ODDS and ENDS
The "free bracelet offer" with a new fully paid life membership has ended. This was a VERY successful venture having increased our life memberships from 60 some odd to 175. There is a reason this is the first sentence in this newsletter. The offer is over, please take note of this. If you have a question concerning your dues status, refer to the mailing label of this newsletter. If there is not a 2001 (or higher) or the word life to the right of your name, you are not current on membership dues. Please consider sending $12.00 for your dues.
We mail to about 1030 men who served with us in Vietnam. Of this 1030, the Association has e-mail addresses on about 15%. From time to time there are urgent messages that may need to be sent out, such as the death of someone. If we have your e-mail address, you get the message almost instantly. Everyone else must wait for a May or November newsletter. Please send us your e-mail addresses to: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you sent a story and do not see it, it will be printed later. We again urge you to send us stories, not only for the newsletter, but as text for a future book to be written about the Rattlers and Firebirds and our supporting units' experiences. The youngest people to have served with us are almost 50 now. Our stories have a method to be preserved forever if you just send them in. Our thanks goes out to Tom Theakston (EM 64-66) for the orders and photos sent to us.
In our May newsletter there was a photo identified as one of our KIAs, Steven Martino. This was an error. The photo was of Louis Turja (EM 70). The memory of our KIAs will be kept alive by this association, as evidenced in this edition that has three more KIA photos. Jim Alsop provided the photos of both pilots of our "lost" Firebird from 10 January 1970. John Rankin, Sr. sent us the photo of his son, John, KIA 15 November 69. If you have any photos of this nature, we would like to borrow them for a few weeks. They would be returned.
In the May newsletter, Paul Barlett was asking for help locating his missing items from the Las Vegas reunion. All items were returned to Paul by hotel security.
The Association has received very positive feedback on Mike McGraw's PTSD information briefing at the Vegas reunion. We will plan to expand on this at the St. Louis reunion. A reunion is a great place to collaborate incidents that occurred in 'Nam and to gather witnesses' names for use in a VA claim. Many events that happened are not documented but are verifiable through contacts with men you served with.
A few of the address directories mailed in July to our dues paying members were defective. The printer turned one page the wrong direction. In your directory, Stuart Froehling's name is on the bottom right of a page. On the next page, the next name at the top left should be William Frye. If it is not, that page is inserted wrong. We have changed to a different printer.
Two positions have been appointed by the National Director and approved by the Board of Directors. Hal Bowen, a past Deputy National Director, is our new Election Nominating Committee Chairman. In future elections a slate of candidates will be listed at the registration table of the reunion. The nominating procedure will be clearly described in the November 2001 newsletter and in the Reunion Update three months before the St. Louis reunion. The second position appointed officially, as opposed to his "unofficial" status, is Eric Kilmer as Association Chaplain.
The Board of Directors of this Association has voted to raise the National Director's salary to $300 per month. The National Director was notified after the fact. Chuck Carlock, Association Secretary/Treasurer made the recommendation to the other board members and this was made effective as of 1 June 2000.
Do any of us ever "stop to smell the roses"? Consider the innovations at our disposal that could only be dreamed of when we were in Vietnam. Pull into a 7-Eleven store and whip out the old ATM card and fill your pocket with your own money. The cell phone that you can pick up and call ANYONE in the world who has a phone while you are driving down the road listening to whomever on your CD player or watching a movie on your VCR. When asked by the caller where you are, you check your GPS (global position satellite) system and pinpoint EXACTLY where you are. Imagine as a Huey crew member never having to worry about pilots getting you lost. This is meant as a humorous remark, but in reality we would have NEVER missed an LZ, PZ or LRRP team in trouble. Artillery would have been fired with the confidence of not harming the "friendlies". The Firebird gunship lost in bad weather on 10 January 1970 probably would not have happened.
A special request has been sent to our Association from John Mateyko (OF 65-66). Because of a nasty divorce, John needs to find out if any of our divorced members were reservists at the time of their divorce, and if so, how the reserve retirement was split by the court. He is especially interested in finding someone from Ohio who has been through this. John can be reached at: 5625 Meryton Pl., Cincinnati, OH. Ph. 513-542-9406. E-mail: email@example.com
Our Association has obtained copies of some audio tapes made during the Lam Son 719 flights into Laos in 1971. These tapes were put together by Mike Sloniker of the 174th AHC. There are several times that Firebird 98 is mentioned. This pilot was Stuart Froehling (OF 70-71) to whom a copy of the tapes were sent. These tapes can take you back to the terror of hearing and seeing flight crews die. We will have these tapes in St. Louis, but everyone should be advised beforehand how graphic the tapes are. A couple of years ago, we received permission from a Mrs. Hatley to reprint a poem she wrote about her son Joel. Joel Hatley was a crew chief that died in this action as his ship explodes into a ball of flame. This is part of these tapes along with a Cobra blown out of the sky and another pilot's last words, "We are inverted and going in"! At least there is one humorous moment where the AC reminds the crew chief that he is not supposed to be shooting. The crew chief says he didn't shoot. Pilot says, "what was that I just heard." Crew chief says, "Hell, that was them shooting at us!" Men, that's danger close!
