One aspect of the Museum’s mission is to commemorate the past. One way we do so is by remembering and telling the stories of our veterans through our collections, research, and exhibitions so that their service and sacrifice will not be forgotten. To go one step further, we have created this space where you can share your own story of service as a veteran, or on behalf of the veteran in your life.
Sometimes in the press of everyday activities, one tends to forget past events. Veterans Day brings back many memories both good and bad. But being fortunate enough to be a volunteer at the National Air and Space Museum, I am constantly reminded of my service to my country. Frequently I like to take a minute and walk past the Huey helicopter on the floor. While it is but a machine, it constantly takes me back to my days as a helicopter pilot and the many experiences I had with this wonderful flying machine.
I first learned how to fly the Huey at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in 1961. We were one of the first two units to get the HU-1A, Iroquois and we thought they were pretty special. But then in 1962, I was reassigned to Germany and ground duty so I soldiered on as an infantryman and struggled to get my required flight time by doing test flights on other helicopters.
Then we began to hear about the buildup of forces in Southeast Asia. In late 1963, I was moved to an Air Cavalry unit and when we got brand new 1963 UH-1B gunships it turned out that I was the only one who was qualified in Hueys, so I got to become an instructor pilot and put in many hours checking out members of D Troop, 3/8 Cav. In 1965, I returned to the U.S. and after completing the Infantry Officers Career Course at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I was on orders to Vietnam. I was blessed to be assigned to the 121st Assault Helicopter Company located at the southernmost airfield in the Vietnamese Delta. I arrived in July 1966, close to my birthday. Because of the rapid buildup of forces, many aviators were pulled from non-flying or fixed wing assignments, given a quick Huey checkout and sent to Vietnam. Fortunately my prior experience stood me in good stead and soon I became an instructor and a platoon leader. The 121st had been at Soc Trang since the summer of 1963, so it was well experienced and well led. The members of the unit were a wonderful team. As is so often true, in war intense personal relationships develop under the pressure of combat. To this day some of my best pals are from that time. When I departed the 121st, I had experienced much and accrued 1,100 hours of flight time.
After 18 months as a flight leader of an instructional group at Ft. Rucker, I returned to Vietnam as a battalion operations officer then a company commander. While I didn’t log as much flight time (800 hours) there were many interesting and sometimes terrifying experiences. It was during this assignment that I was asked to help rescue a half-battalion of the 2/27th Regiment who had been pinned down in a rice paddy by laying down a smoke screen between our troops and the VC.
I returned from Vietnam in February 1970 and became an advisor to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. At the end of that assignment in 1973 I stopped flying. So you can see the images and stories that run through my mind when I walk past our Huey at the Udvar-Hazy Center. I have written some of them down, but have so many more to go. After all I’m only 80!
I wrote these few paragraphs some years ago while serving onboard the USS Tripoli. They've been edited and revised over the years as I used them for writing classes. They seem appropriate for the anniversary this week.
Manning The Rails
I was not so desperate for the sight of land. We had been only seven days at sea, and many months remained on this deployment to the Persian Gulf in the last month of nineteen ninety. But the sea toyed with us, and bullied our smallness. The whitecaps broke over and over freely to the aft horizon and I felt the weight of my body taking me face first toward the hard metal deck of the loaded helicopter carrier. I caught myself and turned to face the bow. It pitched up so my eyes saw only the haze grey of the ship, and the pale blue of the sky. Down she came, plunging deep into the sea and scooping up a salty spray over her deck. Out of the mist the island rose, and the appearance of it reminded me of what I had left behind. It brought uneasiness to my mind. Sailing toward the peaks of dark earth, the largeness of the vessel beneath my feet now seemed trivial on the playfully malicious ocean. It kicked us back and forth and slapped us side to side; a last bit of cheerful torment before shoving us on our way, and happily settling down to wait for our return. At length, our props churned and churned steadily against the watery thug until we progressed.
