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Little Bear History
A Company, 25th Aviation Battalion
Bears have been the symbol of strength and courage throughout human history. Cavemen no doubt stood in awe of their size and would contest propriety of a cave only under the direst of circumstances. “The strength of a bear” is a common simile throughout the world. Early in the thirteenth century Germanic people took the bear as their symbol to denote strength both of body and purpose.. American Indians thought the bear a mystical creature whose winter hibernation was considered a return to the Great Spirit and a time of dreaming. . Left alone they are relatively good-natured, but don't make them mad. They have a serious side. It was no accident that “A” Company of the Twenty-fifth Aviation Battalion chose “Little Bears” as their name. And almost symbolic that the company mascot did not survive disbandment of the wing.
“A” Company, 25th Aviation Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division, “The Little Bears” was formed, named, sent into battle and performed their mission for a five year period in a manner consistent with its namesake. During those five years, the “Little Bears” distinguished themselves repeatedly in all the battles fought by the 25th Division. Additionally, they distinguished themselves by consistently and courageously risking their own lives to nurture and protect their Infantry counterparts. From their arrival through their departure from Vietnam, “Little Bears” earned an assortment of both unit and individual awards in keeping with the highest standards of military conduct.
The 25th Infantry Division, or “Tropic Lightning” Division, was deployed to Vietnam in “Operation Blue Light” which at the time was the largest troop movement in History. Over a 25 day period in early 1966 they moved 4,000 men and 9000 tons of equipment to the Northwest sector of South Vietnam. Their mission was to establish a secure base of operations in the Vietnamese highlands near Pleiku (Play coo), and another Northwest of Saigon at Cu Chi (Coo Chee).
The 25th Aviation Battalion, the division's air assets, was originally stationed in Hawaii with the rest of the 25th Division. The battalion's motto was - in English, “We fly for the troops”; in Hawaiian it was something like “Lele Maku No Na Puali”. (Some of the other outfits called us “Fat Rats” for the heck of it. As the Division prepared to deploy to Vietnam, the staff recognized the need for more aviation assets. What became “A” Company “The Little Bears”, grew out of the 175th Assault Helicopter Battalion which was formed at Ft. Benning, Georgia in 1965 as part of the 11th Air Assault Brigade, an experimental unit formed at that time to test airmobility concepts.
Early in March, 1966, the 175th shipped to Hawaii and then to Vietnam. That was a non-trivial exercise, as everything had to be disassembled and readied for shipment by sea. They left Ft. Benning by air for Oakland, California where they boarded a reconditioned troop ship, the USNS Upshur. One member of the battalion remembered crossing the Atlantic on the same ship. The ship left Oakland on the Ides of March, 1966 along with various other units bound for Vietnam. Enroute the 125th Aviation Battalion was re-designated “A” Company, 25th Aviation Battalion, 25th Infantry Division. The commander of the 175th was asked what the call sign and unit name would be. Major Earnest Elliot, thought for a moment and recalled a story his mother had read to him about a toy Indian in a cupboard who magically came to life to ccomplish wonderful things. The Indian's name was “Little Bear”. How exactly the Indian's name Little bear came to be represented by a bear is not entirely clear.
The Upshur dropped off accompanying units all along the coast of South Vietnam from Cam Rahn Bay to Vung Tau. The 25th Aviation Battalion disembarked at Vung Tau, a resort area south of Saigon. There they boarded C-130 cargo planes for the ride to Ton Son Nhut airfield at Saigon. The battalion's own helicopters which had been shipped over earlier, transported the battalion from Tan Son Nhut to their new home a t Cu Chi, about 25 miles to the northwest.
As a young Major in 1964, Ernest Elliott had become involved in a new program dedicated to developing the helicopter into a force multiplier. He had a lot of lessons to learn, and early on began to listen to what others were doing in order to find what worked best. That discipline of listening was important, and he created a culture of listening to others and learning from other people….especially their mistakes. “None of us will live long enough to make all the mistakes ourselves, so we have to learn from other.”
Give a teenager a car with a 200 horsepower engine and he goes out and has an accident. Give the kid a 1,300 horsepower engine in an aircraft and he goes out and saves lives. That may not make sense, but it is true: When the battalion was first formed, it was top heavy with senior officers, an outgrowth of the explosive expansion into Vietnam, and the former unit's mission to explore aviation and airmobility concepts. . Many of the senior officers were fixed wing pilots with 20 hours of transition to helicopters. In 1966 the following Majors were assigned to “A” Company, 25th Aviation Battalion
Majors: Robert Y. Blake Raymond Huntington
Jack R. Bollinger Robert A. Jones
Edmund B. Bookman Gary T. Meagher
Jesse M. Burch William L. Murdoch
Norman S. Clark Keith J. Rynott
Graham C. Davis Peter P. Seaton
Lewellyn Brown James H. Watts
Ernest Elliott Hughey L. Weston
Robert F. Grundman
For comparison's sake, in December 1969 there was one major assigned to the company, four captains and 36 warrant officers.
