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Published by kind permission of Ron Rawknee CURTIS, U.S. Army Vietnam Veteran

Formerly of 128 Assault Helicopter Company, 1st Aviation Brigade, Phu Loi, Vietnam



Photograph: Vera HARPER



Happy Memorial Day1, Y'all

Posted By Ron Curtis on 5/29/2006 at 8:50 AM



1         In the United States, a holiday, May 30, appointed by law in most States for observing the memory of those who died for the Union in the Civil War: also called Decoration Day.



I hope you have a nice Memorial Day. Please take a few minutes to reflect on the lifestyle we get to live in America and about the youth that was spent for our freedom.


The following is just a tiny slice of the life of one 20 year old kid who volunteered to serve his country in a hardcore combat unit…


Please say a prayer for the current youths that are in harm’s way serving their country, and "Lest We Forget", think of the past youths who never got to come home to reap the rewards of their service to this great country.


I am 2½ hours late for work right now as I have a final inspection on a house this Thursday, but this afternoon I am gonna swing a leg over my Harley and get lost aimlessly riding in these beautiful Pennsyltucky2 mountains tearfully remembering the ones who never made it home to their moms, families, girlfriends, and the comforts of America …



1         Pennsylvania and Kentucky



Formed up outside FEOFA HQ, Toowoomba

“The Gallant 49th Fleet of Foot”


Photograph: Margaret PECK

(from the left) Roy ASHMAN, Ron CURTIS, Reg HARPER, Gerry PECK, George MILLIE

[of necessity the supernumeraries remain anonymous to protect their identity]


I had the great honour on April 25th of getting to march with the Aussie Veterans and be a part of the ceremonies of Anzac Day in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia this year. It was very sobering and tearful for me to get this great honour. As I marched I carried a pitch pull control rod, with its bullet hole, from the first chopper I got shot down in. That pitch pull control rod constantly reminds me of the 18 year old door-gunner who died in the burning crash landing of our chopper.... the very next day after the following account took place.


Photograph: Ron CURTIS

(above) Pitch control rod, with its bullet hole


The New Guy

In military life you are continually graduating from one level of training and starting out the next day as a “new guy”. In the Army it is called a FNG or” f-ing new guy”. You graduate boot camp one day and in the next few days you start out in another part of your training as a “f-ing new guy” at the bottom of the food chain again. You are once again the stupidest slime ball (and treated like one) on the face of the earth as you start out learning new skills. Some honed their skills with different weapons, learning different ways to kill, AND how to possibly survive. Others went to learn how to lead troops in officer candidate school, cook, or type, or drive a deuce and a half truck. Here I was at the age of 19 heading off to helicopter flight school, a 9 month combination of officer candidate school and helicopter pilot training.


I remember talking, after boot camp in Fort Polk, La3, with some of the others that were going to flight school and thinking that now after boot camp they would treat us like human beings and teach us how to fly…..HOW NAÏVE AND STUPID of us to think, or even hope for a luxury like that. We hadn’t even begun to learn what hell on earth was, None of us were ready for the TAC Officers and instructor pilots waiting for us in primary helicopter flight school in Fort Wolters, Tx4! The burn and bullet scarred TAC Officers and instructor pilots had all already served their time in the horror filled jungle LZs5 and rice paddies of Nam6... Their burn and bullet scars came from getting shot down in flames out of the friendly skies of Nam and they were just waiting for us to jump off the three buses we rode in on so they could start the psychological and physical training that it took to turn us into pilots who could think and function in the extreme hardcore combat situations we were headed for.



2         Louisiana

3         Texas

4         Landing Zones

5         Vietnam


Out of 237 WOCs7, two were killed in helicopter crashes and 86 of us graduated and became officers and pilots. Out of that 86 of us graduates 84 of us were given 30 days leave and were sent to Vietnam. The other two graduates had already served a couple of tours in Vietnam and they went to peacetime posts.



