ODDS and ENDS
RATTLER-FIREBIRD NEWSLETTER CONSIDERING GOING GREEN!
In an email received from Richard Harrison (OF 70-71), the suggestion was made that the Association consider emailing our newsletter to the ones who would consent to receiving it this way. We have email addresses on over 280 of our people at this time. Going green can be your contribution to helping the ecology by saving trees. Postage costs have really jumped on our non-profit rates plus it costs about $1.25 to have each newsletter printed, not to mention we must pay $1.00 each for every newsletter sent back to us with an address correction because of our people moving and not letting us know. If we do not pay this, we lose that person and it is normal to get 5% of the newsletters back with each mailing. If you would consent to getting your newsletter in this method, please email the Association at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you do not like getting it via email, you can go back to getting the hard copy by informing the Association. If this method is used, it would start with the May 2009 issue.
There are many of you who have an email address that we are not aware of. This would be a good time to notify us of your email address also. The address directory will not be emailed.
Benefits of going green: (1) help the ecology, (2) save the Association money, (3) save the Association labor, (4) color photos would come to you in full color, (5) no delay of weeks getting the newsletter, you would get it on the day it is mailed, (6) if you move, it does not get returned to the Association, doubling the Association expenses on that issue and, (7) the Post Office cannot lose it!
The e-mail may be something like, “Sign here to keep ‘In God We Trust’ on our money”, or Bill Gates is giving away his fortune, all you need to do is…… It may be a prayer for our troops or sign here to keep Jane Fonda from winning an award. The intention of the spammer is to appeal to your patriotism, religion, greed or hate for something.
The next time you get one of these, ask yourself, “Is this a duh or what?” If it’s a “duh”, that’s a good sign you should delete it.
Speaking of our webmaster, Gary White, he continues to do a fantastic job on our website. We receive many compliments on it and had one webmaster tell us he made a link to our site because of the information one can get there.
If you have photos you wish to have posted on the website, please send them directly to Gary White at: 10015 West 94th St, Overland Park, KS 66212.
2010 RATTLER-FIREBIRD REUNION
Sheraton Music City Lobby
Our 2010 reunion is set for Wednesday, May 12th to Sunday, May 16th, 2010 at the Sheraton Music City in Nashville. The hotel address is 777 McGavock Pike, if you wish to go on google maps and put that address in. This is a four story, 410 room hotel, built in 1985. It is a square shaped facility with a large open area in the center where the outdoor pool is located. It sits isolated on about 20 acres, just north of I-40 across from the Nashville Airport.
Our hospitality room is the McGavock Ballroom, a 3,000 square feet area that has double doors that open directly into the parking area, about 150 feet from where our helicopters will be sitting. This easy in and out access will help very much on unloading and reloading our display material and make it very easy for the smokers to step right outside to the helicopter area. The room rate is a little higher than we are used to at $109 per night plus tax, but the hotel is nicer too.
Please plan to attend this reunion if possible. As you can tell by reading our TAPS section, you may never get another chance to be with some of these guys.
When we toured the hotel facilities in September there were about 5 or 6 huge tour type busses in the parking lot. After they left we found out that the famous band, The Eagles, had been staying in the hotel. That should tell you this is a nice place because those guys can stay anywhere they want to.
A Friday night tour option at this reunion should be a trip to see The Grand Ole Opry, live. They have shows on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights and it’s about a ten minute ride from the hotel.
The Association has been informed of the following deaths since our last newsletter:
- Gerald “Jerry” Abel (EM 66-67) died on 16 September 2003 from a motorcycle accident.
- Randy Billings (WO 66-67) died on 15 September 2008 from a heart attack.
- Lou Litchfield (OF 68) died 27 April 2008 from a heart attack.
- Jim McGinnis (EM 65-66) died 22 November 2004 from a heart attack.
- Henry D. Potter (EM 69-70) died 21 April 2008 from lung cancer.
- James D. Stephens (WO 67-68) died 29 August 2008 from a heart attack.
Editor’s note: All the losses hurt but Randy Billings was a very good friend and will never be forgotten by those who served and flew with him. May they all rest in peace. rs
WHY SHOULD I GO TO A REUNION? – FEBRUARY 1993
By David Ellingsworth (WO 66-67)
I wasn't going to go. Ron Seabolt had called me but I told my wife that I just did not want to dig all that stuff up. We all had suppressed a lot of things over the years and I just wanted to keep them suppressed. We have been married 42 years so there isn't much she doesn't know about me and she just said "whatever you want to do is ok".
One morning before I left for work the phone rang. I picked it up and there was this voice---a blast from the past----I had heard it so many times before in all kinds of situations but I couldn't put a name to it. The voice said, "Is this Davey Ellingsworth, Firebird 93----- (the only people to ever call me Davey was my big brother and the Firebirds)? I interrupted the caller and my language reverted back to the military method of communication. Okay #$%#$% who in the hell is this? My feet were doing a dance on the floor and Vicki looked at me like I was nuts. The voice said, "This is Bill Keller". I interrupted again, “Wild Bill Keller you #$%#$%#$% where are you (my Sunday School class would have been proud of that language)?” Bill finally said, "I hear you are not going to the Memphis reunion." I told him why and he made a statement that I will never forget. He said, "That was us, we really did those things, and we survived and we need to be together."