In 1966 as the 25th Infantry Division settled in to the new base camp at Cu Chi, they did not realize they were establishing a secure perimeter on top of a network of tunnels, the famous “Tunnels of Cu Chi.” They did discover that somehow the enemy was able to get through the perimeter defenses with no difficulty, wreak havoc then disappear into the night eluding capture. There was a distinctive smell to the red clay mud, oil and dust kicked up on landing or take off. Whatever strange concoction mother nature conjured up for Cu Chi, all those who flew in or out of there remember that order.
Major Robert Grundman, whose nickname was “Spook” was selected as the first flight standardization pilot for the Little Bears. His selection as the flight standardization officer speaks highly of his skills as a pilot. From numerous accounts of enlisted and officer personnel who knew him, Maj. Spook Grundman was well liked, universally respected, and a highly skilled pilot. Many of those present said he was the best pilot in the entire battalion. Spook had to discover what other units were doing, what sort of mistakes people were making, what sort of skills the pilots would need to polish in order to survive, develop a training plan and execute it. He set the flight standards and procedures each pilot had to master in order to be allowed to fly in country. He set standards each pilot would need to pass each successive check ride, and to be selected for aircraft commander. In short, he selected the skills each pilot had to master in order to stay alive. The fact that so many pilots survived over the succeeding five years in spite of the many odds, is a testimony to Maj. Grundman's skill and foresight.
There were a number of inclusion issues described by officers who were present in the early days after arrival in Cu Chi. “A” company, with its compliment of senior officers, was thrust upon the Division and the 25th Aviation Battalion to learn to fight a war as it was evolving. The role of helicopters in the early stages of the Vietnam conflict was not yet refined. Therefore the Division, Brigade, and Battalion staff did not quite know what to do with them. The aviation Battalion staff had been together for a significant period, and they all knew each other, knew how they stood, trusted one another, and were included members of the team. “A: company was at best a group of interlopers vying for limited resources and inclusion in the group in a God forsaken base camp far from home. After the lush tropical paradise of Hawaii, Cu Chi had to be quite a contrast.
One of the unit's first challenges was to define their mission. Part of that was to define the area of operations for which they would be responsible, and a third was to discover how to find the enemy. From the very first moments it was an unconventional and strange war requiring unconventional tactics, different from anything the staff had learned about in school. Major Leach, as the Commander, had to define the mission. Major Grundman, as the flight standardization instructor pilot, had to define skills and competencies for the pilots, establish training programs for weaker pilots, and conduct check rides. He received little support or assistance from the battalion staff, which became a sore point that wrought lasting enmity.
The Little Bear's task was difficult. There was the added challenge of carving out a piece of clay dirt for operations, living quarters, building a mess hall, showers, and providing whatever semblance of amenities they could scrounge in the middle of learning to fight an enemy that never showed his face. The officers and men of the Little Bears in 1966 proved equal to the challenge. With the aid of the engineers, they built a series of small huts called hooches made from left over 2' X 4'ammunition boxes. Six or eight of them made a good start on a wall. The wood was only ½” thick, so they provided little or no protection against weather, and hardly any against incoming shells or shrapnel. Corrugated tin was used for the roofs, adequate, but noisy when it rained. Some of the hooches accommodated three or four officers or noncommissioned officers. Some housed more. The water supply for the shower was an external fuel tank from a large airplane, fed with excess hot water from the kitchen. The first few men got a hot water shower, a real luxury in the field. Sometime in 1966 a Little Bear traded something for access to electricity which was supplied locally, augmented by generators. Given hot water and electricity, accommodations were quite livable. The first rainy season taught them to put raised plank walkways between the various buildings to keep feet dry for a little while longer and help reduce mud in their rooms.
Jim Dayton recalls that the swamps were dredged, and sand brought in from the beach to create the base at Dong Tam. Those who flew in and out of there remember it was a small dry spot in a vast sea of swamp and pineapple plantations with little dry land for miles around. The mosquitoes were incredible, and nothing ever dried out.
In 1966 the Little Bears were awarded the 1966 US Army Outstanding Aviation Unit award in a ceremony in the United States. None of the Little Bears were present at the ceremony, and most never heard of the award for several months.
