Rattler/Firebird Association


By Colonel Johnnie B. Hitt, U. S. Army Retired, Rattler 16 & Rattler 3

Dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Colonel Tommie P. James (US Army Retired) from Bixby, Oklahoma who died on February 2, 2021 from complications caused by COVID-19. Remembered and respected by all who served with and under him from December 1969 through June 1970 when he commanded the 71st Aviation Company (Rattlers/Firebirds) in Viet Nam.

This story is a about several things. It’s a little about me in the Vietnam war, a brief overview of what I did on a daily basis and a little about what it is like when your helicopter quits flying and you find yourself on the ground like an infantryman. But it’s mostly about soldiers, leadership and how one man named Tommie P. James from Bixby, Oklahoma made a difference in the lives of the men of the 71st Aviation Company (Rattlers/Firebirds) from December 1969 until June of 1970.

By December 1969 I had only been in Vietnam for about 90 days but what a 90 days they were!! On December 2, I was a young, 23-year-old doing my part fighting in the War. I was very fortunate because I was a captain in the U. S. Army flying the UH-1H Bell Iroquois (HUEY) helicopter. As far as I am concerned, it is the best helicopter ever made for jungle warfare. Its ruggedness and dependability saved my life many times and I am sure I speak for thousands of crewmembers that can make the same assertion. I was also fortunate because I was flying and not having to live, sleep, eat and fight like my infantry brothers in the jungles and mountains. We flew those soldiers every day and saw firsthand how miserable the fight on the ground was for them. The infantry were the real heroes of the Vietnam War and all of us in Aviation were proud to have supported them.

I had arrived in-country the 1st of September and had been assigned to the 71st Aviation Company, 14th Aviation Battalion in Chu Lai on September 10th. This was after attending the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal Division) in-country orientation. I was a 1st Lieutenant with less than three years in the Army. On September 14th, just 14 days after my arrival, I was promoted to Captain in spite of the fact that I had very little experience. There was no time to dwell on it because by that time I had been assigned as the Assistant Platoon Leader of the 1st Platoon which consisted of 12 Helicopters and over 50 soldiers. That job was very demanding and required me to learn quickly. Most of what I learned in the first 12 days of flying in the Area of Operation (AO) was taught to me by the best Warrant Officers I have ever served with. Under the guidance, training and leadership of Warrant Officers Mike Curtis, Tom Desert, Eric Kilmer and Phil Spudich, just to name a few, I learned enough and by the Grace of God to stay alive for the rest of my tour.

On September 22nd, just eight (8) days after being promoted to Captain, I found myself in the middle of the biggest helicopter ambush I could ever imagine. I received the right to wear the Purple Heart Medal that day along with many other soldiers including two Killed in Action (KIA). You can read about that story under the title “Black Monday” on the Rattler-Firebird website. It is just an example of my training and experience leading up to December 2nd.

