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War Stories 8
If I had to come up with any group that fit the expression “the epitome of looking for trouble” it would be the long-range recognizance patrol (LRRP). These guys were from the ¾ Cav unit across the Cu Chi airstrip from us. They normally got support from their own gunship unit, the Centaurs. However, the Diamondhead 10 fire team from 25th Aviation Battalion was privileged to be called to their support twice during the month of May 1968.
We appreciated the job that the LRRP team was doing since we had been getting rocket attacks from the Ho Bo and Boi Loi woods areas since before Tet. Our mess hall had been messed up twice with direct 122 mm rocket hits by now. The pots and pans with holes through them were piled high. Our mess hall seemed to be reference point 1 since the next round usually hit near our gunships along the runway. I can understand why Sir Charles did not like our gunships or those of the Centaurs.
The second scramble called by LRRP 6 occurred late in the afternoon on the 11th of May 1968. When I switched to the FM frequency that was phoned to the scramble hooch, and following my announcement as to whom we were and that we were two clicks from their position in the Ho Bo Woods, LRRP 6 whispered “hello old buddy.” The situation quickly became serious after this bit of levity. I knew that things were tense when he had to whisper.
LRRP 6 explained that he was surrounded and could not pop smoke. The VC/NVA were within hand grenade distance of his position in the bottom of a bomb crater. He had to use a strobe light to mark his location. The good news was that it was nearly dusk and we could see the strobe. The bad news was that we had to get him out of there because he definitely did not want to spend the night surrounded by these bad guys.
We set up our gun runs from an altitude of 200 feet because we had to put the rockets within 50 yards of his location. A higher altitude would have been risky. It was hot during the first few gun passes, and I don't mean the weather. We exchanged gunfire with Sir Charles until my wing ship and I expended all of our rockets. Near the end, there was nothing coming back at us. Our doors gunners and crew chiefs also burned most of their 7.62 mm ammo during the process. We circled the location until the slicks arrived.
The extraction went fine. I'm sure that LRRP 6 was able to find more trouble in the Cu Chi area as soon as his number came up again. Those guys definitely knew how to raise the adrenaline level.
By- Dave Henard
Ed Gore was flying the artillery forward observer courier on his rounds in the Diamondhead OH 23 on a clear day in late January, 1968. The Diamondhead 10 fire team was scrambled when Ed received fire from a wooded area about two clicks NE of Nui Ba Den. By the time we arrived on the scene a pair of our fastmovers had already dropped their ordinance on the offensive area. Ed left as soon as he briefed us since he was low on fuel.
Some Vietnamese locals were exiting the woods heading south. They looked like forced laborers to me, given all of the circumstances, so we circled and started rounding them up. After a few orbits, we had collected about 50 people including a few ox carts. A couple of them started to depart from the roadway that we encouraged them to take. I asked our doorgunner to lay down some M60 rounds in such a way that these dissenters would be encouraged to rejoin the others.
I radioed our Battalion Headquarters, explaining what we had. I told the folks in our Tactical Operations Center that I could hold these forced laborers for questioning at an old abandoned airfield that rested in the shadow of Nui Ba Den. I was asked to talk to the 3rd Brigade Headquarters in Dau Tieng since they were the closest unit to us. Our gunners had to offer more encouragement a couple of times, but we were making good progress along the route southwest to the abandoned airfield.
The 3rd Brigade contact was having a difficult time locating anyone who could help. It took a long time for him to contact me again and he asked if we could hold them for a while. I responded that we could, but that we would have to refuel one at a time once we got them to the airfield. I told my wingman to go to Tay Ninh for fuel while we held the group at gunpoint. We quickly learned that Vietnamese folks do not all share the same personality. When our doorgunner took off his helmet, one of the old women slapped at a man who was wearing a hat as she rattled off some choice words that apparently encouraged him to take off his hat. It must have been his wife since he complied. She was definitely trying to be congenial. A second old woman had a scow on that would shake up a wolverine. I'm not sure if she was Viet Cong or if she just really needed to take a dump. In any case, she bent over and took one whether we liked it or not. We got a pretty good laugh from this activity.
Our wing ship returned a few minutes later and took over guard duty while we took off to refuel at Tay Ninh. I used the opportunity and the altitude to radio back to 3rd Brigade to see what was happening. I was told to let them go. I couldn't believe it, so I asked if he was sure. He said that there was no one available and that no unit was available to hold them. We passed this along to our wing and left the area after refueling at Tay Ninh.
I guess that the incident was played back to General Mearns, since I was invited to the Division briefing that night. I guess that nearly every officer with a rank of Major or higher was there. I was one of a few Captains there. The 3rd Brigade officer of the day and all others involved in the decision to let these folks go without questioning were severely chewed upon that evening. I'd have to say that I have never seen a better job of ass chewing done before or since that evening.
By- Mike Dufour
Pleiku,RVN January 1967
One of my greatest fears during my service in Vietnam was being asleep and having a VC sapper slip in silently and cut my throat. It had happened on many occasions to others and the thought of it happening to me resulted in many a sleepless night. In January 1967 the company was sent to the coast to support elements of the Fourth Division. After two weeks in the field, my aircraft needed repairs that could only be performed by battalion maintenance, so I returned to Camp Holloway at Pleiku with my crew.
The work was going well, but it would still require remaining at Holloway for two nights before we could return to our assignment on the coast. The evening of the first night, I was not too happy about being virtually alone in the company area. It is one thing to face your fears in the company of many brave men. It is something else altogether to have to face them alone; or worse, alone and at night. Trying not to think about it, I ate C rations for dinner and busied myself writing letters home. Finally, with nothing else to do and fatigue from long days and sleepless nights demanding attention, I laid down on my cot fully clothed.
I lay only inches from the large screen windows that bordered two sides of my cot. Trying to lie perfectly still in the blackness, I listened to the sounds of the night, waiting for sleep to find me. Somewhere nearby, a wind chime would sporadically send its lonely call, as if to say, “I'm still here.” Alone in the hooch, I knew that any sounds I heard had to come from the outside. Staring into the dark, I strained to hear the faintest noise, wishing desperately that I could silence the noise of my own heart beating.
I'm not sure exactly when I became aware of the breathing sounds on the other side of the screen. Maybe it was that subtle sound that had pulled back the gauze of sleep and caused me to slowly and carefully open my eyes. Without knowing it, I had synchronized by own breathing to match the almost inaudible sound seeping through the window. Terrified, I tried to think of something that would tell me what to do. I remembered the training we had been given in basic; to see in the dark, don't look directly at the object, look to the side of it. Scanning slowly left and right, I could faintly make out the shape of a man's head and shoulders that was imperceptibly darker than the surrounding night. Or was it my imagination? If I could just stop the sound of my heart pounding in my ears, maybe I could clearly hear the breathing outside! Panic was slowly forming in my gut and reaching out to envelop me. Was someone really there? Could I really see the outline of the enemy in the blackness? Maybe it was just a trick of light and the only thing close to me was the fear that wrapped around my heart. I lay absolutely immobile, too frightened to reach for the gun under my pillow and not knowing what else to do. It was then that the humid breeze shifted slightly and drifted in through the window. It was that same breeze that had first caused me to place my cot here, seeking relief from the fetid heat. Now, it carried to me the unmistakable odor of the fermented fish oil sauce called nuoc maum eaten by almost all Vietnamese. It wasn't my imagination; there was someone waiting silently just inches from me on the other side of the screen.
If I moved suddenly, would the silent intruder abandon the knife he surely carried and open fire? As close as my own shadow, he couldn't miss no matter how fast I tried to move. Maybe I could slowly slide my hand under my pillow and find the comfort of the cold steel of my Colt .45. Maybe I could shoot him first, before he could fire. Even if I rolled to the floor, I couldn't escape his line of fire. Without warning, a flash of light and the sound of a loud explosion suddenly washed over the hooch. The soldier hidden in the darkness was as startled as I and I could clearly see his outline as he involuntarily ducked.
