Parts Is Parts



"There’s a system for everything in the Army and it takes paperwork to make everything in the system move." - Drill Sergeant, Ft. Knox, KY, 1965

I like to tinker with things which is, perhaps, a common male affliction. Besides the usual household repairs, the current occupier of my spare time is a ‘76 280Z that I’ve spent the last four years rebuilding from the ground up. I bought my "Z" right off the delivery truck a few days before finishing OCS, certain that I was going to get those butter bars and could really pay for it. As I contemplate spending another two to three thousand to finish up the body and interior I often wonder if I’ve hung on to it too long. It runs great but it’s getting harder and harder to find new or even used parts. Just get a new one, I think, instead of hanging on to the old memories of the days of my youth in my first new car.

A few years before buying that car I had similarly wondered if it was worth fixing my steed or just sending it to the glue factory. As an FNG gunner in the 48th I was initially assigned to Joker 084, appropriately named "Flyin’ Coffin". It was, without a doubt, the rattiest looking ship in the company. A Dustoff helo in its first incarnation, 084 had early on been converted to a gunship and during its four-year tour of duty since leaving the Bell plant had obviously seen its share of combat. Not a single window on the aircraft was original, nor was there a continuous area on any skin panel the same shade of green. Patches covered bullet holes in the fuselage everywhere, especially on the nose and underside of the cabin.

"What did I get myself into now?" I thought as I looked over the flex guns for the first time. This was supposed to be a gunship, the cream of the crop in helicopter aviation. The guns and aerial rockets it bore were the whole reason for it’s being and the massive fire power from those weapons were what supported the troops on the ground. And kept the flight crews from getting shot out of the sky. The CE and the maintenance platoon had kept the foundational equipment of the helicopter - the powertrain, flight controls, the radios and instruments - in top mechanical shape and that mattered far above the cosmetics of patches and spray paint. But the guns, now my responsibility, were in sorry, sorry condition. These were no more than a collection of odds and ends the likes of which would have convened a courts martial board in the States. I wondered if during the time between the last gunner leaving and my showing up that the opportunity for a midnight parts exchange had been too much temptation for anyone needing one of those or a couple of them there.

"Spare parts’re in that locker." the CE said, pointing to a wooden box at the end of the L-shaped revetment. Opening the lid, I peered inside to find a collection of every kind of M-60 part imaginable but none fit for service. Barrels with the rifling worn nearly smooth. Partial belts of 7.62 ammunition with strange colored tips lay everywhere, too rusty to use but souvenirs too unique to throw away. Sections of ammo chutes and old drive motors. Picked over C-ration boxes and maintenance forms. No help in there.

I trotted across the dirt flight line, through the slick revetments and up the hill to the armorer’s shack next to the mess hall. Nobody home. Peering into the back room where the storage shelves were I saw that they were mostly empty, with just a few sealed paper envelopes containing new parts occupying them. I was tempted to take what was available but I’d been in the Army long enough to know that if you messed with those supply guys and their paperwork you’d soon find yourself short of everything but KP.

Over the following weeks I made many trips up the hill only to find an empty shack and no armorer. Finally, I ran into him, an SFC and three grades my senior. I explained that most of 084’s guns would jam after only a few rounds, leaving us vulnerable and with little more to offer the ground troops than 14 rockets and 2 door guns (the door guns always got the best of what was available). When asked what I needed I naively told him "I just need six of everything. Everything - especially bolts. And receivers. According to the firing logs every gun is past it’s 100,000 round limit. They’re so warped that we just had to use a hydraulic press to free a bolt that had gotten jammed in the rails."

"Fill these out. And these. I’ll see what I can do the next time I’m down in Nha Trang."

I did as instructed, but, in the mean time still had to find ways of keeping the ship up while waiting for the "system" to provide. I’d gotten to the point of scavenging through everything I could find in the locker to come up with six guns containing the best combination of whatever parts were available. By disassembling each of the bolts I could keep the chipped extractors and weak ejectors working by stretching the overheated and worn springs behind each so that they would remain strong - for a while. Feed pawls and camming lugs were another problem but when worn down there was no workaround to replace the missing metal. I often found myself muttering as I filed and stretched, "this doesn’t happen in the ‘best-equipped’ army in the world."

I got plenty of free advice from the other gunners and CEs on Alpha row. "Clean ‘em every day whether you fire ‘em or not and use plenty of grease on the moving parts." "Don’t clean them - if they’re working just leave the @#!&*ers alone". "Use jus’ a little smear of grease - a lot gums up the works."