Long story short I decided to go as it was just a 4 hour drive. My wife and her mother went with me and my daughter came over from the University of North Alabama. I called Seabolt and told him that I was coming and in his Texas drawl he said, "Good, I'm changing you from pink to a yeller (you can ask him what that means).”
When I drove up to the hotel the marquee said WELCOME RATTLERS AND FIREBIRDS and I suddenly knew this was where I needed to be. I already had a lump in my throat. I went to check in and I ask the lady at the front desk if any of the 71st was there and she just rolled her eyes and said, "There is a padded room down the hall," and laughed. Yep, this was the right place!
I went back to the car to get our luggage to put it in our room and I saw a large black man getting out of a van. He looked so familiar and had a scar on his chin. He looked at me and said, "Mr. Ellingsworth!!!!" It was Charlie Sanders and I put that scar on his chin when I screwed up and overflew a target. He picked me up and gave me a big bear hug and had big tears in his eyes.
We took our luggage up to our room and I sat on the edge of the bed and cried like a baby. We went down to the meeting room and when Vicki and I and her mother walked in a Rattler saw me (it may have been the late Randy Billings) and said, "Damn! Here comes one of the @#$@#$@#$ Firebirds so the party is going to start now." That didn't surprise Vicki but her mom's eyes got big.
All of a sudden I was 23 years old and walking the walk and talking the talk as all of us Rattlers and Firebirds did. It was one of the best weekends in my life. I think we all talked for 12 hours solid. If I had not been there I would not have seen the late Ned Flecke, Gary McCall, Beryl Scott and others that we have lost. I got to be with the men that were closer to me than brothers. When we had the memorial service the emotions that I had suppressed all these years came flooding out and I cried --- I couldn't stop it----. When it was all over I didn't want to leave. I wanted to spend more time with these guys that were closer than family.
Bill was right. THAT WAS REALLY US, WE REALLY DID THOSE THINGS, WE SURVIVED, AND WE NEED TO BE TOGETHER EVERY CHANCE WE GET!!!!!!!!!!!
Editor’s note: At the time of the Memphis reunion, there were only about 95 men from our unit on our mailing list. A color-coded list was being kept by Ron Seabolt of the men planning to attend, pink for no, yellow for yes. Forty eight men attended this 1st reunion, making it arguably the best attended Rattler-Firebird Reunion ever held, with over 50% of the address directory in attendance! Davey Ellingsworth was best known in the company for being Fire-Team Lead of the light-fire team of Firebirds that stopped the ocean going ship on the night of 14 July 1967, an action that prevented the necessity for a night combat assault by the Rattlers! Also an action for which the US Navy attempted to claim full credit for.
VIETNAM WAR ICON ‘HOISTED IN TEXAS
Ron Seabolt, Chuck Carlock, Doug Hopkins and
Paul Beverung at Mineral Wells dedication
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (portions excerpted)
On the morning of August 16, 2008, a restored U.S. Army UH-1 "Huey" helicopter became a permanent fixture, greeting those driving into Mineral Wells, Texas, from the east.
The National Vietnam War Museum "Hoisted the Huey" and celebrated this symbol of the Vietnam War with a program of activities culminating in lifting and mounting the helicopter by crane onto a support platform. The museum is located east of Mineral Wells on U.S. Highway 180, next to the Mineral Wells railway bridge.
Festivities began with the grand entrance of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle-riding veterans. The riders assembled in the large parking area behind McDonalds' restaurant for their ride to the museum site at 10:15 a.m.
The museum provided hot dogs to the first 500 attendees and about 1000 were in attendance.
The Huey that was hoisted -- tail number 65-10068 -- was purchased by the museum from federal surplus, according to Bobby Bateman. This flying machine saw action primarily with the 71st Assault Helicopter Company stationed in Bien Hoa and Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam. It was later used in Thailand, the U.S. and Germany. The Huey ended its career flying about 1,142 hours and experiencing combat damage from five to six incidents in Vietnam.
On 8 December 1966, there were 8 slicks from the Rattlers making an extraction in the Ho Bo Woods area near Cu Chi. On the third lift out, the lead aircraft was hit twice with both rounds hitting crew chief Ernie Palmieri, killing him instantly. Captain Doug Hopkins was the aircraft commander, Major George Jackson was the pilot and PFC David McDaniel was the gunner. The aircraft was 65-10068.
WO-1 Wally Dunning pointing to his cherry hit
On 5 January 1967, this ship took a round at the very back of the tailboom, right above the taillight. This was WO-1 Wally Dunning’s “cherry” hit. PFC Ron Seabolt was the crew chief and the gunner was possibly SP/4 John Cervinski.
On 22 February 1967, 65-10068 was the lead ship on the first lift into one of several LZs on what was then the largest operation of the Vietnam War. We later found out that this was “Operation Junction City”. Major George Jackson, the 1st platoon leader, was the aircraft commander, WO-1 Jerry Shirley was the pilot, SP/4 Lou Becker was the crew chief and PFC Tom Knapp was the gunner. “068” was shot down on the first lift with all four crewmembers slightly wounded from shrapnel with Major Jackson being injured the worst and requiring immediate medical attention.