In one seamless movement, I grabbed the gun from under my pillow and rolled to the floor. Without stopping, I crawled as rapidly as I could to the far end of the hooch where I stopped in an enclosed alcove, waiting to see if the enemy followed. Seconds later, I heard a series of explosions coming from somewhere on the other side of camp and I could now hear people shouting and running through the company area outside my hooch. I ran to the doorway in the front of the hooch and as I stepped outside, there was a faint glow coming from the east end of the camp. In its flickering light I could see people running. I quickly realized that everyone in sight except me was wearing “black pajamas.”
I didn't know where to go or what to do, but I didn't want to stay in my hooch alone surrounded by enemy soldiers. I remembered that the shower building had been built by the French and was the only concrete structure at Camp Holloway. I grabbed my M-16 and a bunch of extra clips and ran the short distance to the shower. I must have had an angel with me because as I ran in the door, the muzzle of an M-60 machine gun was jammed in my chest. I screamed “American” and was waved inside. Fortunately, the guy guarding the door wasn't applying “shoot first, ask questions later” or it would have been a short night for me. Standing there in the darkness, we could hear the explosions of mortar rounds falling and satchel charges detonating in the logistical command dump. There must have been at least 40 people in the shower, shuffling around in the dark and talking in excited, muted whispers. Suddenly, it occurred to me that to the enemy, the name for the only concrete building on post must be “target.” The roof was tin, and if a mortar round hit it, the round would penetrate it and explode inside. The concrete walls would then serve to concentrate the blast and cause the shrapnel to ricochet around the room.
I decided that I needed to be somewhere else, immediately if not sooner. I made my way to the door, checked for enemy outside and started running in a low crouch towards the command bunker near the runway. As I approached the bunker, it was easy to see that I had not been the only one with the idea of going to the bunker, as its entranced was jammed with people trying to get inside. Realizing that I would have to find somewhere else to go I frantically tried to think of options. Then it hit me. What was I trying to do? I wanted to be where the enemy wasn't. The enemy were all coming on to the post, so I would go in the opposite direction! Without missing a step, I swerved around the command bunker and ran across the runway on an angle, heading for the bunkers at the far end of the strip next to the perimeter. A few yards short of the perimeter bunkers, I saw a foxhole with a SP4 laying in it. I jumped in and with a big smile said, “Mind if I join you?” Just as happy as I now was not to be in the middle of the attack, he laughingly replied, “Yes sir, I could use the company!”
For several minutes, we lay there watching the explosions and the brilliant red tracers crazily crisscrossing the sky. From somewhere near the tower, a figure suddenly appeared, wearing only his BVD's and an Australian bush hat. He was carrying an M-60 machine gun and trailing link ammo far out behind him as he ran to the center of the runway. Just as he reached the center, he was totally surrounded by black pajama clad soldiers. We couldn't see him through the enemy troops, but we knew he was going to go down fighting because we could hear the constant rat-tat-tat of his M-60. As we watched in stunned admiration, the VC all started falling down, as if swiped by an unseen giant hand. Soon the only person standing was the Aussie spinning in circles, firing his M-60 until he had expended all his ammunition. He then tossed the machine gun down, ran over to our foxhole and jumped in. Turning to us with a large lopsided grin, he asked, “Got a gun mate?” Too amazed to utter a word, I handed him my M-16. He said, “Thanks mate,” jumped out of the foxhole and went running down the centerline of the runway. I never saw him again, but I have never forgotten the respect I gained for the Australians that dark night.
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Louis Richard Rocco hadn't thought much about danger and dying as he returned to Vietnam for a second tour in 1969. After all, he figured, except for the time a poisonous snake almost killed him, his 1965-66 tour had been uneventful.
The Hispanic American today calls that second visit his bad luck, good luck tour. The good luck is, by some miracle, he's alive, he said.
"I just had a guardian angel. I should have been killed, but I wasn't. It was just luck I wasn't hit," said Rocco, an Italian-Mexican-American born in 1938, in Albuquerque, N.M. It was on this second tour Rocco would earn the Medal of Honor for braving enemy fire to save four comrades.
The incident happened May 24, 1970, northeast of Katum, South Vietnam. Then a sergeant first class, Rocco was a medic and a member of Advisory Team 162, U.S. Military Assistance Command. He was asked to fly with a helicopter medevac crew to a besieged South Vietnamese army camp to help sort out and extract the wounded. Enemy fire around the camp and panic inside was making flights increasingly dangerous, he said.
Rocco said he climbed aboard and two days of hell on Earth started.
"We knew we were going into a hot landing zone, but we didn't know the extent of it," he said. "We started taking fire from all directions. The pilot was shot through the leg. The helicopter spun around and crashed in an open field, turned on its side and started burning. The co-pilot's arm was ripped off it was just hanging. The South Vietnamese wouldn't come out and get us because they were being cut down.
At the time, he said, he didn't realize he'd suffered back injuries and a broken hip and wrist in the crash. "I guess I was going on reflexes. The only thing I was thinking about was getting the people out. I jumped out and pulled the pilot out first. I looked for cover and saw a big tree lying on the ground. I dragged him to the tree, knowing that anytime I was going to get shot."
In a hail of enemy fire, Rocco rescued the pilot and co-pilot, helped remove the crew chief and went back a fourth time for the medic. Each trip meant crossing about 20 meters of open ground with an unconscious man. On his last trip, he suffered burns to his face, hands and neck.
Once he had the survivors behind cover, Rocco started giving them first aid. "I didn't feel anything, but then, all of a sudden, pain and everything hit me." He collapsed and lost consciousness.
Two days of fierce fighting, pandemonium and uncertainty about their survival followed, he said. Two helicopters were shot down on the second day while trying to save the stranded crew.
"They kept spraying the area with machine gun fire, and we kept calling in artillery and air strikes. In fact, at night, we were calling in strikes on our own position because the North Vietnamese were coming in at us," he recalled. Cobra helicopter gunships finally slammed the enemy positions with enough firepower to allow medical evacuation choppers to land.
"They didn't have time for litters or anything else," Rocco said. "They just threw us into the helicopter and took off." He said the 11th Armored Cavalry finally broke through and rescued about 60 survivors of two South Vietnamese companies.
The realization of what happened didn't hit him until he was in the hospital in Saigon. "When I thought about it, I started hyperventilating," Rocco said. "Just the scope of what took place hit me at one time and blew me away. I don't know how we were able to survive."
The commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division visited Rocco in the hospital and told him he'd been recommended for the Medal of Honor. That was the only time he would hear of the award for more than five years. He said he was shocked when called one day to brigade headquarters at the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky., and told he was to receive the Medal of Honor.
"I couldn't believe it!" Rocco exclaimed. Unknown to him at the time, the helicopter co-pilot he'd saved, then Army 1st Lt. Lee Caubarreaux, had been lobbying on his behalf.
"Before we left Vietnam, I told my commander Richard should get the Medal of Honor," Caubarreaux said in a telephone interview from his home in Marksville, La. Doctors saved Caubarreaux's arm. While getting ready to be medically retired in Texas in March 1971, he received a letter from a warrant officer in the
1st Cavalry Division awards and decorations office in Vietnam. The Medal of Honor recommendation for Rocco was enclosed-- it had ended up in a desk drawer and never left the headquarters.
Caubarreaux took matters into his own hands. "There's nothing I can say about Richard that can actually accommodate what he did -- he saved my life," he said. "I can't screw in a light bulb with my arm, but I can still hug my wife. There's no doubt: If he hadn't been there, we would have burned to death in the helicopter."
After more than three years of appealing to the Army, he told Rocco's story to U.S. Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana. He said Long apparently pushed the right buttons because Rocco got the Medal of Honor soon after.
