Well it was supposed to be "November" but ended up being "January"!
WASHINGTON D.C. REUNION
This item leads the newsletter because of its importance. Please read this section closely if you have any thoughts of attending our next reunion. The reunion hotel is the Doubletree Hotel Crystal City located at 300 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, VA (looking at a D.C. map, I-395 is due south of The Pentagon. The street on the south side of I-395 at this point is Army Navy Drive). If flying in, the hotel is very near Ronald Reagan Airport. The hotel offers free shuttle service to and from this airport. You should be aware that there is a high demand for this service and you may want to consider using a taxi. The hotel charges for parking and our group rate is $6 per day. Armed Forces Reunions (AFR) has been contracted to assist with our reunion. There is a one time $5 per person charge for their services. This is not optional and will be paid when you submit the form to AFR included in this newsletter.
The dates of the reunion are: Thursday, April 29th to Sunday, May 2nd, 2004. The room rates are $99 plus tax (total of about $108) for a single or a double. A $20 fee per person added for each additional person with a maximum of 4 people per room sharing a double. Our room block consists of: April 28th - 40 rooms, April 29th - 130 rooms, April 30th - 160 rooms, May 1st, 160 rooms, Sunday, May 2nd 15 rooms and Monday, May 3rd - 10 rooms. If you arrive before April 28th a discounted rate of $150 plus tax per night will be charged for up to a three day early arrival. Arrivals prior to three days before the reunion will be charged at the "normal" rate, which is considerably higher than $150. If you plan to arrive before the reunion you are strongly urged to make a reservation ASAP. This room block is on a first come, first serve basis. When the block is used up the prices may increase significantly.
Two things must be performed by you. Make your hotel reservation by completing the hotel reservation form in this newsletter and mailing it TO THE HOTEL,or by calling the hotel directly at: 866-999-8439. Tell them you are with the "Rattler / Firebird Reunion" and mention the code the hotel is using for our reunion: RFA (for Rattler / Firebird Association).
The second thing you must do is complete the Rattler / Firebird Activity registration form and mail it along with your payment to ARMED FORCES REUNIONS with payment being made to them.
Vic Bandini is hosting the Firebird Freefire Golf Outing at Ft. Belvoir, VA on Friday morning. The cost is $70 per person - includes green fees, cart, $10 prize package, and a two entrée lunch at the finish of the golf round. NOTE: Vic Bandini is handling all money for the golf. If interested in playing, contact Vic at: 317-201-4800 or e-mail: email@example.com
A city tour is being offered that you can read about on the trip description page of this newsletter. A minimum of 30 persons must sign up for this tour by the cut-off date of March 26, 2004. If this number is not reached all deposits will be refunded by AFR.
Dual Memorial Services will be conducted on Saturday, May 1st at 9 am. For anyone who does not feel comfortable attending our service at "The Wall", David O'Quinn will be conducting a Memorial Service at the hotel. For those wishing to go to "The Wall", school buses are being contracted and paid for by the Association that will leave the hotel at 8:15 am.
The Memorial Service held at 9 am will be less than 30 minutes long. The school buses will depart "The Wall" to return to the hotel starting at 10 am, leaving as they are filled with the last bus leaving at 11 am. This allows our people some time to visit the wall on their own. Handouts of our KIAs will list the panel and line number of each person for your convenience. An Association business meeting will be held at the hotel at 11:30 am after returning from "The Wall".
IMPORTANT: THE SCHOOL BUS RIDE IS FREE, BUT YOU MUST HAVE A TICKET. When you mail in your registration to ARMED FORCES REUNIONS (not to the hotel) you must indicate if you desire a bus ticket(s). This is the only way we will know how many buses are required. These are not handicap accessible buses. The bus ticket(s) will be inside your reunion packet. Armed Forces Reunions will have a table set up in the atrium of the hotel. After getting checked in with the hotel, sign in at the AFR table.
The Reunion Banquet will be held Saturday night. A cash bar will be open starting at 5:30 pm with the dinner beginning at 7 pm. Dress will be casual (no shorts or t-shirts, please).
Our guest speaker for the banquet is Lieutenant General (Retired) Ellis D. Parker, a former Commanding General of the United States Army Aviation Center, Fort Rucker, Alabama. LTG Parker had an Assault Helicopter Command in Vietnam, a Combat Aviation Battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division and a Combat Aviation Brigade in Korea. He was the Assistant Division Commander for Operations, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
LTG Parker held numerous high-level staff positions culminating as Director of the Army Staff at Headquarters, Department of the Army during Operations "Just Cause" and "Desert Storm".