On 25 May 1967, 65-10068 lost its tail rotor on a landing on the beach south of Chu Lai. There were no injuries. The crew consisted of AC WO-1 Conrad Howard, Pilot Captain Harold Bowen, CE PFC John Lynch and G PFC James Wardlow.
On 12 September 1967, a black day in the 71st, 068 took 4 hits at “Million Dollar Hill” in a combat assault. Another ship was damaged that day in an explosion in a minefield that cost the lives of three men, SP/4 Jim Morrison, SP/4 Efrain Robledo and SP/4 Robert Garcia.
On 27 September 1967, 068 was being flown by 1LT Joe Leinster when power was lost and a forced landing was made on the beach south of Chu Lai. Before the ship could be retrieved it was damaged by the incoming tide.
The above incidents were the last recorded damaging action to 068 while it was in the Rattlers.
Doug Hopkins came in from Eufala, OK to be present for the ceremonies. Also in attendance from our unit were Paul Beverung, Chuck Carlock and Ron Seabolt.
By Doug Hopkins (OF Mar 66-Feb 67)
Tom Knapp, Ralph Kuhnert and
Paul-Bowman - January 1967
We had endured a long flight from Travis Air Force Base aboard an Air Force C-141 loaded almost entirely with cargo. There was a small space in the front of the cavernous cargo hold where a row of 10 seats had been installed, facing rearward and the mountain of cargo (most of it with the Red Ball Express logo). These seats were of the aluminum tubing/nylon fabric construction style, with lap belts. Not too comfortable for such a long flight. There were only 6 of us passengers, all from the same rotary wing class at Ft. Rucker. After stops in Hawaii, Guam, and The Philippines, we finally arrived in Saigon.
First stop was at the infamous Camp Alpha, near Ton Son Nhut airport. We spent two long, hot, dusty days and one miserable night there while awaiting our orders for unit assignment. At last our assignments were made and we gathered our belongings for our final leg of the journey.
Ralph Kuhnert and I were happy to be assigned to the same company, A/501st in Bien Hoa. Our chopper arrived and loaded us and our numerous bags and crates on board. We flew directly for the 145th’s helipad at the Rattler’s villa in Bien Hoa. As we were unloading our baggage, Ralph realized that something was missing. He had been hand-carrying a zippered valise in which he carried all his important papers. But the valise was nowhere to be found. He finally accepted the fact that the valise had slipped from the stacked bags and fallen from the helicopter Enroute to Bien Hoa, never to be seen again.
Two or three days after settling in, Ralph received a message. Following is how I explained it to my wife in a letter to her.
When we left Saigon last Tuesday to come here, Ralph had a valise containing all his important documents which fell out of the open door of the helicopter somewhere between Saigon and Bien Hoa. Believe it or not, a Vietnamese civilian found it and turned it in to a police station in a northern suburb of Saigon. Somehow they got in touch with Ralph, so today we went down to pick it up. It took us a long time to make them understand what we wanted. Then we discovered that the person who had the key to the locker was off duty and Ralph would have to come back tomorrow. So we caught a chopper at the airport and he dropped us off here about noon. Ralph is going back to the police station tomorrow with our mail carrier who makes a daily run in a truck.
The next day’s mission was accomplished. The contents of the valise were complete; nothing missing. We talked about the odds of such a thing happening, how remote the chances of him ever seeing the valise again. And to think that a Vietnamese had gone to the trouble to try and return the property, intact, to its rightful owner.
CWO WILLIE HARGROVE – MUCH MAN!
Earlier this year Willie Hargrove was located living in Athens, GA. When this became known, a member submitted his remembrance of Willie this way:
John Mateyko says he remembers Willie Hargrove very well. John said Willie had arms like a linebacker for the Chicago Bears. John remembered one time a Rattler bird had to be taken to Vung Tau but the hydraulics were out. Rather than wait for a Chinook, Willie told me to grab a slick and follow him. Willie lifted that “B” model up to a hover, now granted it wasn’t a perfect three foot hover, but with the hydraulics out it was a damn good hover. I followed him on the climb out to 1500 feet and we followed the road south to Vung Tau. His running landing was right out of the flight manual. He turned it in to the 4th echelon maintenance people, walked over to the “D” model I was sitting in and we returned to the Snake Pit.
Editor’s note: John Mateyko said any company aircraft in 1965 would have been referred to as a Rattler. This statement is backed by the photos taken in 1965 showing Firebirds with coiled rattlesnakes on the pilot’s doors.
By Don Kleiber (OF 65-66)
I was in my last few days in country and we usually didn't fly during our last five-seven days. I was playing at the ping pong or pool table when Jug Haid, he CO, came running in and yelling at me to get my suit on because I was going on a mission. I told Jug that I was in my last days and he didn't seem to care about that at all and ordered me to get my flying gear on so I headed down to our room. When I entered, Lefty was sitting up in his bed reading a local newspaper his wife sent him. The thing I remember was that he had his sun glasses on because we didn't have any curtains on our windows. Haid had a room inspection a couple of weeks prior and he found dust on our curtains. Lefty and I decided that we had better things to do than clean curtains so we took them down. That, of course, made the room very bright with the stark white walls. That was why Lefty had his sunglasses on. Anyway, as I put my flight suit on and was putting on my boots Lefty asked what I was doing. I told him that Jug had ordered me to get suited up because I was flying a mission. Lefty immediately got up out of bed and told me that I was not flying because I was in my last days. He already had his flight suit on and he got his boots on and picked up his helmet and weapon and left the room. I can't remember how long it was until someone came running in the villa saying that there had been a bad accident and that two planes had collided. Later someone else came in and said that Lefty, Steve Martin and a couple of other crew members got killed. My main thrust then was to find Jug Haid but a couple of guys, who I can't remember, got hold of me and wouldn't let me go after him. Vic Anderson accompanied Lefty's body because I left the country just a few days later.
