4:44 | When he flew into Vietnam, John Wilhite could hear mortar fire as they landed. The men scrambled out of the plane and took cover in drainage ditches. They weren't even armed, so it was quite a welcome to Vietnam. The first stop was the mess hall where the food wasn't quite cooked and the cooks were missing.
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They arrived at basic training and got a good night's sleep but when the Drill Instructor started beating on a garbage can and throwing it around the barracks, John Wilhite knew he was in for something different than he was used to. After basic, in Advanced Infantry Training, they were practicing air deployment when he noticed that the equipment was really being loaded.
Assigned to the 1099th Transportation Company when he arrived in Vietnam, John Wilhite didn't even see an officer for four days. Fortunately, there were old hands around to get him up to speed. The job was simple, carry people and resources up and down the rivers in the Mekong Delta on Mike Boats, which resembled landing craft. These missions took them into Cambodia, he notes, despite what the President was saying.
John Wilhite traveled the rivers of the Mekong Delta with the River Rats, a transportation company using long, shallow draft boats called Mike Boats. The first time he saw the enemy, he was off the boat in a defensive position. When the firefight began, the .50 caliber machine guns on the boat cleaned up the situation.
It wasn't all warfare on the river. John Wilhite recalls the time his transportation unit took part in flood relief, carrying villagers to safety. He felt sorry for the people of Vietnam, who were deprived by years of war and angry at foreign armies in their land. He was especially touched by the plight of the orphans.
They tried not to have any more than three boats together on the river, says John Wilhite, a member of the River Rats, a transportation company. Once when they had six in a line, the enemy detonated a thousand pound bomb underneath the second one. The boats were carrying fuel bladders and the resulting blast blew the water out of the river at that point. Less effective were the homemade rockets that were like big fireworks.
The missions were continuous, one after the other. When they were out, they were totally alone, nowhere near any installations, so the River Rats had their food dropped right onto the boat by helicopter. John Wilhite's weapon was the M-60 machine gun and he used it both on the boat and in defensive positions on shore. Once, he overheated it and the breach popped up and smacked him in the face.
A frequent mission for John Wilhite was the fuel run to Cambodia. They would take the boat downriver to the South China Sea and fill up a huge fuel bladder. Then it was back up the Mekong River to Cambodia. You could always tell when you got to the border because the place was crawling with North Vietnamese troops, allies of the murderous Pol Pot regime.
There was a Buddhist hooch on the other side of the river near their base camp. John Wilhite had seen people coming and going there for a long time, but they were respectful of religious locations so it was left alone. One day, while they were playing cards on the boat, the man across from him was hit by a large caliber round. Soon it was apparent where it had come from.
When the River Rats made the ocean run to fill up the fuel bladder they would carry upriver, it was party time. Through trading with sailors, they acquired the steaks, lobster and beer they need for a decent beach affair. After a night beside the South China Sea, it was up to Cambodia to deliver the goods.
How did the rules of engagement in Vietnam affect helicopter pilot Rd Zielinski? He worked for Koreans and says that's all you need to know. He flew other missions and on one clandestine foray into Laos, he spotted two MIG fighter planes on a makeshift runway in the jungle. Could he be the first helicopter pilot ace?
The battle for Hill 875 took five days but David Brown was only there for two of them. He heard the piece of shrapnel from the enemy mortar shell whizzing through the trees before it hit him in the chin. As the Medevac chopper rose, he was told to throw out his weapon. This was very difficult for him but they convinced him he wouldn't need it anymore. At the hospital, he noticed the man in the next bed had something odd on his nightstand. "You don't want to see."
Bill Camper felt like the people of Hue supported the South Vietnamese soldiers he was advising. He made some headway encouraging those men to fight and he relates the story of how he taught them to advance through their own artillery barrage and surprise the enemy from the rear.
Jim Benson's mission was to hold and guard the Tu Cau bridge. The work load on his men was heavy and he details the routine of patrols and ambushes, both day and night, that left the Marines exhausted. At the same time, he had to constantly train new replacements who had no combat knowledge.
The RPG that severed Joe McDonald’s foot didn’t kill him. The machine gun fire that hit him as he still tried to help others didn’t kill him. The grenade taped to his hand might have killed him if the VC had found his hiding place.