By November, I had progressed enough in experience and training to pass a very stringent check ride and earn the honor to be an Aircraft Commander (AC). AC’s were experienced and qualified to command an aircraft, lead a flight of multiple helicopters and in some cases fly Command and Control (C&C). Shortly after that I was selected to command the 1st Flight Platoon. The 71st Company’s mission was mainly to support the Americal’s 196th Infantry Brigade on a daily basis. Our AO was basically a little North of Chu Lai and west to the Cambodia and Laos borders. We flew resupply, combat assaults (CA), command and control, gunship escorts and support, and whatever else the Infantry commanders needed. The 71st had two lift platoons, a large maintenance platoon and one gunship platoon. The gunship platoon’s call sign was Firebird and the remaining company elements had the Rattler call sign. Although most of our support was for American Soldiers, we also supported the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) soldiers as needed in our AO. During this period of time we were conducting combat assaults almost every day. On this particular mission we were conducting a large assault supporting the Brigade. It would require 10 lift ships, 1 C&C, and two Gunship Teams. The company policy was always to have a high ship for recovery during a combat assault this large. The high ship in this operation, as well as most of our similar situations, was the Maintenance Platoon’s UH-1H Helicopter with four M-60 machine guns. It was crewed by the company maintenance platoon personnel. Their call sign was Snake Doctor and their HUEY was always the strongest and most reliable in the fleet. It was common to get additional assets above what the 71st could provide from our sister units, the 174th Aviation Company and the 176th Aviation Company. For this particular mission, as normal, the company operations officer received the ground commander’s plan for any combat assault (CA). With the platoon leaders’ assistance, he assigned crews to each aircraft the night before in coordination with the Maintenance Platoon who provided the aircraft available to fly. In addition, they did the coordination with our Battalion Headquarters and the other companies to get the assets needed. The combat assault was a “go” for mid-morning on December 2, with a troop Pickup Zone (PZ) at a Brigade location named Hawk Hill. This was a secure, well-staffed and equipped PZ which we used on a daily basis. When the hectic 2 hours of scheduling and coordination was successfully completed, I was assigned as Flight Lead for the upcoming CA.

The crew assignments were typical for these assaults. As flight lead, I was assigned Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Phil Spudich, a very experienced pilot. As a new AC, I was flying right seat and was at the controls for this mission. was personally responsible for the flight of 10. In addition to having a very experienced AC, I was also assigned one of the best helicopters in our fleet and the very experienced soldiers that maintained and crewed it. The aircraft was 298 and just happened to be the Company Commander’s designated helicopter. It was clean and shiny; one of the best aircraft in the company. I wished privately later that day that I had been assigned the worst helicopter in the company.

We briefed the crews the morning of the 2nd where I divided the 10-aircraft flight into two flights of five. I did this as a contingency plan in case the Landing Zone (LZ) was too small for a flight of ten. This would turn out to be a good plan. Captain Mike Callahan was designated as the second flight lead. Mike was in training to become a platoon leader and this was a great opportunity for him to learn more about leading combat assaults. He was also assigned an experienced AC to assist and train him. The designated high ship was Snake Doctor as usual. It was flown by Captain James (Jim) Duke from Fort Worth, Texas who was the Company Maintenance Officer and Platoon Leader.

Major James, the new 71st Aviation Company Commander, flew the C&C aircraft. As C&C he commanded the entire flight operation portion of the CA from Beginning to end. This was how the company normally operated. Because I had been flying every day since his arrival there hadn’t been a chance for us to meet and in retrospect he didn’t know much (if anything) about me. I knew he had been in the area for the previous 6 months, coming from the position of Infantry Brigade Aviation Officer and had an outstanding reputation. He had been in charge of the Brigade’s Aviation Detachment consisting of several OH-6 Cayuse Loach Helicopters. He was no stranger to the AO. More about him, his leadership and our relationship a little later but now back to the combat assault mission at hand.

The designated PZ was Hawk Hill where we were to pick up 196th Infantry Brigade soldiers and insert them into the designated LZ. Each helicopter carried five (5) or six (6) fully combat ready infantry soldiers for the initial assault. This would put about 60 infantrymen on the ground at one time hopefully surprising and overwhelming any enemy in the area until additional soldiers could be inserted on the following flights.

The flight formed and landed at Hawk Hill to pick up the waiting infantry. Remember the flight consisted of aircraft crews from three different companies. Because of the prior coordination and briefings, there were no problems in the PZ and the flight was quickly on the way to the LZ. The flight time was about 15 minutes so the LZ came into sight quickly. About that same time, the C&C instructed us to land with two flights of five and not one flight of ten because of the size of the LZ. All acknowledged and Captain Callahan dropped his flight back to form a 2-minute interval between landing of the first and second flights. As I turned onto final approach, things started getting busy with prelanding checks, crew coordination, designating the landing formation, coordinating with the Firebirds and flying the heavily loaded aircraft. All seemed to be going as planned and per the Standing Operating Procedure (SOP) and I gave a private and quiet sigh of relief. That moment did not last long!