A side-bar to this story: In 1985(?) my wife and I attended a party in Atlanta being held by forty Georgia graduates celebrating their fortieth birthday. Each graduate could invite one other person/couple. My wife's friend invited us to the party. After cocktails, while waiting in the lobby for my wife to return from the rest room, I looked up and saw two couples entering the lobby. One gentleman looked familiar and as he neared I looked down and saw that his left hand was partially amputated. I stopped him as he passed me and he looked at me and said, Capt. Kleiber. My wife was approaching us and she later said that I was stark white. I was talking to Steve Martin who I believed to have been killed in the accident.
Editor’s Note: This story arrived too late for the last newsletter which contained Steve Martin’s account of 20 Feb 66.
“IT MADE AN OLD VET CRY”
By Eric Kilmer (WO 69-70)
This past July 19th, some wonderful people in and around Marlette (Michigan) worked very hard to give special tribute to our veterans. The name of the tribute was "Embracing Freedom". It was incorporated into the Marlette Country Fair Days Parade.
I was first told by my father, (a W.W.II Navy Vet who made many hazardous crossings of the North Atlantic dodging German U-boats and deadly storms), that Rudy Bolf at the Marlette Pharmacy was inviting all the veterans to march together in the parade. I have carefully avoided almost everything having anything to do with being a veteran. Like so many Viet Nam veterans our shared past experiences and memories are for the most part buried too deep and are too painful to want to do anything which brings them up into our present thoughts.
I am not ashamed of the service I rendered to my country. I flew a UH1H helicopter, lovingly called a "Huey”, (also called a "Slick" by the men who flew them). The men I served with were devoted, dedicated, and courageous, as are all those who swear to uphold the Constitution and wear our nation's uniform. We were a front line combat assault company and served with distinction. Fifty-five of our unit gave their lives for the cause of freedom. Three of our company were captured and spent over five years in jungle prisons much worse than the terrible stories you hear about the 'Hanoi Hilton'. Many more of us were wounded. We carry scars, some can be seen, others are hidden in our souls and nightmares.
For what it is worth, the war in Viet Nam was not lost, it was given away.
When we abandoned the people of South Viet Nam, I was ashamed of our leaders. They had lost the political will to finish a holy cause: The giving of the gift of freedom to others, especially freedom to worship and serve our Lord.
When we turned our backs on Viet Nam, we dishonored the sacrificed lives of our veterans. They died to give the gift of freedom; they made a huge down payment for the love of their fellow man and for the dream, the prayer, the hope of the cause of freedom for others. This is to say nothing of the slaughter of a million Cambodians following our departure.
It is like reliving the sad past all over again to listen to the news and to hear those who want us out of the Middle East now before these people are ready to fully stand on their own. To do so would once more be to abandon those who look to us for help in their struggle against tyranny. It would once more be dishonoring the lives already given. If the dead could speak, I believe they would say, "Don't let our sacrifice fail to give the gift of freedom to the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq. Our lives must not be wasted. Freedom is precious, whether it is spiritual or political, only blood and life can win it and give it."
With all of these emotions about past and possible future political failures surging around inside me, as well as my own personal memories of violence and death, I intended to blow off the invitation. Let them march, I hurt too much, I was and am still too angry. But, we needed sponsors for our Barnabas Club golf outing for tuition scholarships for Our Savior Lutheran School, and so I wound up at the Marlette Pharmacy talking to Rudy asking for his support. He asked me about the parade and I felt like I couldn't say 'no', since he was going to help us out (God bless him and all who have).
The day of the Parade came and I felt uncomfortable, I wished I was somewhere else. My heart wasn't in it. The parade was to lead off with a color guard, followed by us vets who could still walk, next came a very nice brass band on some sort of a wagon playing patriotic music, a couple of WWII Jeeps, a Deuce and a Half (with my father riding along with a dozen more vets), after that a whole fleet of golf carts with more vets, altogether there were around 125 vets walking and riding. Following us was a huge 20' by 30' American flag carried mostly by children. Then came the rest of the parade.
We began on a side street about three blocks from the main drag. Small gatherings of people in lawn chairs were scattered here and there with lots of dogs and kids mixed in. An occasional balloon and small flags were held in many hands. As the color guard got going and we passed the first group I noticed that as they saw the flag and us coming, they rose to their feet, some put their hands over their hearts, a few saluted, but most of them began to clap. As we turned and progressed onto Main Street, I began to get a lump in my throat. For three city blocks literally hundreds of people had turned out and were packed along the sidewalks of our downtown section. As the flag and the veterans approached they all began to rise and applaud. They kept on clapping the whole time we were passing by. It wasn't just polite or formal, it was earnest and heartfelt, and I felt my eyes begin to water.
