If I'd died in Vietnam I'd split hell wide open.
A 1948 “Grady baby”, Steve Blanton recalled a childhood without modern conveniences. “We were very poor. We had no indoor plumbing and I toted water from Granny’s house because she had city water. Heat was generated by a wood burning stove, I remember the old lamp lights and thought we were rich when we finally got electricity.”
His high school diploma was earned in 1966 from South Cobb. “By that time I had two brothers in the Marines,” Blanton said. “So my ambition was Marine aviation, jet fighters to be exact.” Impressed by the cadets at North Georgia College, Blanton joined the Army cadet corps with the option to apply for a Marine commission. “I ended up signing an Army contract,” he said. “Shoot, I was rolling in the dough. I got $50.00 per month.”
A new program came along called ROTC Flight Training. Blanton said, “I couldn’t believe my good luck. The course offered free flight courses in Cessna 150s, ground school, and a private pilot’s license. We heard of upperclassmen being lost in Vietnam, but we were young and gung-ho, and aviation was exciting.”
Blanton became an Army aviator, even after mistakenly pulling the fuel mixture throttle during a soft field landing exercise. “We didn’t actually land on the fields, but you certainly do when you accidently cause the engine to cut out.” He landed safely but was immediately spotted by his instructor in another aircraft. ‘Blanton, what in the world are you doing?’ he demanded. Blanton’s replied, without detailed information, “Engine trouble, sir.”
From February 1971 until August, 1972, the US Army made sure 1st Lieutenant Blanton understood all the gauges, knobs, throttles, and capabilities of several rotor-winged whirlybirds. On Army airfields in Virginia, Texas, Alabama, and finally Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga., Blanton learned the maintenance of and/or gained air time in vintage choppers like the CH-54 Skycrane and the TH-55 Osage. On learning to hover the antique Osage, Blanton said, “Like standing on a basketball while drying off with a towel.”
Finally behind the controls of the legendary Huey, Blanton stated, “Like transitioning from a Model T Ford into a modern day Cadillac.” Training on the Huey transitioned to the new beast on the block, the slender but deadly Cobra assault helicopter. Of that transition, Blanton said, “That was like going from a Cadillac into a sports car, a Corvette to be exact.”
August, 1972: Blanton arrives at Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon, Vietnam. His destination: Can Tho in the enemy-dominated Mekong Delta. “My first missions were ash and trash,” he said. “Most of our ground troops had pulled out by then entrusting the area to the ARVN (Army of South Vietnam). We flew resupply and combat support missions to fire bases and hot spots, basically beans and bullets missions.”
Beans meant everything except ordnance. Bullets meant aerial combat missions including onboard Colonels plotting B-52 strikes. “I never flew the Cobra in combat,” Blanton said. “My bird was the Huey during the entire tour of duty. The rules of engagement by that time had become the rules of the ridiculous. We’d spot the enemy on the ground; call in the coordinates, the strike would be debated and planned then maybe 24 hours later here come the bombers. The enemy wasn’t stupid. They knew our Huey wasn’t sightseeing and simply moved out of the area. A B-52 strike is awesome, but totally wasted when the enemy has enough time to skedaddle. Bomb damage assessment teams would be flown in to survey the bomb damage and come under immediate fire. The teams didn’t find bodies, only a live and kickin’ enemy that had been allocated one too many favors.”
Missions into Cambodia were no different. “We used masking tape to cover ARMY on the U S ARMY decals on our Hueys. We couldn’t touch down on Cambodian soil but were allowed to hover three feet off the turf. That’s a silly way to fight a war.”
Stateside, Blanton had attended the first chopper IFR (instrument flying rules) course. The training would save his life. “We were en route back to base at Can Tho when we spotted two thunderheads moving toward each other. We poured on the coal but didn’t make it. Our Huey was suddenly in zero visibility, lightning bolts all around us, we couldn’t see a thing. The pilot, a captain, was not trained in IFR so I had to take the Huey through the soup. We made it back to base but I can tell you this, once at Can Tho I had to change every piece of clothing on my body. I was soaking wet with sweat.”
Another testy day came over Cambodia. Blanton recalled, “The Colonel onboard spotted an enemy concentration and called in Navy jets. Over the target in about 10 minutes, one of the pilots radioed, ‘We can’t see the target. We need you guys down to about 500 feet to drop a smoke grenade to mark the target.’ I radioed back two words, ‘Say again?’ He repeated the request; we knew we had no choice, so down we went. I pulled the pin on a smoke grenade, dropped it out the window, bullets flying all over the sky, but not one round hit the Huey. The Navy hit the target and we flew back to base to change clothes, again.”
From August 1972 to January 1973 the so-called Paris Peace Talks had achieved a cease fire, most advantageous to the enemy. Blanton remembered, “I actually turned off the lights in our hangar at Can Tho. We turned over 34 ‘mission ready’ Hueys to the South Vietnamese. A Captain with the Vietnamese Air Force looked them over, made an extensive repair list, gave it to me and said, ‘You fix’; I handed it back to him and said, ‘You want, you sign.’ He left without signing, and I turned off the lights and headed home.”
Boarding the ‘Freedom Bird’ at Tan Son Nhut for his flight home, Steve Blanton and all US military personnel had to tolerate an indignity this journalist, thankfully, never had to experience. Blanton: “Part of the peace agreement called for representatives from 4 nations to oversee the American withdrawal. Indonesia, Poland, Hungry, and Canada sent observers. That was all well and good, but the humiliation came from a ‘peace agreement’ that allowed the enemy, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, to personally observe the American departure. For me that was the ultimate disgrace.”
This story is dedicated to Steve Blanton’s service in Vietnam, his gutsy airmanship, his patriotism, his survival. “If I’d died in Vietnam I’d split hell wide open,” he said. “When my son was dedicated to the Lord in 1976, I finally chose the right path, too. The Good Lord accepted me knowing all my faults.”
To make a much needed long story much too short, it is important to note that the courageous young chopper pilot in Vietnam joined the National Guard after a 9 year break from the military. Steve Blanton retired from the Guard in 2008 with the rank of Brigadier General.
General Blanton’s final thoughts: “The military did not lose the war in Vietnam. Our boys did an outstanding job; they never lost a major fight or battle. The war was lost at the negotiating table in Paris and in the hallways of Washington, DC.”
March of 1973 is accepted as the American withdrawal from Vietnam. In April of 1975, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces occupied the South Vietnamese capitol of Saigon. The war was over.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.