His military awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star with two Oak Leaf Cluster, the Meritorious Service Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters and the Air Medal with twenty-three Oak Leaf Clusters.
He has both fixed and rotary wing qualifications and is an instrument flight examiner in both with in excess of 5,000 accident free flying hours. LTG Parker is the immediate past President of the Army Aviation Association of America (known as the Quad A) and chairs the Army Aviation Museum Foundation among many other distinguished positions.
At the Kennedy Center in D.C. a live show has been playing for years that has been highly recommended if you are looking for some entertainment. The show is called "Shear Madness" and is a comedy whodunit. The show lasts 2 hours and tickets are from $34-$45. You may learn more about this at: www.kennedycenter.com. Then under "find a performance" enter Shear Madness. Tickets for the Thursday night performance go on sale February 22nd. Transportation is on your own for this and this announcement is FYI. Guys attending with their spouse might consider this entertainment as a reward for the lady having to listen to three or four days of war stories. Eight in the "Seabolt" party are already planning to go to this Thursday performance. This show was to be offered as a tour event but a large enough block of tickets could not be secured.
As at all previous reunions, the Association will furnish beverages and cold snacks to cut down on your expenses.
ODDS AND ENDS
Chuck Gross (WO May 70-May 71) has his new book, Rattler 17, accepted by a publisher. Chuck told us that the book would be ready next August. We will keep you posted on this.
William "Whiz" Broome has now officially received his "eagles". Col. Broome is currently the head chaplain at Ft. Sill, OK.
Congratulations to George Jackson (OF 66-67) and his new bride Claudette. George Jackson is a man who would be followed anywhere by the men who served under him. (Editor's personal opinion)
Congratulations to Colonel Johnnie B. Hitt who has been inducted into the Fort Benning, GA OCS Hall of Fame. Look for his picture if you visit their museum.
The Association was contacted earlier this year by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. concerning the Vietnam memorabilia we have. They are expanding their war section to 20,000 square feet to be opened in October 2004 and were looking for a few items. NOTHING donated to the Association will ever be given to anyone without the donor's permission. The Smithsonian people selected a few items that had been acquired by Chuck Carlock through various sources and two other items. They wanted John Lynch's flight helmet and uniform he was wearing on July 2, 1967 when he was severely injured by exploding ordinance on board his aircraft. As luck would have it, Lynch had given prior approval for this donation. The Texas Heritage Museum located at Hillsboro, Texas has an extensive collection of war related material for their museum and are very interested in some of Carlock's other items. This is a state supported museum, not a private collection.
On the merchandise order form on the back page of this newsletter please note the gray Firebird Golf Shirt for $12. The only size we have of these is XXL. They are being sold at cost to clear the inventory. This item has the "flying" Firebird emblem, not the Firebird patch.
More and more of you are getting "on-line" with the internet which is by far the quickest way to mass communicate these days. If you now have an e-mail address or have changed your address, please contact the Association at: firstname.lastname@example.org with this information.
At the reunion business meeting an election will be held for two board of director positions due to term limitations. Qualifications for the BOD positions are that you be a current dues-paying member. This also applies for you to nominate someone for this position. Hal Bowen is our Association Election Chairman and due to his traveling can be reached on his cell phone at: 919-819-3918 if you wish to be on the slate for a position or to nominate someone. Nominations must be received before the reunion. Vic Bandini has been nominated and has agreed to run for the BOD.
In the newsletter, note the business card of Bill Didio's company, LZNAM. Bill served with our unit in '68-'69 and has supported our Association extremely well. Should you be in the market for military merchandise please check out LZNAM at: www.lznam.com
RATTLERS and FIREBIRDS (An Assault Helicopter Company In Vietnam)
This long awaited book about our unit is due out at the end of March. This is not chiseled in stone, but we are assured of having the book at the reunion. When the book is received an announcement will be placed on the home page of our web site. Ordering the book through our Association will be your best source. The book will be a large paperback, otherwise known as a trade book. There are to be 32 photographs included. The price will be $15 each plus shipping and handling. Buy 10 books and receive one free (11 total) plus free shipping and handling.
