The BlueStars Waning Days In Vietnam
By Grant Isom
Before I launch into these memories of my time with the 48th Assault Helicopter Company I decide I'd write a little bit of an explanation about them. You see, I hid these memories for 24 years, not only that, but I hid them so well that my youngest son never knew I had been to Vietnam until he was 18 Yrs of age. Funny thing is that I never consciously did this, and when I finally started to talk of my time "In Country" my sister Paula surprised me by saying, " you would never talk about it before, you just changed the subject."
What started this change in me was that I found a chat room on the internet one day in the summer of 96, the Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crew Network. While watching I suddenly realized I knew what these guys were talking about, and when one of them called himself Stinger94, "our gunships callsign in the 116th Assault Helicopter Company", I was suddenly back, late on October 22 of 1971, rushing to get my bird tied down at ChuLai before the Typhoon hit, and at the same time watching the horizon and waiting for the last Hornet Bird out that day to make it back. They never made it back, and every time I hear a UH-1 "Slick" coming now I think of the three friends I lost that evening.
I have found that some of my memories seem to have "morphed" into a mass, and I get actions and dates mixed up as a result. I have some very clear memories, like the Cobra that I saw hit by .51 cal machine gun fire that went into a rice paddy at about 50 knots flipping over onto it's rotors with parts flying everywhere and a huge cloud of muddy water spraying out. Both pilots are walked away from it, even though one had extensive burns from hot oil.
One other that remains fresh is a sudden explosion of dust and fire from a slick at about 1500 ft. Pieces started breaking off and the Main Rotors separated from the fuselage while some flames could be seen, then the sudden lack of flames when the main fuselage hits the ground and seconds later a sort of flash, and the whole scattered mess is burning again. Then later Cpt. Reynolds, Joker Platoon leader, comes into the Operations Room with tears running down his face saying, " there was nothing we could do". It is hard to lose someone. Funny thing about it though, the faces never get any older in your mind.
The following are some of my memories of that time, and I am sure you can find something wrong with them if you look long enough, but I tried to write them as I remember them.
I walked into 1SG Wilson's office in Jan 1972, having been transferred into the 48th Bluestars after the 116th Hornets had stood down in Dec 1971. Having already met the 1st flight platoon Sgt and flown on a few of his birds he told me to go pick a bunk in the end hooch and that I would be flying with Danny "Jack" Casteel on UH-1 #643. I don't remember why we called him Jack, but he had been my doorgunner in the 116th so it was a kind of reunion for me.
My first night in the 48th is clear to me, when we were on the ground and not flying we had to turn in all of our weapons, even personal weapons. So here I am at 1 in the morning and I hear Phil Yohe going from bed to bed asking for a gun, muttering under his breath that he was gonna kill that SOB!
Of course I pretended I was asleep while I pondered what to do. I heard him ask someone what my name was and then it was my turn to deny having a gun, even though when I buried my Thompson in the sand at the door to the bunker I had uncovered five other weapons already buried there!
You can hide anything under a layer of sand, and in five minutes you can't even tell it was disturbed. I hated all that sand at Marble Mountain Army Airfield in DaNang, it got into everything. Food, Clothes, Booze, Beds, Guns, and it didnt even make for a very soft landing, one time when we were all on the roof watching the nightly firefights on Monkey Mountain, a doorgunner named Biazzo fell off the roof of our hooch and dislocated both of his shoulders!
I even remember pulling police call on that sand, one of our tricks was to see whom the 1st Sergeant would catch burying something in the sand. Someone would ask him some really stupid question like " hey top, is that snow "? while everyone else buried something. It reached the point where he wouldn't come and get the flight platoons for police call, since he thought we were doing it to make fun of him, and the main reason we did it was to relieve stress. It seems like that sand would have absorbed all the urine from the half-buried "rocket pod" relief tubes scattered around the company area, but man, did they stink on a hot day!
