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Posted: July 15, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Mecca: Sky riders

The cavalry still mount their steeds, but these horses are of a motorized breed. In Vietnam the mounts were named Loach, Huey, Cobra, Osage, Chinook, Mohawk and the superseded Raven (achieved recognition in three early James Bond films). These hi-tech mounts could saddle up more than just one soldier and the cavalrymen gripping the reins were some of the bravest of the brave in Southeast Asia.

With the assistance of Tiffany Schumacher, a founding life member of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation domiciled at the Henry County Airport (also known as Tara Field), I met and interviewed members of the foundation at one sitting, all Vietnam combat veterans, sky soldiers and one Marine pilot. Cautious speech and moist eyes reflected a few suppressed memories, but as with any assemblage of veterans we were pretty much a rowdy bunch.

The narrative for each veteran is necessarily brief. Each had a full story, but they fought and survived as ‘teams’ in Vietnam so they interviewed as a team. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it should be.

Jim Brennan — Huey pilot ’68 & ’69. “I didn’t like the idea of lugging an M-16 through jungles so I talked to a recruiter about Army aviation. I was accepted for flight school but following three ‘free rides’ they tendered me three ‘pink slips’ for unacceptable performance. Somehow I graduated from flight school but I’m lucky they didn’t post my grades on the back of my wings. Five of us became good friends; three were killed in Nam.”

“My first mission lasted 13 hours. We flew into the A Shau Valley. Our leader, Yellow One, was hit and turned back. As Yellow Two I took over as Yellow One. If I screwed up, everything went to hell but I pulled it off. We also flew missions into supposedly neutral Laos as ‘sanitized’ pilots, no name tags, no I.D.s. I loved the Huey.”

Curt Knapp — Raven and Loach pilot ’67 & ’68. Glancing at Brennen, he said, “I didn’t receive any pink slips.” We all had a good laugh then he continued. “I trained on the OH-23 Raven observation helicopter and that’s what I flew in Nam. I hauled a Colonel around who controlled a battle from the air. Later the OH-23 was replaced by the Loach. My Loach was 6617795, a Cadillac compared to the Raven. Old 795 kept me out of tough spots.”

“I flew out of a Podunk base called LZ Jane during the Tet Offensive in ’68. We flew over the ancient city of Hue during the battle and I could tell we were finally kicking serious butt. But after I saw enemy rounds heading my way, I remember saying, ‘Hey, they’re shooting at us!’ I was never shot down and never shot up. I was one of the lucky few.”

Ron Disney — Chinook pilot ’67 & ’68. “I didn’t anticipate aviation but certainly remember my first demo ride in a TH-55 Osage. The pilot chopped the throttle and the engine quit! So I experienced my first autorotation.” (Autorotation occurs if a chopper engine malfunctions or simply quits. Then the rotor is driven solely by the upward flow of air through the rotor blade.)

“I was young, bold, no fear. I flew the Chinook and still remember the first time we got hit. The bullet came up through the airframe, Pow! I glanced back at one of my gunners. He was on the floor. We thought he’d been hit, but it was just the shock of the bullet coming through the floor. He was okay. We flew several missions during the Tet Offensive, mostly out of Quang Tri, and flew in Operation Pegasus after the siege at Khe Sanh had been lifted. April 19th really sticks out in the A Shau Valley; we lost 23 aircraft. I loved the Chinook. We had two gunners on each side but after Khe Sanh we posted a gunner at the back ramp, too.”

Ralph Kahlan — Two tours, ’69 & ’70, ’71 & ’72. “I was a squad leader for my first tour, a ground-pounder, but flying in Hueys gave me a love for aviation. I applied for flight school while in Vietnam, got accepted, and after my first tour took flight training at Fort Wolters, TX. I should have read the small print; it actually was small print; that after flight school my next assignment was, again, Vietnam. I joined a maintenance outfit and spent most of my time tracking rotor blades.” (Tracking balances rotor blades by a primitive yet effective use of long poles with masking tape, marking the poles with rotor strikes, then measuring the distance on both poles to be sure the blades balance correctly, or at least that’s my understanding!)

Ralph continued, “I stayed in for 27 years. I, too, was lucky. I dodged rockets and mortars on occasion, but I was never in the heat of battle like the rest of these gentlemen.”

Joe Emerson — Two tours, Huey pilot ’68 & ’69, Chinook pilot ’71 & ’72. “I worked odd jobs in college to afford flying lessons. Well, my grades fell so I found a girlfriend in the Army, the Huey - I was part of the aircraft. There were emotional times in Vietnam but we worked as a team, you had to or go home in a box. I remember coming in from a mission and the tower radioed news to Crusader 28, ‘Sir, you’re the proud father of a baby daughter; mom and daughter are doing fine. It was like we all became a father that day. What I didn’t like was revisiting an area we’d taken before then deserted it. That didn’t make any sense to me.”

“I flew the Chinook on my next tour. It’s a good aircraft, saved a lot of lives, but the Chinook didn’t feel as personal as the Huey. I flew a Huey whenever I could and still do.”

Jim Costeele — Huey and Cobra pilot, ’69 & ’70. “I had 500 hours in the Hueys before flying Cobras. The two Huey door gunners covered both sides of the aircraft but the Cobra couldn’t. Huey gunners can actually shoot under their chopper if need be. The Cobra vibrated less than the Huey and was a darn good gun platform. I flew 121 air assaults in the Delta flying ARVN soldiers into combat but extended my tour to go with the 1st Cav so I would work with American soldiers. I liked the Huey but received a collective total of 30 hits. I didn’t have one hit on my Cobra. And besides, the Cobras were air-conditioned.”

