Right Hero, Wrong War

Right Hero, Wrong War
by: Lawrence V. Drake

NOTE: This is a chapter from Red Boots Rebel

I was fourteen and kicking the big white mare named Pheobe hard in the sides to get her going as fast as I could as we headed back toward the ranch house.  I had her at a dead run with Gunnar hanging on behind me for dear life, kicking away with all his might, too.  We were riding bareback.  I had the mare’s mane to hang onto, and my knees clamped tight around her sides.  Suddenly, Gunnar’s cowboy hat blew off and spooked the mare.  She hunched and launched Gunnar and me high in the air.  The next thing I knew, I hit the ground hard in a cloud of dust as the mare trotted off toward the barn, well-pleased that she had shed herself of a couple of annoying boys.

Gunnar wasn’t so fortunate as to hit plain old dirt.  He landed square in a cactus patch and rolled.  His clothes were pinned to his body with cactus needles from top to bottom and he was screaming bloody murder.  As we walked back to the house, every step for him was excruciating.  The next few hours were spent with his mother and a pair of pliers plucking needles from her boy who stood quivering in pain.  It took a whole thirty minutes just to pull enough needles out of him to get his clothes off.  Then he had to stand there naked for another hour to finish the job.  Gunnar’s dad was a doctor, so he patched Gunnar up when he got home, but it was a while before he felt like getting back on a horse.

Almost two years my junior, Gunnar was two years behind me in school.  Our parents were close friends so we spent time together as families.  We both had a passion for flying and would climb the rimrock cliffs behind his ranch to the top of the plateau where the airport sat.  We would sneak across the runways and wander among the hangars and parked airplanes, dreaming and talking about the day we would fly.  Gunnar’s day came in 1968 when he joined the Army and became a helicopter pilot.  The Army was the only branch of the service that would take a guy out without a college education for pilot training.  Vietnam was being fought from helicopters and it was chewing up machines and pilots as fast as they could be produced.  Right after flight training, Gunnar was sent directly to Vietnam and the heart of the fighting with the 2nd Squadron, 17 Aircav attached to the 101st Airborne.  After arriving “in-country,” he was transferred to the Phu Bai Combat Base, which was in the thick of the fighting.  Phu Bai is located on a flat, rice-paddy-covered delta between the ocean to the east and thick hilly jungles that, as Gunnar put it, “seems to stretch west forever.”  Crews lived in metal Quonset huts with no air conditioning in a steamy tropical climate where green mold would grow on boots left unattended for more than a couple of days and beer cans rusted before they reached the camp.

Gunnar was always a bit of a scrapper and willing to take on just about anything, so it wasn’t too surprising that he chose to fly the Hughes OH-6 helicopter when he received his first assignment.  Nicknamed “Loach,” the little teardrop shaped, turbine-powered helicopter was fast and highly maneuverable.  Gunnar called it the flying Porsche.  The name “Loach” referred to a Light Observation Helicopter because that was its mission.  Well, “observation” was a bit of a misnomer; “Charlie hunter” was more like it.   “Charlie” was the name used for the Viet Cong.  The true mission of the Loach was to find Charlie in the dense triple-canopy jungle so the Cobra attack helicopters flying cover above could swoop in with their firepower, light up the jungle and take Charlie out.  The only problem was that they couldn’t see down through the jungle canopy that was a hundred and fifty feet thick.

“Loach” Light Observation Helicopter

How do you find Charlie when you can’t see him?  “You fly low and slow, ten to thirty feet above the canopy, and when someone starts shooting at you, you have found Charlie,” Gunnar said.  In other words, the Loach is the bait.  But according to Gunnar, he couldn’t get any better flying.

And how did he know someone was shooting at him?  “When you are only a couple of hundred feet away from an AK-47 machine gun popping off, there is no mistaking it,” Gunnar said. Even small arms fire was easily heard over the sounds of the engine and whirling blades.  If he missed that, he could hear the ‘ting, ting, ting” of rounds hitting the helicopter. It was not uncommon for Loach pilots to bring back a machine riddled with holes, if he came back at all.

Gunnar was an athletic guy with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a winning smile.  His short stature made him well suited for the small turbine helicopter.  After a few weeks of flying with an experienced pilot on missions, he was turned loose to fly on his own.  The Loach carried one observer and a mechanic for a total of six eyeballs.  Some had machine guns mounted in the door opening, but their best defense was agility and speed.  They flew with the doors off and heads hanging out in the airstream looking down into the jungle.  They wore armored vests and helmets.  The little chopper could take quite a lot of punishment and still stay airborne.

Gunnar had received the standard indoctrination all young military recruits and draftees received.  American troops were in Vietnam to stop the advance of Communism.  If we didn’t stop them in Southeast Asia, they would be on the coast of California before we knew it.  He felt he was doing his patriotic duty and was proud to be a part of an amazing group of individuals fighting for freedom.  Like the rest of us, he was young and impressionable.  We were influenced by the patriotism of our fathers who fought in real wars to defend their families and way of life.  We believed what our government told us and what the military asked of us.  That is why the young fight the wars and the old run the wars.  For Gunnar, the biggest benefit was that he got to do what he loved to do, and that was to fly.  The Army had given him that opportunity, and he was grateful.

It was all so bizarre.  Here I was processing body counts and strategic intelligence reports straight from the battlefield in an air-conditioned room filled with computers, sitting in my comfortable swivel chair, watching lights blink and tape reels spin, while Gunnar was on the other end of those transmissions dodging bullets and risking his life minute by minute.  It didn’t make sense.