There are new stories and stories reprinted from past newsletters in this book. There could be no easier way to tell someone what life was like in the Rattlers and Firebirds than to hand him or her a copy of this book. The book assures us that our stories will live on in print long after we are gone. We were the vanguard of the modern air assault tactics now used. Be proud of your service.
AVIATION IN THE BLOOD - Received in a letter from "Wild" Bill London
I received a call from Firebird 96, Terry Igoe several months ago advising me that Terry's son Mike had graduated from the Air Force Academy and was starting flight training at Laughlin AFB, Del Rio, Texas, where I live. I contacted Mike right away and since then my wife Jan and I have "adopted" Mike and his whole class of 26.
They come to the house in mass every couple of weeks to just drink beer, BBQ and hang around. We love it! Last month Terry and his wife Trish came to visit and they along with Mike stayed at our house and the whole class came over and we had a blast!
I am enclosing a couple of photos you might be interested in. See you in D.C. (note photo in newsletter)
Editor's note: The story about Bill London on the Firebird flight line assisting the EM in breaking down rockets comes to mind. Being hot (naturally) everyone in the crew had their shirts off and was busy as bees when a jeep stopped where they were working. A one-star general stepped out and as he neared the men, he asked who was in charge. Bill, in his very native Texan, stuck out his hand and said, "Wild Bill London from Del Rio, Texas!" I hope he throwed a sir on the end.
The Association has been informed of the death of Martin Elder on January 1, 2003 of heart failure. Martin was an enlisted man serving in 1969-70.
I never learned to really enjoy all the rules and regulations they used to have in the military. I was not into spit shine, polish, haircuts and the like. I believed that on New Years Eve, at midnight, some noise was in order. I created some with my M-14, firing tracers straight up into the night sky at our base at Chu Lai. It was loud and it looked neat, kind of like fireworks. The Army was not impressed. It had a regulation covering just about everything that was any fun at all and as a result I was awarded the rank of private E-1 at my court martial. Little diversions, like I pulled on New Years, used to be a good outlet for the stress of flying. It was good for me to let off a little steam and a lot of the guys in our company enjoyed my antics. I really enjoyed seeing my friends laugh and I thought I was keeping the war a little lighter. God knows we could all use some laughter back then.
We had a TDY (Temporary Duty Assignment) mission that most of the gunners and crew chiefs loved to volunteer for up in Danang. We used to fly single ship missions for the 5th Special Forces group who were headquartered there. These guys were really an interesting group of individuals and much like myself they all seemed to possess and uncanny knack for getting themselves into extremely tight situations. The SF guys with the VC and me with our officers. We all enjoyed flying into remote regions of the country where there were little or no U.S. forces outside of a small triangular shaped special forces camp. Each mission was a complete adventure and completely unstructured. Each camp we visited thought up ingenious ways to use a helicopter for their camp support and the support of the local population, on whose good will the camp depended entirely. It was at one of these Special Forces camps early in my tour of duty in 1966, when our company was stationed at Bien Hoa, that I had jumped into my first mangrove lined tributary in the Mekong Delta for a refreshing swim in the dark brown muddy water on a hot humid delta day. Years later I learned that the delta tributaries near the coast were inhabited by a particularly vicious breed of salt-water crocodile.
We were briefed about our mission one morning before departing for our daily anything goes foray into the jungle. Our two jittery pilots laid it out this way: they want us to evacuate some dead Vietnamese MIKE force KIA's before the patrol was rediscovered. The extraction went without incident, but it had a pucker factor of 10.
On returning to Danang that evening we all felt a few drinks were in order to relieve the stress of the day's missions. My gunner and I drank until the EM club closed. We still felt like a few more beers when we noticed the officers club was still open. We returned to the Special Forces billet where we were staying and on the way to our rooms we passed a room that had a major's fatigue shirt prominently displayed with that gold oak leaf on the lapel. The wheels started to turn and I couldn't resist the temptation. I put on the shirt and we headed back to the officer's club. Another super military regulation that allowed officers to drink longer than enlisted men was about to be trashed by two drunken EM. We passed by the armed Vietnamese guards at the door and I returned their salute as we entered. We were both standing just inside the door eyeing up our new surroundings when I noticed several "Green Berets" at a table motioning us over to join them. They all seemed pretty friendly and asked us if we were part of the chopper crews. We said yes and they bought us some drinks and thanked us for performing some of our missions. After a couple hours of drinking and talking, we all decided we had finally had enough and were going to call it a night. As I rose to leave, the Green Beret that I had been talking to next to me at the table motioned me close as if to tell me a secret. He said, "Don't forget to put my fatigue jacket back!" We both laughed hard and parted the evening as good friends.