On final approach we flew over the first hill with a tree line that surrounded the entire LZ. At the same time, I saw a sudden flurry of activity through my chin bubble. As I focused on the movement, I was shocked to see North Vietnamese Regulars (NVA), not Viet Cong, removing a camouflage covering from their position. A closer look revealed that they were uncovering a concealed 82MM mortar. We were slowing from our cruise speed of 90 knots but we were still moving over the ground at a rapid pace. We were only about 150 yards from our anticipated landing spot when I alerted the crews on the command frequency that the landing zone was hot. I instructed the crew to mark the mortar position with a smoke grenade and they immediately complied.

The Firebirds instantly rolled in and started attacking the enemy position but it was too late for us. As we were descending into the landing zone at about 35 feet above the landing point, the first machine gun fire burst from the tree line on our right side. This is the first incoming fire the flight had received to that point. Almost simultaneously the entire LZ erupted into a scene that looked like a huge 4th of July demonstration. The difference being that the fireworks were real bullets, tracers, mortars and grenades all targeting our five helicopters.

My aircraft was hit by the first eight rounds fired into the LZ. Whoever fired the machine gun was experienced and well trained because he knew exactly where to aim to disable the Huey. The rounds penetrated the most exposed part of the helicopter, the single turbine engine. The accurately fired rounds destroyed the turbine fan blades and made the combustion chamber look like Swiss cheese. The instrument panel lit up like a Christmas tree and the engine quit. The low RPM warning beeper was blaring in my ear as the engine RPM dropped to zero. At the same time the radio was filled with calls from crews receiving massive effective enemy fire.

With six fully equipped infantrymen my aircraft was heavily loaded. Therefore, with no engine power, the helicopter dropped like a rock from its altitude of 35 feet. Phil and I realized at the same time that we were going land short of our intended landing spot. This would cause us to hit a rice patty dike which we were avoiding before the engine was shot out. Knowing that the dike would cause the helicopter to tip over if we hit it the wrong way, Phil applied the exact amount of backward pressure on the cyclic needed to stop the forward motion. Simultaneously, he kept the collective where it was to save the rotor inertia necessary to cushion the landing. I made a quick May Day call and then we both cushioned the impact by sucking the collectives into our armpits. The corrective actions worked but resulted in the main retreating rotor blade flexing down past the normal range when the aircraft contacted the ground.

These required unplanned maneuvers caused the blade to sever the tail boom and cut off the entire tail rotor section. Fortunately, we were able to keep the aircraft straight and level and stop the forward motion before we impacted with the rice patty dike directly in front of us. This all seemed to be done with ease but you have to remember, we were still getting shot at and this all happened extremely quickly! All of the catastrophic events combined caused a lot of damage to the aircraft but suddenly none of it was important…because the enemy wasn’t finished!

The actions that Phil and I took to stop the forward motion, to level the aircraft and to cushion the impact worked. Although they were the correct actions necessary to prevent a major disaster, we still hit so hard that the skids collapsed and bent up far enough to allow the belly of the aircraft to clear the ground by only a few inches. The impact felt like I had been thrown off a ten-foot-high platform sitting in a kitchen chair and the chair landed upright and on all four legs. It hurt! No time to worry about that…

We were now receiving heavy and accurate machine gun and small arms fire from the left side of the helicopter. Mortar rounds were landing sporadically all over the LZ. We still had electrical power so while I was in the process of turning off the fuel switch and battery switches to prevent a fire, Phil had already come across the center console and had rapidly exited the right cargo door. He was a big, tall man and I didn’t realize he could move so fast!