In this newsletter are printed a few letters that are especially significant in their sentiment and meaning. John Rankin writes of what it means to him to be a part of his son's unit thirty one years after his son's death. Eric Kilmer writes of the meaning of our war and of this Association. Both letters touched this editor's emotions. Donnie Profitt writes of having closure with the death of his best friend in the service, Marshall Ratliff who died in 1989. Donnie and his wife Gail drove by "Rat's" home town on their way home from the Vegas reunion.
The Rattler/Firebird executive committee has unanimously approved a site in St. Louis, MO for our 2002 reunion. The Radisson hotel, near the St. Louis International Airport will be the Reunion headquarters for the May 2-5, 2002 event. The hotel will not take reservations until May 2001 when updated room rates will be made available to the Association. This particular hotel was the site of the 1999 Americal / 196th LIB reunion attended by about a dozen men from our unit. The hotel has a large open atrium and more than adequate space for aircraft and unit memorabilia. The hotel staff has been extremely cooperative in the reunion pre-planning and all indications are that this will be another fine meeting for the Association.
Vic Bandini (WO 68-69) is Reunion Chairman for '02 and needs volunteers to help with committee assignments before and during the reunion event. Please contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-882-6560 to volunteer your time. Several men at the Las Vegas reunion pledged support for the St. Louis event but other help will be needed and welcome. For those who volunteered at Las Vegas, please contact Vic and reconfirm your availability to assist. Help is needed with food & beverage, entertainment, local events, golf, security, host services, etc.
The St. Louis reunion will feature our usual equipment displays, the return of the Firebird "Freefire" golf classic plus a few new and innovative programs. A Saturday evening dinner is in the planning stages. A cocktail hour with unit entertainment will precede the dinner festivities. A search is now underway for an appropriate guest speaker and presenter. This will not be a "stuffed shirt" event but an evening tribute devoted to you and your service in our unit. To help begin the Saturday evening program planning, each unit member is asked to send two individual photographs to Vic Bandini. Please send Vic one photo of yourself during your Vietnam tenure and a second recent photo from "today". Please caption each photo with your name and year of the photo. If you wish to have your photos returned please enclose a self addressed stamped envelope. Any photos not returned by mail will be at the 2002 reunion for pick up. Photos can be mailed to Vic at: P.O. Box 51441, Indianapolis, IN 46251-0441. Please mark as 'Photos - Do Not Bend'. For those of you with the technology, you can e-mail your digital images to Vic at the juno e-mail address listed earlier.
More detailed information will be forthcoming in the next newsletter. Mark your calendars NOW for the 2002 Reunion in St. Louis, MO. Great ideas are planned for this event - don't miss it.
On 30 May 2000, Jim Waterbury (OF 69-70), died as a result of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Ron Olson writes of remembering Jim's "Donald Duck" radio calls. Frank Anton recalled fondly serving with Jim at Ft. Dix in the '70s. Jim was instrumental in our obtaining the Rattler slick that we take to the reunions and was a life member of our association.
On 18 August 2000, Michael D. Callahan (OF 69-70), died as a result of congestive heart failure. Mike had served in operations while in 'Nam and is not to be confused with Michael C. Callahan (WO 69). Mike's wife Nancy had asked that anyone who served with him in 'Nam to contact Mike near the end. Several men did this and greatly added comfort with old memories and war stories. Nancy expressed to the Association how grateful she was for the response to her request.
On 10 September 2000, Louis K. Free (EM 67), died of cancer.
From a letter received by the Association from John Rankin, Sr.
This first reunion we attended was one we will always remember. For us it was very emotional and at the same time very fulfilling.
Meeting with you and Chuck Carlock and the men who knew my son was the best thing that has happened to us, regarding our Johnny, since his loss.
When asked by family and friends about seeing Vegas and shows and gambling, they were surprised that we did not do any shows or even see too much of Vegas. I hope they understood when we told them we preferred to stay and spend time with you members of his outfit. Especially those men that knew him whether casually or intimately. That was our prime reason for the trip.
Our hopes for these meetings with you and the men who knew Johnny were filled beyond anything we ever had expected. It was a wonderfully enlightening experience talking to these men and their wives. We met quite a few others who did not know Johnny but befriended us as family.
We will be in touch with some of these men and have hopes of visiting some of them.
Will Drewry is one that we spent a lot of time with. He was one of Johnny's close friends. He lives in Virginia in a town that is close to our route to New Jersey where we will visit my sister this fall. I intend to ask permission to stop and see him on our way back home.
Bob Carey and his wife Kris, when told we were coming to Seattle, WA next spring to visit grandchildren, invited us to come visit with them in nearby Seabeck, WA.
The reunion is an event that will always be remembered as a high point in our lives.
We thank you for sending a copy of the memorial service. We had a local printing service make exact copies so that we could present them to other family members.
In total the Memorial Service was emotional, sad and joyous all at the same time. It was our great privilege to have been there with all of you.
We look forward anxiously to St. Louis in two years.
May God bless you and your staff for putting this organization together. Sincerely, John and Nell Rankin.
Another letter received was from Donnie Profitt.
We made it back Tuesday afternoon. As you know we went to Ft. Sumner, NM. I did not have a phone number but there were only four Ratliff's in the phone book. The very first call I made was Rat's sister. I met her in town and was surprised to see an elderly woman with her. His mother is still alive at 87. They seemed really pleased to see me. I visited his grave and home.
