7:29 | It was not as tough as being in the infantry, but being a helicopter pilot in Vietnam had its own hazards. Huey pilot Jim Smith describes the life of an aviator in the first helicopter war. He fondly recalls the music on AFVN, the American Forces Vietnam Network, which was immortalized in the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam."
Keywords : Jim Smith helicopter pilot Vietnam Bell UH-1 Iroquois (Huey) co-pilot Warrant Officer Command and Control North (CCN) Bell AH-1 Cobra American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) Good Morning Vietnam
The campus of Western Kentucky University was practically a home for Jim Smith through high school and college. He loved ROTC and the Pershing Rifles and when it came time for a commission, he chose reserve because he could go to flight school sooner. He was sent to helicopter training because pilots were desperately needed in Vietnam.
He had no idea what to take with him. Helicopter pilot Jim Smith was headed to Vietnam and had received no information about what he needed, so he stuffed some clothes and boots into an ill-fated footlocker and took the long flight over the Pacific. He was first sent to the 101st Airborne up north, where he marveled at the ferocity of the Korean troops based nearby.
Only one helicopter pilot was killed in Jim Smith's unit, but it wasn't for lack of trying that there weren't more. He describes the incredible amalgamation of ballistic seats, flak jackets and armor that he and his fellow Huey pilots utilized during hot operations.
Jim Smith was part of the last group of helicopter units remaining in Vietnam. He was flying missions out of Cam Ranh Bay for MACV, the Military Assistance Command. He met the delightful Montagnard people on these missions and had a brief billet in the mountain resort town of Da Lat.
Huey pilot Jim Smith recalls seeing the surface to air missiles whizzing past his aircraft. Fortunately, the VC were very bad shots. He loved when he had a Cobra gunship escort because they would pound any position where those SAMs were fired. He also recalls his meetings with the Montagnard people, who were good to have on your side in the bush.
Jim Smith tried not to make close friends with anyone in Vietnam. You never know when they might get killed. He flew missions for MACV, the advisory group which had a lot of special forces assigned to it. These men had to be trained on triple canopy extractions, a tricky business.
Jim Smith and his wife wrote each other every day while he was in Vietnam. A few times they spoke over the MARS ham radio system, which was always comical when they expressed personal feelings followed by, "Over." When he returned after his tour, he was spit on in the San Francisco airport. Twenty four hours earlier, there would have been a different outcome.
Huey pilot Jim Smith landed in a lot of defoliated areas in Vietnam and he saw a lot of aircraft spraying Agent Orange, but he didn't think anything of it. Decades later, he developed diabetes and it may have been related to that exposure.
After establishing which pop songs remind him of his Vietnam tour, Jim Smith describes his emotional reaction to visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and his pride in the memorial built in his home state of Kentucky. That structure is built in the form of a sundial which has a unique behavior.
The first time he killed a man, he felt sick. After a few more, helicopter pilot Bob Stewart just felt glad he was the one who survived. Americans in Vietnam were often accused of just shooting up the place wildly, but that was not true, he says. There was one Buddhist province where he refused to fire, even if fired upon.
This isn't going to work. That's what Tony Nadal told his boss, Hal Moore, as they launched a helicopter assault to search for the enemy. He was right. The forces scattered and hid, so new tactics were called for. The next assault was in the Ia Drang Valley and they were perhaps too successful. Part 1 of 5.
American advisor John Le Moyne didn't give the South Vietnamese Airborne unit much advice. He was there to call in air strikes, artillery, Medevacs and resupply. He marveled at the toughness and courage of the fighters who traced the unit's lineage back to the French Colonial Airborne.
You got the lesser USO shows down in the Delta. Instead of Bob Hope and show girls, you got Martha Raye. Bob Stewart was a little disappointed with the lineup but the lady surprised him the next day when she helped treat the wounded.
When a new pilot checked in, David Farthing asked where he was before. The answer caused him to bite his tongue. They were always short of pilots in the assault helicopter company, but he didn't think this guy was going to work out. Overall, though, things were getting better and it was his opinion that it had a lot to do with the new top commander, Creighton Abrams. (Caution: coarse language.)