Rocco retired in 1978 after 18 years as an enlisted man and four as a warrant officer physician's assistant. He took an emergency room job at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Albuquerque. Working there, he said, proved to be a mentally punishing, everyday reminder of Vietnam veterans' anguish.
Vietnam veterans came in or were brought in suffering from drug overdoses, alcohol abuse and other self-destructive behavior, he said. What's known as post-traumatic stress disorder today was still called "shell-shock" then, Rocco noted. As he tried to help other veterans, his own demons went out of control. He
began having flashbacks, nightmares, cold sweats.
With his third wife, Maria, beside him, Rocco said his war experiences destroyed two marriages. "When you've got rage inside you, it's very hard to control that emotion. It spills off onto your family," said the father of two sons and a daughter, Teresa, an Army Desert Storm veteran.
His problems and those of his younger brother Clyde, also a Vietnam combat veteran, kindled his compassion for other veterans. Rocco subsequently used his VA hospital job to kick-start programs to help them.
"Back then, we couldn't get the help we needed," he said. "Society wanted to bury the issue. These guys were hurting. Many of them couldn't express their grief, their anger, their rage. Many of them became antisocial. Some went into communes away from society. Some just became self-destructive."
Rocco took a break after about three years, but returned in 1980 as the appointed director of the New Mexico Veterans Services Commission. "I did my best to help as many veterans as I could,"
he said. "Slowly veterans' organizations started helping. Many more veterans got help, but a lot still fell through the cracks."
As Desert Shield heated up in 1990, Rocco, at age 52, volunteered and went on active duty at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. "My job was calling physicians assistants back to active duty," he said of his six-month tour. "I came in to work one day and they told me the war was over and to pack my stuff and go home,"
he said with a laugh. He went back to helping veterans.
"I was working 14-, 15-hour days between my regular job and doing fund-raisers to keep the veterans program going. Maria was doing the same thing with the AIDS program she was running. It totally exhausted us. We had to take a break -- get away," Rocco said. "I'd always wanted to visit Mexico. We've been there for five years, but I'm ready to come back now and start over again.
"I feel I don't really deserve the Medal of Honor, but since I have it, I'd like to be in a position to use it to help
veterans," he said. "I haven't done everything I should do."
By Dave Henard
The South Vietnamese did not rise up against the Americans after the Tet Offensive in 1968 like the North Vietnamese thought that they would. They usually moved out of the way even if that meant leaving their homes or villages. I believe that they simply wanted us to win the war so that they could get on with their lives. This is fairly understandable since they had been in war with Japan, China, and the North Vietnamese over a period of 600 or 700 years. The French tried to help in the 50's before we came in the 60's. We differed slightly from the French effort since we didn't own rubber plantations in South Vietnam and we had helicopters and plenty of fast moving aircraft.
Given no uprising from our allies, the North Vietnamese had another plan. That was, firing mortars and rockets into Saigon, Hue, and other cities every night, regardless of how many civilians, including women and children, that they killed. I wasn't able to watch the newscasts at home, so I don't know if Walter Kronkite ever mentioned this in his newscasts or not. Given what I saw when I got home in 1969, I rather doubt that this fact was emphasized very much.
The Diamondhead light gunship fire teams all flew counter-mortar around Saigon every night during the month of February, once we had some flyable aircraft. The Diamondhead 10, 20, and 30 teams flew in shifts and had our hands full as we tried to avoid mid-air collisions with gunships from other units who were also in the air. We knew that the Chinese built 122 mm rockets were being trucked down the edge of the Cambodia border at night. When President Johnson decided to turn the bombing off, we could see the headlights as the convoys trucked the stuff down the Ho Chi Minh route. Of course, we weren't allowed to fly over Cambodia, so we couldn't do anything about it.
The Diamondhead 10 team had the last night shift sometime in middle to late February. I decided to make a low level flight down the Oriental river at the end of our shift this day. I spotted a cluster of sampans ahead of us in the pre-dawn light. As I made a hard turn to the left, I radioed my wing ship and told them what we had to deal with and the plan of attack. We made a return trip down the same path after we circled to pick up the river again, but quickly climbed to 500 feet using a cyclic climb as we approached the point of my initial sighting. As we rolled in, we could see at least twenty NVA soldiers and a half dozen sampans that were loaded with rockets. We loosed several pairs on the first run and got secondary explosions from the rockets, but our crew was also accurate with their M60 fire. The minigun on Ed Gore's? wing ship was also used to good effect. We made a second gun run, but there wasn't much happening at this point. There wouldn't be so many rocket flashes in this area or explosions in Saigon tonight.
I briefed our company commander, Major Renfro when we got back to the Cu Chi base. We arranged for more trips and Major Renfro went with us on the next such flight. We were told after the second trip that we were infringing on the I Corp area and that we couldn't do any more shooting. This still seems strange to me, but this and the rest of the effort to run the war from Washington, D.C. while trying appease the news media during an unpopular war is the reason that it was lost. It certainly was not because we lost any battles.
1st Lt. Henard at the time
By- Dave Henard
It was fairly obvious that some changes were occurring in the days leading up to January 31, 1968. We were scrambled to near-daily firefights for one thing. This brings back a memory of the gunship jockeys who teased me out of the 25th Battalion Headquarters TOC and into the right seat of a Charlie Model gunship. (I had served as the Battalion Signal Officer and Assistant S-3 for the three months prior to December 1967 after flying with the Little Bears for a couple of months) Capt. Reynolds was one of the encouragers. All of the pilots except Capt. Reynolds were within a month of DEROS and were due for replacement. Capt. Reynolds became the Company B (Diamondhead) Operations Officer soon after I took over the Diamondhead 10 light gunship fire team. I really wanted more flight time and enjoyed the camaraderie shared among the Diamondhead crews. I surely don't regret the day that I signed on. However, it continues to be a little amusing to me that we went from escorting an occasional Eagle flight or a Chinook heavy load drop-off while these guys were still in country in December '67 to the stuff that we flew daily once I finished my on-the-job training. I remember seeing the south part of Tay Ninh burn a week after I took over the Diamondhead 10 fire team. For night entertainment during the month of January, we flew counter-mortar. In retrospect, we could view the mortar attacks as preparation for the 122 mm rocket attacks that were on the way.
I was assigned the task of serving as a defense attorney for an E-5 from our Division in a court martial case during the month of January and was involved in a hearing on the morning of February 1, 1968 when the Tet Offensive was underway. Based upon my recollection, every one of our gunships took hits and was shot down or shot up that day. We had at least one or two crew member's wounded that day, but were fortunate in that we suffered but one KIA Ed Pike a crewchief on a slick. We had nothing to fly after that until February 5 when a replacement aircraft was brought out of depot maintenance. There were plenty of pilots, but no aircraft to fly until February 5. Having missed the excitement on the first day of the Vietnamese New Year, it was the Diamondhead 10 teams turn to standby on Primary on the 5th. The problem was that the team was comprised of one hog since we didn't have a second aircraft to complete the team. The first scramble call came quickly to our field phone in the scramble hooch. Division headquarters had put together a team by adding a wing ship from the Centaurs. We received the traditional call sign, in this case a command and control(CC) chopper, frequency, and coordinates through the field phone and scrambled with the traditional goal of being off the ground in three minutes. That was a challenge since we could not hover and had to take short hops out to the runway so that we could drag and bounce off to get clean air and translational lift. We almost made it on schedule most of the time. I got a kick out of the slick teams from the Little Bears. If they happened to be near the runway as they exited their take-off area, they would cheer us off the ground.
The location for this scramble was the village of Tan Hiep, between Cu Chi, Bien Hoa, and Saigon. The village contained what was left of a regiment of North Vietnamese soldiers and one of our wounded soldiers who was separated from the main force. I could see the tracks of one of our 25th Division Battalions on the outside of the village as we approached the site. The LTC who was circling in the CC chopper explained that withering enemy fire made it impossible to retrieve the wounded soldier and that most of the machine gun fire was coming from a large hooch that was easy to locate from his description. He said that that position contained about 40 enemy troops and that he wanted me to hit it.