She gave me details of his death. He was deer hunting in 1985 and fell asleep at the wheel and rolled his truck. He was found the next morning by a school bus driver after spending the night unconscious in 12 degree weather. He was taken to the local hospital (mistake) and was diagnosed with hypothermia only. Their x-rays did not show any damage to his spinal cord. They moved and stretched him to relieve the pain and did a lot more damage. After discovering that something was wrong they stabilized him and the doctor made a slip of the knife and cut his esophagus. This allowed the liquid diet to leak into his lungs and cause infection, etc.
He was then sent to Long Beach, CA Veterans Hospital where he finally received good medical treatment. He was in the California hospital for two years. He was paralyzed from the chest down with some use of his arms. The VA set up a van for him to drive. During 1988-89 he was taken care of by his daughter, Melanie. His home is located about a city block from his Mother's home and she said before he got his van, he rode his wheelchair to her home every day. He died in 1989 after four years of this.
His family asked for information about his medals, etc. They don't have anything except a "Rattler" patch. Perhaps someone could tell them how to apply for his medals. I will send them copies of all my pictures and everything else I have about "Rat".
His mother really touched my heart. She hugged me and patted my arm constantly. As you know, his wife was killed in an airplane accident in about 1980, so his daughter is left alone. I hope Rat's friends will contact her. I haven't contacted her yet. She works at a radio station in NM. I don't have the phone number with me but his sister's name is Marqua Ratliff and is in the Ft. Sumner phone book. signed, Donnie Profitt (EM 66-67) Note: Ph # for Marqua Ratliff - 505-335-7230
One of our Sunday gunners back in '66 was the Signal Corps 06, a bird colonel. I was still flying slicks and I remember stopping for fuel and pax (passengers) at Cu Chi. As the blades wound down, the crewchief went for the fuel truck and I was working on the log book.
A "leg" major was waiting for a lift and had a footlocker and a large duffel bag. The full bird was still sitting in the gunner's well on the right side. The major walked over and climbed on board and buckled up, leaving his bags where he had been standing. After a few minutes he got the idea that no one was going to hump his bags for him, so he unbuckled and lugged his duffel bag over and tossed it in the back. By now the colonel was getting out to stretch his legs. The major must have thought that the "gunner" was going for his footlocker and climbed back in and buckled up once more. Rather than get the footlocker, the colonel walked aft and begin watering the tailboom. The major was getting hot at this point and climbed out once more, dragged his footlocker over (must have had a ton of stuff in it) and heaved it into the aircraft.
I had been writing very slow because I could see what was building up and I did not want to mess it up by getting out. As the major backed out of the cargo compartment, he turned toward the colonel who was now standing near the M-60, but facing aft. He was pulling off his flack jacket when the major hollered "hey" and began to point his finger at the colonel's back. He thought he was going to get a piece of this "enlisted" for not performing as his valet. This was before we wore subdued insignia, so the bird on the collar must have looked life sized when the older gunner turned to face the major.
To the major's credit, he did a very smooth transition from finger point to salute and added, "Just wanted to thank you in advance for the trip home, sir".
It was about March of '69. I had been in Vietnam only about two months and I was scheduled to have guard duty at the company area. On this particular night I was to be the gate guard.
The only problem with being gate guard was that the mechanics came from the flight line for midnight chow at the mess hall. They would throw eggs or whatever was convenient at the guard as they passed on the way out. I wasn't worried about the VC - just the midnight chow hounds.
I began to come up with a plan to stop the bombing of debris that was going to be showered on me. I got a hand flare and when the deuce and a half went past and the men started throwing, I hit the bottom of the flare. I aimed too low and the flare went between all the men in the back. It looked like hair being parted, but then the flare landed on the officer's club. I knew I had really messed up this time. But lady luck was with me because for some reason it did not set the club on fire.
I was so relieved that I did not kill anyone or burn down the officer's club that I was willing to just let the midnight chow crew go ahead and bombard me. I would not shoot another flare when they came back. To my surprise, I had earned their respect - NOBODY THREW ANYTHING. Later we talked about the incident and had a really good laugh.
On 22 September 1969, I was involved in a combat assault I will never forget. I was flying with Eric Kilmer (WO 69-70) as my aircraft commander, Johnnie Hitt (OF 69-70) as my platoon leader pilot and Richard Davenport (EM 69-70) as my crew chief. We were working out of LZ West and I remember it vividly because it was my 19th birthday.
The flight consisted of six aircraft and the LZ was only big enough for three at a time. My ship was chalk 3 of the second group. The first ships that hit the LZ were all reporting taking fire and two of them were shot down. We were on short final when the abort order was given and went back to the PZ to await orders.
We sat there for about 45 minutes and were then ordered to go in on the other side of the LZ. I told the grunts next to me that the LZ was HOT and to lock and load. I noticed some of the grunts praying as we were going in.
As we approached the LZ, I could see enemy soldiers coming out of holes and firing at us. The first two grunts out of my ship were hit. I remember one of them being hit in the stomach and we were looking at each other. I wanted to get out and help him, but about that time a .50 caliber round came through the bottom of the ship and hit the seat I was sitting on and then hit the back of the pilot's seat. I was wounded in the side and back. My M-60 had jammed and I was trying to clear it but the pain in my side was hurting bad.
I happened to look behind our ship and I could see 2 or 3 of them shooting at us. I was carrying a .357 magnum pistol and I pulled it out and started shooting. I saw the first guy go down and after that I heard we were getting the hell out of there. As we came out, the nose went down and the tail came up as we cleared the LZ. Two of our men died in that LZ that day. It's a wonder there were not more.