Jack McCormick — Huey pilot, ’69 & ’70. “I was like Jim, motivated to fly because I didn’t want to carry an M-16. I trained in Hueys and stayed in Hueys, I love Hueys. My unit was the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion of the 1st Cav. Division. I got there on St. Paddy’s Day 1969 and left Nam on St. Patty’s Day 1970. During the Cambodian Invasion our formation consisted of 48 Hueys and 18 Cobra gunships. One formation had 70 Hueys. We spotted enemy soldiers leaning against trees puffing their cigarettes and watching us zoom overhead. We saw convoys of North Vietnamese trucks and numerous supplies. One chopper pilot stated, ‘Well, it looks like we’re surrounding ourselves.’ I love aviation; it gets into your DNA.”

Mike Holland — U.S. Marine Corps. “I wasn’t the least bit interested in aviation. I wanted the infantry, a recon type guy. My recruiter asked, ‘Do you want to sleep in mud or a cot with sheets, and do you want to eat out of a can or have fresh vegetables and meat for your meals?’ So I signed up for aviation.”

“I flew the Chinook. I’ve suppressed a lot of memories, just don’t want to go there, but I recall flights out to hospital ships, the recon missions and the fear. But fear doesn’t last long in combat; you’ve got a job to do and men depend on what you do or don’t do. I recall landing to pick up grunts when suddenly two enemy soldiers stood up about 20 yards away and pointed their weapons at the cockpit. I thought, ‘school is out, we’re done for’, but I quickly moved the Chinook a bit so one of the side gunners could spray the area with his .50 cal. He took care of the problem. My copilot and I were laughing about it later, but that’s war, sheer terror to laughing. I was shot down twice but never hurt.”

Greg “Fig” Newton — Door gunner, ’72 & ’73. “I remember receiving my orders for APO San Francisco. I thought ‘hot dog, I’m on my way to San Francisco. No Vietnam!’ Talk about naïve. A corporal looked at my orders and said, ‘You’re going to Vietnam via San Francisco.’ I replied, ‘Huh?’ I ended up in H Troop 10th Air Cav. I loved the Huey and an Ops Officer noticed. He said, ‘be here in the morning.’ So, I listened to a briefing then was invited to the flight line where the Ops officer said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a door gunner.’ I replied, ‘Sir?’”

“I remember those little green sparks on the ground that looked like a green basketball by the time it passed your ship, enemy tracers. You didn’t think, you only reacted, and zeroed in on the enemy gunners before you were slam-dunked by a green basketball. We only went down once, lost our hydraulics and went into an autorotation. Once was enough. I was there for the so-called ceasefire. Where there was once nothing, we saw enemy troops, vehicles, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, weapons….I was happy to make it home.”

George Meeker — Aircraft maintenance, ’68 & ’69. “I was 12 years old when my dad moved us south. I was born and raised in a neighborhood of The Bronx called Fort Apache; even the alley cats had bodyguards. I was making money to attend Georgia Tech when I received ‘greetings’ from Uncle Sam. I figured flying over a jungle was better than walking through a jungle so I applied for aviation.”

“I was assigned to the 64th Detachment Caretakers, a maintenance unit. Our job was to ‘take care’ of the legendary Ghost Riders of the 189th Assault Company. Scared? Yeah, several times. Sometimes we fixed aircraft in the field under enemy fire. We also positioned slings under downed Hueys so the Chinooks could pull them out. I recall placing the slings under Hueys as dead bodies were dragged past me.”

“I positioned the sling under one Huey and waited for the Chinook. It never arrived. I spent the night alone in the jungle. I’ll say one thing; you hear a lot strange sounds in an enemy held jungle. Next morning the Chinook came in. Yeah, that was scary. We were in Cambodia, too, but when I left Vietnam I was required to sign an affidavit stating that I wasn’t.”

Cliff McKeithan — OV-1 Mohawk fixed-wing pilot. “I was different than the rest of these guys.” (Another pilot said, ‘he’s got that right, and has the papers to prove it). “That’s true. Nonetheless, I had it pretty easy flying the Mohawk, unlike these guys that dodged death every day. But on one mission near Bong Song a FAC spotted enemy activity and called for backup. I was unarmed but held the enemy in check by flying so low that my props were a danger until the Skyhawks arrived.”

“On my last pass I turned to look at something on the ground. Bam! A projectile came through the windscreen and shattered the glass like a huge spider web. I was flying blind, couldn’t see a thing. I called base and told them we were heading home but I was setting the trim on the Mohawk and ejecting over the base. The Mohawk would continue out to sea.”

“I got a call from a buddy, Roger Osborne. He told me to wait. Roger took off in another Mohawk and gently talked me down, ‘gear down, flaps okay, 60 feet, 40 feet, touchdown.’ I stuck my head out the hatch and steered down the runway. Looking away during the final pass had saved my life; the projectile was stuck in the ejection seat where my head should have been.”

Other comments worthy of their own story: “In the A Shau Valley we fired our M-60s until the barrels burned up.” “Day missions were a joy after flying night missions, especially after you’re ordered to turn on your lights to divert enemy fire from a damaged aircraft.” “Our door gunner took an RPG round between his legs. He lost both legs and his eyesight. Back in the states he learned to scuba dive without legs or vision. He’s gone now; he was heck of a guy.” “We are not heroes, we just did our job.” “I was drafted.” “I enlisted.” “I was commissioned” “And we would all do it again.”

The Army Aviation Historical Foundation. Visit, take a flight, become a part of American History. These were, and still are, America’s best. The website: Armyav.org Their phone: 770-897-0444

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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