When I started our initial gun run, it seemed like the entire village was shooting at us, including some heavy stuff. I knew that it wasn't proper to fire rockets during the break, but the shooting was so intense that I did it anyway. I figured that it would help our door gunner and crew-chief keep the NVA heads down during the break. Besides, we could have hit another enemy position since they were all over that village. I think that we were all glad that it was a bright day because we couldn't see the tracers that well. I didn't hit the hooch until the third pass. When I did, we got a secondary explosion. The wing ship from the Centaurs had broken off earlier. He explained later that it was simply too hot. I'll have to admit that I went nearly blank with the obsession to hit that hooch. It was not a good place to be flying around.
I woke up a little after we made the hit and when the CC commander gave up a good deal of praise for doing so. I made two more runs at additional targets and hit those as well before we took the first serious hit. A 12.7 mm round hit two rockets it the starboard rocket pod, causing them to explode. Our door gunner took some scrapnel into his leg from the busted pod. He let us know that he was hit. The chopper was in a crab since the two rockets were still burning in the pod. The entire instrument panel lit up and we lost our radios immediately. It took me a short time to make the assessment that the explosion had probably cut through the wiring harness, causing the panel to light up. After deciding that the ship would probably continue to fly, we pulled off and I jettisoned the rocket pods as soon as we got away from the village and could get low enough to see where they were going to hit when I dropped them.
We headed straight for the 25th Infantry Divisions Hospital pad at Cu Chi. I couldn't radio the tower of course, so we all looked carefully to be sure that we weren't interfering with anyone's final approach. The helipad team from the hospital was very reluctant to bring out the stretcher. The gapping hole in the side of the chopper was still smoking and was easy to see since I had landed so that the door gunner was on their side. I motioned several times for them to come on out before they finally did. Once they got XXXXXXX(our door gunner) inside, he was patched up quickly.
The XXXXX Battalion was able to get the wounded soldier out of Tan Hiep while we were still on site or soon thereafter, so this story ends up well. I still have s real problem with the number that Oliver Stone did on the 25th Infantry Division with his fabricated “Platoon.” I certainly do not believe that we knowingly left a single man in the hands of the enemy. In fact, every effort was consistently made to do otherwise.
Lt. Henard at the time
On 8 October 1968, I was involved in a mid-air collision with an AH-1G XX488. We were cruising along at an altitude of 2000 feet returning from a people sniffer mission along the Cambodian border north of Tay Ninh. The mission was complete and we were in route back to Cu Chi. My ship UHIC-XX210 was the lead ship of the fire team. The AH-1G eased into a formation with us. His blades were under ours, and the AH-1G blades were extremely close to our rocket pods, probably within 3 feet and way to close. I complained about it and our Aircraft Commander CWO Hayne Moore told him to back off. He slid out to the right and his blades came up and locked up with ours when he tried to do a wingover leaving. He had misjudged the distance by about a foot. There was a tremendous BANG! When the blades contacted each other. The last I saw of the AH-1G he was in an inverted position going in excess of 100 knots and heading down.
The vibration in my ship was intense, at least a 10-1 vertical vibration. I looked out the door. The trees looked about 1/4 inch tall. I looked over the pilots shoulder, the master control panel was lit up like a Christmas tree, and nothing was working. I said very loudly OH FUCK! On the intercom the pilots were screaming MAY DAY May DAY we are ALL going to die. I told them shut the fuck up I don't want to hear about it.
It was all the pilots could do, with both of them on the controls just to keep the nose up. The vibration continued to worsen. One machine gun was vibrated off its mount and departed the aircraft. Two M-16 assault rifles that were hanging on the pilot's seats vibrated off the seats, and out the door. My gunners , and my Ammo cans with 2000 rounds of M-60 ammunition each went out the door. The altitude was decreasing, and the airspeed increasing. It was just a matter of moments and it would be over. I had visions of sheer terror, an explosion on impact and burned to death,and I was helpless to do anything about it. I felt like a caged rat. I made up my mind if at 60 feet they don't have control of this thing, I am leaving. I will take my chances hitting the rice paddies below. The vibration intensified further, the compartment on the outer wall where I kept my pistol and camera had vibrated the door off. The pistol and camera also were out the door. At about 100 feet as I was preparing to un buckle and find a soft spot in the rice below, the pilots got the nose up and flared the ship some the vibration intensified further as the flare increased, and my helmet was shaken off my head. In a snap judgment, that I would live or die with, I had to make a decision, the pilots had it flared, the nose was up and the airspeed was diminishing, there was water and mud below and I chose to ride it down. The pilots pulled all the pitch at 30 feet and we settled and splashed in the rice paddy. We bounced once and we stopped. Somehow we were still upright. Mr. Moore tried to get out. I grabbed him around the neck and told him sit still until the blades stop splashing in the rice paddy. It would be a shame to get decapitated with the main rotor blade after doing a great job gettingus down. The blades were striking about 10 feet outside the door. Every time they hit the water and mud it tilted the aircraft. When it finally stopped moving we exited the aircraft and set up a small perimeter. Some perimeter two pistols the pilot had and one M-60 with about 6 rounds that was still left in Jimmy Cardin, my gunners gun. The rest had gone out the door on the way down. My nerves were shattered, but other than that unscathed physically. An OH-6 was orbiting overhead for security 10 minutes later a slick came and picked us up.
I went over the ship when it was pipe-smoked back in from the field. The transmission mounts were sheered off. The tail boom mounting bolts were badly stress fractured and it is a wonder it stayed on, the 42% gearbox was missing, the driveline was snapped. All that held the rotor system on was the lift link bolt. I have no idea why it didn't fail. If it had, we would have fallen 2000 feet to a fiery death.
After this incident, my nerves were fried. I could not fly further. I had nightmares for weeks on end. I had a steady schedule with the Chaplain, and I chose to work in the mess hall as a cook.
I had been in the mess hall for about two weeks, and at 3 in the morning a 122mm rocket landed a direct hit in the mess hall, blowing it all to hell with me in it. Enough of this shit!
I decided I would rather die flying, than be a sitting duck in the messhall. I think it was the aiming point for every rocket in Southeast Asia. I substituted for people some and was on counter mortar, and just eased back into it. By December I was back into a regular schedule of flying once again, although very apprehensive. It was still better than being a sitting duck for the nightly rocket and mortar attacks.
Thirty-three years later I'm still in that aircraft. Maybe one day I to will get to come home, or it will crash and kill me one night and finally get it over with.
By SSG George "Sonny" Hoffman
In June of 1968, General Creighton W. Abrams assumed command of all U.S. Forces in Vietnam. The very conventional Abrams was no lover of Special Forces. With orders to begin Vietnamizing the war, he moved quickly to phase out the SF role and send the 5th Special Forces Group home. His early
efforts were thwarted by many high level people that thought SF was an efficient use of American manpower, and that their use should increase as US forces pulled out. The mad rush to turn over the SF camps to the Vietnamese resulted in disaster, and Abrams was forced to slow his plans.
The perception in the Abrams camp was that the Special Forces were digging their heels in and resisting their phase out. The perception throughout SF was that Abrams was out to get them. Both were right.
When I arrived in-country on September 17, '69, the war between the SF and Gen. Abrams was in high gear. In August, Abrams relieved the 5th SF Group commander. MACV jailed him and seven other Green Berets on a charge of killing a Vietnamese double agent. The charges were later dropped, but Abrams replaced our commander with a non-Special Forces colonel, a man that wasn't even jump qualified--what SFers call a "straight leg."
To be led by a "leg" was a tremendous blow to the Green Berets. It was meant to be a slap in the face; the slap stung. SF slapped back by playing to the media. The Green Berets are almost as good as the U.S. Marines when it comes to protecting and projecting their image.