It wasn't any ragtag Viet Cong, it was a battalion of NVA that was assaulting the artillery battery where Sammy Davis was stationed in the Mekong Delta. After an RPG hit his gun, he regained consciousness and found his position nearly overrun. After firing every round he had, he saw a wounded American on the other side of the river. He knew what he had to do and his actions brought him consideration for the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.
Can I cut the mustard? Tom Agnew was apprehensive on the way to Vietnam and wondering if he was up to the task. He was assigned as a medic in a helicopter evacuation unit, known as Dustoff. On one of his first missions, he learned not to triage the wounded too quickly. (Caution: coarse language.)
Following a harrowing first day of combat, Tom Buchan was surprised to find hot food flown in and cots to sleep on. He managed to finally get himself on a tank crew through sheer will and intelligence. It was the day he helped out one of the APC crews, though, that earned him recognition.
When someone at work made a comment that America had lost the Vietnam War, Roye Wilson was shocked. Our soldiers never lost a battle there. The politicians decided they would leave and they did. To him, it was an honorable enterprise and the only right course at the time and it is his belief that it contributed to the fall of Soviet communism.
It could be tough getting resupplied in the field in Vietnam. Medic Marvin Cole nearly had a Chinook land on top of him in the fog. He and his medical platoon performed missions treating civilians in their villages and he relates a chilling story of a child used by the enemy to attack one of these operations.
It was the most intense action he saw during the war. Mike Morris describes the hour long battle with an NVA unit that made an unusual frontal assault. When daylight came, it was a grim scene, with hundreds of enemy dead.
His company command at the Cua Viet River was just the way Richard Jackson liked it. He was given free reign to take care of his area. He describes the tactics he used to fight the enemy and recalls one memorable fight in which his men and an NVA unit charged at each other in darkness.
He was all choked up, thinking of his wife and daughter on the trip to Vietnam. Bob Stewart was fighting the loneliness until he received his assignment and got to the airfield at Soc Trang. He was slotted to fly armed helicopters, but was disappointed when he was told he had to start out in slicks, which are transport ships.
While he was beginning his shift as the night duty officer, Lawson Magruder would marvel at the wrecked helicopters brought back to base. The brigade had moved and tactics had not been adjusted for the fact that there were anti-aircraft batteries up near the DMZ. He relates the story of LT Dick Anshus and a downed pilot who were captured.
Platoon leader Bill Pearson sent out a squad to set up a night ambush and when they made contact, it was with a much larger VC force. With the rest of the platoon, he set out to find them and bring them back. When he located the besieged squad, the battle became intense and they were in danger of being wiped out. In a desperation move, he called in artillery on his own position.
The gunship pilot didn't just provide supporting fire, he had to scout out the landing zones ahead of an assault. Bob Stewart was shot through the foot during one of these assaults. He took a break from missions, but continued his other job, giving check rides to new pilots.
The Air Force rescue crews flying the big helicopters known as the Jolly Green Giants began to get respect among the pilots of other services because they excelled at retrieving downed airmen. Pilot Dave Oliver was on one such mission, which was going badly, when the commander asked if was he willing to go in without waiting for backup. The situation was dire for the men on the ground so the answer was affirmative. He would be awarded the Silver Star for this action.
It was hard to find the enemy. Charlie would disappear into his holes and only come out once the Marines of Mike company had left. Richard Jackson's men tried probing the ground with sharp sticks, but they broke too easily. What they needed was steel. Thus was born the "Mike Spike." Part 1 of 2.
Helicopters? Bob Stewart felt they were beneath his dignity because, after all, he was an airplane pilot. What he found out at Fort Wolters is that the helicopter is the most difficult aircraft to fly, and the most versatile. Then it was on to the second phase at Fort Rucker where he was introduced to the Huey.
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.
One night, while Laurie was eating dinner, the USS Sanctuary got a call about a plane crash. She vividly remembers the patients coming aboard, and the aftermath of this incident, including one boy who was MIA. However, as difficult as this experience was, this was nothing compared to the Tet Offensive. They had new wounded coming in constantly, and trying to care for all of them at once was emotionally exhausting. (Interview conducted at, and with the assistance of, the Military Heritage Museum- https://freedomisntfree.org/.)
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.
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. His action during this time earned him the Navy Cross.
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.
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.