I was in the hospital in DaNang for 2 or 3 days, then sent to the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay for about 45 days. After that I returned to the 71st and became a Firebird gunner.
Eric Kilmer told me in Las Vegas that they counted 45 holes in our ship. At the reunion I got to see people I haven't seen since I was wounded. I was able to talk about things that I had kept inside all these years. When I left the reunion, I knew I had left my friends. For awhile, the reunion, the men and what it meant to me was all I could think about. I can't wait until the next reunion.
Editor's note: The following letter was received by this association three weeks after the reunion in Vegas.
Dear Ron and Kay,
Thank you both for all the sacrifice, devotion, and love you so freely gave in order to make our association and its reunions possible. Because of you, we now have means whereby we can come together again. Our association, its newsletter, roster with addresses and phone numbers, our reunions - all are such a blessing.
At our past reunion in Las Vegas, I was blessed to see again my right door gunner who was wounded and med-evaced out on September 22, 1969. I hadn't seen him or even knew if he was still amongst the living until just days before the reunion. After over thirty years, what a joy to see in David Harris' face the smile I knew before. For a moment, I was transported back. What a gift - thank you!
Our time of service in Viet Nam with the 71st took a tremendous toll on all of us emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Our souls and spirits suffered more than we ever understood, or even now fully understand. The experiences of violence, fear, confusion, separation from loved ones, loss of close friends - and the guy we hardly knew - the hurried packing up of a foot locker full of personal effects, the stress of uncertainly and the unknown, the smells, the sounds, the constant presence of death, dismemberment, deprivation, the dirt, the heat, the rain ... all of this had to be repressed, ignored, overlooked, mocked, and denied, just to function on a day-to-day basis. Most of us today have a difficult time feeling any emotion at all, even at the funeral of a loved one. We left Viet Nam and returned to a world that didn't care, and could never understand. Even our own families and friends back home who did care, couldn't understand, and we couldn't explain - didn't want to.
We came home and tried to forget, put it behind us, get on with life. Some of us succeeded better than others. None of us got a chance to properly process all that had shocked and stressed us for that year. We didn't get a chance to put it in its proper perspective. We didn't get a chance to even acknowledge our own guilt, pain, grief, or loss. We lost touch with a very big part of ourselves.
Our reunions give us another chance to reconnect with who we were and are. We have an opportunity to recall and review with others who do understand. We have a chance to grieve our losses, to rightly honor the dead, to realize that the suffering and the sacrifices that we endured were of holy worth and high praise. We are again given the chance to revisit and review so much that has been set aside, and to regain a more human perspective on what was truly an inhuman experience.
Thank you. May God our Lord continue to richly bless you and keep on making you such a blessing to us all.
Love in Christ, Eric Kilmer.
The Sniffer mission was one of the Army's early attempts at high-tech warfare in Vietnam. It was based on an ungainly and error prone device which detected the presence of ammonia in ambient air collected by a scoop attached beneath the aircraft. Mammals, including our own species, excrete ammonia as a waste product via sweat and urine. The Sniffer mission was intended to gather information which would help the ground commander in an area where the jungle, poor communications and a generally uncooperative population made it difficult to locate the enemy. The idea was to fly very low over areas suspected of having concentrations of people, where people shouldn't be. In the Rattler AO, this normally meant free-fire areas in the western 2/3 of I Corps. As you'll recall, this area is characterized by thick forests, lush valleys and undulating ridge lines. In my brief experience the Sniffer aircraft was generally accompanied by, or in contact with, gun ship elements for defense and to take advantage of opportunities for contact. Owing to the areas where we were flying and the low altitude of the aircraft, there was always the potential of becoming a target. When the equipment registered a high reading, the location would be recorded and reported; unfortunately, the machinery could not discriminate between the presence of humans and other animals such as elephants or monkeys. While this could be a source of error, it was not entirely misleading as the enemy was known to employ the use of elephants for heavy transportation.
As a very green WO1, I found the first of perhaps two or three Sniffer missions exciting, terrifying and nauseating. It was August 1969. As we headed west from Chu Lai the AC grumbled about having to perform this mission in an area which everybody already knew there was enemy troop concentrations and anti-aircraft weapons. Indeed, this was not far from the ridge where a few weeks later a Huey was de-masted by a 51 Caliber AA weapon. As we descended into the first run, the AC took the controls and instructed me to "watch the gauges", particularly the torque and RPM. I assumed that this was because of the stress we'd be putting the aircraft through and his need to remain focused on navigating the steep ridges and valleys at tree-top level. Initially, I focused on these duties with the slavish attention to detail characterized by a flight school candidate taught to polish the backside of his belt buckle. The error of my ways was apparent when, after our second or third 0.5 G plunge down a 45 degree hillside, I got a very bad case of vertigo. Determined to avoid the humiliation of having the rest of the crew see me lose my breakfast, I flailed around for something to stuff in my mouth, settling on an oily rag kept by the crew chief in the cubby hole over my right shoulder. This worked very well and I found that by dividing my attention between the gauges and the rest of the world the nausea did not repeat itself. Another lesson from that day was that you could break many of the height velocity and aerodynamic rules taught at Ft. Rucker and still survive. The highlight of the mission was our discovery of a heavy concentration around a huge cave on the south side of a ridge line somewhere, I believe, west of LZ Siberia. This was definitely "Indian country" and the cave was later determined to contain an NVA hospital.