Ladies on a Lambretta were a common sight. They would ride along with one sitting straight forward to drive, the other side saddle. You could see them along most of the roads in good country and bad. They carried baskets of food, hemp bags and cans filled with all sorts of things. The maids and mess hall help rode to work on them in what became a very common sight. One we got too complacent with. They rode up to the gate, were checked by the Military Police, and sent on into their respective jobs. One day in 1969, the gate guards passed through two ladies on a Lambretta who were carrying a number 10 can. That number 10 can got to the mess hall where it had probably come from. They left it there. A few hours later it exploded. It was filled with C-4 explosive and lots of nails.
From other units Major Leach learned that the Viet Cong had adapted some vicious tactics concerning helicopters. They discovered that when a GI was hurt, the Americans would send a helicopter to evacuate him The standard approach as taught in flight school, to fly very low and slow, hovering in one spot for a long time proved not a good idea in Vietnam. They made a lucrative target. The high overhead approach was developed, perfected and taught to the pilots along with a stern warning to get in and get out quickly, as Charlie would try to get you when you were at a hover. These and other lessons learned were quickly conveyed to all the pilots. Ed Behne, the instructor and flight standardization pilot for three years that the battalion served in Vietnam, had the challeng of making sure new pilots knew when to break the rules they were taught in flight school and when to strictly follow those rules. He had to ensure each pilot learned the thinking skills needed to survive in a rapidly changing situation. His recommendation meant that a pilot would be designated as an Aircraft Commander. He had to be tough so we could survive. The survival of so many of the air crewmen in spite of the volume of hostile fire and the number of times helicopters flew into the line of fire is a testimonial to Ed Behne's skill as an IP.
Jim Minson remembers: “1966 and 1967: That time in Vietnam was pretty wild. To keep greenbacks out of the hands of black marketers, we had just switched to military script that looked like funny money. Also, to fool black marketers people got away with all kinds of things. Some of the men successfully used Monopoly Money from the game to buy beers, food and other commodity items in late `66 and early '67.
January to June 1968, I remember a few of us sitting on the back of a ¾ ton truck at the operations hooch by the airfield , down by where the old 101st Airborne used to be. We were just sitting there watching a B52 air strike, and it looked like the moon rolling across the ground. We stood up on the back of the truck with our beers to get a better look. As we were watching, it seemed to be getting closer. It turned out, Charlie was walking in mortar rounds straight towards us, a little closer each time. Finally we realized they were incoming, and by the time I got to the bunker, I could feel the dirt and rocks landing around me. I dove inside the bunker and busted my knee open!"
There were a few times when pilots were required to land at an LZ while wearing an M-17A1 protective mask or “gas mask”. That was a challenge. The two eye pieces on a gas mask face outward from the nose at a significant angle causing a distortion of the field of view and most disturbing to pilots, a loss of depth perception. It is hard to make a smooth landing when you are not sure of your height above the ground. After flying for a couple of hundred hours with full visual acuity, pilots developed perceptual habits that allowed them to check gauges, power settings and RPM in a continuous scan of the instruments. The gas mask severely disrupted the typical scan and added to the confusion.
In early 1969 we couldn't get much fresh meat and precious little of that.
One day we had a nice pasta with real meat in it.
Comments were going around the mess hall about the good “eats”.
One voice broke out above the others “ Finally the pasta has some spice in it!” What do you guys think of the pasta”?
Then the loud voice said, “Oh Yeah, it's good spice. Did you notice your spices have legs”?
Oh Maan! What is this stuff!!!!!!
Oh Gross! My spice have legs too.
Some small insects had made their way into the food and were cooked into the pasta sauce.
That started a food fight.
There is a story behind Major Robert Grundman and the mascot adopted by “A” Company, a sun bear named “Spooky”. Most of the “Little Bear” crew and support personnel have at least one story about the little bear. Here is the story in the words of those who were there.
“In July of 1966 one of the NCO's, SSG Morales, was on a scrounging mission to Nui Ba Den when he noticed that the Special Forces unit there had a baby Malay Sun Bear. He relayed the information back to “Little Bear” operations in Cu Chi. One of the pilots, Robert “Spook” Grundman and Joe Reales went back to Nui Ba Den to trade a generator for the bear, and brought it back to Cu Chi as a mascot.”