Gunnar’s day started at 4:30 in the morning and he was in the air by 7:00.  He flew every day, weather permitting.  On most days he flew six to seven missions and didn’t quit until daylight was gone.  He would fly out over the jungle, searching for Charlie with the three or four Cobra attack helicopters high above waiting like hawks for him to scare up the prey.  With his head in the slipstream, he could sometimes smell Charlie.  It could be a hint of smoke, the slight scent of marijuana, or even the body odor of the enemy sweating in the jungle heat below.  If he found a small opening in the canopy, he would perform a series of wingovers where he would pull the helicopter up in a steep climb, pivot at the top, and slide down over the opening as he and the observers strained to see any signs of Charlie.  This would be repeated three or four times until the presence of Charlie was either confirmed or dismissed.  This maneuver kept the helicopter a moving target and not as easily hit if Charlie was hiding down there.

“Ratta tat tat tat…tink tink tink”  The sounds of machine gun fire from somewhere in the jungle below meant Charlie was there.  The observer would launch a hand red-smoke grenade in the direction of the gunfire as a marker for the Cobras, and then Gunnar would roll the helicopter into a steep turn and pitch out as quickly as possible.  The good news was that Charlie had limited visibility up through the jungle canopy so it took only seconds to be out of the line of fire.  If lucky, there wasn’t too much damage to the helicopter and no one got hit.  The Cobras would swoop in and blast away with cannons and rockets.  A mini-war would take place.  Gunnar would then truly become an observer, his job done except for reporting the outcome, including body counts.

Rest at night was tenuous at best.  After a day of flying in almost constant danger, it was hard to sleep.  A shower was followed by a couple of beers from cans rusted by the humidity.   Smoke and joke time was spent with buddies to the sounds of Jimmy Hendricks, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Cream, and Led Zeppelin.  Far off gunfire was often heard as the base perimeter guards fended off Charlie trying to breach the wire. These were the sounds he would fall asleep to knowing that the next morning he would have to get up and do it all over again.  If he was lucky, he would come back with all his arms and legs intact.

Gunnar was lucky, but he was also an outstanding pilot.  Many times he would limp back to base in a helicopter that was held together by willpower.  On several occasions he didn’t make it back in the same helicopter he left in.  Once the engine took a direct hit and seized immediately.  There were only two or three seconds to lower the collective control and go into autorotation, a form of a glide for a helicopter.  A few seconds later he pulled back on the cyclic lever to slow the descent just before hitting the top of the jungle canopy.  The helicopter crashed down through the layers of trees and undergrowth, coming to rest upside down on the jungle floor with jet fuel leaking from the tank where it had been penetrated by bullets.  Gunnar and his observer were unhurt and quickly unbuckled as they hung upside down and crawled out from inside the wreck.  They could hear people thrashing through the jungle from both directions and pulled their weapons from their holsters anticipating a fight.  Luckily, an Australian detail along with some South Vietnam troops found them first and got them safely to an opening where a rescue helicopter picked them up.  As Gunnar said, “Way too many Loaches went down where there was no possible rescue.”

Gunnar and his observer got the next day off for recuperation but were back flying again in no time.  He was a little more cautious on the next few sorties, but soon the crash was only a memory, and there was work to be done that took all his concentration.

Three more times Gunnar was shot down and each time lived to tell about it.  Once a shell hit the Plexiglas canopy, shattering it and the instrument console.  Shards of Plexiglas exploded into his face and eyes, blinding him.  Gunnar and other pilots had made it a practice to teach the observer enough basic flying skills to keep the machine upright and get back to base if needed, and this was a time it was needed.  The observer managed the thirty-minute flight back to the base and skidded to a landing.  The medics picked the shards out of Gunnar’s eyes leaving them bloodshot but without permanent damage.  Did I mention he was lucky? A few days later he was back in the air over the jungle.

Gunnar saw a lot of people die, and he lost a lot of buddies.  He had a front-row seat for observing the insanity of war.  He did body counts from the air that were fed through the network and eventually ended up on my computer.  But how could anyone get an accurate body count when Charlie was hidden in the dense jungle?  There had to be a whole lot of guessing going on.

Gunnar was a true war hero.  He risked his life time and time again.  He served valiantly alongside his brothers in arms.  He did what his country asked him to do.  He was shot down four times, got a Purple Heart, two Bronze Star medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross from the South Vietnamese for his heroism.  He spent a year in Vietnam and survived when far too many did not.  I am proud to call Gunnar my friend but saddened that he was a hero in a war we should not have been fighting, by a government that was entangled in politics and deception.  Gunnar was going home to a country where more than half the population was firmly set against the war.  He wouldn’t get the hero’s welcome he deserved.  He fought a war of survival in which he was fighting for and with his buddies against an enemy that wanted them out of Vietnam or dead.  His was not a political war.  His was a real life and death, blood and bones war, far from the political arena where decisions were being made that put him there.

The Vietnam battle was not unlike our American Civil War.  The southern half of the country wanted to secede from the rest of the country. The northern half didn’t want the country split, nor did the Chicoms (Chinese Communists) want to give up a foothold in Asia.  Of course, Americans want to see a free democracy survive, but at what cost?  Fewer and fewer people believed that it was the Communists intent to island-hop the war across the Pacific to North America.  They wanted control over their continent and were willing to throw as many bodies at it as was necessary.  Our government put our troops there, not to win a war, but to assist in halting the advance.  It was a stalemate that was chewing up helicopters and people.  Fortunately, it didn’t chew up my friend Gunnar, but he will never be the same.

The military says it builds men.  War destroys them.

*** The End ***