I don't know how effective the intelligence gathered by Sniffer was, but I suspect it was not high in proportion to the risks involved. Readings on the equipment may have indicated the presence of non-combatants, and the mobility of the NVA often meant that by the time the information could be incorporated into the battle plan the enemy had relocated. I don't recall that it was a very common mission and rather think that it served chiefly to confirm that we knew already - that in 1969 we were chasing an elusive enemy who regularly made his presence known just about anywhere west of Highway One and dissolved into the background when it suited him.
Many stories abound concerning the horror and consequence of "friendly fire" killing U.S. soldiers. Several years ago Carol Burnett starred in a fictionalized television drama that dealt with the death of her Vietnam era son by "friendly" artillery fire. In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the dread of death by friendly fire once again struck home when US soldiers were killed by friendly missiles launched at night from a US Army "Apache" attack helicopter. My story portrays a similar incident that occurred 30 years ago....
.....for those of us who knew him, Jim "Blackbird" Suber was a fine man. Jim was a Firebird Fire Team Leader when I met him in late 1968. My recollections of Jim are those of a friend, competent pilot, and all around "good guy". Some may remember an incident when Jim fell asleep in his bed while smoking - Jim's bed and immediate sleeping area caught fire. Luckily Jim awoke before any serious injury - but he did thereafter have a "white" burned patch on his black behind. (He enjoyed showing his "white spot' many times following the fire!) But, this is not the friendly fire I refer to.....
......its Spring '69, I am the new Firbird "99" Aircraft Commander flying as a "wingman". On duty rotation at LZ Baldy for the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Suber's crew as Fire Team Lead (FTL) and my crew (as wing/support) composed the light fire team on the evening's "stand-by." Nights at Baldy were the same - hot, humid, nothing to do. Boredom and darkness as many of you remember. The two "guns" are parked in "L" shaped revetments on the Baldy fixed wing turnaround. Near the two gunships and the night "flare" ship is the crew stand-by hooch. Inside are crew bunks, one bare light bulb, a radio tuned to the lone AFVN music station, a wood desk/table, one TA-312 "land line" telephone connected to the 196th LIB Tactical Operations Center (TOC), and a wall map overly of the 196th area of operations (AO). And, lots of dirt - lots of dirt.
After dark, the phone rings, and Suber answers. "Bad guys are coming through the wire on the north Baldy perimeter" is the call from the TOC. The Firebird crews race to the parked gunships, release the blade tie-downs, start the engines, and in minutes are airborne and armed for a night fire support mission. In the air over Baldy Suber briefs his fire team over the gunship VHF radio cannel. We are to employ suppressing fire support in the ridge saddle on the north side of the LZ Baldy perimeter. The TOC has confirmed that "bad guys" are "in the wire" and are coming through inside the perimeter. Suber briefs the "rocket run" and break pattern, receives clearance to "go hot" and we engage the target.
Following Suber through the darkened saddle on our first pass I verify the perimeter target is "danger close" to friendlies. When I "punch" my first pair of rockets into the dark night sky I am greeted with the exploding sparklers of trailing debris. Once the rockets leave the side tubes and dash earthward toward the perimeter I realize I have little control over them. My lucky first shot is recklessly close to the perimeter boundary "wire."
In my mind, we are too close (and I am too inexperienced) to be shooting rockets so near the perimeter. My crew engages the target with only the controlled and directed fire from the co-pilot's sighted "mini-guns" and door gunner's M-60s. I fly the aircraft and monitor the radios. Suber continues to engage the target with his 2.75" rockets and door gunner's M-60s. I follow him, using only the "mini-guns" which I instruct my co-pilot to "walk" up to the perimeter. My door gunners follow suit - "walking" their 7.62 mm tracer rounds toward the target. I won't risk a rocket shot so close the "wire."
Several "hot" passes over the perimeter follow, then as Suber releases his next pair of rockets I watch in stunned awe as they collide in mid-flight. I witness the rockets "kiss" and one rocket veers sharply to the left and downward - striking directly inside the Baldy perimeter. As missions go, there is the usual clamor of gunfire, confusion, and radio "chatter" that accompany every "hot" operation. At once the TOC screams over the FM (fox mike) radio cannel to "cease fire - cease fire!, Firebirds cease fire." Although not immediately known, something had gone terribly wrong.
As both gunships are landing at the LZ Baldy standby area, Suber is advised to call the TOC on the land line in the standby hooch. After shutdown, Jim's call confirms that two American soldiers are dead as a result of the night's action. The soldiers were standing outside atop their bunker watching the Firebird gun team carry out it's fire support mission. The two were victims of the mis-guided rocket that had careened off course and exploded near the top of their bunker. In an instant, both had perished from Firebird "friendly fire." After receiving the news, I watched Jim Suber walk outside, alone. Several minutes later I ventured from the hooch toward Suber - I can still see him leaning against the horizontal stabilizer of one of the reveted gunships. As I approached I heard his crying and sobbing over the dead American soldiers. In the darkness I saw his tears stream down his face as he choked out his grief at being responsible for the deaths of two Americans. We spoke for a few minutes, and to this day I can't recall what was said - but I remember how deeply saddened and troubled Jim was because of what had happened.
