Rattler/Firebird Association



A veteran – whether active duty, retired, national guard or reserve – is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to “The United States of America,” for an amount of “up to and including my life.”

“Like the book said, we may be through with the past but the past is not through with us!”


Some of you are still mailing letters and orders to the old Terrell, TX address. I have been living at this Mabank, TX address since May of 2017. Note the correct address on the return address for this newsletter.

Wendell Freeman sent the Association an email about a book he had just read named Legend by Eric Blehm. This book tells the incredible story of SSGT Roy Benavidez and what he did to receive the Medal of Honor on May 2, 1968. The very interesting part of the book to us is the role of the 240th Assault Helicopter Company and their support of this unit in Cambodia. The 240th AHC is commanded by Major Jesse James. This is the same Jesse James who served as a platoon leader in our company in 1964-65 as a captain. Major James is depicted in a good light. I recommend this book to all who are interested.

In May 1997, the 240th AHC held their first reunion in Washington, DC. The feelings described about this meeting of old warriors are exactly like what our unit had experienced in February 1993 in Memphis, TN.

A number of months ago I learned that one of our men had recently become seriously ill. I called the guy to check on him and he told me he had suffered from a brain tumor and lung cancer but the treatments had a great effect. His brain tumor had disappeared and now they were working on the lung cancer.

About two minutes after ending the call I did one of those “slap your forehead” moments. I had failed to see if this person was going to the VA.

I immediately called him back and found out he had never been to the VA. I told him about the lung cancer being covered under a presumption of cause by Agent Orange. The guy told me he had smoked for years and that was probably the cause. I told him that did not matter whatsoever. He needed to get to the VA ASAP and file for compensation. All he needed was this: A qualifying medical diagnosis and proof of service in Vietnam. The VA would examine him and then determine if he was eligible for compensation.

The next week I had an appointment at the Dallas VA and asked this person and his wife to meet me there. I would show them around and especially show him where the Disabled American Veterans’ (DAV) office was located. He needed to meet me early so he could begin his waiting time at 7 am for the 8 am opening of the office. He needed to get ahead of the line.

All of this took place and the claim filed. A number of months passed and I received a phone call from the man telling me he had been approved for 100% compensation with a big pile of back pay, tax free.

From that moment forward, if he was to die as a cause of this disease his wife would receive dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) for the rest of her life. At present this figure is above $1500.00 a month, again tax free.

This story is up front in this newsletter to get your attention. A full list of the Agent Orange presumption diseases are listed on our website. At the top of the page, click on VA Benefits, then click on Agent Orange to see the list.


The 2020 Reunion will be held at the Mobile Marriott at 3101 Airport Boulevard, Mobile, Alabama from Wednesday, May 27, 2020 until Sunday, May 31, 2020.

The hotel has 251 guest rooms and 4 suites. Among the hotel concessions, the contract has given us these items.

Reservations cannot be made until we are within one year of the event. The hotel phone number will be in your May newsletter. Cutoff for reservations will be Thursday, May 7, 2020. The room rate is $119.00 per night plus all the taxes which brings it to about $150.00 per night total.

We were able to negotiate a smaller room block which protects the Association. However, a byproduct of this is the absolute necessity of making your reservations as soon as possible.

Tours to be offered include the USS Alabama plus additional displays at this park, including touring a WWII submarine.

The Naval Air Station at Pensacola, FL will also be offered.



"The Association Board of Directors has unanimously agreed that at future reunions, when our Memorial Service is scheduled to begin, usually at 8:30 on Saturday morning, the doors will be closed at that time and there will be no further admittance to the room. The purpose of this service is to honor our fallen brothers by showing all the respect they are due. It is a very solemn event.

This notice will appear in every newsletter going forward and, at reunions, there will be prominently placed signs to this effect, as well as announcements.


The recently posted video on our website, flying down the coast brought back a memory. In the spring of 1965, CH-34's at Rucker were used to instruct Vietnamese pilots and transition US Army and US Air Force pilots as well as some Coast Guard pilots.

There was a decent pizza place just north of whatever road runs along the beach at Panama City. It was a nice cross country check point and a convenient stop for lunch. No big deal, it had been going on for years.

Also, buzzing the beach during Spring break was a fun thing to do. Until on a low pass (as in Vietnam low pass) one of the college boys threw a volleyball into the path of a H-34. It hit one of the main blades and into the co-pilot’s windshield.

The accident investigation board kept asking why there was no blood or feathers inside the cockpit from the bird strike. No one talked and the pilots got away with it. It did cut down on low passes along the beach.