At the same time, the crew chief opened my door, slid the chicken plate rearward so I could exit out the right side as well. The helmet’s microphone quick-disconnect cord was designed so that you did not have to take off your helmet when making an emergency exit from the cockpit. The helmet was somewhat bullet proof so it was safer to wear it when you hit the ground in a hot LZ. It was a good system but it didn’t work this time. As I made my rapid exit the quick-disconnect cord was caught in the door as it slammed shut behind me. After I had taken about two steps, the door slamming on the cord suddenly stopped me in my tracks, jerking me back causing me to fall flat on my back impacting the ground hard. I hit so hard on my back that it knocked the breath out of me. The crew chief immediately came to my side asking if I had been shot. He said later that it looked like I had taken a round in my chest knocking me backward. After that was cleared up and I got my breath back, I was dazed and wondering for a moment…what next?

The six infantrymen who were aboard had evacuated safely as soon as we crashed, apparently with no injuries because they were nowhere to be seen. The infantry knew as well as anyone that a downed aircraft was like a magnet drawing the NVA to it. They didn’t want to be anywhere near it. I couldn’t blame them but as a crew we needed to stay as near as possible to the aircraft because we knew a quick rescue from our company would be attempted and they didn’t have time to be looking for us. In fact, throughout my tour, we averaged rescuing a downed crew from a Combat Assault in less than 15 minutes.

As all this was transpiring, Mike Callahan saw the crash from above and ordered a go-around for his flight of five and returned to the pickup zone to await further orders. This action left us with only about 30 infantrymen and oh yeah, the four of us on the ground to fight!

The remaining four helicopters of our flight of five successfully discharged their infantrymen under heavy fire. One of the aircraft hovered toward us but upon taking several hits, had to abort its rescue attempt. Another helicopter hovered toward us and took several rounds as well and had to abort. Now with no helicopter sounds around us and only the sounds of enemy rounds being directed toward us, I quickly analyzed the situation and realized that we were vulnerable to being overrun and taken hostage within minutes. In addition, I couldn’t hear any machine gun fire from our weapons. It was too quiet!

When I asked the crew chief why the machine guns were not removed from the aircraft mount and set up on the ground bipod, he replied that their mounts were damaged as a result of the crash and he couldn’t remove the pull-pin to disengage the M60 machine gun from its mounted position. Remember I said we hit pretty hard!

Knowing we had to have more protection than our holstered individual .38 revolvers would provide, we had to get the machine guns off the mounts. With my flight gloves and helmet still on and without very much thought I jumped onto the skid and then onto the machine gun mount on the right side of the aircraft, inserted two fingers in the ring of the pull-pin and pulled with all my might while simultaneously kicking the machine gun and screaming as loud as I could. Surprisingly and miraculously the pull-pin came free and the machine gun fell to the ground. I was immediately back on the ground trying to limit my exposure to enemy fire. The crew chief and gunner immediately put the machine gun in the ground mount mode by extending the bipod. We retrieved over 2,000 rounds of ammo from the helicopter gunners’ position and set up a defensive position in the rice patty to the left front of the aircraft. At one point I pulled out my pistol with the measly six rounds of .38 caliber ammunition, looked at how small it was, and immediately returned it to the holster realizing it was worthless at the present time in this situation.

After about 10 minutes on the ground the Snake Doctor recovery ship piloted by Captain James (Jim) Duke, flew in with 4 machine guns blazing and managed to land about fifteen to twenty yards from us. Before leaving our helicopter in a dead run for the waiting savior I removed the top-secret radio security equipment, essentially the KY28 decoding device. It was a race to get into the Snake Doctor aircraft by all of us. I’m not sure who won the race but I think Phil passed me and got there first and I was the last one on board. I remember lying in the cargo floor breathing rapidly, my heart still pounding, with the 4 machine guns still firing and the turbine screaming as the crew demanded the maximum power available to get out of the line of fire as quickly as possible. Despite all the battle sounds permeating the air, Captain Duke turned around from the pilot’s seat, looked straight at me and with his shiny white teeth (the things you remember in extreme stressful situations!) and said, “Johnnie, I’ve got another helicopter for ya”. I’m pretty sure I didn’t laugh and I don’t even remember buckling in (I don’t think I ever did).