The press came down hard on Abrams and made heroes of the eight Green Berets sitting in Long Binh Jail--the infamous LBJ. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the new colonel was trying to earn his jump wings by making five jumps in a jump school designed especially for him. He broke his leg and was shipped home in a cast. His replacement was Colonel "Iron Mike" Healy. At that time, he was arguably the finest Special Forces officer anywhere. He was Mr. Green Beret. How he got command was a mystery, but a pleasant surprise. One thing for certain, though, it wasn't Abrams' idea.
"Iron Mike" was loved and respected by every man that soldiered under a green beanie. Colonel Healy was hard core and told it like it was; but more importantly, he took no crap off of anyone, including Abrams and his command staff. He was an officer we would have followed into hell without a map or compass. We all knew that the end of our involvement in the war was near, because the American people were tired of the endless stalemate. We knew we would go, but at least under Mike Healy, leaving would look less like a rout
and more like our own idea.
Leaving Vietnam was difficult for many of the old timers. Some traced their involvement all the way back to 1944 when--as members of the OSS--they trained Ho Chi Minh's rag tag band of guerrillas to fight the Japanese. Special Forces advisory teams were making regular visits to South Vietnam as early as 1957. Our first casualty was recorded that same year, just outside Nha Trang. He was Captain Harry G. Cramer. He died two years before we even started counting Vietnam war dead, so his name is not on The Wall in DC.
Many old timers seemed to be homesteading Vietnam. Encountering men with six, seven, or eight tours was not uncommon in 1969. On my team, A-502, SFC Jim Tolbert had become an icon. He was reputed to have beach front property, a pig farm, and a fleet of pedicabs. Others had gone native and were deeply
involved with the people, especially the Yards. The prospect of leaving was traumatic to contemplate. We all knew the South Vietnamese could not, or would not fight. We feared the worst for the Yards, as they had thrown in their lot with us and we were packing it in.
Closing an A-camp (they were actually turned over to the Vietnamese) was a sad affair. Most of the camps had been in existence since 1961 and were a home away from home to many SFers. When I arrived at camp A-502 around the first of October of '69, we had just been told to plan on closing the camp
by the first of March 1970. I took the news in stride, but the guys that had spent years building the place and training the troops were despondent about turning it over to the Vietnamese.
When the big day finally arrived, we stood in formation with the camp strikers (now called Rangers), the LLDB, and local dignitaries for the change of command. That night, the American team members gathered at one of our old outposts in Nha Trang for a private party. For the party, we hired a Filipino Rock band (they were common in Vietnam, and played the U.S. club circuit) and invited SF support personnel from the Special Forces Operational Base in Nha Trang for a real blow out. The object was to let it all hang out and get curb-crawling, knuckle-dragging, commode-hugging drunk.
The bash was to be the last time many of us would see each other, as we were all slated to be either sent home, or sent out to other A-teams to finish out our tours. Since Sgt. Bemis and I still had six months to go, we were awaiting reassignment. Don Bemis and I had become great friends and we shared a common past as members of Rock and Roll bands in high school. I had been a drummer; he was a singer. Jim Tolbert was a balladier and guitar player who had several records out that were popular in Vietnam. He wrote and sang, Purple Heart and Choi Oi among others. He was well known in the 5th Group and could be counted on to pick up his guitar and keep guys entertained for hours, strumming his war ballads. The guy was damn good.
During the performance, Bemis and I asked to sit in on a few numbers with the band. Later, Jim picked up a guitar and was joined by Dalton Kast, a staff sergeant from Project Delta. Kast was outstanding on guitar, but his real talent was his singing. He sounded more like Johnny Cash than Johnny Cash did. For a group that just fell together out of the blue, we weren't half bad. Maybe it was all the booze, but we were a big hit and stayed on for the rest of the night. When the band's time was up, they left their instruments with us to be picked up in the morning. They knew we wanted to keep playing, and they didn't want to stop our party. Long into the early morning hours, A-502 went down partying hard. It was a close-out party none of us would ever forget, and a most fitting way to end our involvement at camp Trung Dung.
A lieutenant colonel (his name escapes me) from "Iron Mike's" staff attended our party. As we played our hearts out, the seed of a bizarre idea began to germinate in his head. He said nothing to us that night, or for several days following the party, but after the party, strange things began to happen.
The first inkling that something was up came the next morning when Bemis and I went to find out what our new assignments would be. While all the other team members that weren't going home drew assignments and headed for the four corners of the war, we were told that our orders were flagged--put on hold. No explanation was given, we were just told to wait. Waiting is hell when you wait in the dark.
Two days later, we bumped into Jim Tolbert who was supposed to have left for
Cam Ranh Bay to board a freedom bird for home. In his case, they had asked his permission to flag his orders, still saying nothing except that they wouldn't ask if it wasn't important, and that he wasn't in any kind of trouble. Jim wasn't happy about the flagging, but being a good soldier, gave his consent. Jim had good reasons for wanting on that freedom bird and missing home wasn't one of them. Evidently, he had some problems with liquidating some of his unofficial assets and was laying low.
With Tolbert's inclusion, we at least had something to go on--we were the three team members that got on stage at the party. Why that would generate a flag on our orders was beyond our reasoning. The only thing we could figure was that some big wigs wanted us to jam at their private party. If that was the case, we knew Tolbert would go berserk. Out of curiosity, we looked up that staff sergeant from Project Delta, Dalton Kast. He was easy to find, as he had been put on administrative stand down (no combat operations) the
morning after the party.
He was happy to see us, as it gave him a clue as to what was going down. Dalton gave us the only rational explanation for the puzzle: the Filipino band had obviously put a claim against the 5th Group for damages to their instruments, and until it was settled, no one would go anywhere. We knew we hadn't done the instruments any harm, but it would not have been the first time someone tried to scam Uncle Sam.
The idea of being wrongly accused bothered us greatly. The Filipino band was still in the area. We found them at the Air Force NCO Club and cornered the leader between sets. He was very friendly and swore they had made no complaints against us. We were back to square one.
The riddle unfolded the next morning in a briefing at the headquarters building. Present were Jim Tolbert, Dalton Kast, Don Bemis, the lieutenant colonel from the party, a few staff officers and me. We were in a briefing room about to get briefed. We sat around a large oblong table with a huge map of Southeast Asia on the wall. The lieutenant colonel stood at the map end of the table.
He said, "Gentlemen, I'm sorry for keeping you in the dark, but until last night, I had nothing to put out. I know you all realize that we are in the process of closing out A-camps throughout Vietnam. Your camp, A-502, was one of the first. The pace of camp closings will pick up in the coming months. Within the next six months, most of the camps will be closed. We are slated to be out of Vietnam by the end of the year. The way you guys went out, is the way Colonel Healy wants all A-camps to go out--with a party. Iron Mike said, 'In Special Forces, we fight hard and we party hard. When the fighting's over, it's time to party.'
"The problem is, most of our camps are in the most remote regions and getting a civilian band to them is too risky and would probably cost a small fortune. The men on those border camps haven't seen any form of
entertainment in years: no bands, dancing girls, TV, not even a donut dolly.
"What we need, gentlemen, is a combat band--a band, every bit as good as anything that tours the rear areas, but composed of volunteers from within the ranks. We need a band that can play popular rock and country music to go to the camps and provide the entertainment for their close-out parties. We have no idea how this will go over. You may get blown away the first time you set up out in the open and start playing. Charlie may not like rock or country; we just don't know how he will react.
"The bottom line is this: Colonel Healy wants a first-rate combat band ready to roll out of here within thirty days. He promises all the support that is required. What I need to know is: can it be done, and who wants in?"
Jim wanted in but for personal reasons had to decline. Dalton, Don, and I readily agreed to sign on for the duration. Dalton, being the ranking NCO, took command and we went to work building a combat band.