A poem written in 2017 by a twelve year old granddaughter of a Vietnam veteran with PTSD Reprinted from the VHPA Aviator - by Lydia Miller

I am what I am. I am a sufferer. I am the sad anger, the depressed feeling in your body. I am the pain you feel when you think of the war. I am the loneliness. I am the wounds you have. I am the memories you keep locked up. I am the clinic you go to. I am the sounds you hear. I am the nights you stay awake. I am the anxiety you have. I am the horrible feelings you have. I am the costs you paid. I am the badges you’ve won. I am the villages you have burnt. I am the uniform you wore. I am the friends that died. I am what I am and I’m the effects of the Vietnam War.

Once again, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is weighing whether to add several new diseases to the list of health conditions presumed in Vietnam veterans to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange. A VA working group continues to study whether bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and other diseases with Parkinson’s-like symptoms will be added to the presumptive list; illnesses the Institute of Medicine (IOM) said may be more strongly linked to exposure than previously thought. If added to the presumptive list, the diseases should automatically make a Vietnam veteran eligible for VA disability benefits and free health care. In the meantime, VA recommends that veterans who have an illness they believe is directly related to Agent Orange exposure to file a claim immediately. All claims cases are considered on a case-by-case basis if a veteran’s illness is not on the presumptive condition list. Should new diseases be added to the presumptive Agent Orange list, the new regulation would go into effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register. And your award, if approved, would go back to the date you first filed for compensation. Stay tuned…

If you’re submitting a claim for an increase in disability compensation, you need to know about VA’s Decision Ready Claims (DRC) Program. Using this program, VA will deliver your decision within 30 days or less of when the claim is received.

Here are the DRC steps to expedite your claim decision

Appoint and work with an accredited Veteran Service Organization.

Gather all relevant and required evidence to support your claim, such as military service records and medical exams.

Attend a VA claim exam, if needed.

Submit your claim.

In addition to claims for increases, the DRC program covers certain claims related to direct, presumptive and secondary service connections. Surviving spouses can file certain claims under DRC, and transitioning service members can file pre-discharge claims less than 90 days from leaving the military.


TIP: If something develops, take a picture with a camera or a phone with a camera. Show it to the examiner and send in a hard copy of the photo large and gruesome enough for the examiner to clearly see it. Hopefully before lunch. For something like sleep apnea, make digital recording of how you sleep. Edit the recording to highlight the problem as well as sending in the unedited video and audio.

TIP: When you visit a civilian medical institution ask them to fax a copy to your VAMC. They will then digitize them and they are added to your permanent VA medical file.

TIP: After you file your claim, VA will send a letter verifying receipt of your claim and notifying you of the infor-mation they need. This will include release forms they will need you to fill out in order to request files from civilian doctors you have seen. Be sure to read everything very carefully. Sometimes the dates can be wrong or VA might be asking for the wrong information. In addition, you may have better luck getting documents from doctors than will the VA. When you forward medical release letters to civilian medical providers for their records, be sure to follow up with a phone call to ensure they understand what you are requesting, especially for psychologists. Leave nothing to chance and never expect the VA will figure out how to contact these people for you. They are not your friend here.

At the examination for conditions like PTSD, VA has examination criteria online. Google whatever condition to read about the experience of other veterans after their exams. This can help a lot. First, it will help you frame your condition in terms that the VA examiner will use in their analysis of your condition. Second, it will help you think through relevant dates and issues prior to the evaluation. This increases your credibility factor with the examiner.

Lastly, write a one or two page summary about your condition. Use bullet points with brief explanations of each and every treatment for that particular condition. Be careful to not overwhelm your examiner. Ask if the examiner has viewed your C-File before the exam. If not, you may have a claim for a review if the examiner gives you and adverse finding. If the C-File is not present for the exam, be sure to note the fact. A lack of C-File can bias your exam and be cause for a new one if you do not get the results you think you deserve.

In closing, be patient. The whole process can take up to one year or longer. So, do not expect the cash to start flowing in quick enough to pay next month’s rent.

TIP: There are several conditions where the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will propose a reduction in a veteran's service-connected a disability rating.

It is very important for all veterans to know that a proposal is not yet a decision, therefore, veterans have time to challenge the proposal to reduce their rating and to provide medical evidence as to why a rating should not be reduced at all, or not as much as VA proposes.

Many VSOs suggest that veterans not send the “Notice of Disagreement” form to "appeal" the proposal, as a veteran can only formally disagree with a decision or appeal an actual decision.

If a veteran asks for a personal hearing within 30 days of notification of a proposal to reduce their rating, the VA will not reduce the rating until the veteran has a chance to present appropriate evidence.

If the VA continues paying at a veterans’ current rate until a hearing has taken place (if necessary) and the veteran is not successful in convincing the VA not to reduce their rating, this may create an overpayment that the VA will definitely recoup from the veteran as soon as humanly possible.

For certain conditions, when a veteran gets a high rating on a disability, a VA decision letter will oftentimes indicate that "since there is likelihood of improvement, the rating is not considered permanent and is subject to future review."