Not long enough out of the Naval station at San Diego, only the sea legs of the most senior sailors were yet developed. Much less did our stomachs stay the heaving. My four years still gave in to a pinch of nausea, and up on the catwalks, careful, for many a healthy chunk went flying by with a steep roll on our keel. Seven days on the salty sea was not enough. We were not salty enough. What is more, my mind was still with my family on the shores of the mainland, and still unaccustomed to the long days and nights. After all duties were performed for the day, there was nowhere to go but in circles along the gray bulkheads round and round, up and down about the ship.
Our first stop was Hawaii. I stood now with my broom in hand postured on deeply bent knees hanging ten off the bow of the USS Tripoli. My smiles became more eager with every detail of the deep, green, earth that I could gaze upon. I realized that my despair was underestimated. I missed my family. I welcomed the ship’s steady approach, though slow and calculated by the bridge crew. I welcomed and felt honored to perform the small wonted duty upon entering this particular refuge. I welcomed the break from the loneliness peculiar to the very wide-open sea.
At what seemed five miles off the mouth of Pearl Harbor, all unburdened hands fell below decks to shower and change into dress uniforms. Sailors donned their Cracker-Jack Whites; a toy-land uniform with its wide belled hems that swung inches around our every step, a useless flap at our backs, the black neckerchief, rolled like a long piece of dough, and swung under that flap and then tied in a perfect square knot at our chests, and each of us topped off with a clean White Hat. Dixie Cups we called them, because when we crowned ourselves with them, it was as if we wore the top half of an empty paper cup atop our heads, and to me, our skulls sometimes likened the void below in the bottom half.
Only a share of the two-thousand Marines aboard were tapped and given directions to the flight deck, and the light of that shined bright and simply amongst the harsh dark duties to come for them. They slipped on green slacks, pressed to form a crease bold as steel, and single-breasted jackets tailored to thin boyish waists. A belt, as wide as their wrists, disciplined the package at the mid section, and they covered themselves with a cap pointed both fore and aft, and centered with a vertical hand down the bridges of their noses.
No amount of measuring could have kept the wind from smacking our caps off of their perfect perches when hatches were thrown open at the tip of Ford Island. We blundered and took and gave orders, all of us in command, and finally staggered ourselves into a green and white line around the edge of the flat flight deck of our floating home. Helos behind us stood also in order; their flight impelling mechanisms tied down and properly stowed. They too awaited our approach to the Arizona. Our eyes became fixed on the memorial and a silence passed over the deck from stem to stern. We settled into the history that we knew, and the coolness of the day. The soft welkin charmed the waters of the channel into a lazy roll. And, so, the ship swayed. She rocked on her keel port to starboard, starboard to port to the time of our now melancholy passage. We lined the perimeter of the ship white and green, white and green. Sailors and Marines manned the rails to honor the dead below oily green waters that still percolated after fifty years.
I was a young 19 year old structural repairman and stationed at Ton Son Nhut AB S. Vietnam assigned to the structural repair shop. You name it, it was there - C-123B, A1E, O1 bird dog, RF101C, RF4C, RB-57, RC-47N, C-118, HH-3 Huskies, HH-53, UH-1's, U-3B (Cessna 310), I'm sure I'm forgetting something else. Dec 1966, the VC decided to hit the base. Of the two RB-57's one took a 82MM mortar between the number 2 engine and the fuselage, we all figured the bird was done for, built like a tank!! We had her repaired and back in the air in two weeks!!
I remember when... The SR-71 was operational. I was stationed at Beale AFB, CA from 08 May 1985 to 08 May 1990. Our Intelligence Division was responsible for all aspects of the aircraft from flying it to telling it when to turn cameras and radar on and off, to downloading the data and processing it. It was known that the SR-71 could fly at great heights (80,000ft +) and speed (Mach 3+) but we had the pleasure and privilege to know exactly how fast and high. Thank you to the AF for that experience and thank you to all my fellow airmen and officers for the many wonderful memories.
My grandfather (RTT Sr.) drove ambulances for the French in WWI (right up to the trenches - yes, he had many close calls, and slept next to an bomb depot). He learned that the fighter pilots sat on frying pans for armor plate protection. He came home to learn to fly the JN-4 "Jenny". He liked bringing a book aloft to get some reading in while getting his flying hours in. All the planes on the base there ended up condemned except the commander's because they were all worn-out with too many fabric hole patches etc.