Our first order of business was to figure out what a combat band was, then decide how to go about building it. We needed to locate instruments. Special Services loaned us drums and guitars and a third rate PA system. The equipment would not serve our purposes, but it would do as a start. Jim Tolbert remained to help get the show going and serve as a scrounge. When it came to scrounging, Jim put me to shame. What ever we thought of, he found, and we acquired.
We needed a lead and a base guitarist. Jim found them both in Nha Trang. Pete Barra was a jazz guitarist from New York. Pete was drafted into the army as a clerk, but his passion was jazz. Pete could make a guitar do anything: jazz, country, rock, blues, and he made it all look easy. When Pete heard something once, he was ready to play.
Red Sirois, from Maine, played base with the group that put out, Bird is the Word. He was a real pro and needed little or no practice. He, too, was a draftee and Nha Trang clerk--the band had two "legs." Getting the two clerks released to us was no problem. Getting them to go out in the jungle to play their guitars was another matter. In the end, the desire to play music for a living won out and a band was formed: Dalton, Don, Pete, Red, and Sonny.
The band needed a name, or so we thought. We learned that there was no place for a band of any kind in the Special Forces organizational structure. The whole project was to be low profile--no promotion. Without promotion, what good is a name? Unofficially, we were referred to as the 5th Special Forces Group Political Warfare Band. We were also called: The 5th Group, The Green Beanies, The Round Eye Band, Iron Mike's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Mostly, we were just, "The Band."
Equipment was a big priority. We needed the right equipment, and fast, so we could begin working with the instruments we would be going out with. The funds to buy this equipment came from a CIA special operations slush fund--or so the story went. I doubt we will ever know where the money came from, but it was unofficial funds to be sure. We were warned not to discuss the band's business with anyone. This was typical of unconventional operations. I doubt that the band appears anywhere in SF documents or unit
Regardless of how they did it, Dalton and Don were flown to Hong Kong with a blank check and told that Colonel Healy wanted an American band that was to bands what the Harley Davidson was to motor scooters. They returned with the best equipment money could buy. I got a set of Ludwig drums just like Ringo Star's. The guitars were Vox and the amplifiers were Stadium Super Beatles designed for outdoor concerts. Cranked all the way up, they'd blow a tank off the road.
We had echo chambers, fuzz and wa wa effect machines. Our PA sound system was state of the art. When the boys came back from Hong Kong it was like Christmas in March. We went nuts over our neat stuff. We were riding a hog on a highway with no cops and the gas was free.
Our next challenge was to play up to our equipment. We dedicated ourselves to perfecting our craft to the best of our abilities in the shortest amount of time. We wanted to give the guys on the line the very best the instruments and the musicians could offer. Many American performers toured Vietnam rear areas. Most gave their stylistic renditions of popular music. The equipment they brought to Vietnam was little better than the Special Services loaners we started with. These performers were always well-received, but the men wanted to hear the familiar songs that took them home, sung without an accent.
We agreed that authentic recreation was what they wanted--live American music, loud and clear. To that end, we became mimics of the popular bands of both country western and rock. We gathered the recordings and copied them beat for beat, note for note.
Dalton Kast did one hour of the best Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Charlie Pride I'd ever heard. Don Bemis was a dead ringer for Paul McCartney. We put together three hours of music--one hour of country, sandwiched between two hours of rock. We also became familiar with every piece of 50's' and 60's'
music that might be requested. The most popular ones were the sounds that were playing when the guys were back in "The World." They were: Proud Mary, Purple Haze, Jumpin' Jack Flash, Fire, Smoke on the Water, Inna Godda Da Vida, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Yellow Ribbon, House of the Rising Sun, all of
the Beatles and all of the country standards.
We had the use of the base theater for practice sessions; and, as our shows came together, we played before live audiences in the Nha Trang Clubs. Even in the first shows that were more live practice sessions than performances, everyone raved about our music. The GI's thought we were great; we thought we were good. The clubs were packed every night we performed. In all honesty, I was the least talented member of the group, and I wasn't bad,except when I sang Dock of the Bay.
We were asked by the lieutenant colonel to learn two Vietnamese numbers to add to our show. It was thought to be a nice gesture to the Vietnamese in our audiences. Since I spoke some Vietnamese, that job fell to me. My other task was to learn the lengthy drum solo from the Iron Butterfly's Inna Godda Da Vida beat for beat. I managed to do both before we went on the road, but I spent many hours playing records over, and over, and over again. I worked hard, but no harder than anyone else.
We had one week left to practice before our scheduled departure. We played the Officers Club in Nha Trang with Iron Mike in attendance for the first time. He was ecstatic with his combat band. With the "old man" we were a big hit. He was in a good mood anyway, because the siege on camps Dak Pek and
Dak Seang had just been broken. For over one month the two camps north of Kontom near the Laos border were besieged by the NVA 2nd Division. Thousands had died. SF Mobile Strike Forces and B-52s broke the NVA's back. The camps were down but not out. They had survived several human wave assaults, B-52
air strikes, and continuous ground combat for weeks. They hung on tenaciously and survived. Though they weren't due to close in the near future, survival was cause for celebration.
The next morning, we were awakened early and told to get our shit. Half awake, we stumbled as a group into the lieutenant colonel's office. Dalton said, "What the hell's going on? We were supposed to have the morning off. We were playing till past midnight."
The lieutenant colonel smiled and said, "Iron Mike says you're ready, and he wants his band at Dak Seang on the next chopper. Need I say more?"
"Sir," Said Dalton, "From what I hear those camps were leveled. Do they even have generators? Electric guitars are real hard to hear unless you plug them into something."
"We understand. Look, the 2nd NVA is still in the hills licking their wounds. The camps are still standing and still being defended. What better way is there to say, 'up yours' than to bring in a live band and have a
party under their noses. The beer, ice, and generators are already on the way. All they need now is a band. You call yourselves a combat band; here's your chance to prove it."
"Sir, we'll go get our shit!"
At noon, we were in Kontom. At one, we were in a low flying chopper snaking our way towards Dak Seang while F4 Phantom jets dropped napalm on the mountain ridge to our right. As we banked hard to the left to approach the camp's airstrip, 50 caliber machine guns raked the opposite hills. The chopper touched down (slid down, actually). A group of Yards ran out and roughly man-handled our precious gear off the chopper as we scrambled to the ditch alongside the battered runway. The chopper took off and we were left
with a very confused welcoming party. The Yards had never seen band instruments. One unzipped a drum case and peered in at the pearl and chrome tom tom that had rolled to the ditch under the rotor wash. When he looked to me with a puzzled expression, I simply said, "Ludwig."
Dak Seang was everything we'd imagined and worse. Along with aircraft wreckage that littered the area, the scorched and battered earthworks, the B-52 insulted terrain, we were also assaulted with the stench of decaying bodies left for weeks in the sun. Bodies and pieces of bodies littered the jungle surrounding Dak Seang, but there was no time for sight seeing or smelling. We had a show to put on.
The A-team members of Dak Seang were in agreement with Iron Mike--it was party time. We all speculated as to what the enemy would do. With their hillside vantage, they were looking right down our throats. Some thought that just setting up for the show should bring the expected incoming rounds. Others said the enemy would wait until we started playing. Several thought the enemy would settle in and listen along with the camp defenders. Whatever the reaction, we had to set up and start playing to find out. The camp defenders simply looked on with an amused detachment as we worked to set up.
We chose the broad flat top of the medical bunker to set up our instruments. Each of us went about setting up our respective parts under the watchful eyes of friend and foe. As we unpacked drums, amplifiers, mike stands and cords, the Yards and American team members looked on from protected areas.The NVA watched from the hills.