This means the VA will contact the veteran at some point in the future to re-evaluate the status of his/her disability. Disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or migraine headaches may improve with medication or sit-down talking therapy of some sort and is therefore, oftentimes, subject to future scrutiny and examination by the VA.

It is very important if a veteran is service-connected for a condition the VA says is subject to future review that the veteran continues to see a medical provider to report current symptoms, which will factor into any future evaluation of the particular disability.

Another example of when VA will propose a reduction is when a veteran is service-connected for a cancer.

When cancer is present and for a certain time after treatment stops, a veteran will be rated at 100 percent for this disability. However, if the cancer goes into remission and the veteran is no longer undergoing any treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy, the VA will rate the veteran on the residuals of the cancer. What does that mean?

For example, if a veteran is service-connected for prostate cancer and was 100 percent during treatment and for a certain time after the treatment ends and the cancer goes into remission, the VA will propose a reduction to a percentage that reflects the residuals (side effects) the individual has such as urinary leakage, urinary frequency, erectile dysfunction, bowel urgency, the use of absorbent materials, and other factors related to treatment.

It is very important to read the letter and understand what percentage is given for residuals (side effects), and that the veteran report to his doctor all residuals so when a veteran receives a proposal for a reduction, the veteran will know whether or not it accurately reflects residual symptoms and if not, have medical evidence to submit to request a higher rating.

Another example of a VA proposed reduction is if the veteran is receiving 100 percent disability under Individual Unemployability (IU), and the veteran does not return the form the VA sends every year asking for verification of employment status. If the veteran ignores the “IU Letter” and does not return the form to the VA, the VA may send the veteran a letter saying they are going to reduce the current rating to the combined rating held before the veteran was awarded 100 percent under I.U.

The same holds true for letters the VA sends randomly to veterans receiving additional compensation for dependents (veterans rated at 30 percent or higher). This letter will ask a veteran to verify there has been no change in their dependent status. If the veteran does not respond, the VA will send a letter saying they are removing the dependent and that the veteran owes the dependent rate portion of their compensation back to the date they last had confirmed dependent information.

It is very important for a veteran to always report any change in dependent status to the VA, such as a divorce, death of a spouse, child who marries, death of a child, etc.

Also, and of great importance, the veteran should always make copies of any documents sent to the VA. Many veterans have great success in sending documents to the VA with a certified stamp. That will show proof the VA received or did not receive the veterans’ documents.


Gerald Hickey spent 17 years as a civilian in Vietnam, both before and during the U.S.-led war. While working as an ethnographer for the RAND Corporation, Hickey often rode in Army Huey helicopters, accompanying Green Berets on visits to remote villages.

Funeral attendees for Cpt Stan Esckilsen
Kelly McHugh, Randy Thomas, Lynn Kazmierowski, Gene Waldrip, Ron Seabolt, Jim Collins, Terry Igoe, Vic Bandini, & Chuck Carlock

Ernie Palmieri KIA 8 December 1966, Lou Becker, unknown 1966

Randall Howell, KIA 27 August 1966, Everett Runnels, KIA 27 August 1966 and Ikei

Robert McDaniel - KIA 5 July 1967

Richard McGee KIA 1 July 1966, Belton and Randall Howell KIA 27 August 1966

Larry Smith & Jerry Tippet - 1967

Bill and Connie Holgerson, Bill and Margo Lurvey and Paul and Judy Teelin
Cruising the Caribbean.

“I hated choppers,” Hickey recalled in 2006, “the way they banked in the turns, flew toward treetops, and jumped up at the last minute. I had to sit in the seat and cover my eyes with my hands.”

But he appreciated the Army fliers more during a visit to the remote Green Beret camp Nam Dong in 1964. On July 5, hundreds of enemy soldiers attacked after midnight. The defenders held the perimeter through the night, but in the morning, enemy machine guns drove off six Marine Choctaw helicopters attempting to deliver reinforcements. Hickey recalled a wave of fear and disappointment among the survivors. But then a single Huey swooped over the treetops, door guns blazing. The Army crew cleared a path for the relief helicopters to return. “Fearless, those kids,” Hickey said.

“We were all young and crazy then,”” says Jim Messinger, who flew Hueys in Vietnam. “My first job as an adult was to fly around in a helicopter and let people shoot at me. I was 20 years old in flight school.” That school was the Primary Helicopter Center at Fort Wolters, Texas. Of all the helicopter pilots who flew in Vietnam, 95 percent passed through the center at Wolters. Located in north-central Texas, the school, which ran from 1956 until the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, was an essential part of the pressure cooker process that transformed anybody who qualified–from teenagers to grizzled combat officers–into world-class helicopter pilots.

