Call it divine intervention, luck or just a turn of events – Charles Wyatt had his life saved.
"I had already been ‘in-country’ 11 months as the left door gunner and flight engineer on a HU-1D Huey when the platoon sergeant asked me to fly with some ROKs (Republic of Korea soldiers) on a chopper pilot trainee flight. I didn’t speak Korean and they didn’t understand English very well. I didn’t like the idea, so one my buddies volunteered for the mission. They were all killed." This guardian angel-moment occurred during Wyatt’s first tour of duty in Vietnam. He would survive two more year-long excursions in the war-torn country.
Born a Texan yet raised as a Californian, Conyers resident Wyatt worked various jobs after graduating from Berkley High School. Bored and seeking new adventures, in 1959 Charles and four of his friends joined the military.
"The only thing I knew about the Army was what I saw in the movies, infantry marching around with back packs," Wyatt said. "When I was asked after basic what I wanted to do, I informed them the infantry was fine with me since I was only staying in the Army for two years."
Thus began Charles Wyatt’s 27-year career in the U.S. Army.
Trained as a petroleum specialist at Ft. Lee, Va., Charles later enjoyed five uninterrupted years stationed in Munich, Germany. "I cross-trained in helicopter maintenance," he recalled. "We had the old H-34 Choctaws and the loveable Bell Bubble ‘Whirlybirds.’ I loved Germany.’’
December 1965: Charles arrives at Fort Hood, Texas. "I was there to help form a chopper company. Several companies were being formed, and old Army aviators, mostly majors, were cross-training to fly choppers."
July 1966: After a 28-day voyage across the Pacific, Charles’ ship docks at Qui Nhon, Vietnam.
"I was a bit scared at first," he admitted. "But the base was protected by the ROKs, and the Viet Cong were terrified of those Korean soldiers, so the base was fairly safe. On my first mission, in the so-called ‘safety zone’ during indoctrination, I heard ‘ping, ping, ping,’ hit the Huey. When I informed the pilot we were under fire, he replied, ‘Yeah, it happens all the time.’ I wasn’t afraid after that day for some reason."
Charles was continually airborne on combat missions.
"We would ferry troops into combat zones after gunships and artillery had ‘softened’ the area. Of course as door gunners, our M-60 machine guns chattered all the way in." On ferrying out the wounded and dead, Charles muttered quietly, "Yeah, that was pretty rough."
One mission near Tuy Hoa still haunts him.
"When we dropped off the boys we spotted spider holes (concealed fighting positions) everywhere and knew the going would be rough. We hadn’t even returned to base when we got the call to go back. Our boys had just about been wiped out."
Other vivid images remain intact: "We’d land to resupply next to a hill or small mound and the guys would race down to the chopper for the provisions without concern for the rotors. I saw men dismembered or cut in half; I can still see them."
After the horrors of war, Charles sought to suppress the vivid memories in Kitzingen, Germany.
"That was a good assignment," Wyatt said. "I was an E-6 by then, a platoon sergeant. I guess that was a good place to lick my wounds, so to speak."
After three years, Wyatt was sent back to the States as operations sergeant for the aviation school at Fort Rucker, Ala. "That assignment wasn’t bad either," he recalled. But his next assignment was bad: Pleiku, Vietnam. Charles Wyatt was going back to war.
In the Central Highlands of Pleiku, Vietnam, 1970: Charles is assigned to the 52nd Combat Aviation Battalion.
"Pleiku was huge by then," he stated. "There were 60 or 70 choppers on the base, but as a platoon sergeant, I only flew about four hours per month. My main job was taking care of 14 to 16 chopper crews, the flight engineers and gunners. By then a lot of guys were being flown in from Hawaii to fill positions as door gunners." A hornet’s nest awaited the seasoned veteran.
"Discipline was slack. The younger guys were dispirited, drinking and partying too much and not at their best for a mission. Leadership was sorely lacking. It’s always wise to articulate properly to young people, especially in a combat zone, so improvement was gradual. But things did improve. Still, we lost so many guys. I look back on things, was it ‘luck’ for me, or something else? Personally, I believe it was the grace of God."
Having survived his second tour, Germany beckoned Charles once more.
"This time I didn’t stay long in Germany," he said. "Within a year, I had orders to return to Vietnam, back to the 52nd at Pleiku." It was 1972; the Americans were leaving Pleiku, and just about every other base in Vietnam.
"Things sure had changed," Charles recalled. "Morale was decent, but the general attitude was ‘let’s get out,’ which was understandable. We were being run out of Pleiku back down to Tuy Hoa.
"That last tour for me was the toughest. We were leaving Vietnam, but still losing a lot of people. One loss really hurt. A young gunner enjoyed carving walking sticks and always carried one aboard his Huey for good luck. The base commander said it was too dangerous in case of an accident or ‘shoot-down,’ so I had to tell this guy to leave his walking stick behind. Every guy on the Huey was killed that same day."
Charles Wyatt completed his career bouncing assignments between Ft. Ord, Calif., and bases in Germany, such as Ansbach. He lived in California as a civilian until he and his wife moved to Conyers in 2009.
His final thoughts are familiar words from past interviews: "You know, it’s not a popular idea, but I wish we had the draft back. We need these young people off the streets. Our judges used to give troublemakers a choice in the courtroom, ‘OK, you can either join the military or go to jail. Which is it?’ I agree. I know the military is not for everybody, but so many young people are wasting their lives, kids having kids, thinking the world owes them something, and that a cellphone is a prerequisite for survival. Something is terribly wrong and it needs to be corrected."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.