6         Warrant Officer candidates


Eighty-four of us were kings for 30 days. We had made it through a hellish course of extreme psychological stress, tested the limits of our physical strength, passed the daily two or three written exams, learned the skills to take off a helicopter and land it, and learned many of the skills on how to successfully crash land a broken, and/or, burning helicopter.



King for 30 days and now I’m a FNG in a helicopter combat assault company in some hot dusty place I can hardly pronounce the name of Phu Loi.


A new guy pilot in a hardened combat unit is even lower than whale poop. Not only do the other pilots look down on you with distain, all of the door-gunners look at you as someone who could potentially kill them with stupid mistakes on the controls of a Huey. You are told in no uncertain terms that all you know how to do is to pick up the Huey to a hover, fly it around the traffic pattern, and possibly land it without killing anyone. You have to prove yourself in combat to get approval with this bunch.


Another new guy and I were the first two new guy pilots our unit had seen in six months. There is just nothing like being in a terrifyingly scary place, trying to pick up the tricks of the trade as quickly as possible, and being the butt of EVERY joke.


It is 3:30 am on my 5th day in Vietnam and I’m pre-flighting a chopper for my third flight in my unit. The previous two flights I had were single ship “ash and trash” missions, picking up someone and delivering them somewhere else, or taking supplies like food, water, and ammo (the three infantry basics) out to a unit in the field and bringing back any sick, dead, or wounded.


Today I am flying as a “peter pilot”, or second pilot, in my first actual combat assault (our primary job) and we have been told it will probably get hot in the LZs.


“Oh yeah, new guy,” says the aircraft commander I’m flying with today, “We’re going into Cambodia today, you might want to take a change of underwear,” the Crew Chief says with a jeer, “that’s if the FNG lives long enough to change them.”


Nothing like encouragement, I’m thinking as I shakily go through my part of the pre-flight; I’m scared to death but trying to act nonchalant, and like I even have a clue about what to do. I feel like the enemy hates me and these guys I’m flying with today DESPISE me, but it’s just the way it is. There is no softness in a hardened combat unit, war ain’t pretty, and these two door-gunners have already seen it all. They know what lies ahead…and they know that if the aircraft commander gets killed or incapacitated that everyone will have to depend on some sorry FNG, who is so new that he is still “urinating stateside water”, to get them back to safety.

I am going to flying in a Huey called a “slick”, which means it is a troop carrier with two pilots and two door-gunners. All of the doors have been taken off and the chopper has been stripped of any unnecessary weight so owe can carry as many troops as possible. These Hueys were literal choppers in the best Harley Davidson fashion.


Our flight today consists of 8 slicks, four gunship escorts, and a command and control Huey which will fly way up overhead and coordinate us, and vector us in with compass headings as we race in at treetop level to our LZs to unload our cargo of infantry “grunts”. The grunts will be staying behind and engaging Charlie (the North Vietnamese soldiers) who is infiltrating down the Ho Chi Minh Trail down through Cambodia into South Vietnam.


At 5:30 am the cool morning mists at Phu Loi heliport are parted as 9 ‘H’ model Hueys and 4 Charlie/Mike model Huey gun-ships take off together from runway 27 and turn towards the Northwest. We were on our way. My first of many combat assaults will be the beginning of the end of my youth and innocence in this life.


We are headed to a fire support base in a place called Thien Ngon (pronounced: Ten Yon). It’s just south of the Cambodian border and it is where we will pick up a load of infantry grunts and take them an hour or so up into Cambodia to a place close to a ‘ville’8 named Snoul.



7         village


It is dark as we take off and fly up to our in flight altitude of 2,500 feet. We fly in two diamond formations with each chopper just a bit higher than the one in front of them; to keep out of the disturbed air of the rotor wash. While it’s dark we fly along fairly loosely but as the light becomes better we start to close in on each other. A half a rotor disk is what I am told is the common distance for us to fly…..that is VERY tight spacing and you have to have a ton of PT9 to maintain that close spacing and not run into each other. These guys have been flying for a year together and to a raw rookie like me it looked like we were going to kill ourselves before Charlie got a chance to shoot at us.