“There was a huge range of experience,” recalls A. Wayne Brown, who worked at Wolters as a flight instructor for contractor Southern Airways. “Some had never been in a plane, and some were fixed-wing pilots. I had to show some of them how to buckle a seat belt–they were that green.”

Wolters relied on three models of small training helicopters, all powered by gasoline-fueled piston engines. These were cheaper to operate than the Hueys and in many respects were trickier to fly–hence good trainers. None of them came with instruments for flying in clouds–such advanced training happened elsewhere, such as Fort Rucker, Alabama. Wolters was all about learning to control flighty machines under “contact,” or visual, conditions. Students–mostly warrant officer candidates, but commissioned officers too–flew day and night. Flight school had two phases of instruction, each eight weeks long: Primary I and Primary II

“Primary I taught ’em how to fly a helicopter. Primary II, how to use it,” says Brown. “Our workday was about 6 a.m. to noon, or noon to 6 p.m. It was probably the best flying job I’ve ever had.” Given Brown’s long flying career, that’s saying a lot: After the war he flew offshore helicopters, taught military pilots in Iran, then operated a variety of helicopters in the South, before becoming assistant chief instructor at Bell Helicopter’s training academy in Texas. When actor Harrison Ford bought a Bell 407 and needed a world-class instructor, Brown got the assignment.

Southern Airways pilots like Brown taught basic skills in Primary I, and military pilots just back from the war typically handled Primary II. During my visit to Wolters, Brown introduced me to Dwayne “Willy” Williams*, a combat veteran who added wartime lessons to the Wolters curriculum. Williams came to Wolters as a Warrant Officer Candidate, then flew UH-1B gunships in Vietnam. After the war Williams stayed in the rotary-wing world, including working as chief test pilot for manufacturers like Bell and MD Helicopters. He was copilot on the first test flight of the Bell/Agusta BA609, the first civilian tiltrotor.

Instructors took three students at a time and got to know them well. Now, 50 years on, veterans of the program still remember class numbers and hat colors, flying buddies and instructors. “Every eight weeks we threw out the old bunch and took on a new one,” Jim Messinger said as we had lunch in Woody’s, a Quonset-hut diner on the main drag of the nearby town, Mineral Wells. “College courses should be like that, eight weeks long.”

After flying Hueys in Vietnam, Messinger returned to the fort for two years, serving as an instructor and standardization pilot. He spent a second year in Vietnam as a Sikorsky CH-54 heavy-lift cargo pilot.

Now Messinger teaches computer science at nearby Weatherford College. He devotes his spare time to setting up the National Vietnam War Museum, located in Mineral Wells, just over the hill from one of the wartime heliports. After filling his garage with memorabilia donated for the future building, he found space in a hangar. When we visited the metal building, he showed me a box with dozens of framed class photos circa 1967: rank upon rank of smiling students hoping to fly in combat. I asked about faces marked out with red grease pencil: Some washed out of the program, Messinger said, and others died in action. “I stopped keeping track of all the students after a while. It was just too hard.”

Messinger recounted his days teaching the basics of hovering and flying a piston-engine helicopter at no-frills facilities called stagefields, spaced well away from the main heliports. Practice at the stagefields helped build the complex skills needed for landings and takeoffs. Instructors threw inflight emergencies at the students without mercy.

“It was intense,” said Brown. “No loose time, no boring holes in the sky.”

Wolters trained pilots for all branches of the armed services and for allied countries, in particular the South Vietnamese army–a total of 41,000 in 17 years of operation. At the peak of activity, just before U.S. forces began a long withdrawal from the war in 1969, Wolters was sending 575 pilots per month for advanced training at Fort Rucker. There they learned instrument flight rules, tactics, formation flying, and how to operate the bigger, turbine-powered Huey. The entire process–from boot camp to Wolters through graduation from Rucker–took less than a year. In that time, a high school graduate was transformed into a UH-1 pilot, holding the rank of warrant officer.

A teenage enlistee at the recruitment center might have had visions of an exciting, all-expenses-paid helicopter career, but he may have missed the part about having to go through not just one but two spit-and-polish phases called boot camp. The second, at Wolters, was called preflight school, and for warrant officer candidates it lasted four miserable weeks, a purgatory ruled by a living terror known as the TAC (Training, Advising, and Counseling) officer, who specialized in finding all levels of imperfections, down to misalignment of socks in the drawer, uniforms in the closet, and notebooks on the desk. An infraction by one WOC could bring down fire upon his entire preflight class.

“It was like OCS [Officer Candidate School], all spit-shine,” said Messinger. “The more you cleaned, the more they looked. If the sink was too clean, they took it apart to find something wrong. They got us up at midnight and turned us into the hallway. But after four weeks it got easier.”