I read an article in the May 2003 Association Newsletter which prompted me to send you my recollections, I felt compelled to expand on the events of that day. The Article " Pilot Reveals Chopper Crash" tells a partial story of what I feel was one of the most rewarding missions from my year in Viet Nam. WO1 Wendell Freeman, WO1 Pat Riley, SP4 Dalferro and SP4 Betts were shot down on a mission into Laos.
The simple story is that the downed crew was rescued by myself, CW2 Mike Friel, WO Hubert Collins, SP4 Tony Catalina and another door gunner whose name, unfortunately, I no longer remember. The more complex story is the story of a well planned well executed mission which did not result in the accomplishment of the stated objective, but still managed to show the best Army Aviation has to offer and brought everyone home alive despite some great adversity. There were many ways for this mission to have ended in disaster, but it didn't, and I along with 15 other Army Aviators am proud to have played my part.
The very planning of the mission proved to be significant to our survival. We were assigned to take a heavy gun team to cover an extraction in Laos. Four UH1C gunships were assigned the mission instead of the normal two. The two Firebird ships described above and two Shark ships, the crews of which were equally important to the successful completion of this mission, but who's names, like the name of one of the heroic door gunners on my own aircraft I no longer can recall. In addition to the four aircraft the planners, at least on the Firebird aircraft sent all experienced crews. All four pilots were experienced Aircraft Commanders. Wendell was a designated Fire Team Lead, Pat normally flew as his Wing Man, today they were a crew. I was, like Wendell, a designated Fire Team Lead and Hubert, like Pat to Wendell, normally flew as my Wing Man, today we were a crew.
The door gunners were all excellent, I knew Tony the best. He sometimes spoke about his time with the infantry as a machine gunner, he, like the others was a great solder. I was very sorry to hear of his death a while ago. If I had to pick any one person, as difficult as that would be, who stood out among the sixteen people on this mission that person would be Tony Catalina. He was a great American. His efforts that day some thirty years ago allowed us all to come home from that mission.
As the Aircraft Commander of his aircraft I wrote Tony up for a bravery citation that day. I don't know whether he ever was awarded one but he certainly deserved one. Tony's actions do not detract from the bravery of the other people on the mission. In my mind, at least, his actions are imprinted and I've always held him in the highest esteem.
The second element in the planning stage that set up the mission for success was the pre-mission briefing by the Fire Team Lead. I don't remember who he was however; I believe he was one of the Sharks. If I remember correctly one of the Sharks lead, the other was number two in the tactical trail flight of four UH1C's with Wendell and Pat number three, leaving Hubert and I number four. Anyway, whoever he was he said something which has stuck with me for over thirty years, he said "We all go into Laos together and we all come out of Laos together." Those words sound simple but they established the mindset that was instrumental to the success of this mission. That was the planning success this mission was planned and staffed well. The next element, which brought all sixteen of us through the day, was the execution of the mission.
We were flying along in our low level tactical trail formation, I think the expression is "fat, dumb and happy" when an incredible and, at least for the one aircraft, accurate barrage of RPG, automatic weapon and small arms fire was directed at us. An RPG hit Wendell's aircraft and took away his controls. Pat quickly took control of that aircraft and landed it without injury to any of the crew. What an act of professional competence and teamwork. I wasn't in that aircraft but I've often imagined the scenario; low level, high speed, controls shot out, switch flying pilot duties, land under fire without injury. What a Job! Hubert, as briefed, jettisoned the external stores on our aircraft and just seconds after the first aircraft crash-landed brought us to a hover in a confined area not far from them. I've always imagined him reacting to the pre-brief; "We all go into Laos together and we all come out of Laos together",
Once we landed, or I should say came to a hover, we came under sustained enemy automatic weapons fire. Hubert continued to hover the aircraft in the LZ. I assumed radio duties and directed the crew. Tony asked if he could go get the downed crew. He was a great guy, I knew he meant, " I'm going to get the crew " so, of course, I gave him permission. I still find what happen happened next to be the most amazing part of the day, a visual image that has stayed with me to this day,
We were taking an incredible amount of fire with the major portion coming from our left rear, the downed aircraft being to our left front. SP4 Tony Catalina, a young kid from back home, got out of our aircraft and single-handed charged the enemy concentration. Even more amazingly, he beat them back in what seemed like no time, alternately charging the enemy and taking cover until the enemy fire from that quadrant was significantly reduced. I witnessed a lot of courage and professionalism that day, but I "gotta tell ya" Tony won the prize in my book, what a GREAT guy! After defeating the NVA by himself, he went and got the downed crew and returned to the aircraft.