As a vintage WWII twin engine AT11 roared low over our heads right down main Street, I couldn't help but think to myself, this still is a truly good country, (regardless of the politicians), and I felt Freedom's Embrace.
Special thanks go out also to everyone who worked so hard to make this tribute so meaningful and encouraging. The hope and dream of freedom is alive and well in the hearts of the small town common man. God bless you one and all.
By Roger Farrell (EM 67-68)
This is the kind of old war story that comes up every now and again. Usually when a bunch of old cronies like us get together with our feet in the sand, the sounds of the surf rolling up on the shore, and a half empty bottle of corona in our hand. It won’t be the first one you hear, as the bottle tops start twisting off. I probably wouldn’t even bring it up if I hadn’t already put a few suds down. But as the “bull” gets deeper and the pant legs shorter, I can’t resist and more than once I’ve told this story as I try to top the last one told. It goes something like this.
The place is Chu Lai, Viet-Nam, in late ’67 or early ’68. I walk out the back of my hootch feeling the mid-day sun beat down hard on a shirtless back. It’s my day off and I’m spending as much of it as I can sleep through the heat of the day, laid out in front of a Montgomery Ward reciprocating fan. I’m only half awake as I struggle through the loose sand and reach for the door to the out house latrine. A cigarette dangles from my mouth as I choose one of four or five holes designed into the crude bench seat inside. It’s arid, and at least ten degrees hotter as I pull down my jungle fatigues and take up the position. The sweat begins to roll off my forehead as I wait. It’s no holiday in there, and I want to finish my business and scoot as soon as possible. Suddenly, the door swings open and it startles me. The light is blinding, and it takes a few seconds to adjust to the semi-darkness before I recognize the trooper in the pooper beside me.
Months prior to this I was involved in a conversation with this trooper, concerning a slogan he had stenciled on the front of his helmet. It read, “God is Dead”. As I read this I could not help but visualize a single bullet hole piercing through the very front of this steel pot, right where the word “is” is, in the “God is Dead”. It offended me, and I let him know.
I considered myself a praying man, and this wasn’t the first time I disapproved of some of the seemingly inconsiderate behavior I witnessed. Not so much because I was offended, but more because if I was truly a believer, I must say so. In spite of the usual criticism, in my youthful vigor I trudged head long into more than one heated debate about the relevance of remaining faithful while away from home. Especially in combat.
“Man”, I remember telling him, “…what would you do if you caught one right between the eyes. You’re dead. It’s all over, and suddenly you find yourself standing in front of God at the pearly gates.
“There is no pearly gates”, he countered. “There is no God!” He knew how to get a rile out of me, for sure. And thinking back, he was no doubt baiting me for attention. Soldiers wrote all kinds of crap on their gear back then, the Hippie generation was well and happy even in our own ranks at the 71st Assault Helicopter Co. I had a bit of a swollen head, I must admit. I hadn’t been a Christian long when I joined the military, and felt if I can do it, so can you.
I can’t remember this guy’s name, but he wasn’t a bad sort of fella. He was a door gunner in one of the “slick” platoons. If he reads this, he will know who he is. I was a crew chief in third platoon. The Firebirds. The gunship platoon. Normally not known for its evangelism. Better known for the wrath of God. My door-gunner, Gary Murray, became a Christian while serving with the Firebirds, after he and I had many enjoyable conversations and bible studies together in our off time. The rest of the platoon called us the “Righteous Brothers”.
The last contact I had with my buddy in the “helmet”, was a moment I will never forget. His argument was pretty good, considering all the violence and bloodshed we saw. For that very reason I argued in God’s favor for him.
“What have you got to loose, if I’m wrong”, I said. “It’s a win-win situation man, but not as long as you deny Him.” I painted the scene in graphic detail for him. “You and I are in a high profile profession here. Chances of us getting hurt or dying are fairly good. You and me, we need all the help we can get.”
It wasn’t sinking in. He tried walking away several times, but I couldn’t help but feel this had to be said. Who else was there? I thought. “Listen to me, its bad enough to think of you as a casualty, going out there without His protection. But let’s say you don’t get a second chance. Let’s say you get killed. You get shot or something and you’re all alone, without any God. Facing eternity, and there you are thinking, ‘Oh God!’ I made a mistake.”
“You can’t go back and do it over”, I told him. “You can’t even change the situation by arguing your own defense. You have no defense, because we have had this discussion before your death…all you have to offer is that helmet under your arm. Standing there staring the All Mighty in the face. And you know what it says?” He looked like he was about to knock me on my you-know-what.
Now as our eyes adjusted to the light, there he sat staring back at me. He was a nervous wreck. I asked him a casual “what’s up”, and he proceeded to tell me he was no longer flying. That his chopper went in, crashing into the jungle and decapitating his door gunner. A second looey from another company was Sunday gunning and tried to jump out as the helicopter went through the trees, causing him to be hit by the rotor blade.
“That was you, man?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “I heard about that, but I had no idea it was your ship?” He sat one slot to my right, head bowed down and his eyes welling up with tears. After a little silence he told me why he quit flying.
