spotlight. I leveled the aircraft; Jerome found his spot in the crook of the river with the spotlight. “Give ‘em hell Albert,” he yelled. Even though I was ready for it, the loud, other-worldly, obnoxious whine of the Minigun startled me each time Albert pulled the trigger. This time a 15-second burst was laid on the river tree line where Jerome was convinced the two sampans were hidden.
Back at the flight line as the rotor blades were winding down, I sat in my seat for a minute with eyes closed, exhausted, wet with sweat, enjoying the firm contact of the skids on the ground. These three guys volunteered for this mission. We were all back safely; I was thankful. Jerome was carrying on, congratulating Albert on the kills he was sure they had. Albert was quiet, probably thinking what I was thinking, and was already removing spent brass from the floor of his Huey. I made a mental note to ask him about his farm back home the next time I flew with him. I shook their hands. “Well done guys, you are the best,” I said.
After tying down the rotor blades of his Cobra, Keith walked by: “Jeeezz guys! You both look like you just took a shower with your clothes on.” This, of course, from the only guy in the unit who sends his flight suits out to a special Vietnamese laundry to have them washed and pressed to ensure there was a crease on the pant legs and no wrinkles in the shirt. This was Vietnam for God’s sake, but Keith always looked like he was attending a fancy air show back home. “Yeah, Keith. I’ll bet it was nice and cool up there making circles at a thousand feet,” I said. “But thanks for being there.” (Go HERE for a story about Keith)
Back at the hooches (living quarters) the first order of business was a quick shower before bed. I could hear poorly sung Christmas carols coming from next door. We were spotted: “Hey Randy, Jim, where in the hell have you guys been, come and join us. Randy, we already have your guitar; no one knows how to play it.” Seven or eight of our fellow pilots, all pretty much snockered, were crammed into a small hooch. Two electric fans were running full speed, but not moving enough air to remove the distinct aroma of Crown Royal and Balvenie DoubleWood Scotch (booze was plentiful and cheap, but ice hard to find). Danny, one of the new guys, held the half-empty Balvenie bottle and handed me a glass with ice. “ICE? Where did you get the ice?” I asked. “Don’t ask, just enjoy,” Danny replied as he poured the Balvenie over my ice. “OK, thanks,” I said. “But if you want Randy to play his guitar for you, you better find him a Coke for his ice.”
These were all great guys. Some were drafted into service, others volunteered. All loved to fly. All wanted to do their job and get back to their family and loved ones. Tonight, on Christmas Eve, they were especially missing their families. Randy played his guitar and we all sang cheerful, simple Christmas songs, the words to which most of us knew. In between songs we told stories. No war stories this night; they all had something to do with home, girlfriends, wives, kids, family, Christmas traditions. These guys were lonely and became more so with each drink. Randy began strumming Silent Night and we all sang. We all knew the first verse and some of us the second. At the end it was quiet. Randy sat with his eyes closed for a minute, also very tired from his long day in the field. I knew he was thinking of his special girl Amy. Then he began playing and singing Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers. I was surprised by how many of the guys knew the words, but it was a popular slow-dance song back in the day:
Woah, my love, my darling
I’ve hungered for your touch
A long, lonely time
And time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
I need your love
I need your love
God speed your love to me
Lonely rivers flow
To the sea, to the sea
To the open arms of the sea, yeah
Lonely rivers sigh
“Wait for me, wait for me”
I’ll be coming home, wait for me
I was pretty sure I knew why tears were running down Randy’s face when he sang the line “I’ll be coming home, wait for me.” He was thinking of his girl Amy and knew absolutely that she would wait for him; he was grateful. The tears dripping into my scotch and water glass were more of a mystery to me. First of all, I couldn’t believe it was happening: Me, a 25-year-old man, officer, and warrior. A perfect storm, I guess: too much scotch, total exhaustion from the day’s mission and the night’s Firefly, Christmas Eve away from family, knowing I would be flying again in six hours, the realization that my girl was NOT “waiting for me,” wondering if I was partly responsible for killing fellow human beings a few hours ago, wondering why it was necessary, and if God would hold me accountable. Yeah, I guess that was why I was dripping tears into my scotch and water. I wasn’t the only one, and I’m sure we all had our reasons; some the same, some different. Too exhausted for a shower, I stumbled to my hooch, collapsed on my bed with my boots on, and placed my alarm clock next to my head. Tomorrow was Christmas Day; another day in the war. The enemy was known to be especially active during the American holidays.
Some related facts about the Vietnam War: The Huey, along with the Huey Cobra has more combat flight time than any other aircraft in the history of warfare assuming you count actual hostile fire exposure versus battle area exposure. For example, heavy bombers during WW II most often flew missions lasting many hours with only 10 to 20 minutes of that time exposed to hostile fire. Helicopters in Vietnam seldom flew above 1,500 feet which is traffic pattern altitude for bombers and were always exposed to hostile fire even in their base camps.
According to research by the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, there were 11,827 helicopters that served in the Vietnam War out of which 5,086 (43%) were destroyed. Total helicopter pilots killed in the Vietnam War was 2,202. Total non-pilot crew members killed was 2704.
The most dangerous job in Vietnam was helicopter machine gunner who had to fire while manning an exposed machine gun every time the chopper came in and flew out.
“Of the 2,709,918 Americans who served in Vietnam, fewer than 850,000 are estimated to be alive as of Nov 11, 2020, with the youngest American Vietnam veteran’s age approximated to be 60 years old. Vietnam veterans are dying at the rate of 390 deaths each day.
The life expectancy for Vietnam Veterans is about 66 years vs. about 78 years for non vets.
Of the guys mentioned in my story, only Keith and I exceeded life expectancy. Keith managed that by one year then died at age 67 from issues related to a broken back from a helicopter crash. Randy returned to his Amy and his hometown of Amarillo TX. He worked as an air traffic controller until his death at age 54 from a heart attack. Amy told me later that he had heart disease for years. Albert returned to his Iowa farm but died a few years later in a farm accident, details unknown. Jerome never made it out of Vietnam alive. He took a bullet to the chest on a routine mission.