After I reported the incident that night to "Rattler" operations Jim was flown back to Chu Lai for rest. Nothing much came of the incident, we all continued on with our work. Jim made his DEROS back to "the world" and I suppose he moved on with his life. As young men in war, we were often cavalier in our attitude toward death. I remember one of our most callous mottos - "better him than me." The two young American soldiers who died that night were victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. How careless of them to be unprotected watching the night "sky show," and how unfortunate for the Firebirds to have claimed two "friendly" KIAs. Although I never knew them, it is certain these two soldier's names are on "The Wall." When you visit, remember these two soldiers and the misfortunes of a war that claimed so many young and innocent lives.
It was August, 1967. I had just celebrated my 20th birthday and was a brand new WO having only arrived at the 71st AHC a few weeks earlier when I found myself flying as a peter-pilot on a combat assault somewhere between Chu Lai and Duc Pho in I Corps. The Aircraft Commander was a seasoned veteran by the name of Captain Good. He was not your ordinary veteran RLO having been assigned to the first flight platoon as an AC (I never asked why). He was a great pilot, a good mentor and was very cool under fire.
Anyway, back to our mission. We had just lifted off from a cold LZ in a large flight of Hueys. After traveling north a few minutes I heard a loud bang from behind, felt the aircraft yaw suddenly and then saw the engine RPM climb out of the red as the rotor RPM started falling like a featherless bird. Someone (most likely Capt. Good) finally decided that we should put the collective down before we became that bird without feathers.
Captain Good selected a wonderful rice paddy (anything flat and large in I Corps looked great!) and we made a forced landing touching down without any damage to the aircraft. Having just inserted combat troops into the area, I figured that we hadn't put them there for R & R so there might be some folks out there that might not like us. We had better do something; but what! I must have missed this training at Rucker.
Luckily, the crew chief and gunner knew what to do and they immediately exited and opened our doors. I took the hint and quickly climbed out. The gunner removed one of the M-60 machine guns and moved away from the aircraft. Where is he going? The crew chief climbed up on top of our wounded helicopter to see what was wrong. I stood there admiring the scenery (this was the first time in my life I had actually seen a rice paddy up close --real close).
As cool as a polar bear in Alaska, Capt. Good came over to me and suggested that I take the crew chief's machine gun and setup a perimeter just in case we hadn't landed in Disneyland's parking lot. Good idea - why didn't I think of that!
I went over to the gun and finally removed it from the aircraft. After almost dropping it on my foot, I moved away from the aircraft. All of a sudden I wished I had paid more attention while I was in basic training, but back then I never thought that I would be humping a machine gun in some rice paddy. After all, I was going to "Fly".
Once away from the helicopter I found a location that offered the only cover around; a dike on the edge of the rice paddy. I even managed to remember to setup in the opposite direction of the gunner. Maybe I remembered more than I thought.
Nope! No such luck. I suddenly realized that I had no idea how to shoot one of these things. I was smart enough to figure which end the bullets came out, but beyond that I was in trouble as this was the first time that I had touched a M-60 machine gun. How do you load the ammunition belt? Where's the trigger? What happens when it jambs? Apparently Captain Good saw that I was having problems as he casually came over and asked if everything was OK. By this time I knew we were about to be overrun by a thousand charging Viet Cong and I couldn't even figure out how to work this big gun I had in my hands.
Finally I admitted that I had no idea how to operate this thing. Captain Good calmly reassured me that everything was going to be all right. He then proceeded to give me instructions on the weapon. What a place to do OJT!
Anyway, with his instruction I learned all about the M-60 machine gun and now was prepared to protect all of us from the enemy. I then saw in the distance people moving towards us. Oh God, they really were coming! OK! I'm ready -- bring them on! I wonder what the range of this gun is?? I did remember a famous saying about "the whites of there eyes" - where did I hear that?
Oh well. I waited. As they moved closer I could see that they were wearing green uniforms and had rifles. We're in trouble here! Finally, as they moved even closer I realized that they were wearing the same uniform that I was. We were saved by the U. S. Calvary!!
Needless to say I was relieved as our ground troops moved in and setup a real perimeter. Before returning to the helicopter I unloaded the gun I had as I now had just enough knowledge to be really dangerous and I didn't want to shoot one of our own. Our maintenance ship arrived later and we were lifted out with our wounded bird - safe and sound. I did throw away my underwear for obvious reasons. Oh well, just another day of on the job training in beautiful Vietnam! It was going to be a long twelve months!!!
Some time around April, 1968, we were operating out of LZ Baldy on a Command and Control mission. My usual aircraft was a UH-1D, serial number 66-1001, with John Lambie as crew chief and Roger "Doc" Marley as door gunner.
It was late afternoon and we were lounging around with little to do - some days on C&C you flew all day, but many times you just waited for an assignment. We were probably wondering if it were late enough in the day that they would release us to go home or keep us there doing nothing until dusk.
About this time we noticed a Firebird gun team cranking up down on the main airfield (we were parked on a pad up on the hill). We watched them waddle into the hot, humid air and head west towards LZ Ross. This usually meant some unit had made contact and needed a little extra firepower. We watched them depart and were waiting to see if we would be used to circle overhead so their battalion commander would observe. However, things settled down after a while, and we went back to waiting.
Soon after this someone came out to tell us that a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) team was in contact and needed an immediate extraction. We were instructed to leave immediately an make contact with the Firebirds already on station.