Jim Dayton remembers: “I arrived in the company in November 1966. The bear was there when I arrived. With respect to “Spooky's” history, I think that Carl Muckle and Ed Behne both were there in '67, but I'm not sure how early they got there. I haven't seen an e-mail address for Carl, so he many not know what info. you're looking for. You might try him or someone who was there '66 and '67, someone who knew Grundman. All I know about “Spooky” was he was an ornery little bugger, and there was always somebody looking to shoot him after he had been loose for a day or two. He broke into the supply room once and tore open something like 40 cases of C-rations, ate the chocolate out of them and left a pile of debris knee deep. They had to hide him from the supply sergeant for a week. There was a captain who hid a bottle of Chivas behind some other bottles on a shelf above his bunk and woke up in the middle of the night with Spooky standing on his chest so he could reach the shelf. He moved the other bottles out of the way and took the unopened bottle of Chivas.”
SSG Molinary told us (at the dinner table) about infantry soldiers poking a stick at her and getting her all riled up. Prior to that she never had a mean bone in her body, and would sleep next to people or on the First Sergeant's chest. The men would give her beer from time to time. She loved to drink and go on rampages. She could drink a six pack of beer (72 ounces), but then watch out! In 1969 she tore up the Artillery commander's hooch including ripping the door off his refrigerator and opening all his bottles of rationed liqueurs. It was a costly raid for us too, because in the middle of the night we were all rousted from sleep to get ropes, hunt the poor thing down, rope it, and bring it back to its cage to let her sleep it off.
Ercie Leach recalls: “My birthday, 26 September 1966, is a date burned into my memory. I was on the radio in the Battalion S-3 shop when I got the call. On 26 September 1966, Major Robert “Spook” Grundman was killed in action. The bear had been named “Spooky” after him.”
Peter Barrett (Fong) recalls: “It seems to me Major Grundman was called “Spook” Grundman. He had to have died in late 1966. I led the “missing man” fly-by at his memorial service, and that was before I went to Battalion as S-2 the latter half of my tour (July `66 - July '67). It was a four helicopter, “Missing Man” diamond formation with the lead missing. I believe it was the first pilot fatality of the unit, and was the only funeral service and fly-by I remember during that tour. I spent my first six months as a team leader (lift) for the Little Bears, and last six as Battalion S-2. “Spook” was the unit Instructor pilot and NEVER flew combat missions...except for the one that did him in. As one of the first replacements in the unit, I didn't know him well, but he was something of a legend.” The bear became something of an attraction. Charleton Heston stopped by to see it while on tour that year.
Sgt. Charles Kesterson remembered: “I got your e-mail and would like to help you out about the little bear. It was named after Maj. Robert Francis (Spook) Grundman who was killed on Sept 27th, 1966, at approximately 1830 hours on a Sunday night while flying a Little Bear Chopper on Medevac standby. I went to his hooch to get him to fly two bodies to Saigon. Just after takeoff from Cu Chi, outside the perimeter, we got heavy fire. One round hit Maj. Grundman in the right cheek, going through his head and almost hitting me. The chopper crashed and we were picked up. Approximately in Nov. of 1966, myself and Roberto Molinary flew to Saigon to pick up the little bear after a veterinarian examination. There at the airport to meet us was Gen. Westmoreland who flew back to Cu Chi to dedicate the bear as a company mascot. Everyone agreed to name him “Spooky” in honor of Spook Grundman. Most of the way back to Cu Chi,”Spooky” was restless and I had to hold him while he sucked my thumb to keep him from bothering everyone. P.S: Maj Grundman was killed on his birthday.”
Members of the “Little Bears” stenciled in white paint the image of a bear standing upright clutching a lightning bolt (from the 25th Infantry Division shoulder patch) onto the nose and side posts of all twenty-five of their UHID Huey's. They also had patches made up that were then sewn on their fatigue shirt pockets.
Roberto Molinary remembers: “I'm the Hispanic who was mentioned running around in the flesh during a noon mortar attack in the summer of '66. I'm also the gunner who found the bear in Tay Ninh mountain. In the summer of '66, Maj. Robert Francis Grundman flew to the Special Forces camp to talk them out of it. With much luck, he got the bear. Maj. Grundman was killed on 26 Sept. '66, in circumstances not clear to anyone. It happened while flying over an ARVN compound in the evening. He was the BEST PILOT we had in the company. We named the bear after him. I was the “Bear Keeper” for awhile. The bear did not need one. He was well behaved. Most of the time he was loose in the company area looking for hand outs and honey jars. Most everyone in the company had a jar of honey waiting for the bear to visit. When the bear was taken to Saigon for VET check up, I and Sgt Charles Kesterson flew down to get him. We had no problem until the bear sniffed the Vietnamese driver. The bear jumped in the front seat of the taxi and started in on the driver. The driver jumped off the taxi in the middle of Saigon traffic, creating a traffic jam. Sgt. Kesterson jumped in the front seat to get control of the taxi. I was reaching for the leash of the bear when he turned around and got a hunk of one of my fingers. We managed to get the driver back into the taxi. He drove to the airbase hanging on the door. We made it back to Cu Chi without any more problems. Trust me! That bear was with “A” Co. by the last part of the summer of '66.