Every once in a while the airfield security would wake us up in the middle of the night with the alert siren going off, I can't remember if a steady siren means a ground attack or a varied siren means Incoming, anyway, one night the ground attack siren went off at about 2 am, and we all hauled ass to the arms room, got our weapons, and found our assigned position on the bunker line.
I switched my M16 to full automatic, or "rock and roll" as most of us called it, and waited for something threatening to move. Nothing happened for a long time, and I was getting bored when I saw this old Papa-San riding his bike down the road that was about 100 yds. out from the wire. I then decided to make believe, and I put my M16 stock under my chin like they taught us in Basic training for shooting at night, aimed high and pulled the trigger. The Damned thing fired about 6 rounds before I could release the trigger! Papa-San blissfully continued down the road, unaware that a really scared 19yr old kid had almost wasted him! I never took anything off safe unless I was ready to shoot after that.
We had a pretty uneventful first three months in 1972, lots of resupply or "ash&trash" runs, once in a while we would insert a patrol, but that was rare since everyone knew we would all be going home soon.
The last patrol I remember inserting was on a ridge close to the mouth of the Ashau valley, two of our slicks put them on the ridgetop. It was kind of like a little park there, only a few clumps of brush and no trees with a lot of grass. The next day we flew in mail and supplies to them in the same place, and they had ponchos over their positions, and it looked like a camping trip to me. We extracted them using just my bird in two sorties three days later, and the black SSG in charge looked at me like I was nuts when I asked him why they had never moved? He said " we ain't gonna be the last Americans killed here!"
There really wasn't much to do at Marble, you could work on your bird, sleep, or sit around playing cards and drinking like everyone else.
Naturally a bunch of bulletproof He-men who weren't 21 yet spent most of the time bragging and drinking, with a little card playing thrown in. We used to do all sorts of strange things on a dare. One night six or seven of us were drinking Matuese and Jim Beam while attempting to see far enough to play cards. Someone started bragging on the Medicinal properties of Jim Beam, and another guy declared it would kill all germs known to man! The first guy immediately unzipped his pants, dunked part of himself in a half glass of Beam, and offered it to the germ man. Germie looked at us, looked at the glass, and then drank it all in one gulp! I don't remember the rest of that night, but I woke up in the morning laying on a timber that stuck out from the sandbagged wall of our hooch. I found out later that the germ man won $950. that night and spent the night tucked in with his Thompson, since that was the most money he had ever had in his pocket.
Later on the dunk and drink became a kind of initiation ritual when a new guy came into the first flight Platoon. I don't know which initiation I disliked more, in the 116th you got thrown into the "piss ditch" that was outside the clubs back door, and it was always inches deep. At least the dunk and drink was your own body!
I just realized I had never read a description of what most days were like in an Assault Helicopter Company. Once units started standing down and going home we very rarely had a Combat Assault flight to do, and most of those were ARVN troops (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). I only remember taking them into a "hot" LZ (landing zone) twice. I remember picking them up out of quite a few though! At times we would be swamped with ARVN's trying to get out of a hot LZ.
We had one Crew "the crewchiefs name was Short" that was pulled out of the air by ARVN's on a sloping landing site and had to spend the night on the ground with the troops when there was no one to come get them before dark. The next morning one of the Cav slicks from F/8th BlueGhosts managed to get in and pick them up. We spent a lot of time sharing missions with the F troop guys, we were the only two Aviation units in the area at the time. They were great guys, had their own "government inspected" house of ill repute and some great chow!
Before most of the US units left we would start our day by pre-flighting the aircraft, cranking up and departing for whichever log mission we had that day. If we headed for Phu Bai we would go Low level at about 50 ft across the end of DaNang main airfield, staying under the flight pattern. One of my more interesting flights involved a Pilot who flew across the turbulence caused by a C-130 landing at DaNang main, it felt like the bottom suddenly dropped out of our Bird and we finally stopped dropping like a rock at about 20 feet above the ground. One pilot looked at the other and said, " sure glad we weren't any closer to the ground! " I was still trying to get my cheeks to let go of the seat fabric and couldn't do much right then.
