6:31 | After being drafted in 1962, Tal Centers became an artillery surveyor, responsible for siting batteries and establishing ground coordinates. A three year posting to Cold War Europe gave way to the inevitable when he received orders for Vietnam.
Keywords : Tal Centers Kentucky Fort Leonard Wood Missouri artillery surveyor math Fort Benning Airborne Jump School Europe USNS General Maurice Rose (T-AP-126) Wurzburg Germany Kitzengen Germany Vietnam Fort Sill Artillery Board of Research and Development
The smell hit him as soon as he stepped off the plane in Saigon. A nauseating smell that never went away, the smell of Vietnam. Tal Centers was trained as an artillery surveyor and once he got in country, he was attached to the 1st Cavalry Air Mobile Division. The first job? Set up base camp at An Khe.
He began as an artillery surveyor, but the rotation system in Vietnam meant that Tal Centers moved from job to job, all of them meant for someone with a higher rank. Eventually, he became a forward observer, one of the most dangerous jobs in any war.
Not long after arriving in Vietnam, Tal Centers was attached to the 5th Special Forces Group as a forward observer. They had to venture into Cambodia to retrieve the bodies of some men who had been captured and mutilated, a sight he could not forget.
As a forward observer, Tal Centers would sometimes go up in a small helicopter for aerial spotting. On one such mission, a high caliber round from an enemy machine gun brought down the aircraft. He saw red, then he went unconscious.
When he wasn't busy on a mission or building something at base camp, Tal Centers would volunteer as a door gunner on a Huey. Normally, he was a forward observer and he directed fire in an incident depicted in the movie "We Were Soldiers." He usually worked with a radio operator and he remembers one who didn't make it back.
During his time in Vietnam, attached to the 1st Cavalry, artillery surveyor and forward observer Tal Centers was engaged all over the length and breadth of the country, always moving by air. His good artillery spotting earned him a Bronze Star, but here he recalls a funny incident that happened back at base camp.
It was regrettable, but villages were leveled by his artillery rounds. Tal Centers knew that civilians were killed, but he also knew that the enemy looked the same as the innocents. That was the way it was in Vietnam. After being attached to the 1st Cavalry Air Mobile Division for a year, he returned to the same desk at Fort Sill he'd been using before the tour.
There were 87 men on some high ground surrounded by Viet Cong and Marine helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham had a problem. There was only room for one ship at a time to land in the tiny landing zone they had hacked out of the bush. It would be one at a time so he spiraled down for the first load. Then he felt like a sledgehammer hit his leg.
After the column was devastated by an NVA ambush, wounded Americans were scattered in the darkness. After his captain heard one such group calling for help on the radio, Freddie Owens joined a patrol to find them, guided by a gunshot every few minutes. Once there, medic Daniel Torres volunteered to stay with those who couldn't move and protected them through the night with medicine and a machine gun.
They were hunkered down after fierce fighting when the call came from "Ghost 4-6." It was a group of wounded men who had pulled themselves together after the ill fated march to LZ Albany and were lost in the dark. George Forrest sent a patrol to find them, and in an incredible act of bravery, medic Daniel Torres stayed through the night with them and saved many men. Captain Forrest still had to write a gut-wrenching letter to the mother of a missing soldier. Part 3 of 4.
Bill Cunningham made sure every pilot in the squadron rotated in the search and rescue missions because they were the most dangerous and he wanted to spread out the risk. The Marine aircraft were accompanied by gunships for security and he always seemed to be paired with the same gunship pilot, call sign Hostage Jack.
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.
After his combat tours in Vietnam, Marine aviator Bill Cunningham served in several assignments that gave him a lot of chances to travel. In Africa, he helped manage drought and famine relief as part of a relief operation and, back home, he made readiness inspections of Marine air units.
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.
Bill Cunningham had completed his helicopter training at Ellyson field and was at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miami. He flew any aircraft he could just for the experience, and one day, he spotted a massive crate containing an oddball Sikorsky craft that he just had to assemble and try out.
Bill Cunningham recalls his friend Gene Brady, who always beat him at gin rummy. The two Marine helicopter pilots commanded sister squadrons in Vietnam. Once, he was Brady's co-pilot and that turned out to be a memorable mission. Another memorable mission involved a rig called a jungle penetrator.
After his second Vietnam tour, Bill Cunningham was put in command of a troop ship full of Marines coming straight from the bush. That was a memorable trip and included an emergency caused by a wind blown cap. When the ship landed in San Diego, there was no welcome except for a crusty old colonel who made a ridiculous demand.
Marine aviator Bill Cunningham tells a couple of stories about the man who took over his squadron, Walt Leadbetter. The events begin with the profane and then move to the sacred, an incident that resulted in a Medal of Honor award.
Marine aviator Bill Cunningham recalls his time in Pensacola practicing carrier landings, including the time his tailhook malfunctioned. Before departing for the next phase of training, the group was asked how many are going to the Marines. His hand was one of the few, but when the Navy bound heard what awaited them, the Marines gained some more.
Marine aviator Bill Cunningham had a little mishap with a rocket while training in Puerto Rico. He still doesn't know where that thing went. When it was time for assignment, he was given a choice, instructing or multi-engine aircraft. Neither appealed to him so he went a third way, helicopters.
The big twin rotor helicopters flown by Marine pilot Bill Cunningham in Vietnam had door gunners with 50 caliber machine guns. As he approached a landing zone on a night mission, he heard one of the weapons fire. The gunner thought he had spotted an enemy muzzle flash. Unfortunately, it was not.
Marine aviator Bill Cunningham describes the aborted takeoff which caused him to flip his aircraft at the end of the runway. It was a faulty part but there were other hazards in training, like towing the target for the others to shoot. Then there was more carrier training, which was very dangerous.
Marine aviator Bill Cunningham's first overseas assignment was at the Naval Air Station in Oppama, Japan, where he ferried troops and flew search and rescue missions. After 14 months, he returned to Pensacola where he became an instructor and honed his skills flying numerous different helicopters.
Marine helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham was paired with a gunship pilot called Hostage Jack on many of the search and rescue missions he flew in Vietnam. The missions were dangerous but it was a little weather scouting flight that cost Hostage Jack his life.
For his first assignment after completing his training, Bill Cunningham was sent to the best Marine Air Station in the whole country, Miami. There he flew the A-1 Skyraider, a much beloved single engine prop plane that was very versatile. He also had a great gunnery sergeant who helped him with a prickly executive officer.
Marine Corps helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham served a ground tour in California, where he set up a second training location for pilots. The Marines needed many more because Vietnam was heating up and helicopters had become vital to their mission. During this time, he had an interesting excursion to Thailand, where he trained Thai pilots.
He was ferrying South Vietnamese troops to an operation when helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham heard over the radio, "You've got smoke!" After setting down he saw the ship had been hit and everyone scrambled to get out. Everyone except his co-pilot, who was having trouble with his new weapon, the M-16.