Phil Tinlin remembers: “I spent about nine months in the Little Bears. I came to them from H-23's in the Div. Arty flight Detachment. I left Little Bears right after TET of '68. I was in the hospital about 45 days of my time there. I got my legs shot up pretty bad over in the “Iron Triangle” flying 2nd Brigade Command and Control. I did beat the UH-1 out of the Hospital/Maintenance. The bird had something like 102 holes not counting mine, but no one else was touched. That was a lucky day for most. About the damned sugar bear, I got out of the hospital in Sept '67, had a cast on my left leg and was on crutches. I was in the company area when the bear got out of his cage and decided I was fair game. He knocked me on my ass. If I had had a gun, that bear would have been gone real fast that day!”
“Spooky”, named in memory of Major Grundman was a Malay Bear. The world's smallest bear.
It is also called “Sun Bear” or “Malay Bear.” It is the smallest of the eight bear species. There is very little known about the biology and habits of the Sun Bear. We do know however, that it is a high priority
For immediate conservation efforts, and is on the red-list of endangered species. There is a fear that the Sun Bear may disappear from the wild before anything is known about it. As of September 2001, Sun Bears are nearly extinct.
Who knows how many rocket and mortar attacks “Spooky” survived in her five years as the mascot of the Little Bears. Eventually, as the unit packed up for return to Hawaii in late 1970, “Spooky” was killed by an overdose of sedatives/tranquilizers that was to help her survive the shipment to a new zoo home in Hawaii.
“A” Company flew combat assault missions such as flying troops out to LZ's and back again, Medevac, search and destroy, and Command and Control. We ended up with four helicopters that were outfitted with special radio consoles for generals and brigade commanders to fly in and command their troops on the ground. These were easily recognized by the whip antennas mounted to the landing skid struts.
“B” Company had UH1B's with rocket pods and miniguns mounted on the skid struts. They were the firepower of the Battalion. Both “A” and “B” company, with roots in the air mobility concepts of the 11th Air Assault at Ft Benning, attempted various innovations.
Joe Finch recalls, “In 1969 I was vaguely aware that our unit was trying innovative ideas to increase and refine the type of support we could provide. The second platoon was right in the middle of it all. At one point, about May of 1969, we tried using an arrangement of wooden crates on the side of the aircraft as racks for dropping 81 millimeter mortar rounds. It was hopelessly inaccurate, and many of the rounds failed to go off, as they would destabilize in flight and tumble. The really bad news was, we got those back at night, fired from a Viet Cong mortar tube, and they exploded as they were meant to when fired as designed.”
“Nighthawk” was another of the innovations tried. To provide support to firebases in identifying chasing and engaging the enemy, we mounted on the aircraft an infra-red and a white-light searchlight borrowed from the M60A1 tank. The first version was two M-60 machine-guns mounted side by side. That was an improvement in firepower, but not a substantial or marked improvement over the standard M-60. Then we tried a .50 caliber machine-gun mounted on the left side of the aircraft with a very bright Xenon light with an infra-red capability, (two million candlepower search light like those things they point up in the sky for grand openings.) That .50-caliber had such a kick, when it started firing it would tear up the tail boom. After two or three hours of flying and firing, the post flight inspection showed the metal at the beginning of the tail boom had cracked where the bolts held it to the fuselage, and was starting to tear through. The tail boom was in danger of falling off. So the .50-caliber did not work out well with the UH-1D Iroquois (Huey).
Finch recalls, “During my tour, probably about June or July 1969, I flew an “H” model Nighthawk that had a Mini-gun. This was a General Electric, electrically operated six barrel gattling gun that fired about 4000 rounds per minute. It was mounted on the left side so the aircraft commander had better control of the gun. The infrared capability allowed us to acquire targets at night without the enemy knowing what we were up to. Then we could switch on the Xenon light. That allowed both the infantry on the ground and air crews to engage the enemy. This high speed, 4000 rounds per minute mini-gun was astounding. Once refined, the gun and the searchlight were mounted together on a little plate toward the back of the cargo area. It put out an incredible volume of fire. You could literally fill a football field with bullets in just a second or two. That was pretty successful. It didn't tear up the airframe too badly, and was a very effective weapon. After awhile the Vietnamese figured out the thing was devastating, so they wouldn't shoot at us at all if they thought we were a Nighthawk. Sometimes we found ourselves getting a little crazy. We'd turn all the lights on so we looked like a re-supply ship. We'd hover down nice and slow, at about 200-300 feet, looking for all the world like we were tying to find a place to land. The intent was that once we drew fire, we'd turn that mini-gun around and devastate an area pretty quickly. Many gunners firing those miniguns were Pathfinders. They were experienced Infantry soldiers from within the 25th Division. They weren't part of the Aviation unit itself, but they knew what to do with that gun. It wasn't something the pilots were able to do particularly well, but those gunners were extraordinary at being able to train fire on a target.”
