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.
The 1st Cavalry was the first Army unit to have it's own helicopters and the Vietnam War was the first war in which they were used tactically in large numbers. Pilot Pat Richardson flew for them sometimes, as well as supporting Australian and New Zealand units. He remembers a party during which a couple of American pilots decided they could drink the Australians under the table. Bad idea.
Newly minted Marine Lieutenant Paul Van Riper received orders to go to the advisors course at Fort Bragg. He was being groomed to advise the South Vietnamese Marines and, once he arrived in country, he forged a close relationship with his counterparts. They would be living and working closely together, more so than the ARVN advisors.
Instead of anti-war protestors, Pat Richardson was greeted by a Texas cattleman who bought him drinks. Decades later, looking at the wide variety of books about the Vietnam experience, he recommends reading the ones written by those who were actually there.
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 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."
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.
Pat Richardson had served three years and was at at college when he went back for more. His first service was as a nuclear weapons technician, which instilled a good sense of procedure and precision. This helped him tremendously in his later duty as an aviator.
Pat Richardson's helicopter was blown up at Phu Loi, but he wasn't in it and it wasn't the enemy. While it was up on the rack for maintenance, from out of nowhere a rocket screamed in and it erupted in a huge fireball. As the men on the base scrambled for cover, it became clear that it wasn't Charlie shooting at them.
The radio operator said that a Bravo Report had come in. What's a Bravo report? Company commander Paul Van Riper was wondering but the main thing was that an NVA regiment was on the move. Before it was over, the Marines had a good haul of enemy arms and intelligence.
While serving in a remote area of Korea in the early sixties, Pat Richardson was surprised when the water purification unit disappeared overnight. Nobody knew where they were for quite a while. He flew in helicopters while there, never thinking that he would fly them himself someday.
Marine Paul Van Riper had high regard for the Vietnamese people and he had no tolerance for abuse of civilians in his unit. Ironic that he was called a baby killer and his family was subject to abuse when he returned from each tour. He attributes his lack of PTSD to staying on active duty, where the Vietnam veterans talked it out regularly, effectively becoming counselors for each other.
He was at artillery school manhandling howitzers in the mud. That all ended when Pat Richardson went to a briefing from an aviation officer signing up men for flight school. No mud up there. It meant two more years of service, but he still jumped at the chance.
The Vietnamese had a unit called the National Police Field Force and when a platoon of these men was sent to his battalion, Paul Van Riper insisted they be assigned to his company. He integrated them with his Marines and they functioned well together. He recalls a bunker clearing operation that had a surprise ending.
Most days, helicopter pilot Pat Richardson ferried troops on assaults. On other days, there were a variety of single ship missions including "sniffer" missions that were highly technical and a little boring. He would also ferry VIP's and special teams. He recounts one mission down to the Mekong Delta where he picked up an entirely new skill.
Omer McCants was born in a little Alabama town where everyone worked in the textile mills. He decided that was not for him, worked hard, and was the first in his family to graduate high school and go on to college. ROTC attracted him and he began to think like a military man.
To promote espirit de corps, Marine company commander Paul Van Riper required the men to fix bayonets as they crossed the wire. They were very dedicated to their unit, as demonstrated by one young corporal who was repeatedly wounded, yet kept returning. Then there was the Sergeant Major who gave him the highest compliment a young Captain can receive.
Pilot Pat Richardson details the different models and modifications of the workhorse aircraft of Vietnam, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, known as the Huey. He reveals how it got that name, and why his commanding officer was doubly upset that one was accidentally destroyed by an errant rocket.
It was an easy commitment to make. Omer McCants stayed in the ROTC program so he would enter the Army as an officer, not a private. Not only that, but he was going to flight school. He had an advantage there because at Tuskegee he received flying lessons from the legendary Chief Anderson.
His father opened the newspaper and said to the boys, "Well, the war will be over pretty quick. They're sending the Marines." The Korean War did not end quickly, but for Paul Van Riper, that started a burning desire to become a Marine. His parents insisted on college, so he set his sights on being a Marine officer.
Based in a central location in Vietnam, helicopter pilot Pat Richardson was assigned a variety of missions and was always busy. When he could, he liked to refuel at a Navy base where he could get good chow. His own unit's cook was no slouch, and he had contacts all over to insure a good supply of treats like ice cream.