“I remember sitting in the grass. We were all laughing hysterically and nearby there lay the decapitated body of that second looey. It was crazy man, but we were all so happy it wasn’t us. Wasn’t me!” he exclaimed. “That could easily been me there, dead.” He was pretty choked up. I would have been too.
Then he stopped me cold. “I couldn’t sleep. All I kept thinking about was what you said about my steel-pot. About how some day I would stand before God. Stand there with nothing but that damn steel-pot under my arm. Dead!” I could feel the tension in his voice, see the tremble in his hands. In a voice so low, I could barely hear it, he repeated the words. “Man, that could have been me.” He looked me hard in the face. “You realize that?” I stared back. Not knowing what to say, I raised my hand and put it on his shoulder. “Take it easy, you can relax now. It’s over pal.” I said.
Forgetting where we were, I shared his distress and asked him if I could say a prayer for him. I’m not certain if he thought I was going to pray for him later or not, but he didn’t object and with my hand still resting on his shoulder I began to ask God to give him peace and forgiveness.
Before I could finish my prayer, and while we were both sitting there among the flies and the stench with heads bowed and my arm probably looking like I was greeting an old friend, the door swung open and a sudden explosion of light came in. We must have looked like a couple of raccoons caught in the ice chest. I know whoever was standing there in the open door, with one foot resting on the threshold and his mouth wide open, was sure he had stumbled on a couple of love birds holding hands in the John.
For a long moment there was a stunned silence. Time froze. Then I came to my senses and jerked my hand back. “Oh! Ah, hi,...we uh….,” I started reaching for the roll of paper and pulling up my pants at the same time. My side-kick already had his face in his hands, and wasn’t about to move. “Here! I ah, that is we, …” I’m stammering like I dropped a safe on my foot and was embarrassed by the pain.
“Hey!” With one hand up like he was stopping traffic, and the other still holding fast to the old wooden door, his foot suddenly slipped off the threshold and he lost his balance for just a fraction of a second. “No problem! You guys take your time.” With that said, he stood back and let the door slam shut. As he trailed away I heard him say, “Didn’t have to go that bad anyway,...come back later.” Yep. That’s the way I felt too. Not good.
Nothing was ever said after that. Life went on as it had before. But I never forgot that crossroad in my life. As time traveled on and my perspectives went through various changes back in the world, I couldn’t help but appreciate the American humor of it all. We were so young. The world was so big. Those of us who survived have a lot to be thankful for and are a lot less pretentious about it.
I don’t know what ever happened to my friend with the “God is Dead” helmet. Like all of us we went our separate ways. But he became a permanent part of me. I don’t know if I was ever a life changing experience to him, I suppose I’ll never know. But one thing is for sure. If he became a convert from that encounter, he has a heck of a testimony. Of course it most likely takes a lot of cajones to let people know you met the Lord in the crapper, but this just goes another mile in showing that the Good Book knows what its talking about when it tells us all that, “….the truth shall set you free.” Free indeed!
Editor’s note: The aircraft referred to by Roger in this story is 64-13715 and this occurred on 2 May 1967. 1LT Russell Robbins, the commander of the 94th Signal Detachment, was “Sunday gunning” on this aircraft. The Aircraft Commander was Capt.Michael Milett, Pilot WO-1 Frank Anton and crew chief PFC Richard Gale. When the aircraft crashed, Robbins lack of experience probably resulted in his death. He either did not have his seat belt buckled, or unbuckled it and either jumped or was slung out of the ship.
By Steve Israel (WO 69-70)
Eddie Clasby (EM 69-70 &
Steve Israel (WO 69-70)
By 1969, the campus anti-war movement was in full swing. America was going through radical changes at an unprecedented pace. Our civilian friends were assuming new styles of dress, talk and politics. Old friends occasionally turned against us merely because we wore the uniform. Activism, drugs and a new model of morality were rapidly taking hold in America.
Given a swiftly changing homeland, many Vietnam vets faced an additional challenge on their return. It was the adjustment to what seemed like being frozen in time, while removed from the mainstream. But, those of us who had the opportunity to face this adjustment were the fortunate ones.
Savannah, Georgia in the summer is not only hot and humid, but in the late 60s, the unforgettable odor of a nearby paper mill made it even more unpleasant. Adding yet to the discomfort level, the Warrant Officer Candidate (WOC) barracks at Hunter Army Airfield, (where some of us went for the secondary flight training after Ft. Wolters) were not air-conditioned.
Maybe all this was the excuse that Paul James (PJ) and I, along with two other WOCs used to justify renting an off-post apartment. Or perhaps this was just our own version of a college “frat house” where we could emulate the social setting of our peers who chose a different path to self-fulfillment on our college campuses.
Paul James (WO 69-70)
KIA 7 March 70
By late summer of 1969, the fifty or so candidates in our flight school class all knew we were headed for Vietnam, yet life was good! We had gotten to the point in training where we were reasonably certain of graduating flight school in October. We had a few bucks in our pocket and it seemed that our mission in life was now to party as if there were no tomorrow. And until graduation we did just that. Just how dramatically our lives would change in coming months after graduation could not have been imagined.