8         pilot technique


My aircraft commander is talking about how these days are like a cakewalk compared to Tet10 of ’68 when he was on his first tour. The guy is a real braggart but he is my teacher and I hang on his every word. He doesn’t let me fly much on the way up and he lets me know in NO UNCERTAIN terms that I am a worthless FNG, and again, this is backed up by the door-gunners in the back. I am scared and nervous as I have ever been and there is no encouragement whatsoever from this mob. They’ve seen too much and do not care to have to train or rely on some rookie pilot.



9         Tet Offensive


I am getting hit with so much new information, and weird names for things, and lingo that I can’t possibly keep up with it all. Everything seems so complicated, from the radio calls to the rules of formation flying, I feel worthless, and hopeless.


The fire support base at Thien Ngon is right beside of highway 22 which runs up from the south and winds its way up the few remaining kilometres, or ‘klicks’, from Thien Ngon into Cambodia. It’s called highway 22, but it is no way a highway like we see in the States, it’s more of a two lane oil covered dirt track. We reach Thien Ngon around 7:00 am and hover over to fuel bladders to refuel. We take back off in single file and circle around to land on highway 22 where the troops are lined up in groups of seven, with spacing for us to land and let them load up.


I have only carried troops once in flight school and they were Special Forces Rangers who were graduating from their schooling, like us, and were out in the field on manoeuvres. It was all a short practice for us both. This is the real thing; these grunts have fully loaded packs and loaded weapons. They are looking for the kill, this is no longer manoeuvres, Charlie is out there and he has walked down the Ho Chi Minh Trail looking to take out as many of us as he can.


Many thoughts go through your mind on your first foray into battle, thankfully as the troops load up things are happening so quickly that I can’t dwell on the overall picture but I do get in a quick prayer for my young wife and my family….and myself.


The troops are loaded up and we take off in single file. As we gain altitude we form up in two diamond formations with a gunship on each side of the two formations of slicks. The command and control ship goes up above us and we fly on northward.


The aircraft commander tells me, “Well new guy, you can write home tonight and tell mommy you went into Cambodia today; we just crossed the border.” It was almost like he gave me a death knell; I felt an even heightened sense of fear and wanted desperately to be somewhere else. Every muscle in my body was tightening up with fear and my mouth went dry; a dryness that a chug of hot water from a canteen couldn’t abate.

We fly at 2,500 feet for almost an hour and then the lead pilot radios the flight that we are going to drop down from altitude and go down to the deck. At a standard decent of 500 feet per minute we lose altitude until we are flying at treetop level. And I mean treetop level; the taller branches are hitting us in the chin bubbles. At 80 knots forward airspeed we race across the treetops guided by compass headings from the C&C12 chopper way up above us. At treetop level Charlie, down in the jungle, can’t tell from what direction we are coming and therefore doesn’t have time to aim at us.



10     Command and Control


The world for us has shrunken down to what is happening inside our chopper. The door-gunners are pretty quiet in the rear as they line up their ammo cans and work their M-60 machine guns up and down on their mounts. The aircraft commander hands me the controls while he puts a chicken plate (armoured chest protector) down in his chin bubble, adjusts the chicken plate he is wearing, slides forward the armoured side plate on his seat, and slides his .38 pistol over to cover his balls. He then takes back the controls and tells me to lock the inertia reels on our safety harnesses. This locks us both upright so in case one of us is killed or wounded, we won’t slump over on the controls. He then laughs at my puny little chicken plate and says, “If you live long enough you need to get a larger chicken plate to sit in your lap and another one to put in your chin bubble, and you might want to slide that .38 around to cover the family jewels.” I hear a grunt platoon leader bark a command behind me to “lock and load” and the seven grunts chamber a round in their M-16s.