Why the grief? Top-notch flying skills wouldn’t be enough to cope with the chaos and fury of combat. An aircraft commander in Vietnam–even if too young to vote–was going to hold life-and-death power over his copilot, crew, passengers, and many others within range, so he needed a cool and steady temperament. Occasionally a senior pilot was injured, and brand-new copilots had to take command. And they could face such trials very soon after landing in Vietnam. Williams recalled that one of his classmates, having been called into action while on an orientation flight with a veteran aircraft commander just four days into his first tour in Vietnam, was killed in action. ( WO-1 Robert Pruhs of the 71st AHC) Jim Martinson, another student, had been in-country just a month when he was shot down twice in one day. “I can remember the first combat assault I saw like it was yesterday,” Williams said. “It was intense. We were on the second lift, and every time a slick [on the first lift] would get on the radio you could hear the gunfire. There were gunships flying over the targets, [white phosphorous] smoke, and the enemy firing from the treelines. I thought, I don’t know how long I have to live. It was surreal, like: How did I end up in this movie?” Hence the daily harassment of warrant-officer candidates at Wolters. “The first four weeks was like a filter,” Messinger said. “If you can’t take this, you can’t take combat either.” Messinger recalled the rebellion of an experienced non-com with a fine service record. “He said, ‘I’m a staff sergeant and I don’t have to put up with this.’ So he just left and went back to his E-6 rating.”

On April 13, 1967, a storm hit Downing Heliport, damaging 179 TH-55A helicopters. The next day, Hughes officials sent 9,000 pounds of replacements parts, plus three engineers. (Courtesy The Portal to Texas History)

Between 1956 and 1971, the OH-23Ds logged more than 2.5 million flight hours training primary helicopter students, reveals a Fort Wolters history. (Courtesy Bill Jeczalik)

After training, Dwayne Williams flew UH-1C gunships in Vietnam with the 175th Aviation Company. (Courtesy Dwayne Williams)

A few flight instructors carried the tradition of torment past the preflight barracks and into the air, screaming at their students and rapping them on the helmets with a stick. But that was not standard procedure, and as critical tests approached, students who struggled to learn under one instructor’s style could request an alternate.

As we approached a row of two-story dormitory-style buildings, Messinger stopped his Dodge van and pointed to a second floor window at the end of Building 779: his Spartan quarters while a Warrant Officer Candidate

By comparison, commissioned officers who came to Wolters for identical flight training enjoyed the good life. They avoided the first month of hell and received a stipend to live off-base, so they usually had enough cash for amenities and weekend misadventures.

“The pay was good,” recalls Hugh Mills, who was a lieutenant when he arrived at Wolters in 1968. To stretch his salary he shared an apartment in Weatherford, a half-hour east, with other officers. They commuted in style. “One officer I knew had a Dodge Charger, one a Corvette. Mustangs were popular,” Mills says. “Mine was a 1968 GT350 Mustang, four-speed, two plus two, with a Pony package.”

Whether a privileged officer or lowly WOC, all students faced the risk of failure. There were constant tests and emergency drills. The most hair-raising of the flight maneuvers required trainees to cope with complete engine failure: They had to take their hurtling, unpowered machines all the way to a screeching stop on the ground. It’s called a touchdown autorotation. After the instructor pulled off the power and left the main rotor to windmill, students had only seconds to adjust the controls and find a safe landing spot–which could be out of sight behind them. This taught them to scan instruments constantly, and be aware of traffic, terrain, and wind direction at all times. Over his career of flying and instructing, Brown practiced the maneuver more than 80,000 times.

Mistakes during autorotation practice at Wolters caused aircraft damage, injuries, and a handful of fatal crashes. “But after 200 flight hours,“ Messinger says of the whole trial by fire, from Fort Wolters through Fort Rucker, “we were super-highly trained by civilian standards.” Williams recalls that his training at Rucker ended with a few days at a forward helicopter base that simulated conditions students would find in Vietnam, during which students were awakened at night with big firecrackers and alert horns that ordered them to their ships at a flat run.

If the students failed a key test along the way, they washed out of helicopter school. During the peak enrollment years, 1968 and 1969, about 15 percent failed to graduate from Wolters. While noncoms and officers could go back to work they had been doing, a newly arrived Warrant Officer Candidate who failed had no such fallback, and likely would end up slogging through rice paddies in Vietnam.

For those who graduated as warrant officer pilots and went to Vietnam, “you were automatically looked upon as a leper by the grizzled old combat veterans–anywhere from 19 to 21 years old,” Williams recalls of his days as a new pilot. “[But the training] worked because the majority of helicopter pilots made it home, and it’s hard to put a figure on how many thousands of lives were saved as a result of the Huey, and the brave young men who flew them.”