While all this was going on, others were not idle; the other door gunner on my aircraft was fighting off, what looked to be a substantial enemy force to our right. Enemy tracers were streaming through the rear of the helicopter, in one door and out the other. The door gunner had his helmet cord shot through and we were forced to communicate with hand signals. We would not have been able to maintain our position without the gunner. Once we got everyone on board, I spoke to the Sharks, who had been covering us. They told me they had both received extensive battle damage and had to leave the area so it was time for us to wrap it up. They had given us the precious time we needed to recover the downed crew. With everyone on board, Hubert took off and flew right into a tree. UH1C's were not meant to carry eight people out of a confined area on a hot day. We bounced back, threw out all the extra weight on board, everything not screwed to the aircraft almost, then Hubert and I both took the controls and took off, together we hit the same tree Hubert had hit the first time, only this time with less weight on board we hit higher on the tree and our rotor blades cut out a path for us. It was not pretty but it worked.
We all came back alive that day. Some thirty years later Hubert Collins told me " I flew harder than I've ever flown to get out of there". My response was "Me too H"! When the press came that evening some of us tooted our horn to drown the noise of some others, but I've always felt sixteen people went into Laos and sixteen people were responsible for sixteen people coming out of Laos with the help of forward thinking commanders and operations staff. None of us ever made it to the original mission, however I've always viewed that day as a great day for Army Aviation and I'm proud to have played my part.
Being assigned to an assault helicopter company in Vietnam is a serious and dangerous occupation. That is exactly the thought that occurred to me as I read my name and assignment on the posting board at The United States Army Rotary Wing Flight School in Fort Rucker, Alabama. We were graduating and had received our assignments. There was great excitement and dread as Rotary Wing Flight Class 69-11 gathered around the bulletin board to see where we were going next. Of course, almost everyone was going to Vietnam so that was no surprise. The anticipation and anxiety came when you looked to see what kind of a unit you were assigned to. Tommy Chance, one of my roommates at Fort Wolters, TX, was assigned to a Medavac unit. This caused Tommy some real discomfort, especially when the rest of us made the sound of machine guns and bombs exploding and told him the life expectancy of a Medavac pilot was only a few minutes. As I searched the rolls, I saw that I was assigned to the Americal Division, in the I Corps section of Vietnam. Much to my dismay, everyone quickly told me that this unit was in the northern part of South Vietnam and was always getting into bad firefights and lost lots of helicopters. Eric Kilmer, Lenny Ecker, Tommy Desert, John Plummer, Ed Klemanski, and I am sure a few more, all had the Americal as their assignment as well. We looked nervously at each other and said we hoped we would be in the same unit; turns out that most of us were. Ed Klemanski went to the 176th AHC. The rest of that group was assigned to the 71st AHC based in Chu Lai on the South China Sea.
After graduation, everyone was anxious to take leave with loved ones in light of the prospect of going to Vietnam. My wife and I claim Fort Walton Beach, FL as home and we were looking forward to a month at the beach before I headed to the "Nam." Our families gave us a beautiful condo on the gulf and my brother loaned us his cherry 68' Vette to cruise the beach. Ah, life was good and Alexa and I had a great time together, bonding, loving, and dreaming of our future. We had just gotten married before flight school and this was actually the only time we had for a proper honeymoon. But, as happens too often in military life, time ran away from us and at the end of a lightening paced 30 days, I was going to war. My father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force stationed at Eglin AFB, FL. He was the deputy base commander and in cahoots with the base commander, they got me an Air Force flight to Fort Lewis, WA so I wouldn't have to go there two weeks early as my orders indicated. This meant that they had to find an aircraft, get a crew and schedule some type of mission to Fort Lewis so I could stay with my wife and family until the last minute. There is no doubt in my mind that this was probably illegal but no one seemed to care because young men were going off to war, and any thing that helped ease that pain seemed right. Times were different then and the military was not the target of the political bean counters for every trip and dollar spent. Some may look at this as wrong; I looked at it as the military taking care of their own. Two full Colonels flew me to Fort Lewis, with a stop over in Texas. There were several passengers to Texas, but the flight plan to Fort Lewis showed me as the only passenger. I sat in the cockpit and we talked and laughed all the way there. That is probably the only time in my entire life when I will be the guest of honor on my own-chartered military flight! It is wonderful to have such good friends and a military community that cares about family enough to bend the rules. Both my dad and the base commander were WWII vets and were proud of my service to my country. Walking to that plane was perhaps the most difficult walk I ever took, especially when I turned and looked back at my pregnant wife left standing on the runway. I couldn't look back until I got to the plane because my heart was breaking and I thought I might just turn around and go back home with her. No doubt, this scene was replayed over and over again across the nation during this misbegotten war.