I hear the radio call from C&C to one of the gun-ships to fly up ahead of us and mark the LZ with a smoke grenade. We race on and I hear the lead pilot say he sees a grape (purple smoke) in the LZ. I learn that a gunship will drop a smoke grenade in the LZ and the lead pilot has to identify it back to the gunship. Turns out in the beginning days of combat assault Charlie would hear the pilots talking over the FM frequency and they would throw out the colour of grenade that they heard the gunship pilot broadcast he had thrown. This resulted in some flights flying right into Charlie’s LZ.


The LZ is a large one as this is rice paddy country and there are large open areas. As we break into the open and see the smoke grenade billowing purple smoke the door-gunners open up on both sides. The roar of their M-60s is overwhelming, and deafening even with our ear plugs, and it seems like the inside of the chopper gets very hot from their fire. Red tracer rounds fly all over the LZ from our door-gunners and you can see puffs of dirt flying and tree limbs falling on the perimeter of the LZ.


We land to the ground in a short sliding halt. Before the skids even hit the ground the grunts are leaping off and running for cover. We are on the ground only a few seconds and with a lurch we take off back to Vietnam to pick up another load of grunts. This insertion goes off with no hitches or return fire. On our takeoff we fly low over a small ‘ville’ and a kid is standing on a rice paddy dyke. My A/C12 drops down 20 feet or so to fly level with the top of the dyke. I can’t believe this is happening but know better than to open my FNG mouth. I watch with horror as our chopper heads right for the kid, who is holding his position. Our skids are level with his feet and the chopper is almost upon the kid when he dives into the paddy.



11     aircraft commander


As we regain altitude I see a line of old men and women along with kids leaving the ‘ville’ waving white pieces of cloth. They are running for their lives away from their homes. I don’t understand this at first and couldn’t stomach the thought of my grandparents running for their lives away from their homes waving pieces of white cloth. When I timidly ask the crew why the villagers are running away I am answered that a sweep of their hootches13 will probably reveal something incriminating from the North Vietnamese that pass through on their way south. What a life these simple villagers must live. And the kid we ran down, whose side will he end up on? I don’t ask the purpose of what we did to him.



12     huts


I am allowed to fly back down to our pickup point and take us to the fuel bladders to refuel. I do okay without much hollering from the A/C. I hover us back over to the waiting grunts and they load up. As I go to pick the ship up to a hover I am amazed at how heavy and slow it is to respond with all the weight on it. I have so much to learn and some much PT to acquire in a very short time. I take off with the flight and we turn north to Cambodia again.


It is so much easier flying the ship instead of sitting there thinking about things. Flying a chopper, especially in a formation with other choppers is an all consuming job. You have to concentrate 100%. A concentration lapse of even ½ of one percent could kill you and your crew. When you are flying the ship in formation the other pilot is watching all the gauges to make sure they are in the green and your job is to keep your rotor distance from the chalk (we are numbered and called chalks, we were chalk 6 in this formation) you are flying off of. You line up the near door-gunner’s ‘Christmas tree’14 with the far pilot’s head. This gives you your angle of flight to the chalk you are flying off of, and with your vision you have to see the dark line of the tips of your rotor blades AND his rotor blades. This is how you find your rotor distance separation. Sounds easy enough, until you add in air pockets, wind, and a live cargo that moves around, plus the fact that the flying pilot also has to make quick glances out front to check the spacing out front. Add in the fact that flying a chopper requires both feet, and both hands doing something completely unconnected to each other. Top it off that you also have to be thinking ahead of any emergency procedure that may happen at any time, as well as listening to the flight radio frequency and ship intercom. A literal handful. It was all I could do at this point to keep my spacing, altitude, and concentration, but it made my fear hide for awhile while I flew.



13     a post where his M-60 is typically mounted


When we got close and went back down on the deck to approach the LZ the A/C let me fly so I could see what treetop flying was all about. It’s incredible how much a Huey moves around as it flies. You can’t see it until you are so close to stationary objects. Nothing you can do but learn to live with it.