I do believe that the SFC scoured every bar on the beach at Nha Trang for my spare parts but nothing ever came out of the armorers shack. Increasingly frustrated with the non-performing weapon system, I decided to go to the Platoon Sergeant and have a little talk.

"Sergeant, I’ve got no choice but to down the aircraft. I don’t mind doing the work but I’ve got to have something to work with. There’s only two guns on that ship that fire regularly. We’re not doing anybody any good out there." I knew that downing 084 would shift the load on to the other guys, but I had to get the point across. He said he’d see what he could do. Now, I’d heard that before but the Staff Sergeant had been a pretty straight shooter with us so I took him at his word. The aircraft stayed up and we flew a regular schedule along with everyone else.

Fortunately, the ROKs kept a pretty tight lid on things in our AO and we often went elsewhere to conduct operations. One of the places we staged out of on a regular basis was a base 30 minutes flying time north where we could use the local unit’s facilities for refueling and rearming. We spent many days on the standby pad just outside of their company area eating our C-rats, smoking and joking until called out for a fire mission or while awaiting a scheduled mission in that AO.

The resident unit there occupied what was unquestionably the best location outside of Vung Tau that any helicopter company had ever enjoyed. Situated on a beautiful beach along the South China Sea, they were also adjacent to a large Air Force base and, thus, a huge, well stocked PX. And, surrounded by a natural "no mans land" made of several miles of flat rice paddies on three sides and the pristine shoreline on the other, they were also relatively secure. An enviable way to spend your time in country compared to the dusty GP tents we inhabited in the flats outside of Ninh Hoa.

One morning after flying up to conduct missions in the area west of this unofficial R&R center, we landed and shut down in a revetment right on their flight line instead of the outlying standby pads while the pilots went into the company area for a briefing. As I looked down the rows of spotlessly clean helicopters I could see only one of the locals out on the flight line and he was slowly sauntering back to the company buildings. Taking an early lunch down at the beach, I thought.

We were parked on the end of their gunship row and as I looked over at the aircraft next to ours I could see that it was immaculately clean, polished and in all respects ready for a stateside Saturday morning inspection. As was the next one, and the next and so on down the line. Even the mail bags covering the flex guns were new. And the slicks on the adjacent rows looked every bit as good. It was like standing in a new car lot.

I looked over at my mottled green gunship with the cantankerous weapons system and asked the CE, "Why are we up here flying our asses off in their AO and these guys don’t have anything better to do than find places where they can stay out of the sun?" Pointing to the freshly-painted revetment wall I said, "And what do these guys do that they have time for nonsense work like this?" I was becoming irate at their apparent leisurely lifestyle and, admittedly, a bit jealous, too.

That was it, I decided. I had tried the system and it didn’t work. My days of salvaging were over.... time for jungle rules.

Eyeing the flight line carefully to make sure we were alone, I walked over to the next ship and pulled the white canvas mail bag off the left side flex guns. Two new 60’s were underneath, clean, shiny and without so much as a single blemish on the finishes. Prime meat. I casually opened the feed tray of the top one, disconnected the ammo chute and solenoid connector and released the upper gun from its mount. Just as casually, I walked back to our revetment with my trophy and exchanged it with it’s counterpart on our aircraft. Still no one in sight so after hooking up the old gun to my benefactor’s mount I repeated the process with the lower gun. I was now two for two.

My CE, watching all this with much amusement, busied himself with other chores, arguably maintaining his status as a non-participant. He knew full well that these purloined parts weren’t only just for my benefit. As I finished stripping the left side of the neighboring helicopter I contemplated replacing the new mail bags as well but decided that the sight of old stained bags on the formerly pristine gunship would make the caper immediately obvious as soon as the owner walked up. Better to leave things inconspicuously under wraps till later. Maybe he wouldn’t uncover the guns until he’s moving a little faster like when prepping for a mission, if he ever did, and wouldn’t have much time to notice.

Should I try for all four? Naw. I now had four reliable guns out of six - a major improvement. And, I reasoned, so did the other guy. I figured we were even. I’ll fly all day out in your AO with a clear conscience. You enjoy the beach.

Not long afterwards the Platoon Sergeant, true to his word, presented me with six brand new bolts he had gotten from a place only Platoon Sergeants know. I installed all six right away and tossed the old parts, some now in better shape than others, into the wooden locker. Prizes for a future scrounger. All four of the flex guns were now chattering in unison whenever asked.

I had the "system" down pat.

P.S. By the way - any of you guys drive a "Z"?

Back to Stories Page

Back to Front Page