On our way out we were thinking about the LRRP team on the ground. We had performed plenty of LRRP insertions and extractions in the past and these were usually routine. We would land in several designated LZ's to hopefully confuse enemy observers, and the team would get off in one of them. The LRRP team would then move a considerable distance to an area where they would seek out information on enemy strength, movements, etc. After completing their mission they would move to a pick up point some distance from any known enemy units. The LRRP teams were small, often four to six members, and tried to avoid contact with the enemy, since they could be overwhelmed by a small enemy force. This unit would need to be extracted quickly before their ammunition supply ran out.
On the way out we made contact with the Firebird team, who gave us their location and the FM frequency of the team on the ground. The location was several kilometers west of any friendly units. Once we got a little closer we could see the gun team making their runs in a racetrack pattern. Firebird lead told us the LRRP's were in a suitable LZ for pick up, but it was surrounded by hills on three sides. As a result we would have to come in and go out along the same path, which was never desirable. The enemy troops were on the high ground firing down at the trapped LRRP's.
Firebird lead cleared us in and adjusted his orbit to cover our approach. All I remember of the landing was seeing tracers going everywhere - green and orange streaks punctuated by rockets impacting the hillside. I was thinking that I would keep the ship light on the skids, ready to depart as soon as the team was safely aboard. As soon as we came to a stop, I could feel people coming aboard as the Huey rocked and wallowed. About then Lambie said that they were in and it was time to go. At this critical time, I was starting to turn and pull pitch when a large black animal bounded onto the radio console heading for me. I must have set the Huey down in my confusion because the intercom came alive with "we gotta get out of here" (or expletives to that effect.) As the animal, which turned out to be a tracker dog, started to get in my lap, a hand came up and grabbed his collar to drag him back to his handler. Once he was out of the way I resumed my expedited departure from the LZ.
The flight back was uneventful. Once we were clear of the shooting, Doc Marley went forward to check for wounded LRRP's and reported that everyone, including the dog, was OK. Then we speculated as to whether we took any hits. No one remembered feeling any impacts and all the instruments showed normal reading, so we continued on to LZ Bandy rather than stop enroute to check for damage.
Once back at Baldy we shut down close to the Firebird area to drop off the LRRP's and check for damage. The LRRP' sergeant thanked us for the pick up and apologized for the dog's behavior, he said the dog was a good tracker, but could be difficult to control when the shooting started. I had to agree with the dog on that subject.
After the LRRP team departed we carefully checked our Huey for damage. We checked everything at least twice, but couldn't find any holes anywhere. Whoever was shooting at us was being harassed enough that they couldn't aim and didn't get any lucky shots either.
My crew wanted to know why I was so slow getting out of the LZ, especially with all the shouting over the radio. The peter pilot apparently didn't see the dog lunging for me, so none of the crew was aware of my distraction. I was a little embarrassed to tell them that I lost my concentration because I thought I was being attacked by the tracker dog.
Thanks to the Firebirds, the enemy troops were kept busy while we pulled the LRRP team out. I know they were shooting at us, but they had to keep their heads down and couldn't take any aimed shots.
All in all it could have been a textbook demonstration of how to extract a LRRP team under fire. The gun team support was coordinated and accurate. The LRRP team boarded the Huey quickly. The crew put down suppressive fire and informed the pilots when it was clear to depart. There were no wounded troops and no damage to the helicopter. If only the aircraft commander could have kept his cool when that dog came aboard.....
When I was flying, everybody that had assigned aircraft had a regular AC. In my 27 plus months with the Rattlers, I had several and they were all good. I came home as a testimony of that. I flew with the Rattlers shortest pilot, Randy Billings, and you can certainly believe me, height had nothing to do with his ability. He was very good. The youngest pilot must have been Bill Patrick, and again, it was all ability. There were so many other great pilots such as Dennis Hand, Conrad Howard, Jerry Shirley and Beryl Scott. Later came names like Mike Millett and Leon Perry, and many more too numerous to name. Then there was my favorite team of Hal Bowen and George Jackson.
The AC that I flew with the most was our own David O'Quinn. I started flying with David not long after being made a door gunner, and I mean being "made". I came to the Rattlers as a motor pool mechanic and was made a door gunner. I was taken to the flight line and was shown what a Huey looked like and how to break down a M-60. The first time I pulled the trigger on a M-60 was in a hot LZ.
Back to my AC, I saw so much action with David, it would be hard to mention all the dates that come to mind. Dates like Oct. 14, 1966, eagle flights in the delta where we took so many hits they retired the aircraft. There were countless combat assaults and hot medivacs. Operation Junction City where we were the third ship to it our LZ, but the second one out. Lead didn't make it out. I don't know of anyone that did not have respect for David's ability and courage as an AC.
I would like to mention two times that stand out in my mind. One I recall was the day that we had a peter pilot that could not fly and a gunner that could not shoot. We were at LZ Baldy at the end of a long day and starting back to Chu Lai. David asked me if I would like to fly back to Chu Lai, and I jumped at the chance. The peter pilot got behind my gun and I climbed in the right seat. We had a couple of grunts and a mail sack on board. After putting on a show for the tower, David took the stick and got us in the air before turning it back over to me. Somewhere between Baldy and Chu Lai, we lost the mail sack. It landed in a rice paddy full of Vietnamese. Now you have me in the co-pilot's seat and the peter pilot behind the gun in a rice paddy full of people. Do you go get the mail sack??? Of course you do! Some mother is expecting a letter from her son. So here we go. I am sitting there looking like I know what I am doing and thinking all the time, if David gets shot, we are history. But no problem as David takes us in, we get the mail sack and we are out of there. He made it look easy.