Of all the stateside tests to earn that ticket, the most critical and memorable was the solo flight and the check ride leading up to it. Some students never developed the hand-eye coordination to keep the aggravating machines steady in a low hover, and so never got a chance to fly solo around the field three times and move on. The strict timetable at Wolters required students to qualify for soloing after 10 to 15 hours of dual instruction.

Students who survived the solo saw immediate and happy changes. One happened on the bus ride at the end of the day: The vehicle pulled over at a Holiday Inn, and fellow students dragged the new soloist out and threw him into the swimming pool, regardless of weather. He also got a wings emblem to sew on his cap. Soloing brought great improvements to the social life of the warrant officer candidate who, unlike officers in the same training, had been confined to base and subject to TAC officers’ harassment. Students with the big “W” emblem on their caps could finally get leaves, and many sought companionship in female-rich places such as the American Airlines stewardess school in Dallas, or Texas Women’s College in Denton.

Fear of failure also eased (slightly). With each successive week, the Army became more invested in fledgling pilots, so flunking a test was more likely to lead to remedial instruction than to being tossed out.

Wolters began with a single heliport and four stagefields for daily practice. In 1965, with Vietnam demanding more helicopter pilots, the fort added two big heliports and 21 stagefields.

The Army gets credit for starting the pilot pipeline as early as it did: When the program started, no war was under way, nobody had worked out the cavalry-like tactics, and the gasoline-powered helicopters then in use were barely adequate even for war games. The year Wolters opened, Bell’s UH-1 had just entered flight testing as a prototype, and was still four years from the assembly lines.

Students in the small, piston-engine helicopters learned to cope with marginal performance: In summertime, the OH-13 models could barely get off the ground. “With two students on board on a hot day, using the skids for a running takeoff was the only way to get in the air,” says Brown.

Bumping and scraping the skids along the pavement was a skill all students at Wolters learned, no matter which model they flew. For one, it was a simple but effective safety precaution at the crowded heliport. Because so many helicopters were parked on the apron, and because beginners find precise hovering so difficult, the school feared collisions during taxiing, so instructors had their novices skid down the traffic lanes on the way to takeoff, applying just enough power to be light on the landing gear but not so much as to rise off the ground.

That noisy practice would come in handy later: “Many times in Vietnam,” Williams says, “flying a loaded gunship on a hot day, you’d have to skid down the runway until you achieved translational lift.”

Wolters’ original, or Main, heliport is barely visible now, because of changes that followed after the Army handed most of the fort over to Mineral Wells for business redevelopment. Most of the concrete expanse, once home to 550 helicopters, is covered by rusty fences and heaps of even rustier oilfield equipment. Thanks to a cadre of veterans and volunteers, though, a restored main entry looks as good as ever: Visitors to what is now an industrial park drive under a helicopter-theme archway. On the left side of the orange, steel-frame archway sits a restored Hiller OH-23-D. A sturdy and powerful 1950s helicopter, it’s still used for light cargo and cropdusting around the world. On the other side of the arch sits the TH-55A Osage, a light two-seater originally developed in the 1950s by the Hughes Tool Company’s Aircraft Division for sale to police departments. A similar version is still sold today by the Schweizer division of Sikorsky Aircraft.

The third helicopter type used at Wolters was the H-13, the military version of the bubble-canopy Bell 47 civilian models made famous by old movies and television shows. At the peak, the fort had swept up nearly 1,300 helicopters for its trainees. A tornado in April 1967 damaged 179 of them.

By the end of 1968, the three heliports were handling at least 2,000 takeoffs and landings daily, five days a week. “It was like Oshkosh every day, twice a day,” said Williams as we toured the outskirts of Mineral Wells in Wayne Brown’s SUV. “The most exciting part of the day was the recovery, when there were 600 or 700 helicopters all coming in about 11 a.m. We did have a couple of midair collisions–I’m not sure I’d do it that way now.”

We set out with hopes of getting into the now-abandoned Dempsey Heliport on U.S. Highway 180; I’d heard that it had a well-preserved aerial map in one of its briefing rooms, showing the training areas in great detail.

Seeing Dempsey Heliport’s red-and-white water tower, Brown turned down an access road and stopped at the gate. There was no sign of activity. The only suggestion of something valuable was a padlock on the gate and a sign reading Junco Inc.

As we stood at the gate, Williams said, “Darn! We need a helicopter to get in there.”

Fortunately, no helicopter was necessary to get a good look at remnants of the stagefield known as Bien Hoa, two miles north. Like all the stagefields, it had a small control tower, paved strips and pads for landing practice, and a building for students to study in between flights.

Seeing the rusty steel frame of an air traffic control tower from the county road, Brown and I climbed a gate and then the rusty stairs to get a bird’s-eye view. Brown pointed to remnants of an asphalt strip nearby, where helicopters pulled up for refueling. Other long strips and pads to the east were for practicing approaches and autorotations.