As we flew across red beach on the way up North we would take part in one of our favorite contests! It didn't take much to keep us happy, so someone started a contest to see who could count the most butts hanging out on the beach. You see most Vietnamese didn't have any kind of sanitation facilities, so there they were every morning, straining away on the beach while trying to ignore these crazy helicopters that kept interrupting at the most inopportune time! I remember counting 46 one morning, and one old man got so he would wave every time we flew over.
We would fly across the Hai Van pass and drop down on the other side to the beach and go low level up the beach right at the waters edge. Just across the first river north of the Hai Van there was a destroyed village with an abandoned APC ( Armored Personell Carrier) sitting next to the beach. We would always test our guns out on it to make sure they were working. I always liked that kind of flying the best, 15 feet and 100 to 120 knots makes you feel like you are really screaming along.
Every once in a while Mr. Smith would let me fly the bird, usually when a new Peter Pilot wanted to shoot the M60 machine guns in the backseat. I had gotten pretty good at hovering and straight and level flight when one day he let me go low level on the beach coming back from a log (ash & trash) mission at Phu Bai. I was rocketing along and he all of a sudden said "that's low enough". I pulled back the cyclic a little and Man! That bird came up to 500 ft in the wink of an eye! I remember feeling a "bump" in the controls and looked over at Smitty. He was looking at me really strange and then said if we would have had two more of those "bumps" the Main Rotor would have broken off, killing us all. I think he called it mast bumping if I remember right.
We would get to Phu Bai for our Ash&trash mission and spend all day hauling C-rations, people, mail, ammo, and all sorts of stuff out to these firebases. They were normally situated on top of a hill out in the middle of nowhere.
Being a flying truck is what our mission usually was. Most days we would spend from 4 to 7 hours hauling stuff back and forth. Every once in a while something would happen to make a day memorable. We had spent a long day hauling gear out to FB Bastogne one time, and then, right at dusk we were asked to make one more trip to haul the mail that they had forgotten to take out to them. No problem, we picked it up and made a quick trip out to the firebase. Coming to a hover above the hard pad, which was on the west side of the FB outside the main wire if I remember correctly, there was this huge flash and explosion just to our left on the downhill side of the pad. I dumped the mailbag out on the pad, called clear and we were nosed over gaining airspeed as fast as we could when the RTO comes on the radio again and told us we had set off one of their Claymores when we hovered in. That was the first time I ever saw Mr Smith mad. He had been to Nam for a tour in 68 with the special forces and knew what should have been done before we landed. I just figured it wasn't our time and let it go.
In my minds eye I can see some of the things that I liked, there was some kind of a Plantation that had palm trees to the south of Phu Bai, and when we flew over them they smelled really good. In the mornings on the way up north we sometimes flew over the village just north of that plantation, and there they would be, the duck herders! There would be several people out with sticks about 10 ft long in their hands herding anywhere from 20 to 100 ducks in a flock.
West of DaNang there was a plateau we flew by every once in a while, it looked like someone had taken a piece of rock tabletop of about 500 acres in size and just thrust it all up about 2000 ft above the surrounding valley floor. There were sheer rock walls with waterfalls coming down and on top it looked like a big grassy park with a few big trees, it was just beautiful! I sometimes daydreamed about exploring it.
Things started to change about the end of March or the first week of April. I remember we started getting missions to drop these movement sensors along the area by the mouth of the Ashau valley. They looked like a green stick about 3 ft long and had a spike on one end. Supposedly when you dropped them they would land upright and stick there, waiting for something to move. We were returning from one of these missions flying low level, when we flew over a water hole out in the middle of nowhere. Looking down I could see a walkway built out to the center of the pool of water so the VC could get water without getting stuck in the 15 feet of mud lining the banks. We looked all around the area and could find nothing else.