As Marine Captain Ron Christmas fought to regain the city of Hue, he found the enemy adept at concealment and surprise. Every soldier in a spider hole was armed with a rifle and a RPG launcher. He also encountered a nun with an AK-47. His action during this time earned him the Navy Cross.
In a letter home, Tommy Clack expressed his worry that something bad was going to happen and it did when his unit engaged the NVA near the Cambodian border. He saw the enemy soldier stand and fire the RPG that changed his life forever.
When Ed Zielinski returned home from Vietnam, he took fire immediately, a spitball from an anti-war protestor. His entered a trying time in his life, but continuing to fly was a big help. He joined the National Guard and taught new helicopter pilots the real life skills they would need, the ones not in the book.
As the war went on, Ron Rutowski felt the culture and morale of Vietnam change for the Vietnamese and for the Americans. In an effort to create an outlet of peace for Viet Cong defectors, they began a pamphlet program to let them know how to effectively surrender should they want to.
Dick Dyer and Jim Thorne were in flight school together and they both were deployed to Vietnam with the 145th Aviation Battalion flying Hueys. There was a great need for pilots and every one of them practically had a helicopter strapped on.
It was hot at Fort Polk and he was getting picked on by the 1st Sergeant. Ed Zielinski found out why he was getting the business after he graduated from basic training, then it was on to flight school. Terrified at first, he gained confidence, especially when he made the switch to Hueys. At the end of the training, all the men played a prank on the platoon leader.
During firefights in Vietnam, there are always challenges that Rutowski and his unit always had to overcome. During one particular encounter, they had to worry about their position being compromised as they crouched in the woods hoping to stay hidden.
He was days from going home so helicopter pilot Ed Zielinski had an easy resupply mission with a green co-pilot. They were done and heading back when the mayday call came in. Two Cobra pilots were down and fighting for their lives. He turned to the rookie and said, "OK, we're going to the war."
Helicopter pilot Dick Dyer was sent to pickup supplies from a ship in the Mekong Delta, but when he approached, the call sign and frequency he was given for contact elicited no reply. Circling the ship, he saw other helicopters land and take off so he went on in. Then he got an earful.
Army brat Ed Zielinski had always been fascinated with flight. As a child he just knew he would lift off on a windy day with a long coat for wings. So when the draft loomed he decided he would try to fly over the rice paddies rather than slog through them.
Nineteen and invincible, newly minted helicopter pilot Ed Zielinski was singing on the 26 hour flight to Vietnam. Assigned to work with a Korean unit, he began to familiarize himself with the area he was based in, determined to be the best pilot there.
The call went out. There was a unit in trouble and they needed casualties evacuated. Huey pilot Dick Dyer responded, but as he was taking off with the wounded, there was a loud boom. He settled back on the ground and then he heard from his crew chief. This helicopter wasn't going anywhere.
The Koreans didn't speak much English, at least to him. They would point to a map and helicopter pilot Ed Zielinski would take them there. On one mission, he had to set down and wait. This gave him an unexpected opportunity to utilize his Texas quick draw skills.
What was Operation Lam Son 719 like? To helicopter pilot Dick Dyer, it was a "gaggle." There were so many aircraft flying at once, it seemed to him like hundreds. A recurring problem on these big troop movements was overloading caused by eager soldiers. On occasion, the pilots were tasked with transporting reporters.
The veterans today have it easier than Dick Dyer did when he returned from Vietnam. The mood is supportive, and when he wears his Vietnam Veteran hat, he gets a little of the love he missed back in the day. He is very proud of the role that helicopter pilots like himself played in the war.
The officers club for the helicopter pilots was one of the best in Vietnam, says Ed Zielinski. If only he could have figured out how the Korean officers were cheating at dice. There was another kind of wildlife there, elephants, which could also be enemy trucks, deer and wild pig, which you could barbecue, and monkeys, which you better not shoot if Ed was around.
Dick Dyer was in college ROTC when he was offered the chance to learn to fly. The program was geared to a private pilot license but the instructor was a a World War II flying ace. This gave him an advantage when he was commissioned and sent to flight school to learn to fly helicopters.