“There were a couple of little glitches with that system. If you just told people to fire whenever they had a target, they might wait two, three, ten or even twenty-five seconds. When the gunner did open fire, there was a bright flash, a whole lot of torque against the side of the aircraft, and more noise than anyone could stand. The shock and surprise of it all was a real jolt to the nervous system. It would ruin your night vision. If you weren't ready for it, the kick from that mini-gun would throw you way out of trim. For me, that whole knee-jerk scenario evolved quickly to when a target was identified, the Pathfinder would let me know first so I could steel my nerves. I reserved the right to give the order to fire, and I'd kick pedal to compensate for the torque as he opened fire”.
“Another idea we tried in 1969 was the flame bath. Using rope, netting, or whatever was available at the time, we strung together three 55-gallon drums of FOUGAS (jellied fuel) with be a trip flare attached. As you released the load, the trip flare would go off. The barrels started to separate on the way down. When they hit the ground and spread out, the flare ignited the jellied fuel. It would make a huge mess on the ground, roughly similar to the high drag 500 pound napalm bombs dropped by the Air Force F-4s. The flame bath was hard to control because you had a 1500 pound weight hanging like a long pendulum underneath the aircraft. When you made a turn, that mass would swing you out to the right or left. You'd try to straighten out but the weight would hold you back. It was a very unusual load configuration, way down below you, making it very difficult to control movement of the aircraft. It would “feed back” to the controls quite a bit. The other thing about the flame bath was aiming it. There was no sighting mechanism on a UH-1 Iroquois (Huey), so we painted stripes across the chin bubble (Plexiglas windows) below our feet, in-between the pedals. To aim, you'd look at those lines between your feet, sighting between your anklebones with those little yellow lines on your chin bubble. Some were for 60 knots and some were for 80 knots, depending on what drop speed you were able to do. We got fairly accurate.
The first time you always made mistakes. Whoever was flying as check pilot next to you always gave you all sorts of grief about what was your drop altitude, your speed, what kind of an angle, yaw, and what other control movements had you put in when you released the thing. You were basically punching off a sling load. It was a one-thumb-action. You'd push the one button with your thumb, and it would fall off. Hopefully it would catch fire and blow up on the ground.
The other problem with the flame bath that no one told us about was, in Vietnam, there was no such thing as a cold target. It wasn't like some gunnery range back in the US. The enemy had a habit of shooting at you. The first two times I tried to drop a flame bath, people were shooting at me while I was trying to learn how to do it. Once I got slapped by a warrant officer instructor asking me, “What the hell were you doing with that thing?” I couldn't remember the altitude and answer all his questions. Finally I said, “Look, I was getting shot at, and doing the best I could! I don't know where it hit.” The other problem we had with the flame bath was, if you dropped it too low, the heat from the flame would bubble the paint on the bottom of the aircraft. The crew chiefs didn't like that at all”.
Paul North recalls, “Maintenance hangers for the Little Bears was called “the Bear Pit”. It was run by Major Robert A. Jones, a very good helicopter test pilot from around Frankfort, Kentucky. He flew the Ky. Flag from a mast above the hanger in the Bear Pit. I, (Paul North) am originally from Whitesville, Ky, so when Maj Jones went back to the States around April, 1967, he left the flag for me to care for. When I left in October that year, I sent the tattered remains to the Governor of Kentucky. He sent me a new one”.
Infantry maps were 1:50,000 scale to provide the level of detail needed to navigate cross country, find hillocks, intersections of trails, dirt roads or creeks. Air Force and Navy pilots used 1:250,000 scale maps so they would be able to navigate over larger distances without changing map sheets every couple of minutes. The 1:250,000 scale maps were not detailed enough to find small sites. Helicopters were somewhere between the worlds of the fast movers and the infantry. To find an infantryman on the ground, helicopter pilots needed a great level of detail, and they didn't travel all that fast, so 1:100,000 scale maps were ideally suited for slower flight speed and could accommodate the level of detail needed to bring lunch or the mail to people in the field.