The close attention to off-airport skills at Wolters, and later at Rucker, makes sense in light of what the new armada of gas-turbine helicopters offered to U.S. forces in Vietnam: the ability to land, or at least hover over, any place in the war zone. This agility compensated for helicopters’ drawbacks relative to fixed-wing aircraft: slowness, expense, vulnerability to small arms, and shrimpy payload. By 1965, swarms of Hueys proved able to shift hundreds of troops in cavalry fashion, accompanied by gunships firing on enemy forces who’d be untouchable by any other weapons platform. They retrieved wounded soldiers and restocked ammunition. Larger helicopters hauled artillery tubes and bulldozers.

But fully exploiting these virtues required extraordinary flying skills. Often success depended on the ability to hug the terrain in nap-of-earth fashion, then plunge into tiny clearings among the trees. Some of those clearings were barely bigger than the helicopter itself. And taking off was even chancier. Given high air temperatures and heavy payloads–such as a load of rescued troopers–pilots had to know how to use every foot of the space available, and every pound of lift.

While taking off may sound easy–don’t helicopters just rise straight up?–a helicopter climbing vertically can’t develop nearly as much lift as a helicopter that climbs out diagonally, with forward airspeed. In the confined areas around Wolters, which were marked by tires of different colors to note their difficulty, students learned how to get out of very tight spots. It was a lesson they’d use often.

*NOTE: Dwayne (Willy) Williams has attended several Rattler – Firebird reunions as a guest. He was flight school classmates with our own Robert Pruhs, Beryl Scott and Jerry Shirley.


First of all, I need to clarify that in writing this I am trying to present the facts to the best of my recollection. After all, it was 49 years ago. So, if I get a detail or two out of line please forgive me. As many of you know, when four crewmembers fly together we are all looking at different locations and seeing different things, so one person may see something that the other didn’t. I am writing this not as a war story, but a story of faith-based events that take place during war.

It was June 16, 1969, a day that changed my life and provided me lessons that I still look back on today. I was a Crew Chief and left side door-gunner with the Firebirds. We were sitting on LZ Baldy getting ready to escort infantry from the 196th on an insertion to an area that I always referred to as Lead Valley. It was between LZ Center and LZ East.

I had an eerie feeling that this day was going to be a bad one. We had two gunships and several slicks lined up ready to head to battle. As I looked at the infantry men I remember thinking “How many of these guys will not return?” Unfortunately, there were many who did not. We headed out and I was saying my usual prayer to God to please let us return. We were soon on location escorting the first flight in, and there was no fire. In fact, there was no fire at all until the last flight came in. Then all hell broke loose. We ran right into the NVA, which was well positioned and heavily armed. When the insertion was complete, the slicks were headed back to where they needed to go next. Our two gunships stayed on location suppressing enemy fire as long as we could before the need to return to Baldy to refuel and rearm.

Returning to the scene was nerve racking knowing we were going back into the raging battle that we had been in just moments earlier. We were listening to the radios, and the Commander on the ground was begging us to hurry as they were taking heavy fire.

As we got on location, we set up our first gun-run. The lead ship was crewed by Pilots Kelly McHugh and Mike Callahan, Crew Chief John Wiklanski and Gunner Jim Hiler. I was in the wing ship crewed by Pilots Steve Moy and Dennis Wheeler, myself as Crew Chief and Gunner Mike Cameron. McHugh had started his run when they got hit and were on fire. Our thoughts were that we were going to lose our buddies because the aircraft would soon explode. They went down in flames but reached ground before the aircraft was engulfed in flames. Not knowing if any slicks were still around, we thought that our aircraft was the only hope of getting our fellow Firebirds out. We started our run and fired off as much as we could before needing to dump our pods to lose weight so we could be light enough to pick them up. Closing in on the ground, we could see McHugh’s crew running towards a slick piloted by James Leech, the only slick around who came back in. The downed crew was being chased by NVA ground troops. The crew was able to get on board and safely extricated with only minor burns.

Most of the NVA were on my side, and all I was doing was firing my machine gun and spraying the area to try to keep them down. Knowing now that we were not picking up the downed crew, we needed to get out of there. Moy banked left and to our surprise we ended up going over the majority of the NVA. We were just about treetop height when we encountered two 51 cal. machine guns–one on my side and one on Camron’s side. We both engaged our targets, but it was no match in firepower. The NVA gunners caught us in a cross fire and were obliterating our aircraft. They shot off our tail rotor, and we knew we were done. I can remember thinking, “I just turned 20 years old, and this is the last day of my life.”