During the first week of April we had the largest Combat Assault I had ever been on. I remember someone saying there were around 70 ships in it. There were VNAF and Cav birds, and the 62nd Aviation Company had some in it. We took off from Marble heading north after the air force had put in what we called an Arc Light on our Insertion area. These were bombing runs performed by B-52 bombers. I don't know for sure the reason for the name, but if you were outside at night and saw one going in somewhere far off the lights reflected off the clouds in a flickering manner. After crossing the Hai Van pass we were given permission to test our guns, and since two of our Cobras were about 500 ft below us I had to fire out over the water. I saw these big round rocks and started shooting them up. I started hitting them pretty quick and started seeing these big splashes next to them. I remember thinking they must be seals jumping off the rocks, about this time I hear flight lead say "all right, who's shooting up the LRDB's (little round dink boats)?"
Whoops, messed up again! I never did ask anyone what they thought the boats were doing in the vicinity of a destroyed village where no one lived anymore.
If I remember right we picked up our troops at Phu Bai, and POL was a mess, everyone trying to refuel at once, we had been waiting in line and a point opened up. We picked up at the same time a VNAF bird did. The VNAF pilot keyed up his radio on our "guard" channel and said " My country, I go first!" Smitty put it back down and said he's right.
Our two flight platoons were part of a much bigger flight but it was our area so I remember our company as being in the lead part of the formation, along with the F/8th "Blueghost" Cav birds. We managed to fly right into a huge dust cloud caused by the bombing and suddenly we could see nothing but the ground! Our flight lead called a right bank to get out of the cloud of dust and suddenly there were VNAF ( Vietnamese Airforce) slicks mixed in with us going the other way! What a RF (rat fuck) as we called these types of missions!
We would be on standby at LZ Sally up by Phu Bai and would see one of the Advisors come out of the Operations building and spin his right hand in a circle above his head, crank it up and away we would go, getting info on what we were going to do over the radio as we departed, usually to the North.
By this time in the war it had been confirmed that the SA-7 missile was being used by the NVA who were coming South. Shortly before this mission we had lost our Company Commander and crew while they were going to try to help a Chinook crew that had taken a mortar round in the cockpit while it was changing out the radar unit at a remote radar site. This one missile changed our tactics considerably, we no longer flew at anything but treetop level, and even then we never flew a straight line if we could help it. This made for some interesting gun cover tactics, as you will see.
It always seemed kind of strange to me that there were never any VNAF helicopters available when someone needed to be extracted from a hot LZ. Off we would go, usually to some kind of Medi-Vac or rescue of our Advisors.
A little bit about LZ Sally here. My main memories about Sally came just after that 70 ship RF. We showed up there a few days after that mission and there were some NVA Tanks and Anti-Aircraft guns that had been captured on display there.
One of the tanks was burned out, it had been hit by some type of antitank weapon next to the main gun which had left a hole about the size of a fifty cent piece all the way through a foot or more of steel. The hole lined up perfectly withe the storage rack for the main gun ammo. Looking in the blown open hatch you could see a shackle and chains that were welded to the floor of this tank. In it there were still some leg bones and the remains of a foot.
The other tank was painted white inside and was still in running condition, it even had the machine guns and ammo with the radios still mounted and main gun ammo too. I was told that they used this one at night for a gaurd station.
There were 37mm and 23mm anti-aircraft guns there also, I remember the 23mm had a large round sight on the left side of the barrell with a movable airplane mounted on a slide wire in the center of this 12 inch across sighting device. I seem to remember the 37mm had a seat on both sides of the carriage and one guy pumped pedals for the traverse power and the other guy powered the loading mechanism and aimed.
On this one mission I remember *it scared the shit out of me!* we were called off of Sally at around noon to go pick up three Special Forces advisors and some wounded who were with an ARVN mechanized unit just North of Hue if I remember right. I knew it was gonna be a bad one when we had to wait for our gun cover, and four Cobra's showed up. Two were Jokers and two were from F troop 8th Cavalry.