Joe Finch recalls, “When I bought my hooch, the warrant officer who sold it to me included my maps as part of the bargain. It was six 1:100,000 scale map sheets of our area taped together. All the fire support bases, major land marks and battle areas were marked in ink and grease pencil. About eight months into my tour my map was worn out. It was splattered with blood, worn ragged from being opened and closed so many times, and the paper had separated along a couple of the folds. Even cockroaches had eaten major holes in it. So I went to operations and got six new map sheets to put another set together. I had not finished annotating all the sites when I DEROS'ed out of country. I gave my map to a Warrant Officer who had just arrived, and who was killed in action a few months later flying low level down a river when his aircraft struck some wires strung across it, and went into the river north of Cu Chi. That set of maps was destroyed. To the best of our ability we think 437 of these maps were assembled. (The Diamond Heads used about the same map). After months of searching and queries, Larry Carter's is the only one that surfaced. All the other Little Bears say they threw their maps away, they gave it to someone else, or it was lost or destroyed. All those old navigation points, places like “Top Hat”, “The Mushroom”, “The Pineapple Plantation” etc. are preserved on Larry's Map. The fact that it is the only one to survive is what makes it valuable. The fact that each one of those marks represents a significant site where our troops fought, bled, and we performed re -supply and Medevacs is what makes it meaningful. The National Geographic Society spokesman told us that to reproduce Larry Carter's map would cost around $125,000”.
At about the 700 hour point pilots reached the level of proficiency where they began to believe they were invincible and close to godly on the controls. That is the point where I realized I could fly through any weather condition, and I was aware that I could set a Huey down so gently people on board would not know we had landed. T that proficiency gave rise to a cockiness and overconfidence that CAUSED accidents.
Picking up wounded soldiers while under hostile fire could be unnerving. Picking up their first screaming Medevac is something all pilots remember. In the midst of getting the aircraft down safely while under fire, checking gages to be sure nothing serious is wrong, you somehow think you are doing OK even though you are plenty busy. As you settle for a moment to see what's next, you see two GI's dragging a wounded buddy. Clothes are soaked with mud and blood, his face distorted with pain, anguish and all the emotions you cannot fathom. You begin to hear his screaming over the noise of the engine. Often the screaming was not necessarily just from pain but because he was pissed off for something that had happened on the ground. Most were not screaming, but acutely aware that someone was taking care of them. Their bleeding had been stopped or bandaged. They were normally calm and serene. Sometimes you would see bone protruding through a torn uniform. There was no way to cope with nor understand the agony they were experiencing. The rotor wash would blow blood all around staining the floor of the cargo area. It was not so much disgusting as it was physically painful in some odd way. Of all the many things pilots were reprimanded for, there are no known instances where the chain of command reprimanded a pilot or crew for performing a medical evacuation of wounded soldiers. The battalion as a whole established a culture that set the highest priority on Medevac. If soldiers were wounded, every attempt was made to evacuate them to the nearest field hospital quickly. There were a lot of things pilots and aircrewmen did that got them in trouble with the chain of command, from being late or being disrespectful to making a bad landing or doing something reckless that endangered others, and getting a bunch of holes in a new aircraft. None of the air crewmen remember being chewed out for picking up wounded soldiers.
Special bonds formed between air crews and some of the aircraft tail numbers. Often they took on qualities one would ascribe to humans, and they were lasting relationships. (This recollection comes from Stephen Andersen? )
“I went to the flight line and did the second run on UH-1287, then ran for an hour while they did the normal adjustments. We worked on it all day, and by 1700 were finished. I intended to do the first hover Monday before lunch. While still in the hanger I overheard one of the foremen say something about the aircraft which was just starting the in-procedure. What caught my ear was the tail number. He said, “I'm going now to check on the new aircraft 436. My aircraft in Vietnam had the tail number 436. I couldn't wait to see the log-books and historical records. On the second page of the book I found an entry made on 3 Mar. 1970 by “your's truly. Can you believe it? Exactly nineteen years to the day!. It was like a reunion with an old, long lost friend. I went to the hanger and just stood there looking at her. A little older, a little tattered around the edges, but still a good old bird. I guess I stood there a long time, because William walked up and asked if I was OK. I told him I was just lost in memories, and that UH-436 was my bird in Vietnam over 19 years past. We talked awhile about my experiences with 436, then I had to get back to work.