Soon we spun out of control and slammed into a hillside far from our own troops. Our aircraft was completely destroyed. There were aircraft parts scattered everywhere. The blades had come down at an angle that sheared the nose off the aircraft. The transmission came down and crushed the fuselage down to the seats Cameron and I had been sitting in. Thankfully by having our monkey straps on, the force threw Cameron and me down on the floor of the aircraft right behind the pilots’ seats. We all ended up in the only locations we could have survived in. Cameron and I crawled out of the side and the pilots unstrapped and crawled out the front–an unbelievable sight. All four of us not only survived the crash, but we had no cuts and no broken bones. We were bruised up but thankful we were alive!

Our joy of surviving the crash was soon over as we realized the enemy was in fast pursuit of our location. Our thoughts were of how we were going to get out of there. We didn’t think any slick was near enough to respond to our Mayday call and that we were on our own. All of a sudden we heard the sound of a Huey coming in. As I turned and looked up I saw something I had never witnessed before. At first, the Huey didn’t look like a helicopter. It looked like some kind of unreal image. It only lasted a split second and then I was back to reality. To me, that image was God coming in for me. I knew at that point God was going to save us. Now, that doesn’t mean I was not scared but I just knew we were going to make it out.

The rescuing aircraft was piloted by Robert Combs. He was on LZ East when he heard McHugh’s Mayday and then ours. He responded, and as he headed down into the valley he watched our aircraft coming apart and then crash. He didn’t think we could have survived. If I remember correctly, Combs told me later that he felt God had directed him in. It was a very dangerous rescue. Combs aircraft came under extremely heavy fire but he continued in, risking his life and his crew; but they knew they had to do it. God was going to save us by using a helicopter and four crew members to do the job. God called on these men and they answered the call.

As Combs was making his descent we judged where he was attempting to set down, and we ran for our lives to get there. In the meantime, I remember the door-gunner firing near me, and I thought he was going to shoot me. But when I turned around he was shooting the NVA troops only yards behind us.

Combs was having a hard time setting the helicopter completely down because of the terrain, but that didn’t matter to us because pure adrenaline provided us with the power to jump in the aircraft. As we took off the 51 cal. had a bead on us and blew the windshield out. Both pilots had cuts from the Plexiglas. Other small arms fire was coming in and the aircraft was receiving heavy damage. The aircraft was vibrating and we knew we were on borrowed time staying airborne. We were able to get to LZ Center just in time. Upon examination, in another five minutes of flight time the aircraft would have come apart. The amazing thing about this was that there were eight of us on the aircraft and no one took a round. It was unbelievable that we could take that much gun fire and the only injury was from the blown windshield.

Many battles took place and many of the crews may have had similar stories. Many may have felt God was there for them as well. Even though I grew up attending church, this was the day that I knew personally that God was real and vivid to me. God performs miracles every day, and many of them are when he calls upon us to take part. I just pray that when he calls upon us that we answer his call.

I was out of the Army approximately 15 years, and I was asked to be the speaker one day at our church. It was called Laymen’s Sunday. I was extremely nervous because I felt unqualified to speak before them. After several days of anxiety, I decided to just get up and present my story of how God saved my life in Vietnam. The whole congregation was crying; I was reliving the experience and showing my emotions. Afterwards I was just drained and spent, but I realized how good I felt letting my emotions show and dumping a lot of insecurities and built up anger. I realized God gave me that day in June, 1969, to share with others. As a result, I have been asked many times over the years to speak to other congregations or groups. For me, it is a healing. I learned that others needed to hear the story, and some veterans have come forward and shared their experiences.

On September 5, 1969, I was wounded during a night mission and still felt God was with me. When I was the Commander of my local Purple Heart Chapter I encouraged others to speak out. In fact, we had some members who went to schools and groups to share their stories. The stories were not about the tragedies of war, only to educate and share life-changing experiences. Don’t be afraid to share with others, it is healthy.

God works through his people! Be thankful for your blessings and take each day at a time.


An Army Sergeant Major and a General were sitting in the barbershop. They were both just getting finished with their shaves, when the barbers reached for some after-shave to slap on their faces.

The General shouted, “Hey, don't put that stuff on me! My wife will think I've been in a whore-house!”

The SGTM turned to his barber and said, “Go ahead and put it on, my wife doesn't know what the inside of a whore-house smells like.”


I was eating breakfast with my teenage granddaughter and I asked her, “What special day is it tomorrow?”

Without skipping a beat she said, “It's U.S. Congressman's Day.”

She's smart, so I asked her “What does that mean?” I was not ready for what she was about to say.

She replied, “U.S. Congressman's Day is when they step out of the Capital Building and see their shadow, and we have four more years of Bull Shit.”

You know, it hurts when hot coffee spurts out your nose.


  1. You believe in Santa Claus.
  2. You don't believe in Santa Claus.
  3. You are Santa Claus.
  4. You look like Santa Claus.