The A/C lets me land and take off, and back we head to refuel and pick up another load; so far so good. It will take two more sorties to get all of the grunts to the LZ.


On the way back to refuel we get a message that the grunts have gotten into a firefight and have dead and wounded, and a few prisoners. We refuel, load up the grunts and race to get back to the LZ. At the LZ we unload the grunts and then are vectored over to another LZ to pick up the wounded and dead. As we get into the new LZ we take some fire and chalk 5 gets its engine shot out on the ground as they are waiting to be loaded with wounded. Chalk 5’s crew runs to our helicopter at the same time we are being loaded with 4 severely wounded grunts. The commotion is unnerving. Two of the wounded are screaming in pain and you can see lots of blood soaking through their hastily wrapped bandages, at least on the ones that have bandages. One of the shot down crewmen has wounds to his arm and face. There is no time for a medic to look at him and we take off, taking sporadic fire as we try to get out of the LZ. I can smell the blood in the back and I hear the screams of the two wounded grunts. I turn around and look back and see the wounded chopper crewman being bandaged by one of his crewmen. I also see my first look at gunshot wounds and the carnage they do to the soft human body. I almost puke at both the sights and the smells; this isn’t what you see in John Wayne movies about war.


We up our speed to 100 knots to try and get the wounded back to an aid station in Vietnam. I don’t look in the back anymore, but I can’t stop the sounds of the anguish.


Upon arrival back at Thien Ngon we hover over to a small hootch that serves as their aid station. The choppers are unloaded and we have to get the last load of grunts back up to join the rest of their unit. We refuel and run over to pick up the last load. This time we are short one chopper so we must carry one more soldier on each chopper. The crewmen from the shot down chopper are all left at the aid station.


Again we unload the grunts in the original LZ and fly a very short distance to pick up more wounded. As we get near the pickup LZ we encounter more fire and the door-gunners and gun-ships help to suppress it this time. This time we sit on the ground and 4 more wounded and two dead are loaded on. It is a horrible mess back there, blood, gore, and broken bodies and dreams are back there. We fly as quickly as we can back to the aid station.


As we hover over to the aid station personnel the rotor wash starts aerosolizing the blood dripping out of the sides of the chopper and spraying it all over us and the Plexiglas windscreen... We actually have to wipe down the pinkish spray on the windscreen so we can see and we have droplets of blood all over everything in the chopper, including us.


Once again we refuel and head back to Cambodia, only this time we are not loaded with troops. We fly back to the original LZ and land to await orders for another medivac of wounded grunts. It is now 5:30 pm and we have had nothing to eat since early this morning. We have four boxes of C-rations and in the few minutes we have we open them only to find that two of them are spoiled…Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s words, “Say mister can I have a bite of your purple berries, please?” drifts through my mind as I sit and wait for what tidbits are thrown my way.


Word comes to us that Charlie has fought hard and run, melting back into the sanctuaries that he came from. We only have a few more wounded and dead to take back to Vietnam and our mission will be over for the day. We finally get back to Phu Loi a little after 8:30 pm. After refuelling and hovering the choppers over to park them in their revetments we walk back over to our hooches and strip off our bloody flight suits and get in line under a 270 gallon fuel tank filled with cold water to wash the grime and dried blood off of faces and bodies.

It was a nice introduction to an assault helicopter company, and to Cambodia, but I was soon to learn that I hadn’t seen anything yet, as the very next day we would be back in the same area and I would get my “cherry popped” as I would wind up getting shot down for my first of five times…



Photograph: Ron CURTIS


Here is a photo (above) of a sandal worn by a captured North Vietnamese officer who stole a bicycle in Cambodia and rode it down to a South Vietnamese fire-support base in Cambodia and gave himself up. We asked the guy to "souvineer" us his sandals … I know he couldn't understand us but by us pointing at his feet, he gladly took off his sandals and gave them to us.


Rawknee - “Survivor”


Published: 1st July 2006