After everyone went home for the weekend I went out and just sat in the “Crew Chief Well” where I had spent so many hours, remembering the good and the bad. Sometimes I get busy and almost forget what day of the week it is, but I remember that year in Vietnam as if it were yesterday. When the paint shop strips the paint, I will see if the 25th Division insignia is still on the doors and nose of 436. I had hand painted the insignia and remember it as the only art-type thing I ever did that looked like anything when I finished. Talk about coincidences! Who would have thought I would run across my first aircraft so many years later, and with both of us so far from home. While sitting in the aircraft I wrote the following:
HELLO AGAIN 436
As I entered the hanger, the smell of oil, paint, cleaning solvent and hard work greeted me like an old dear friend. The aircraft are all UH-1's lined up on each side of hangar-I like the guard that they are. On the right, the first bird was without a rotor head. The next one with the transmission supported by a red roll around crane. The third is intact, but the windshield and the rotor systems covered in preparation for a new coat of paint. The lines go on down, each 6 deep. I am drawn to the last UH-1 on the left, for this one, old, green and tired, is a very old and dear friend. She sits by the blue hanger doors as if waiting to be called upon once more to beat the air into submission with that “Pop, Pop, Pop” all who have ever seen the Huey fly know so well.
The hanger is silent except for an occasional jet airliner departing Brussels International Airport for places throughout the world. As the jets pass, their noise blocks all other sound until their roar slowly fades and silence returns. I sit in the cargo area that was my home for eleven months in a far away war, in a land called Vietnam, near a town called Cu Chi. The old girl looks good after nineteen years. A little worn and missing parts, kind of like me. Parts have been removed for repair, but I see her as I did when I was a young man of twenty years. She had a coat of gloss OD paint then, and only six hours and twenty-five minutes in her new dark green logbook. She was like the new car that I had never owned, smelling and looking so new. I remember how proud I was to be picked as her crew chief after only thirty days paying dues in the maintenance hanger. She made me special, a crew chief, and she was mine to care for and protect.
Now twenty years have past and like her, I am no longer so young. Most of my hair is gone, my body is rounder, and my knees hurt when the weather changes, but my memories of her are still strong. As I sit here in another land so far from home, it is as if she was sent once again to care for me and give a little comfort like the old friend she is. I sit facing the crew chief well that was once my home. She feels as if she knows me and doesn't want to be alone. I look at the cargo deck and think of times that then were hell. I remember young broken bodies spilling their blood which ran out the doors and into the slipstream
Of young men crying for someone to stop the pain. They yelled and yelled, and yelled again
Of the sound of gun fire near and far, of bombs and rockets crashed like falling stars.
Of good sounds too which I remember well.
Of the wind in my face and a smooth take-off.
Of Bob, Just Plain Ted, of Butch and others whose real names I never knew, but who were closer than brothers.
I think of my luck as we flew towards harm. Of how we all seemed protected by her charm.
I remember the dirt and dust flying as we landed to keep another from dying.
Of the one who entered near dead with a bee sting on his tongue, his airway shutting off the air of life. We brought him back with an ink pen and a knife.
The daily washings to rid her of blood and dirt, and of flying all year with no one in her protection ever getting hurt.
In harms way we would fly with many of her kind. We would stay safe in the mist of the dead and those about to die.
Back we would go time after time to pick up the hurt, the dead and the dying.
We'd haul food, water, ammo and troops we would never know.
Sometimes `VIP' was the way to go.
She flew so smooth on early morning flights. No hands on the control, for she would fly just right. Just forced trim to hold her, straight and level we flew.
Flew once again to fight for our lives, to protect our friends.
I sit in her now some twenty years later, thinking how I loved her then and now even more. I will visit her often to share these thoughts.
Hello Again 436, dear old friend.”
Uniforms and Dress
The color of our uniforms changed over the course of seven years in RVN. In 1966 the Army green uniforms and fatigues had a white name strip with your name stamped in bold black letters. US ARMY was stamped in a bright yellow and black band across the top of the right breast pocket. We found out the hard way that the bright colors were very easy for snipers to identify. Our soft caps (baseball caps) and even our steel pots had our rank boldly displayed in a bright color on the front of the cap. It looked very different for officers than for enlisted personnel. Steel pots for officers also had two parallel strips of luminescent tape that glowed in the dark so people could follow leaders at night. The strips were only visible for a short distance unless your night vision was extremely acute, or you had been night adapted for a long time.
The Viet Cong figured out who the officers were pretty darned quick. So, by 1967, it was common to see officers wearing no cover (hat) at all. Most of the time officers did not wear a steel pot, but it was not because of an unwillingness to follow orders or some form of dissent, or rebellion. It was self preservation. Camouflage colored jungle fatigues didn't really show up until later in the war. The U.S. Marines got them first in 1967 and 1968. The Army followed soon after, and by 1969 we were all issued jungle fatigues and jungle hats. By late 1969 most aviation units acquired the new NOMEX flight suits made of a fire retardant woven cloth. This piece of equipment was not comfortable, didn't look cool, was not camouflaged, but saved lives.