Pure Oil Company's crimson Firebird
decal is turning up everywhere in
Vietnam-it soon may rival 'Kilroy'
of World War II

Zapped
by a
Firebird

By James H. Pickerell Photos by the author

FIREBIRD Is a well-known name around Vietnam. Here it belongs to a small but elite group of men who fly armed helicopters — which is, without question, one of the most dangerous jobs in this war. The FIREBIRDS' base is Bien Hoa, a suburb north of Saigon, but their home is over the treetops of the Bo Loi forest, the Iron Triangle, Ben Cat, and other names you read in your newspapers almost every day.

The name FIREBIRD belongs to the eight helicopters and the men of the Armed Platoon, Company A, 501st Aviation Battalion.They have been operational in Vietnam since Christmas of 1964, and two days later were in the midst of Binh Gia, one of the toughest helicopter battles in the war.

The mission of an armed helicopter is to support and protect the "slick" or unarmed troop- and cargo-carrying choppers in their company. They also give overhead cover and armed escort to ground troops. To the infantryman, FIREBIRD means a helicopter carrying machine guns and rockets, which he may call on to strike enemy positions. One measure of the FIREBIRDS' success in protecting their comrades is that the entire company has lost only one gunner in combat since they arrived in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, before you conclude this is an easy task, consider that a helicopter is hit by ground fire on an average of one out of three missions, and Company A has had 20 helicopters shot down in the vast year. Of these, 18 were recovered in repairable condition; the other two were destroyed.

The commander of the Firebird Platoon, Capt. Donald W. Farmham, of Wilmington, Mass., has been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his action on November 8, 1965, in saving the crew in one of these downed aircraft.

An earlier commander, Maj. Lewis J. Henderson, is credited with naming the outfit. "Actually," Henderson says, "my wife, Ramona, thought up the idea one night while playing the Firebird Suite." Mrs. Henderson's father, who lives in Ozark, Alabama, described the choice of names to Jess Sheffield, the Pure Oil distributor in Ozark, who wanted to send Pure Oil Company Firebird decals to the unit.

A flurry of letters flew between Ozark and Montgomery, Alabama, the division sales office, and Palatine, Illinois. Soon thereafter a supply of Pure Firebird decals and Firebird shoulder patches was winging its way by jet

to Bien Hoa, where they were eagerly plastered on the helicopters and uniforms of the FIREBIRD Platoon. As with all military units, there are a wide variety of colorful names in Vietnam: the Tigers, Flying Horsemen. Razorbacks, Bandits and Knights of the Air, for instance. But none have gained country-wide notoriety as quickly as the FIREBIRDS. The first use of the Firebirds was to decorate the helicopters. But the Firebird has appeared in such an unlikely variety of spots in Vietnam that they can be rivaled only by the ubiquitous "Kilroy was here" of World War II fame.

Although the FIREBIRDS' primary area of operations is III Corps, the central area near Saigon, they have been as far north as Danang, and wherever they go the Firebird decals go with them. Other helicopter companies often find, to their blushing embarrassment, Firebird decals covering their own unit insignia. In military jargon, they have been "zapped by a Firebird."

As a result of the FIREBIRD outfit's extensive travels in Vietnam, almost every type of U.S. Air Force aircraft has been "zapped by a Firebird" at one time or another. People who leave gear lying around are in danger of finding a Firebird pasted on it when they return. In fact, it

is becoming a sort of status symbol. Several months ago I joined the FIREBIRDS to cover an operation in the Iron Triangle. When I got back to Bien Hoa, my leather camera bag had been "zapped by a Firebird" and I carried the emblem around for several months.

Even the top brass hasn't been exempted from the presence of the ubiquitous Firebird.

The FIREBIRDS consider their greatest coup to date as the time General William A. Westmoreland, top U.S. Army commander in Vietnam, was in Nha Trang on an inspection tour and stopped to use a FIREBIRD helicopter as a background for a CBS-TV interview. The TV camera was positioned to follow the general as he walked from helicopter to his staff car, standing by to drive him away.

The interview came off without a flaw. General Westmoreland bid good bye to the interviewer and walked to his car. The cameraman followed the action. As the camera focused on the rear of the General's departing vehicle, there on the trunk was a large, crimson Firebird!

James H Pickerell is a free-lance writer-photographer whose pictures have appeared in Time, Life, Fortune, Newsweek and many other national publications.

Our thanks to Rob Eggleston and Charles Bogle for providing us with this article.