Twenty minutes later, we were ready to start; and so far, no word from Chuck. As we were about to kick in with our lead-in song, Proud Mary, I felt ridiculous sitting in the open beside a twenty-four inch brass cymbal, shining in the afternoon sun. I just knew some enemy gunner had his cross hairs on my cymbals and was waiting for the downbeat to cut loose. The band's "legs" were a bit wobbly to say the least. When all was ready, Don Bemis turned to me and said, "Hell of a way to die, huh?...ONE, TWO, THREE,
For whatever reason, the hills remained silent throughout the show. Eventually, the Yards and American team members came out of the bunkers and moved in on the stage. They were fascinated with the sounds we were making. The beer started flowing, and the defenders of Dak Seang had a party. Loud music echoed through the valley well into the night.
The next day, we were air lifted to the next valley and camp Dak Pek. Dak Pek was an unusual SF camp in that it sat on seven hills surrounded by mountains. The Americans occupied a hill to themselves, centrally located. The team at Dak Pek was glad to see any friendly face, but they were beat. They had had little sleep for weeks on end as the camp had been breached many times with a significant loss of life. They'd lost several American team members. We set up in the team house for a low key private party.
Afterwards, the band took up positions to relieve the tired defenders. Red and Pete took turns on radio watch. Dalton manned the tactical operations center. Bemis and I alternated on the 4.2 inch mortar, firing illumination rounds every fifteen minutes throughout the night. The team members got some much-needed rest that night, and the band learned what it meant to be a combat band. How many band members have ever had to do a four-hour gig, then man a mortar pit all night?
For five months, the band went from camp to camp. We traveled from the tip of the delta in the south, to the DMZ up north. We brought with us a little respite from war. Even our tired adversary seemed to appreciate the break, for they never interrupted a show with a show of their own. We were fired on coming into a camp, but only once when leaving.
At camp Ba Xoai (Ba Swi) in the delta, our show was interrupted by a B-52 strike. We stopped to watch the awesome display of firepower being vented on the mountains fronting the camp. It felt like a rolling earthquake with the sound of muffled thunder. When we departed the next day, the enemy fired a 51 caliber machine gun at our chopper. The fire came from the area of the bombardment. I suppose if you bomb your audience, you can't expect good reviews.
Visiting so many places over a five month period, the camps began to blend as one in my memory. Typically, we offered our services to the A-team commander to use us as he saw fit. Mostly that meant putting on two shows: one for the camp population, the other for the A-team. The show for the camp was a one hour affair featuring my Vietnamese songs, which were a big hit, mostly because of the novelty of seeing an American singing a popular Vietnamese song. Even the Yards liked it. The Yards liked the music with a strong jungle beat. Yards like "Inna Godda Da Vida."
One team commander asked us to set up in the nearby Montagnard village. He provided a portable generator. The curious villagers quietly watched us set up. We did not tune our instruments, wanting the first sounds they heard to be our opening. Proud Mary sent Yards scrambling for the trees. They slowly emerged and gathered near, wearing big smiles. Yards have a sense of humor as well as good taste in music.
In the team houses afterwards, we put on a more relaxed and informal show that often lasted long into the night. After one of our performances, the enemy could have easily overrun the camp with little difficulty, as the team was usually stone drunk. Being the only ones left standing after an all nighter, manning the important camp defenses fell to the band by index. Fortunately, we were never tested, and the worst that ever befell a team was a group hangover the next morning.
Before we began our tour, we speculated as to how the old-timers, the team sergeants, would take to rock and roll--"hippie music." They are a very conservative group, die-hard country fans. Early in our tour, while playing in a team house bunker, a grizzled old top sergeant stopped us at the beginning of Jumpin' Jack Flash. We thought he wanted us to turn the volume down, but we were as low as the amps would go.
He said, "The night before I left the states, my daughter was playing that song. I yelled upstairs for her to turn that shit down. Do me a favor, will ya? Turn that som bitch up all the way."
On a scale of ten, we were set between one and two. Even outdoors, we usually set the volume at six. Ten could knock birds from the sky. We tried to discourage him. He insisted. We cranked it up and resumed. Sand poured from the steel rafters; bottles and glasses danced across table tops; the other team members covered their ears, but the old sarge stood before us with a big smile. His daughter would have been proud.
When we played the larger, rear-area units, riots broke out from the drunken revelry as men under long periods of stress let off steam. Alcohol,firearms, and loud rock music are not the best of combinations. In themovie, The Blues Brothers, there is a scene where the band plays a country honkie tonk behind a chicken wire screen. That scene brought on a Vietnam flashback for me.
Many of our big base shows degenerated into madness as the men let it all hang out. We played the clubs at just about every big base. These were goodwill gestures by the SF "C" and "B" team commanders. Few knew who we were. We were billed simply as "An American Band." GIs had a hunger for real American band sounds, played loud and strong. They say music soothes the savage breast; ours never did. Brawls were common when men of different units mixed.
The civilian bands never played under these conditions. Females (singers, dancers, Go-Go girls and strippers) were almost a prerequisite for touring bands. The presence of any female tempered the crowd. Civilian bands were treated as special guests and security was high. Fights were rare and would stop a show.
With our band--having no women and being GIs--security was almost non-existent. The GIs, the commanders, and the MPs pretty-much let it all hang out. Fights were common and would not stop one of our shows. We played through fights. We played through riots. We even played through incoming. We stopped when the man in charge told us to stop, which was usually at the point where firearms might be brought into play.
In Can Tho, the SF sergeant major had to end the show which pissed off a drunk Sea Bee. He was then tossed out by the sergeant major. I walked away from my drums and headed for my bunk to get clear of the chaos. A short while later, the Sea Bees were in the room next to mine arguing among themselves. I was about to go find a quiet bunker to sleep in when the sound of a sub-machine gun firing a long burst came from their room. A crying wail followed.
I crawled outside and peered over the sandbag wall into their room. Standing just inside the door was a See Bee with a smoking grease gun still aimed at a writhing figure on a bottom bunk. The man on the bunk was the loud mouth from the club. He had six 45 caliber holes in him, but was still alive. I came up behind the gunman and took hold of the gun. He let it go. I unloaded it as a medic arrived to see about the wounded man. I don't know what happened to either of them. I returned to my bunk, and we left first thing in the morning.
At Kontom, home of CCC recon, a wild brawl and a general club destroying melee highlighted a stellar performance. At the sister base in Ban Me Tuot, home of CCS recon, beer was so deep on the concrete floor it made waves when people walked through it or fell in it. It was there that Red was almost electrocuted before the equipment shorted out from all the beer it had absorbed. CCS was like the bar scene from the "Blues Brothers" movie, except without the protective wire cage. Special Forces likes to party hard.
We lost Dalton in June; his time in-country was up. I was made the NCO in charge for our tour of I Corps. Red proved to be a competent country western singer, though he was no Dalton Kast. By the time we got to I Corps, we were the best combat rock n roll/country band in the world.
In the five months that we toured, we saw a side of the war that few knew. Both sides took a vacation from combat to hear us play music. I saw Americans, Vietnamese, and Montagnards standing shoulder to shoulder, smiling, laughing, and clapping, swinging to the beat of "hippie music." I saw a battle-hardened Green Beret crying like a baby over some silly song that was probably playing in the background at some not-so-silly time in his life. I saw an old Montagnard mouthing the words, "I'm proud to be an Oakie from Muscogie." When you've seen that, you've seen it all.
I've heard it said that war is hell, but that was said by a man who never served in a combat band.
I don't know the details, but Dalton Kast died in 1975. I last contacted Don Bemis in 1972. He was singing professionally. I haven't been able to locate Red or Pete. A reunion is in order. If the Beatles can do it minus one member, so can we.
Don and I returned for another tour with CCC recon at Kontum. We tried to turn in the band equipment, but nobody would receive it. The equipment wasn't on any supply system. No one had responsibility for it, and nobody wanted it in their supply system.
We took it to Kontum and locked it in a shed. It remaind there while we ran recon. When our time was up, we again tried to turn the stuff in. We contacted the supply officer in Nha Trang, a man who knew the band well. He said, "You earned it; take it home. If you don't, it will go to the Vietnamese."