Once I got to Fort Lewis, I had about a four-day wait during which time I was issued uniforms and gear for Vietnam. It was the usual waiting game that happens to all soldiers when they are going somewhere. Hurry up and get in line to wait for hours to get gear you didn't want in the first place and as an aviator, probably wouldn't use the whole time you were deployed. The only high point about Fort Lewis was that I was in a running 24 hour poker game in one of the transient billet rooms and I won about $400 while waiting for my flight out. That scene is still a pleasant memory in my mind as I see us sitting around the table, all services present, laughing, drinking, swapping military war stories of basic training and flight school and wondering what it would be like in Vietnam. Little did any of us know the effect this war would have on our lives, those of us that lived through it. I still have my ticket stub for the Trans World flight to Vietnam. It seemed so weird to have stewardesses, meals, and all the normal airline stuff on a flight to a war zone! Almost like the pictures of Civil War battles where families rode out to watch the war, cheering for their young men, never thinking that they could and would die right in front of them. Did the pilots, stewardesses, and attendants ever wonder what happened to the young boys they talked and laughed with on the way to Vietnam? I am sure they did, and I hope the experience seemed strange to them as well.
As the plane touched down at Cam Ranh Bay, everyone became silent and the reality of this trip hit home for each of us. Some were Marines, some sailors, some airmen, and some soldiers. Some would be at large bases relatively safe, and some were headed to the bush to meet Mr. Charlie, but everyone felt the same fear of going into harm's way that day. From Cam Ranh Bay we all took different flights to the units that eagerly awaited us. Every new arrival meant that someone else was going home. Our bunch of aviators stayed in Cam Ranh Bay about two days and then took a C-130 to Chu Lai and the Americal Division. That flight has to go down in history as the worst flight I have ever taken! There were no seats, not even the hanging nylon seats, and we were directed, more like ordered, to sit on the floor packed like a bunch of hot, sweaty children without even an inch of space between us. Then, to make it really bad, the flight crew threw nylon straps across our legs and cranked them down until we were literally stamped to the metal floor. Water was passed around, but since there were not enough bottles to go around, we had to share them. We were all hot, muggy, dirty and smelly, so sharing water together with this miserable lot didn't seem all that bad. Amazing what you can get use to in the military! After what seemed like a full day, we arrived in Chu Lai. There was a large runway, big hangers, lots of trucks and jeeps driving around, and somehow this felt friendly and sort of normal. Until we looked at a large pallet of gray metal coffins being loaded onto a plane right beside us. I am not even sure what I thought at that moment, just that it seemed so very bizarre and yet at home for this place. It was one of those moments when you don't say anything to your buddy, and he doesn't say anything to you. You just look at the coffins, at each other, and get on the bus that takes you to your billets. Our destination in Chu Lai would be home for a week, not our final home in Chu Lai, just a temporary stop to acclimatize us to life at war in the "Nam."
Early the next morning, a 2 ½ ton truck, a duce and a half, took us to the Combat Center for the Americal Division. Everyone that came to the Americal Division went through the Combat Center. Those going to units in the bush stayed two weeks; the rest of us stayed a week. We went to classes that showed us what booby traps and mines looked like. We were even taught what marijuana smelled like by lighting up a giant joint and passing it around for us to smell, and for many to sample, amid warnings about what harm drugs and bullets could do when mixed. This is where I first heard the term that many used when preparing to do something illegal or against orders, "So, what are they going to do, send me to Vietnam?" The "F" word was used a lot here and somehow seemed appropriate for the time and situation. Another favorite term for the "In Country" experience was, "F___ it, it don't mean nothing." This could be used for anything that happened from promotion to death and everything in between. Again, it seemed appropriate for the time.