If America was going through political and social turmoil, we were not a party to it. We had our own focus. We had our own fraternity, and for us the politics of war were limited to the music of the 60s. It’s not that we lacked political views. It was more likely that most of us were too pre-occupied with completing flight school, bonding with our new brothers, and trying to live as if our days were actually finite.
The months we spent in the apartment did justice to the “work hard – play hard” mantra. It seemed that weekends were a constant stream of visitors in the form of WOCS and local gals we had met during our stay. Although the alcohol flowed freely, things never got out of control and frequent impromptu parties served to strengthen the bonds between our group, who, several months prior had been total strangers from demographically and geographically diverse backgrounds.
It was here that I got to know PJ. The son of an Army officer, PJ had the ability to roll with the punches and never utter a complaint. While there were occasional disagreements between the guys in the house, PJ was never a party to the disagreement. Rather he was the mediator, the one who got the feuding parties to shake hands and realize that the matter was not worth the argument. PJ had no enemies. He was a man of character and integrity who was always there to help without expecting reciprocation or praise.
On graduation, PJ and I, along with one or two others from our flight school class received orders to The 71st Assault Helicopter Company, Chu Lai, Vietnam: “The Rattlers and Firebirds”. At the time, we were unable to appreciate the brotherhood into which we were about to enter.
We arrived in Vietnam on November 22, 1969. The days we spent in the reception station receiving the mandatory in-country orientation seemed like an eternity. We had earned our wings and within each of us was a need to prove to ourselves that we were “man enough” to ply our skills in combat.
To date, the differences between combat flying and the textbook techniques learned in school were little more than anecdotal stories passed on by veteran flight instructors. The reality would soon be driven home with major impact. It would start with the immediate realization that the skills we learned in nearly a year of flight training were a small achievement compared to what we would learn in the first few months in Vietnam. The flying techniques we learned in-country were neither gentle, nor forgiving.
It took no longer than the first day in the AO to discover how woefully inadequate a “newbie” could feel. PJ and I, as many “Peter Pilots” before and after us, discussed this at night over cocktails. Adding to our feelings of inadequacy were the continuous pranks, harassment, and jokes, aimed at our inexperience. Whether intentional or not, the harassment served a purpose. It forced us to sharpen our skills as aviators and thicken our skins as men, in an environment where praise was scarce and errors were readily acknowledged, if not deadly. Although the harassment generally took the form of light-hearted humor, it nonetheless cut deeply to have one’s professional shortcomings take center stage.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Aircraft Commander (AC) often recruited the help of the crew chief and door gunner in assaulting the Peter pilot’s esteem. All too often the entire crew had a good laugh at the expense of the Peter pilot’s inexperience. And an unwritten law was that Peter pilots held insufficient standing to protest this treatment with anyone, including those he outranked.
On the other hand, it was easy to understand the crew’s predisposition toward this type behavior. After all, the Peter pilot would become an AC in a matter of months. These crew members were entitled to feel that the men on whom their lives depended were competent aviators, able to perform under mental stress. Ultimately, the crew’s participation in a pilot’s education may have been a means of increasing their own odds of survival. Besides, it was fun!
Buford Sumner, a Rattler door gunner, was not one to take part in the mental assaults on Peter pilots. Maybe it was the southern gentleman within him or maybe it was just the kindness that was evident in his infectious smile. Not one who was long winded, Sumner was a shy young man with an extraordinarily agreeable temperament. He was not one to boast of his exploits (although I did learn in a rare moment, that he had been offered a baseball scholarship at a major university). Rather, Sumner was quick with a smile and always willing to lend a hand.
As a door gunner, his M-60s could always be depended upon to properly function; an event that was unfortunately not always the case with all door gunners. When told to “go hot”, Sumner’s guns reliably sounded their continuous, deafening staccato. Much like a Firebird gun team, Sumner’s properly maintained M-60s provided a sense of security in the heat of a “shoot-em-up” troop insertion.
Steve Lane, another WO pilot joined the Rattlers a week ahead of PJ and I. Lane was, by our standards, older and wiser. After all, he was twenty five, a full three to five years older than most of the WO Pilots. These few extra years provided Steve with a noticeable additional measure of maturity. While competent, caring and sociable, Steve was never one to be the center of attention, nor the loudest in the room. His contribution to a conversation was useful and thought provoking. Because Lane and I made AC around the same time, I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to fly with him or get to know him as well as PJ or Sumner.
The evening of March 6, 1970 was no different than most at the Rattler Officer’s Club. The club was a legacy left by those Rattlers and Firebirds before us. It was constructed on the beach of the South China Sea of plywood, plexiglas windows and a thatched roof. While not exactly posh, it was solely owned and run by the Rattlers and it was our own private frat-house. On this night I shared a beer with several of my brother Rattlers/Firebirds including PJ. I was in particularly good spirits as I was scheduled for a rare day-off the following day, March 7th. That night would be the last time I would see my friends PJ and Steve, alive.
March 7, 1970 was not a particularly “hot” time in the Rattler area of operations. The daily routine was fairly normal: resupply, recon, and air taxi missions, with one exception. Lane, James and Sumner had been assigned support missions South of Chu Lai near Quang Ngai. This was a slight departure from routine as the majority of Rattlers missions were in support of the U.S 196th Light Infantry Brigade, fifty or so miles North of Quang Ngai.