We took off from Sally and headed up the highway North, past the forty or so vehicles in the burned out convoy with piles of stinking rags lining the shoulders of the road. I remember the Peter Pilot spent the whole time on the maps and never looked up until we were on our final flare into an LZ the size of a football field. There were tree lines on three sides and the one to our left opened up on us. Two of our Cobras were in a sort of hovering forward flight in front of us throwing everything they could into that tree line! One of the Jokers started taking hits and broke out left and a Cav bird settled in right where he had been and continued pounding it. I couldn't shoot since I had a bird in the way and Casteel was busy loading wounded. One of the advisors, a Black SFC was hit in the chest right in front of me and his blood sprayed all through the bird. Screaming at the AC to GO! GO! we were fighting off ARVN's who tried to climb on. In the air one of the advisors told us they had been in hand to hand combat 10 minutes before we got there.
Back at Sally that same advisor took his PRC 25 radio and threw it as far out into the wire as he could get it! Casteel and I were sitting on the edge of the bird shaking and trying to smoke multiple cigarettes at once. We looked the bird over once we settled down and discovered we hadn't taken a single hit! Those Cobra's had really covered our asses that time! I started to mention this mission to Casteel when we met in Tucson in 97, I could see his face tighten up and he stopped me and just said "Yeah, I remember."
There were a lot of that type of mission later in my tour, I left the 48th on the 28 of July 1972, and the unit stood down on the 8th of Aug 1972.
One of our last KIA's has always bothered me, since the guy who was killed, Mike Hill, had been a cobra crewchief and didnt have to fly. He partied with us for quite a while before he got us to let him fly. On his first mission the lead aircraft of a flight of two was swarmed by ARVN's going into the LZ to pick up wounded. Chalk two, bird 68-15742 was forced to do a balls out flare trying to avoid chalk one and his tail rotor was knocked off and 742 crashed in the LZ.
We had two F/8th birds as chase and one of them came in to recover the crew of the Bluestar Slick. Fighting off ARVN's who were still trying to swarm the slicks Mike Hill slid up behind the AC's seat, and during takeoff one of the ARVN's shot into the floor of the slick. The round came up through Mike's knee and into the bottom of his chin. I doubt if he ever knew he had been hit.
I decided in 1996 to contact his family, and make sure they knew what had happened. I found his home of record from the accident info and looked up the name Hill on my Phone CD. I saw three Hill names in his hometown in one of our Western States. I picked up the phone and called the first name and then didn't know what to say when a man answered. I finally blurted out " I knew a man who was killed in Vietnam named Mike Hill, did you know him? " I waited for an answer and finally this quiet voice said, "he was my son".
I was only able to talk to him for a few minutes before I couldn't talk any more. I did manage to get his address and then sent him a letter explaining what happened. Mike's sister called me the night they got the letter and thanked me for contacting them, it seems they had never been told just how he died. She said her dad was finally able to believe that Mike was dead and turn him loose, even though she could still see him in her driveway working on his car if she looked just right.
What really bothered me about this call was the fact that at the time he was killed Mike Hill was the only surviving son, the only Heir to the family name. We not only lost Mike that day; we lost his family name. He wasn't even supposed to be in Vietnam under those conditions.
Many of us carry memories of Vietnam that we would just as soon not have, but those same memories are what made me a man at 19 Yrs of age.
I am in contact with about seven of the those first flight platoon men from my time, Mike Loyd, Cyr, Kiser, Yohe, Casteel, Biazzo, and some others whose names are not on the tip of my tongue just now. It seems we are just now coming out and looking for those other buds we remembered, and the years drop away when we meet again!
Tonight is probably going to be another of those spent walking the sleepless paths of time. I wish everyone who reads this to think of those young men we lost, those who fly forever under the skies of Southeast Asia. They were there for us, not the politicians.
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