It was at the Combat Center that I got my first real taste of war and death. One morning after chow I was headed back to my hooch to get ready for the day's classes when a series of 122MM rockets began to impact the area. As I ran for cover I dove under some seats in the outdoor movie arena and tried to bury myself as far into the dirt as possible. The rockets came in for about five minutes and there were four or five hits on the Combat Center. Luckily I was in an area that was spared from the destruction I was about to witness first hand. Standing up I began to orient myself as to where the rockets hit and what damage had been done. Everyone was running either for cover or to help those who were wounded. I decided to run behind the mess hall to where there was a large volume of smoke rising to see if I could help anyone. When I turned the corner behind the mess I saw what was left of the dental clinic. Part of the in processing procedure was to have your teeth checked and worked on if needed one of the most bizarre sights of my experience in Vietnam awaited my view as I looked at what was left of the clinic. A single dental exam chair was all that was standing in the front of the clinic. It just sat there defiantly empty with blood splattered on its torn fabric surrounded by stumps of smoking ABD burning wooden boards. There were several bodies covered with blankets and sheets with blood soaking through in patterns where the shrapnel hit. There was no one to help at this site. On either side of the inner arena of the Combat Center were the hooches or sleeping quarters for officers and enlisted personnel. My vision turned to another smoking area that was once a hooch for the enlisted men training there. When I arrived at the ruins of the building, they were loading bloody mattresses onto a truck and moving the bodies of those unfortunates that tried to take one last nap before the day's training. It was strange that I didn't see very many wounded in the area, perhaps they had been moved out to a medical holding area. Or perhaps the strange bursting radius of a 122MM rocket was the cause. The 122MM rocket had a very unique sound and bursting pattern. The all too familiar sound of the rockets very quickly became etched on your mind. It was almost as if there were two stages to the rocket's explosive detonation and one could hear a very clear "K-BOOM" each time one exploded. The bursting radius was not as wide and deep as one might expect from such a powerful rocket. Instead, they seemed to explode up and out in a tight cone pattern so that unless you were right in the path of the rocket you might just escape death or serious injury. It was customary to walk around after a 122MM rocket attack and marvel at how much or how little destruction took place according to what and how the rockets hit. Once while living at the 14th AVN BN HQ area, a 122MM rocket hit between my hooch and the one to our left. Since the hooches are only about 10 yards apart you would think this would cause a lot of damage to both hooches. Instead, the impact tore some holes into the tin roof overhang and ripped up some of the sandbags we had piled up to the windows, about 4 feet high. But I can tell you it scared the HELL out of me!
Once our time in the Combat Center was completed we took another duce and a half to the company area of the 71st AHC and our new home for our year in Vietnam. As F___ing New Guys (FNGs) we felt pretty alone those first few weeks. Everyone is happy to see the new guys arrive but not everyone is ready to make you their buddy. As I stated before, the Americal Division had a reputation of getting into a lot of firefights and losing lots of men and equipment. During 1969-70 this was to prove all too true for the Rattlers and Firebirds of the 71st. We were in awe of the senior pilots and the stories they told around drinks at the Officers Club on the beach. Tales of battles, quad 50s, combat assaults and wounded aviators filled the night at the bar. Our initiation into the unit was one worth noting. We were taken outside to a makeshift weight lifting area and told to get together and lift a barbell with two coffee cans filled with cement on the ends. Since the three of us FNGs knew this would be easy, we squatted down together to lift and were doused with several five-gallon buckets of ice water. Now, we were a part of the company and would take our places around the bar to tell future FNGs the glories and uncertainties of combat aviation.
I clearly remember sitting with my old flight school buddies on the porch of the O club looking out on the South China Sea as we wondered what war would be like for us. We couldn't know or understand how much we would be affected by our tour in Vietnam. Those young men, so full of courage, patriotism, loyalty and youthful curiosity were about to experience the worst that humankind had to offer. After our year in the sweaty bowels of Hell, we would forever know the horrors of war and feel the mistrust toward a nation that required us to go to Vietnam, only to finally leave in disgrace in the end. Saying that we won every battle seems so hollow and so much a lie when you realize we lost the country we went to save. Let me clarify a point here, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines won every battle, the politicians lost the country. These are the lessons of Vietnam, the hard fought lessons of flight, fear, friendship and loss that you experienced first hand during your one-year of the war. Sitting on that beach that night we began to realize we had truly transitioned from "Flight School to Fright School."