The weather was good on March 7, and for me, it looked like a fine day to hit the beach and soak up some afternoon rays, an event that was not to happen. Shortly before lunch, word spread that a rattler ship had “gone down”. The mood in the company area changed
entirely as we anxiously awaited two vital pieces of information: identities of the crew and their condition. It wasn’t long before we had the first piece of information. It was Lane’s ship that went down, while inserting ARVN troops on a mountain top.
We would have to wait for the second piece of the puzzle. But surely, there was a good chance that the crew was OK. It happened frequently - ships went down and the entire crew was rescued without serious injury.
I was in the mess hall having lunch when the second piece of information arrived. It was a moment I remember vividly. As the Ops officer walked into the mess hall, the ambient noise and conversation fell silent. We knew from the look on his face that the news was not good. In a somber and almost apologetic demeanor, he said “Lane and James are dead”.
As aviators and crew, we understood and accepted the risk that went with the job we had chosen. It is both human nature and a survival tool to rationalize and minimize the reality of that risk. It was moments like this that shattered our skewed sense of security, and drove home the fact that we could not hide from the heartbreak and the horror of combat. The loss of our friends, coupled with the reality of our own vulnerability was a double edged sword.
Ops needed a crew to fly the body recovery mission. PJ was a close friend and I felt compelled to do so. I quickly saddled up, got a crew, and was assigned a bird for the mission. At the flight line operations office, the Ops NCO marked the crash location on my tactical map and I was off. While in Ops, I also learned that Sumner had survived and had already been airlifted by “dust-off” to the 91st Evac Hospital in Chu Lai – condition unknown.
As more information was disseminated it was learned that the cause of the crash was the loss of a tail rotor as the chopper departed the mountain top where they had just inserted ARVN troops. Not having sufficient airspeed to keep the bird under control and execute the proper emergency procedures, they crashed on a steep face of the mountain and exploded in fire. Eyewitness reports say that an incoming mortar caused the tail rotor failure.
I arrived at the crash site just as the troops carrying Lane and James’ bodies reached the top of the mountain. I don’t believe a word was uttered among the crew during the entire flight back to the 91st. with the remains of our friends.
After delivering the bodies, there was another pressing personal mission. I needed to see Sumner as I still had no word on his condition. Despite the protests of a couple of nurses I found my way to Sumner. His condition brought mixed emotions.
To my surprise, Sumner was alert, coherent and did not appear to be in a great deal of pain. His legs had been burned, and were covered with a sheet up to the waist. His torso neck and head were exposed with no visible signs of trauma. However, as I approached Sumner, he caught sight of me and immediately started sobbing, uncontrollably.
Buford Sumner was not crying as a result of his own wounds which were substantial. He was crying for another reason. Sumner explained to me how he knew that Lane and James were caught in the wreckage of the ill-fated chopper. “I tried to get Mr. Lane and Mr. James out, but my legs were on fire”, he explained. Through the tears he repeated over and over how he tried to get them out, but could not.
I did my best to assure Sumner that there was nothing he could have done to save Lane and James. But, I suspect that Sumner probably carried the enormous burden of this undeserved guilt with him for the next two weeks.
Buford Sumner died on March 21, 1970, exactly two weeks later. He died in a U.S. Military hospital in Japan, where he had been transported for further treatment and recovery. He died from complications of Pneumonia, caused by his injuries
There’s a bit of irony in this tragedy. Many of the vets returning from Vietnam had difficulty adjusting to a radically changed America to which they returned. Steve Lane, Paul James and Buford Sumner were the kind of men who could stay grounded amidst change, while adapting and flourishing in any situation. They never got that opportunity to make the adjustment back home. They never got the opportunity to develop their full potential as respected leaders, nurturing fathers, and model human beings, that each would have inevitably become. I stopped asking why years ago.
I think of them often and their memories will remain in my heart and mind. For having known them, I am a better person.
All of us who served as Rattlers or Firebirds have similar stories that evoke similar senses of loss. We witnessed outstanding acts of selflessness and sacrifice by our brothers-in-arms. These experiences, good and bad, have, in varying measure become part of the persons we are today. These are the ties that bind us as brother Rattlers and Firebirds.
A TOUCH OF HELICOPTER HUMOR
A pilot died at the controls of his helicopter and went to pilots' hell, where he found a hideous devil and three doors. The devil was busy escorting other pilots to various "hell rooms." "I'll be right back--don't go away," said the devil, and he vanished.
Sneaking over to the first door, the pilot peeked in and saw a cockpit where the pilot was condemned to forever run through preflight checks. He slammed that door and peeked into the second. There, alarms rang and red lights flashed while a pilot had to avoid one emergency after another.
Unable to imagine a worse fate, he cautiously opened the third door. He was amazed to see a pilot getting ready for a flight while crew chiefs diligently put the final touches on a perfectly- maintained aircraft, helping him out of the ops truck and carrying his helmet bag. Even bringing him coffee and saluting him sharply as they presented the forms for his approval.
He quickly returned to his place seconds before the devil reappeared.
"Okay," said the devil, "Which door will it be, number 1 or number 2?"
"Um, I want door number 3," answered the pilot.
"Sorry," said the devil. "You can't have door number 3. That's crew chief's hell."