We flew back to Hawk Hill and to safety. Upon landing we all got out and didn’t really know what to do after such a harrowing experience. I was exhausted from the actions of the previous 30 minutes.

Hawk Hill had become a bee hive of activity. Aircraft from other units were landing, the refuel/rearm stations were full and most of the crews were trying to have a few minutes of peace and quiet. They ate lunch consisting of sandwiches provided by the mess hall or C-rations that we always carried for situations like this. The maintenance crews were safety checking all aircraft for damage and repairing what they could. I was still in some stage of shock while I observed the hurried activity going on all around me and I really wasn’t prepared for what happened next…

As I disembarked Snake Doctor, I was immediately warmly greeted by our new Company Commander, Major James. I don’t remember the exact conversation but I remember it being almost unemotional and very pleasant and calming. I remember

clearly that feeling to this day because deep inside me I was expecting just the reverse since I had just crashed his helicopter and left it in a rice patty somewhere in enemy territory!

I knew Major James from his reputation and working with his brigade aviation section supporting previous combat assaults. I knew him now because he had just taken over the company. I had not had the pleasure of speaking to him one-on-one since I had been flying every day since he assumed command. I also knew from word of mouth what other soldiers thought about him. He was considered by all that knew him, worked with and for him as one of the bravest and best leaders in the Division. This would prove to be true time and time again through his next six months of command. I was fortunate to see it first hand at the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Tommie P. James and me.

Major James nonchalantly walked me to the mess hall about 100 yards away from the flight line. It was closed but he knew the mess sergeant from his time there as the aviation detachment commander. The mess sergeant scrounged me a hot dog and a carton of milk. Why do I remember those exact items? I have no idea but I know for sure that is what I had for lunch and it really made me feel better. Major James calmly sat there with me and initially just chit chatted as I ate. It hit me as being very strange that the company commander responsible for all that had happened that morning and for all that was about to happen the remainder of the day could be so calm and thoughtful to a junior Captain, he knew very little about. I didn’t know it at the time but he was just trying to get my adrenaline down so we could have a productive conversation. During the 20 minutes we were at the mess hall I shared all I knew about the enemy positions and what had happened in the LZ.

While walking back to the assembly area he explained in detail that we had to reinforce the small force of troops we had just inserted. That would require inserting the remaining elements of the infantry battalion and a battalion of South Vietnamese infantry. I appreciated him sharing all of that information with me but I still had no inkling of what was coming next. With the finesse and calming voice of a great leader Major James had influenced me to volunteer to be flight lead for the upcoming insertions. He was so smooth that I don’t even remember actually volunteering but he had convinced me that since I had been briefed, knew the area where my (his) helicopter and the enemy were and the route there, that I was the very best choice to lead the flight. I don’t know how or why, but this all happened quickly and I am still not sure how I got maneuvered into going back out there where people had seriously tried to kill me. Looking back on it in later years, I could see that it was his great leadership skills!

After all the events that happened in the last hour or so, I suddenly realized that I needed a helicopter and expressed the same to Major James. He looked at me with that very small smile he had and said that he was sure that I would figure it out and left it at that. I told him I needed 10 minutes to get my thoughts together and scratch out some notes for the upcoming briefing. He left me alone while he assembled the Aircraft Crews for the mission.

By the time I finished and arrived at the flight line, there were about 15 helicopter crews assembled ready to be briefed. Major James introduced me and said I would be leading the next flight. I issued an abbreviated five (5) paragraph frag order updating the old and new crews on the enemy situation as I knew it, the mission to insert more troops, the friendly forces consisting of the remainder of the U.S. infantry battalion and an additional South Vietnamese Infantry Battalion, PZ location and pickup times, flight formation and SOI information. When I finished, I asked if there were any questions, no one responded. I think they were all still in a little shock from the mornings experience.