On another occasion, we were pulling flare standby and we got a call to unload the flares and pull an emergency extraction of a LRRP team. The team had made contact with the NVA and had to run for their lives. This was not an ideal situation. We were going into the mountains after dark to get five men, without an LZ.
With my heart in my throat, Donnie Profitt and I got the ship ready. Here comes David and the peter pilot smiling and joking and just being himself. It kind of took the tension off the situation. I knew that it was important to me for David to have the left seat. It was not until 32 years later that I learned how important. I was talking to Bill Keller in Las Vegas when he told me the story of flying gun cover for a lone slick at night on a LRRP extraction. Bill said that he had been flying all day and was exhausted when he found out about the mission. He said that he had doubts about it until he found out that the slick pilot was Rattler 11. He gave David a real compliment when he said, "I knew that things were going to be all right if Rattler 11 was the AC".
The flip side of this coin was that if you are going where we were going, you want Bill Keller, Firebird 95, as fire team leader. We flew to the location of the LRRP team and it was bad dark. The only thing to mark the LZ was flashlights. We ended up with no LZ and having to hover up next to a hill and having the team jump on board. After a few sniper rounds, and a quick retreat, we were out of there.
When you have ACs like David O'Quinn and Bill Keller and all the other great Aircraft Commanders of the Rattlers and Firebirds, it takes some of the fear out of a bad situation. THANKS GUYS! Smitty.
Just a foot note - I ran into a fellow while working in a plant in South Florida. He walked up and said he knew me. He said that he was a member of a LRRP team. He cried as he told me the story of how a Rattler aircraft rescued them out of the mountains. He said that they would not have lived 'til daylight. Thanks to the Rattlers and Firebirds he is alive today.
REMEMBERING OUR HEROES
from the Tropic Lightning News 24 November 1966
SP/4 Daniel Fernandez, who this week was posthumously awarded the nations highest award, the Medal of Honor, was one of those rare young men who was admired and respected by his contemporaries.
He was quite, competent, unselfish, cheerful, the type they choose as president of the senior class. When he died on February 18th of this year, he was a rifleman for Co. C, 1st BN (mech), 5th Infantry, and everyone who had known him mourned him. He was not a career soldier. He used to joke with his friends that he was in the Army for three years because he had flipped a coin with his draft board, and lost. Actually he had enlisted for three years. While he was in the Army he wanted to be a good soldier. He spent hours at Scholfield Barracks in Hawaii pouring over infantry handbooks. His platoon leader, Lt. Joseph V. Dorso of Norwalk, CT called him the type of guy I could always count on no matter the situation. SSgt.
David M. Thompson of Belair, NY, who used to go skin diving with him in Hawaii, said simply, "Danny was my best man."
The members of his squad, a tight little group of 15 men, one subsection of a huge division, looked upon him as a father confessor. Even those who were older than him called him "Uncle Dan" and went to him with their troubles and their complaints. Specialist Fernandez had been in Vietnam once before as a volunteer machine gunner on an Army helicopter (with Co. A 501st Aviation Battalion in 1965). So it was not surprising that he was one of 16 men who volunteered for an ambush patrol that was sent out of Cu Chi just after midnight on February 18, 1966.
About 7 AM as the patrol lay in wait in a jungle clearing for the Viet Cong, SP/4 Joseph T. Benton of Hetford, NC spotted seven VC in the woods behind a burned out hut. He began firing his machine gun, then reached for a hand grenade. Before he could pull the pin out, a Communist sniper killed him. Specialist Fernandez crawled to one side of the hut to cover the right flank, and SP/4 James P. McKeown of Willingsboro, NJ moved into place on the other side. Behind the hut PFC David R. Masingale of Fresno, CA, the platoons' 18 year old medic bent over Specialist Benton. A moment later the Viet Cong opened up with machine guns, and a bullet smashed into the leg of Sgt. Ray E. Sue, knocking him to the ground. SP/4 George E. Snodgrass of Pomton Lakes, NJ, who had come up with Sgt. Sue to get Specialist Benton out, hit the dirt. Now all five men were pinned down in an area no bigger than a living room. PFC Masingale treated Sgt. Sue while two flank men riddled the bushes and Specialist Snodgrass fired behind Specialist Benton's body. At that instant, a grenade fired from a rifle by one of the guerrillas landed by Specialist Fernandez' leg. He got up on all fours, trying to escape, but he hit the grenade with his ankle, knocking it to within three feet of the group around Specialist Benton and Sgt. Sue. Without hesitation, so quickly that PFC Masingale is sure he didn't have time to consider the consequences of his action, Specialist Fernandez shouted "move out" and threw himself onto the grenade. When the others reached him after the explosion, he was still conscious. Specialist Snodgrass helped make a litter from three shirts and some bamboo poles and dragged Specialist Fernandez to an open area where a helicopter could land. "It hurts" the wounded man said, "I can't breathe". Specialist Snodgrass, a devoted Roman Catholic who often went to mass with Specialist Fernandez, told him to "make a good act of contrition" because no priest was present. "I will" Specialist Fernandez said, and shortly after he died.
For this action, his last, Daniel Fernandez was awarded the Medal of Honor. Specialist Fernandez' parents live at Los Lunas, NM.