We divided it and sent it home in our hold baggage. I traded my half for a 650 BSA chopper and did the Easy Rider scene for a year. Bemis put his to good use. At least it didn't fall into the hands of the Communist menace. That would have made the Vietnam War a worse tragedy. Thank God that didn't
Copyright © 1994 by George "Sonny" Hoffman. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.
By -Dave Henard
The officer who gave our graduation speech at Ft. Rucker told an auditorium full of helicopter pilots to keep our sense of humor in Vietnam and he assured us that we were going to need it. Truer words were never spoken and I have remembered those words often over the past 35 years.
I didn't like sniffer missions much. I can even say that I hated them when they occurred at night. For the uninitiated, sniffer missions involved flying a slick, usually a UH-1D model in '67 -'68, that contained a chemical detector that picked up carbon compounds in the air. These carbon elements drifting on air molecules were supposed to identify a location of personnel, but also detected the remains of bomb blasts, water buffalo, monkeys, and other uninteresting past events. A specialist who could read the instruments accurately was carried aboard the slick on these missions. The “sniffer slick” was followed by a light gunship fire team whose objective was to watch closely and to mark each spot that was yelled out by the sniffer specialist. The gun team followed immediately by rolling in on the target and by firing a pair of rockets on the marked spot. The wing ship had to choose his targets carefully since he carried only seven pairs of rockets. He had a little more time than did the lead ship and could also use his miniguns and M60's on the target. This surprise was designed to demoralize the enemy, and I'm sure that it worked on some occasions.
The NVA brought their ammunition, including mortar rounds and rockets down through Cambodia and through the Song Be valley and south. The jungle was dense throughout the area between Binh Long and the Cambodia border northwest of Tay Ninh. With the exception of a few fire support bases and the cities, it seemed to me that the enemy pretty well controlled that stretch of jungle. We were sent to sniff an area that was north of Nui Ba Den and that was just to the south of the Cambodia border near a refuel point that we called Katum. This was the northern boundary of the 25th Infantry Division area of operation. I saw the only air bursts that I witnessed during my 12 months over there while flying in that same area on another occasion. I simply didn't like the place.
CWO Shipes(sp) was flying left seat that day during late February or early March. I was leading the Diamondhead 10 light gun ship fire team late on that afternoon. I had noticed throughout the mission that our aircraft was acting weak during climbs out of each gun run. It just seemed sluggish and I was more than a little concerned about it. We were near the end of our mission and had climbed to an altitude of roughly 1000 feet when the engine quit. I lowered the collective and started my autorotation into a large field less than 15 kilometers east of Katum.
CWO Shipes became really agitated since he had gone through a really rough overnight escape and evasion incident before joining our team. He had been forced to kill a couple of VC with his knife. He did not want to spend the night in that jungle and neither did I. I radioed our Wing ship aircraft commander and told him what was happening (he was tall and blond headed and flew as my main wing man throughout February and March - he may have DEROSED the end of March. Please help me with his name). We had a smooth touch down and the door gunner came around to slide back the armor panel on my side when we started receiving fire from the tree line on my side. I told the gunner to get back in while I tried to restart.
When I lowered the collective the engine seemed to recover somewhat. I pumped the collective a couple of times beeped the rpm down and back up before pulling pitch. I was able to get the aircraft light on the skids. Our wing ship was putting suppressing fire on the tree line while we were trying to get back in the air. We had some power, but the ship was very weak. I jettisoned the rocket pods to give us a better chance and headed for Katum after getting us airborne. We had refueled there before the mission started. I didn't trust this chopper to get us back to Cu Chi. Captain Reynolds flew up to pick us up and to arranged to have the Charlie model hauled back to Cu Chi. After the maintenance officer, Captain Strong, looked at it, he suspected a combination of a badly installed fuel sensing element and some contaminated fuel. This must have caused a compressor stall via fuel starvation.
Lt. Henard at the time
By Dave Henard
There were several ways to know that Vietnam changed from the wet (monsoon) season to the dry season. The easiest was to observe that the ground changed from mud 12 inches deep to dust 12 inches deep. Also, there were no more thunderstorms to fly around and the prevailing winds changed so that we had a crosswind from the south across our Cu Chi runway. We were in the middle of what was called Operation Saratoga during the month of March 1968.
The North Vietnamese soldiers were somewhat younger than they were during the initial phase of the Tet offensive and they were able to hit our choppers better. The local Viet Cong guerilla fighters had almost been eliminated. Our soldiers found diagrams showing the NVA troops how to lead the aircraft. These drawings were found in some of the tunnels that were searched near Cu Chi.
The three Diamondhead light gunship fire teams stayed busy and were either flying, reloading, refueling, eating, or taking short naps. If we got a break from close air support for 25th Infantry Division units, Division Headquarters would send us out on a “sniffer” mission, often at night. Later on, in the month of May, I don't think that I completed one full-nights sleep. We had a few pilots wounded during the May Offensive battles and could only man two gunship teams. We also had plenty of rocket attacks to interrupt our sleep. I believe that our 25th Aviation Battalion mess hall was hit by a rocket a total of three times between February and May.
The dry season crosswind presented us with some problems. It was really easy to run out of left rudder (anti-torque pedal to be more accurate) with a loaded Charlie model and a tail wind. We were always heavily loaded on return since we had just rearmed and refueled. I nearly lost one as I tried to position it in the counter-mortar bunker after wrestling it all the way from the runway. That was all that I needed. From that day on, I backed the ship up from the runway, with the door-gunner and the crew chief giving directions. I noticed that some of the other pilots were doing the same thing after a week or so. This may have been my greatest contribution to the Diamondheads as we neared the end of the Charlie model era. One pair of Cobras had already arrived. CWO Grinnell was one of the new Cobra pilots and was a favorite with all of us.
A major battle took place right on the edge of Cu Chi and the fighting was intense. The Diamondhead 10 light fire team was scrambled to provide some close fire support on the edge of the village. We heard that there were two badly wounded American soldiers down early after we got in position. Our ground units were doing all that they could to hold off the NVA/LF unit that was engaged. The word was that it was too hot for the Dust Off team to go in for these two soldiers. I had a great respect for the job that the dust off teams did, but that red cross on the chin bubble just made a great target for the NVA. The NVA didn't care that these aircraft carried no weapons.
The LZ was inside of Cu Chi and was really tight. We were warned that there were aerial wires inside of the limited perimeter around the vacant lot where they were going to pop smoke. I told them that we would go in once I had fired the rest of my rockets. We held back some M60 ammo in case we had to return fire going in or out. My wing-man was also going to cover our approach, and he did. I saw the wires crossing our path when I was on short final. The tail rotor barely made it over as we made a steep descent. As we crossed this wire, I was thinking about how we would ever get out of here with two more people on board and no room for a take-off.
I guess that pilots throughout the history of aviation have had to learn to overcome challenges brought on by every aircraft in extreme conditions of one sort or another. Gunship pilots learn to make very minute cyclic control movements to preserve the ground cushion during hover and take-off. The heavily loaded condition also forces them to be smooth in all such maneuvers. This experience really paid off for me during this take-off. After backing up as far as we could in this small vacant lot, we took off in a classic but steep flight school take-off. We bled off RPM but didn't go below red line. The front edge of our skids cleared the wire by inches. Our door gunner and crew chief had to provide some covering fire as we ascended since we were low and slow, were receiving fire, and were beyond the area that our forces held. I didn't stay around to see if the aircraft had taken any hits when we put it back in the bunker. None went through the cabin and none of us were hit. I usually didn't check on this because I really didn't want to know. I told several radio operators to quit telling us that we were receiving fire. I always explained that we had our hands full already. They were trying to be nice and warn us, but it really didn't help that much. Our job was to hit the targets that we were told to hit.
It was a short distance to the 25th Division Hospital pad, so we got those guys some medical attention quickly after our takeoff.
Lt. Henard at the time