At the end of the briefing, I stated; “I don’t have a helicopter, are there any volunteers who will give up their aircraft for me to use?” Not to my surprise, several of them raised their hands. I chose one from the 174th Helicopter Company. I didn’t want to choose one from our company thinking the others would think I was showing favoritism.

I approached the aircraft commander and got the details on which helicopter I was to use and where it was located. As I walked away from the meeting Phil tugged my arm and asked what the hell I thought I was doing. After telling him that I was going to lead this flight back to the LZ, he quickly and enthusiastically reminded me that we didn’t have to do it since company policy said that you didn’t have to fly for the rest of the day if you had been shot down and crashed. I acknowledged that fact but told him I needed to do this for myself and the company. He said a few choice words which I won’t repeat here and then said “You’re not going back without me!” He got his helmet and gear and joined me at our newly confiscated helicopter.

Our gunner and 298’s crew chief joined in as well. I told the 174th crew that we were borrowing their aircraft and what we were doing. Most of the crew never hesitated to leave. The crew chief said he was staying with his aircraft. I always admired him for taking ownership and pride in his aircraft. My crew chief did not get to go. I am not sure he minded. We successfully put the flight together and under the Command and Control of Major James in the high ship we executed the beginning of a long 5-hour process of inserting more friendly forces. James’ superb leadership and detailed coordination with Artillery Support, Attack Helicopter Support, and all the lift support resulted in mission accomplished. We successfully inserted the remainder of the 196th Infantry Unit plus the South Vietnamese battalion into the LZ without further losses. The rest of the day is a blur but I do remember our last mission assigned via radio as we were headed home toward Chu Lai and the “Snake pit”. It was getting dark when we received a call that an aircraft was down and required security and rescue. A flight of five (5) helicopters were already dispatched and were carrying infantry troops. Our mission was command and control to get the mission done. I coordinated the incoming flight with their gunship escort after I had found the downed aircraft. We successfully inserted the infantry to secure the helicopter while simultaneously extracting the crew. All was accomplished

without any casualties and I was glad to have helped a downed crew like my downed crew was rescued earlier in the day. It felt good!

The time between inserting the additional units that day, rescuing the downed crew and then flying back to home base is all somewhat scrambled in my brain. We had logged a total of more than 12 hours of flying time. That was the most flight time I would fly in one day during my entire 12-month tour. I don’t remember where we flew back to and I don’t remember how we got the helicopter returned to its unit. I do remember going to bed exhausted.

My whole crew was awakened early the next morning by the company runner from the 1st Sergeant’s office. He told us we had to report to the Battalion Fight Surgeon at the aid station. We reported as requested. The Captain really chewed on us. He told us we broke every regulation in the book by not getting a complete physical after the crash. He said we were not supposed to fly until he cleared us when we were involved in a crash. He went on and on and on! He threatened to permanently ground us which would cause us to lose our flight pay. We all smiled at him and told him that our company commander would be the only one that could do that. We told him the story about our Company Commander talking us into continuing the mission after the crash. I told him I didn’t think Major James was going to ground us (and he didn’t!). The Flight Surgeon made a few phone calls, gave us each a thorough physical examination in silence, had us sign a bunch of paperwork and then gave us all a clearance slip to fly which we did the next day. All was well that ended well…

We all got medals for that day but the best reward I got was to truly know Tommie P. James. I also knew from this experience that I would be honored to work for him during the next six months of his command. I did not realize at that time we would become close friends and remain so for the rest of his life but we did. We flew together a lot but most of the time I was lead and he was command and control on combat assaults. Major James was a hero in his own right and everyone knew it. He was very quiet and humble but I did at least write another story about his heroics. It is “The Rescue of Saber 6” and you can read it on the Rattler-Firebird.org website.